Dáil Éireann - Volume 611 - 07 December, 2005

Priority Questions. - Overseas Missions.

  53. Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Defence if his attention has been drawn to the concerns expressed by RACO about his proposal for officer reductions abroad; his views on these concerns; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38458/05]

  Mr. Kitt: Ireland subscribes to the United Nations stand-by arrangements system, UNSAS, under which the State offers to provide up to 850 personnel on overseas service at any given time. Ireland’s commitment under the UNSAS represents 10% of the total Army strength. This is the maximum sustainable commitment that Ireland can make to overseas peacekeeping operations. This overall commitment is not being reviewed.

Ireland’s peacekeeping activity has now grown to the point where more than 140 officers are serving overseas. While this is a laudable contribution on the international stage, the Minister has stated that the long-term sustainability of such a level of commitment is open to question. The Minister, in addressing the conference, indicated that the proportion of officers within the overall UNSAS commitment of 850 would be reviewed to ensure that we balance our obligations to Ireland’s foreign policy with our obligation to the other roles of a well-managed Defence Forces.

I assure the Deputy that any re-balancing of ranks within the overall 850 will not reduce the effectiveness of the Defence Forces’ contribution to Ireland’s foreign policy or international peacekeeping.

  Mr. Gormley: The Minister of State has repeated what the Minister said at the conference instead of answering my question. Why is the number of officers serving overseas in various missions not sustainable? Where has the Minister found a shortfall in our Defence Forces? Where does he want these officers to serve? Are they [1487] needed to serve in various EU military committees or for duties in Ireland, as Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Jim Sreenan, seemed to indicate at the RACO conference? He said that Ireland must remain vigilant against possible terrorist attacks. Would these potential terrorist attacks mean we need more officers at home? Will the Minister of State spell out in detail why we need to re-balance the number of officers and where they are supposed to go?

  Mr. Kitt: I mentioned earlier that I was privileged to serve as Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development. When I met Army personnel abroad, I have always been proud of their work and, having visited Liberia twice, I am aware of their commitment.

The involvement of 850 personnel in overseas missions will not be changed. The issue under discussion relates solely to the number of officers. The Minister has simply outlined the need to look at that officer involvement. The Deputy rightly described the role of the Defence Forces as multifaceted. They defend the State against armed aggression, aid the civil power, participate in multinational peace support, provide a fishery protection service in accordance with State obligations as a member of the EU and carry out such other duties as may be assigned to them. The key point, however, is that the Minister is simply reviewing the involvement of officers in this approach. It is the normal thing to do and Deputies will hear from the Minister when the review has been carried out. The involvement of Irish Army personnel abroad will be maintained.

  Mr. Gormley: The general secretary of RACO has expressed concern about what the Minister said. When this review is being carried out, I assume discussions will take place with RACO to see if it is appropriate to reduce the number of officers serving abroad because that seems to be at odds with what the Defences Forces want.

  Mr. Kitt: I am aware of the views of RACO on this issue and those views will be taken on board by the Minister. The Chief of Staff agrees that the high number of officers serving overseas may adversely impact on commitments at home. This issue arises in the context of the Liberian mission coming to an end. That mission has been extended but the Defence Forces require a rest period of several months to re-organise, bring equipment up to scratch and alleviate the pressure on personnel. These comments are being made in a timely way when our involvement in Liberia, in particular, is on such a large scale. I take on board the comments made by Deputy Gormley.

  54. Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for Defence the discussions he has had with the Chief of Staff with respect to the Defence Forces [1488] involvement in the proposed humanitarian assistance groups as announced; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38255/05]

  Mr. Kitt: In the course of a speech on 18 November 2005 at the Royal Irish Academy, at an event to mark 50 years of UN participation, my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, outlined his plans to set up a volunteer corps unit within his Department to harness the strong volunteer spirit in the country. The Department of Defence and the Defence Forces will provide advice, as required, to this unit. Also, in the course of the speech, the Minister for Foreign Affairs mentioned his intention to pre-position humanitarian supplies, including tents and ready-to-eat meals, deployable at short notice, which will contribute to the immediate saving of lives.

Prior to this event, the Department of Foreign Affairs sought assistance from the Minister of Defence on the development of this concept and a meeting to discuss these issues took place between civil and military personnel from the Department of Defence and officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs on 11 November 2005. Arising from that meeting, an interdepartmental committee, which will include representation from the Defence Forces, is being established to proceed with this task. The first meeting of this committee will take place on 16 December 2005 and the Minister has instructed that every support possible should be provided for this initiative.

  Mr. Timmins: I support this initiative. We have been calling for it since the start of the year. When did the Minister for Foreign Affairs first discuss the issue with Minister for Defence? Which Department will control this body? If it is under the control of the Department of Defence, why did the Minister for Defence not outline what would happen? Will the Minister of State elaborate on the composition of the body?

  Mr. Kitt: There will be ongoing discussions between both Ministers on such initiatives. I was involved as Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development in pushing the voluntarism agenda. I warmly welcome the Deputy’s interest in this area and his support for this initiative. Communication is ongoing between both Ministers. The Department of Foreign Affairs was anxious to push this. The Minister for Foreign Affairs announced the initiative, which relates to the establishment of an Irish rapid response roster. It is intended this will comprise individuals with relevant and specialist skills and experience in niche areas who will be available to travel at short notice to areas of great need. The initiative also provides for the establishment of a volunteer corps unit within the Department of Foreign Affairs to harness the strong volunteer spirit that exists throughout the State.

[1489] With regard to the first element, there is a need for strong co-operation between both Departments. On many occasions, members of the Defence Forces were seconded to non-governmental organisations and I recall this happened in Rwanda. Concern and GOAL often call on the Government to deploy Army personnel on a voluntary basis to carry out important humanitarian work. Close co-ordination between both Departments is needed but the initiative is very much with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

  Mr. Timmins: Will the Department of Foreign Affairs control this body?

  Mr. Kitt: Yes, that is my understanding. A Department must lead in this area and my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, will lead the initiative. His officials and my officials will meet on 11 December to progress this issue.

  Mr. Timmins: The Department of Defence should be the lead Department in this regard. It has the expertise and, while the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Government may have a policy, it should be implemented by the Department of Defence.

Will this humanitarian body address internal humanitarian crises? I hope that would be the case. Will the funding of overseas missions come from the overseas development aid budget or will additional funding be provided?

  Mr. Kitt: If I need to come back to the Deputy on this, I will. Voluntarism should embrace needs at home and abroad. As we witnessed when the Special Olympics were held in Dublin, there is a desire among the population for us to give leadership on voluntarism. This initiative should be co-ordinated with the push on voluntarism in local communities. It would be wise to develop this concept along those lines but that is primarily a matter for the Department of Foreign Affairs. I presume it will develop that way. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and my Department are keen to pursue the humanitarian need abroad.

The overseas development aid budget will be the primary source of funding for the volunteer corps. The people would be happy for the ODA budget, which, thankfully, was increased substantially in the Estimates, to be used to provide funding for voluntarism. I will convey the Deputy’s views to the Minister.