4. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if he will address concerns that Ireland’s neutrality is being compromised by participation in Permanent Structured Co-Operation, PESCO; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 19811/18 asked on 10 May 2018)

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Will the Minister of State address serious concerns that Ireland’s neutrality is being compromised by participation in PESCO? People are genuinely concerned, including the families of Defence Forces personnel.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: Permanent Structured Co-operation has no implications for Ireland’s policy of military neutrality.

The establishment of PESCO represents a further development in EU co-operation in support of international peace and security under the Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP. Under PESCO, member states will come together in different groups to develop and make available additional capabilities and enablers for peacekeeping and crisis management operations.

Within the EU, it is accepted that defence and security is a national competence and that any decisions require unanimity. Ireland continues to have a strong and equal voice on defence issues within the EU institutions. The European treaties require that the EU respects the specific and different policies of member states in the area of security and defence and that has not been changed or compromised by our participation in PESCO. The participation criteria expressly stipulate that PESCO will be undertaken in full compliance with the Treaty on European Union and the associated protocols and will respect the member states’ constitutional provisions.  It is also important to note that participation in each project is on an “opt in” basis and is, therefore, entirely voluntary. In addition, the triple lock mechanism comprising a United Nations, UN, mandate and Government and Dáil approval, which governs the deployment of the Defence Forces on international peace support and crisis management operations, remains unaffected by our participation in PESCO.

PESCO was comprehensively debated in the context of the Lisbon treaty which was approved by the people when they voted in October 2009. PESCO was specifically referenced in the Lisbon treaty protocol, and in Ireland’s national declaration, to address the concerns of the people. The legislation setting down Ireland’s approval process for PESCO was published in advance of that vote and enacted in November 2009. The Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 requires Government and Dáil approval for participation in PESCO, both of which were secured before Ireland notified its intention to participate in PESCO.

While we choose to remain neutral, this is not out of any lack of interest in issues underpinning conflicts or any isolationist stance. Ireland’s approach to international relations is founded on full and active engagement in the international community in support of international peace and security and the rule of law. We follow, and will continue to follow, this policy approach - militarily neutral but fully engaged – because, as committed members of the UN, we subscribe fully to the principles set out in the UN charter.

It is also worth noting that three other neutral EU member states - Finland, Sweden and Austria - have also joined PESCO.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Our neutrality is being compromised by PESCO. I accept the view that in light of the changing security arrangements, member states must agree to step up the EU’s work in the area and I acknowledge that enhanced co-ordination and increased investment in defence co-operation and developing defence capabilities are key requirements to achieve it. However, the Minister of State must accept that there are legitimate and growing concerns that what Ireland and other states are being asked to agree to amounts to an excessive militarisation. This will significantly damage the credibility of our neutrality, which is something we as a people have always cherished and do not wish to see threatened in any way.

The Minister of State mentioned different groups within the EU coming together and the issue being debated in the context of the Lisbon treaty. I recall that referendum campaign well, following which the Government had to hold a second vote to get the treaty passed. I do not remember much discussion around PESCO during those campaigns. There are many concerns that we are being sucked into something that will not be good or nice for us and it could be a dangerous road to go down and we could undermine our neutral stance which we have had for decades.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: PESCO does not compromise our neutral stance and our policies in this regard. I outlined Ireland’s position on neutrality every step of the way in our decision to participate in the PESCO. Other member states such as Finland, Sweden and Austria have joined PESCO as well and they have a similar policy on neutrality to ourselves. This was clearly indicated in the Lisbon treaty that the people voted on. PESCO was very much debated at the time of the referendum campaign. I acknowledge that the people cherish the policy of neutrality and I very much respect the policy. I also accept and respect everybody’s views on the reasons we joined PESCO and I ask Members to respect my views as well. We will always have different views.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: I respect the Minister of State’s views all right but are his views and opinions being listened to in Europe? Are we going down a dangerous road? The Minister of State said PESCO was discussed during the Lisbon treaty referendum campaign. Was that Lisbon 1 or Lisbon 2? Why did the referendum have to be run twice? That was the start of the slippery slope as far as I am concerned with many issues in this country. However, we are concentrating on our neutrality. We have had bad experiences in Europe and we now are facing Brexit and many other issues relating to the reaction of the head people in the EU to a sovereign state’s decision on its future. I take the Minister of State at his word that he is making his views known at EU Council level. Are they being listened to? We could go so far down this road that we will not be able to come back. It is a road less travelled and we should make haste slowly. We debated a motion on this issue in the House recently and I voted against it. That motion was rushed as well in order that the Government could meet a deadline. I am concerned and I am expressing concerns that many people are expressing to me throughout the country and the beyond. Our neutral stance is being very much watered down.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: Our neutral stance is not being watered down in any way. PESCO will enable the Defence Forces to develop its capabilities in support of peacekeeping through participation in joint projects. Every Member will recognise the excellent work of members of the Defence Forces when they participate in peacekeeping missions throughout the world. They have to undergo specific training to participate in these missions and part of the training will comprise involvement in some PESCO projects. No Member wants members of the Defence Forces to be ill-trained or ill-equipped to participate in a mission. It is important, therefore, that we participate with the best and this is an opportunity for us to work with other member states on the PESCO projects.