Dáil Éireann - Volume 313 - 29 March, 1979

European Space Agency Convention: Motion.

Minister for Economic Planning and Development (Professor O'Donoghue): I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the ratification of the European Space Agency Convention.

A copy of this convention was laid before Dáil Éireann on 30 January 1979.

Ireland joined the European Space Agency by signing the convention of [754] that body on 31 December 1975. The other signatories were Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and West Germany. All these countries were members of the former European Space Research Organisation and the convention provides that it will come into operation only after ratification by these ten countries. Nine have now ratified and the tenth ratification is expected shortly. It is therefore an appropriate time to finalise our own ratification procedures.

In the interim, since the signing of the convention, at the end of 1975, the old ESRO Convention has been used as the legal basis for carrying on the operations of the agency. Ireland has been enabled to operate as a full member of the agency by virtue of an interim agreement signed under that convention. This agreement was signed by the Government on 29 November 1976 and was ratified by the House on 8 December 1976. The activities of the European Space Agency can be classified under three main headings: scientific research, application satellites and the impact as industrial technological development.

By virtue of its membership, Ireland has already benefited under all three headings but mainly under the first and the third. Irish scientists have now opportunities to participate in experiments which are well beyond the competence of the resources available in this country. They have access to the specialised scientific equipment available in the ESA establishments. They have been enabled to benefit from the results of the experiments carried out under the aegis of the agency. In addition, Irish nationals are now eligible for posts, both scientific and administrative, in the agency.

So far as the applications programmes of the agency is concerned, participation in this is on an a la carte basis, that is, that individual countries may select the projects in which they wish to participate. Financial contributions are required only to the extent of an individual country's participation.

To date under this applications programme Ireland has participated in the promotion phase of the programme [755] for the ARIANE launcher, which is to be Europe's vehicle for the launching of satellites and is expected to make its first flight before the end of this year. Without specific financial contribution to the agency but by contribution work on the ground here, Ireland is also participating in the Orbital Test Satellite programme, which is an exploratory and development phase for a programme of telecommunication satellites.

Under the third heading, the raising of the technological level of industry in member countries is a prime objective of the agency. Ireland has already benefited very considerably under this heading. Under the rules of the agency, a retour juste system is operated under which the greater part of a country's financial contribution is reimbursed in the form of industrial contracts and research contracts. Ireland has already received an excellent return in this regard.

Added to this financial return is the catalytic effect expected from membership in the form of the contribution which participation in high technology work with international consortia makes to the development of a real Irish capability in high-technology industry. In this regard I should like to pay tribute to the agency for the advice and assistance which they have consistently made available in this regard.

Ireland's experience of membership of the European Space Agency has been a happy one in terms of the benefits already derived. In the light of this experience and in the expectation that further benefit, material and otherwise, will continue, I recommend this convention to the House for approval.

Mr. R. Ryan: Fine Gael will support the ratification of the convention for the establishment of the European Space Agency, as I am sure the Minister anticipated, because when we were in Government we decided that Ireland should join. According to the decision of the Government we signed the convention in 1975.

It is the ultimate in irony that we should be considering space travel when movement in our capital city has been brought to a standstill because we are, [756] apparently, unable to deal with the problems of movement on the ground. It is also ironical that it has taken four years to bring the parliamentary procedures into operation to ratify an international convention signed four years ago. I hope that, even as we are considering the problems and opportunities in outer space, we will endeavour to expedite our procedures, both parliamentary and municipal. This ought to be within our capability.

This convention is, as the Minister says, very important for Ireland. It may seem a bit remote from our daily problems but it is not because the opportunities offered by it in space, and the application to our problems of modern technology are of considerable benefit to us. We have access to knowledge and information of a very useful kind which would otherwise be closed to us. We have the opportunity for a very useful exchange of scientific and technological information. We have also—and this is something we often overlook—considerable job potential.

Ireland has a number of new job opportunities in the electrical and technological fields. We are already manufacturing components for a wide range of modern and sophisticated apparatus in different parts of the world. Some of these are associated with the arms industry. When we profess, as we should profess, our neutrality, we are not entirely honest with ourselves, because quite a number of our industries are making components which find their way into sophisticated armouries in different parts of the world. If those arms are used for the maintenance of peace in the main, it is a useful contribution, but at least we have some very worthwhile jobs associated with that kind of activity.

The European Space Agency are committed solely to peaceful purposes in all their works. There is a specific prohibition against any of the operations of the agency being used within Europe for military purposes. If they are making their technology, their equipment or information available outside the countries associated with them, the agency must [757] ensure that they are not applied to military purposes.

