Dáil Éireann - Volume 582 - 25 March, 2004

Priority Questions. - Defence Policy.

  3. Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Defence the impact to date on defence spending of EU defence measures, including Irish commitments under the Helsinki Headline Goal; and the anticipated impact on defence spending over the next ten years by EU defence-related measures and commitments. [9444/04]

  Mr. M. Smith: The House will no doubt agree that defence and defence policy is a fundamental [1337] expression of national sovereignty. In that context, defence spending is a matter for the Government and has to be undertaken in a prudent and balanced fashion having due regard to the prevailing national socio-economic environment.

The Government’s White Paper on Defence, published in February 2000, set out a medium-term strategy for defence covering the period up to 2010. A major objective of the strategy is to ensure that Ireland has a world class military organisation capable of carrying out the roles assigned to it by the Government, both at home and abroad. This objective requires an ongoing modernisation process, including an investment programme to ensure that the Defence Forces are properly equipped for these roles.

On 15 July 1998, the Government approved a programme of evacuation and sale of six barracks, which were considered surplus to military requirements. The money generated from these sales has been reinvested in the Defence Forces in terms of equipment and infrastructure, consistent with the policy laid out in the White Paper.

Equipment such as armoured personnel carriers, protective clothing, new generation radio equipment, night vision equipment and trainer aircraft which have been acquired under the investment programme, are essential for improving the efficiency, professionalism and safety of the Defence Forces. It would be wrong to suggest that investment in such equipment, which is required regardless of Ireland’s participation in the European Security and Defence Policy, is being spent because of our commitments to the Helsinki headline goal.

I take this opportunity to remind the Deputy that national sovereignty and voluntarism are the fundamental underlying principles of participation in the European Security and Defence Policy, ESDP. Participation in any specific operation by member states is decided on a case by case basis and in accordance with respective national decision-making procedures.

  Aengus Ó Snodaigh: The Minister is aware that the draft common defence provisions of Article 40 and the related mutual defence provisions of Article 42 are controversial. When I tried to discover the state of play with regard to Article 40, I was unable to get a direct answer. The press reported that when the constitutional talks broke down the Article 40 provisions had been agreed and signed off. However, the Taoiseach later denied that. A number of measures, which involve defence spending commitments by this country, have since been agreed by the Council behind closed doors. If commitments are made, defence spending goes out of our hands. Before the process on the constitutional treaty is reopened, the people have a right to know the truth of this. Will the Minister confirm whether Article 40, the common defence provisions, have been agreed? More importantly, has the [1338] Government agreed to them and, if so, on what terms?

  Mr. M. Smith: The question of defence budgets is a matter for a sovereign decision in each of the member states. While some countries have indicated that they may increase defence expenditure, the majority of EU member states are maintaining expenditure at existing levels or decreasing expenditure.

I have tried to ensure a creative approach to investment in the Defence Forces through the sale of surplus properties and the reinvestment of income from these sales to improve the capacity of our forces to undertake whatever missions may be required. For example, we would not have been able to undertake the Liberian mission without the type of equipment recently purchased for our Defence Forces which puts them in as secure a position as possible to take on relatively dangerous missions of that kind.

In so far as the new constitution is concerned, these matters are currently being debated. Although there are some optimistic signs, it is not clear yet that the constitution will be agreed. Agreement would be a fantastic achievement for the Irish Presidency and the people of Europe. When the decision is taken it will have to be ratified by the people. The decisions taken will be explained and the people will have to decide on the matter by way of plebiscite.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh can be assured this will remain a matter for the sovereign Government and the people in terms of our military neutrality and our capacity to make decisions on a case-by-case basis as to the mission in which we will be involved.

  Aengus Ó Snodaigh: A number of EU measures have cost implications for military spending: the 2010 military harmonisation to which the Minister alluded; the EU armaments agency and the EU security directive which was agreed in December. Another factor in this regard is the non-compensation for the rapid reaction force commitments. In the past there was some return of money for UNSAS commitments. Have cost projections been done on a comparative cost analysis of the lack of compensation for our commitments in that regard?

  Mr. M. Smith: We have serious international responsibilities. Developments in Kosovo in the past ten days demonstrated the need for the international community to be able to intervene quickly. Many lives have been saved by what the international community has been able to do in such circumstances. There are cost implications which we have been managing in a sensible way.

Most of what I have been able to do in terms of improving the infrastructure and equipment of the Defence Forces has been done without recourse to the taxpayer. It has been done by the disposal of surplus property. Deputy Ó Snodaigh [1339] can be assured that we will undertake our international responsibilities in a serious and responsible way. We will undertake missions on a case-by-case basis by decisions of the House and the Government. We will take full account of our military neutrality and will spend as discreetly as we possibly can. However, we will not stand idly by when innocent people are being slaughtered in different parts of the world if we can help it.