I should like to put a few questions to the Minister. Why is it that the French Government happen to be the authority charged with all work in connection with proposals to amend the convention, or any part thereof, or any of the schedules, or rules, or regulations? I observe that the French Government must be notified of any proposed changes and, within 60 days, I think, of receipt of the information, the French Government must act upon it.

The contributions which the various member countries have to make are related to their gross domestic product which, I suppose, is the fairest way of working out what should be the appropriate contributions to be made. The spin-off benefits or downstream benefits are supposed to be related to the contributions made. That would appear to me to put a poor country or a small country like ours somewhat at a disadvantage. Obviously the contribution of the poor is related to their capacity to pay, but it is not necessarily a reflection of their ability to produce. Indeed, it may well be that some of the job creation programmes which the agency will develop could be better developed in a comparatively undeveloped country like ours rather than in the centre of Europe where there is a great deal of industrial congestion and environment problems.

I refer to article 4 of the Fifth Annex which provides that a member state's overall return co-efficient shall be the ration between its percentage share of the total value of all contracts awarded among member states and its total percentage contribution. Apparently there is room for manoeuvre and, from what the Minister said, it appears that we have no reason to grumble about the opportunities given to us and the jobs which have been created in Ireland by virtue of the agency's work. I would not want to crib or complain too much or to appear to be mean in this regard, but I should like to hear the Minister's response on that element of it.

The Minister said that apparently nine countries have already taken the necessary steps for ratification. It is a pity we were so slow in doing it. There must [758] have been some opportunity in the past four years, under either administration, to move this because it will only take a matter of minutes I am sure. It is a pity we are at the end of the queue. The Minister said a tenth ratification is expected shortly. I think there are 12 signatories to the convention. Presumably the Minister is anticipating that the whole 12 will sign. Ireland and Norway are the only countries who were not previously members of the European Space Research Organisation. The only other EEC country which is not a member is Luxembourg, which is so small that I think it has not got within its borders the technological competence to be involved in this activity. I wonder is there any other reason why Luxembourg might not be involved.

Mr. B. Desmond: We welcome the decision of the Government to bring this motion before the House. We too support the ratification of the ESA Convention. As a Member of the Council of Europe I have been aware of some of the activities of the European Space Agency in recent years. We have received quite a number of reports from the Committee on Science and Technology and I look on their work as being of immeasurable value and immense potential benefit to us and to our technological development.

The French, the Italians to a lesser degree, and on occasion the Germans have a very happy capacity of ensuring that the headquarters of these organisations, and a great deal of the research and operational work at academic level and at scientific research level, are situated and conducted in their countries. They have been adept at that. They also have the financial and scientific resources to give them an enormous capacity to attract other contracts.

In time it should be possible for some of the better equipped Irish research and academic institutions to undertake original work and work of a very high quality on behalf of the ESA. This would ensure that Irish nationals would not only travel abroad and participate in the work of the ESA but that also they would undertake such work on a contract basis at home. I commend to the [759] Minister and the Government the prospect of establishing some transfer location work in Ireland in due course.

We have had a short experience of involvement with the ESA, about three years. I am satisfied that there are quite a number of excellent Irish men and women at home and abroad who have the necessary basic scientific and administrative capacity and confidence to apply for and undertake work in the agency. They may not have been able to avail of a great deal of hard scientific research work both on the satellite side and the general research side for obvious reasons. I know several Irish men in their twenties and thirties who have outstanding academic records and who could very usefully participate further in this work. Some of them have already done so and are doing so in those agencies. To that extent we can join the organisation as a small country but with a hard core of very highly-qualified Irish people who can make a contribution perhaps more in the theoretical field than in the hard research field. Certainly there is a great deal of competence in this country which need not be lost to us because these people would work in the ESA and then return to academic life, perhaps on research and development work at a scientific or technological level within industry and the services.

For that reason I support strongly the enactment of the convention. The final question I put to the Minister is, what financial liability now in terms of the 1979 anticipated contribution might we have to make to the ESA? The costs of these European agencies are tending to rocket all the time and the cost of establishing them, particularly in France, Italy or Germany can be very high. It would be interesting to know how much money we are putting into it currently from our budget of 1979. I agree with the unanimous endorsement here of the ratification of the ESA Convention.

Minister for Economic Planning and Development (Professor O'Donoghue): I thank the Deputies for their support and welcome for Irish participation in this programme. All parties in the House recognise that there are many activities [760] which are simply beyond the resources of this country where we seem to act in isolation. The nature of the activities with which the ESA deal are beyond the resources of even the largest European countries involved. For that reason all Members recognise the enormous benefits to be derived from a cooperative agreed programme of activity.

Deputies raised, rightly, one or two questions about the precise nature of the liabilities we might be taking on through our membership, and also the nature of the benefits we will derive. I will deal first with the liabilities aspect to which Deputy Desmond referred. Since our adherence in 1975 and up to our formal application now we have been entitled to participate on the basis of a more or less nominal contribution which was onequarter of our calculated contribution. Our contribution last year was of the order of £100,000. Our calculated contribution for this year would be £440,000 which is less than one-sixth of 1 per cent of the total cost of the agency's programmes. That is a quite modest share of the overall total. That is our basic contribution and what might be described as a mandatory payment for our automatic participation in the basic programmes of the agency. It is also possible for countries to join in on what I describe as an à la carte basis for specific projects in which they have a particular interest. One such project for which we have joined is the programme for the ARIANE launcher and under that heading our contribution for the year will be £29,000.

In so far as the benefits side is concerned, Deputy Ryan drew attention to the notion that participating countries were guaranteed a type of retour juste, that there would be benefits, industrial contracts and so forth for participating countries at least to the value of their own contributions. The Deputy said, correctly, that this would not necessarily be the best way of enabling Ireland to gear up its activities to the point where we could reasonably promote our own high-technology industries and develop our own scientific capabilities.

I am happy to say that so far the projects and activities which have been assigned to Ireland have been well in excess [761] of this basic return and are roughly of the order of a three-fold return. To date we have identified eight companies operating in Ireland, two of the universities and two of our research institutes, the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards and now the National Board for Science and Technology. We have had contracts placed with eight companies, with two universities and with these two official agencies, and the combined effect of this has been to produce a flow of work which is three times the value of our contribution.

All the indications are that we can expect to receive continuing generous treatment for at least the next two or three years ahead. Nothing has been defined beyond that point, so it would not be possible to indicate now what might happen in the 1980s. However, we are happy with the way in which we have been enabled to participate in these programmes. As Deputy Desmond said, this is of great value to our own scientists and technologists because the opportunities available in these areas within the context of our own domestic programmes are very limited. It has provided very valuable opportunities for our personnel to bring themselves abreast of the most modern techniques and to participate in the most up-to-date research programmes. We can be quite happy with the way in which our involvement has progressed to date.

I would like to link the two outstanding questions. Deputy Desmond referred to the fact that some countries appear to be quite adept at having the headquarters or other facilities of these agencies located within their own frontiers whereas to date we have not. Part of this must be a practical thing. I have indicated from the financial numbers quoted that the overall contribution of Ireland is small and of necessity must continue to be small. The bulk of the activity does require the personnel and services of the larger economies and there are very practical reasons why it is necessary to have the bulk of the facilities located in these areas. Certainly to the extent that opportunities present themselves for Ireland to have any facilities located here, we may rest assured [762] that we will do our utmost to bring about that result.

Deputy Ryan referred to the question, which is related to location facilities, why it was that the French Government were in charge. I do not pretend to understand the diplomatic history of all these agencies. I did touch on the fact that the present agency stemmed from the earlier European Space Research Organisation and so forth, and I am sure that part of the reasons lie in the area activities and therefore the area location. The net effect is that the headquarters of the agency is in Paris, and for reasons of practical ease of communication and so forth it does make good administrative sense to have the French nominated as the operating agency.

Deputy Ryan made one other point: that some of these components, other products and so forth could have military uses and potential and that, despite our policy of neutrality to which all parties are committed, we should recognise that these military uses were possible. It is a complex question, but we cannot overlook the fact that virtually anything can be turned into a warlike weapon in different circumstances. If we were to try to prevent the manufacture of anything capable of having a military or aggressive use we would have to stop a very substantial fraction of all the industrial production of the country.

I am happy to assure the Deputy that in so far as any specific military use or destination of products arises we would adhere to the policy of all Irish Governments of ensuring that they were not directly used or exported. I can think of one case only which has arisen since we came into office where the question of the destination of equipment arose. On that occasion we refused the export licence to the country concerned. It is right that the House should take note of these possibilities, that it should be there to be vigilant in defending our policies and the interests of the people.

I welcome the support of the parties in the House for this programme.

Question put and agreed to.