8. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the details of contracts with Israel for the purchase of arms to be used by his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 20432/18 asked on 10 May 2018)

Deputy Gino Kenny: I would like the Minister of State to comment on the continuing purchase of Israeli drones by the Irish Defence Forces.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: I propose to take Questions Nos. 6, 8 and 36 together.

The primary focus regarding the procurement of defensive equipment by the Department of Defence is to maintain the capability of the Irish Defence Forces to fulfil the roles assigned to them by Government. The latter include undertaking overseas peace support operations and, in that context, the aim is to afford the greatest possible force protection to Irish troops while on missions.

The principle of competitive tendering for Government contracts is used by the Department of Defence for the acquisition of defensive equipment for the Defence Forces. Central to those procedures is the requirement to allow fair competition between suppliers through the submission of tenders following advertising of the tender competition on the e-tenders website and on the Official Journal of the European Union, where appropriate, in line with the EU procurement directives, including the directive on the procurement of defence and security equipment.

Such tender competitions are open to any company or country in accordance with the terms of all UN, OSCE and EU arms embargoes or restrictions. In this regard there are no such restrictions or embargoes in place on Israeli companies. Trade policy and market access are largely EU competencies and any restriction or ban on imports from any particular country would have to be concerted at EU level. The matter of barring Israeli companies from entering tender competitions for the provision of military goods would be akin to Ireland unilaterally placing an embargo on such goods from Israel and this raises, inter alia, serious implications for Irish foreign policy which are outside my remit.

I am advised that my Department has not purchased any weapons from Israel. However, other defensive equipment has been acquired from Israeli companies by way of competitive tendering, primarily unmanned aerial vehicles operated by the Defence Forces and ground surveillance radar equipment. Unmanned aerial vehicles currently operated by the Defence Forces are commonly referred to as UAVs.

Following a competitive tender process, four UAV systems were procured between 2007 and 2009 from Aeronautics Defence Systems Limited based in Israel, at a combined cost of €2.375 million exclusive of VAT. An upgrade of the Defence Forces UAV systems was carried out by the original equipment manufacturer in 2016 at a cost of €1.9 million exclusive of VAT. This involved the upgrade of four UAV systems with airframes in each system.

These UAVs are, in effect, an information gathering asset which have no offensive capability. They do not carry weapons. The UAV systems were acquired to enhance the capability of the Defence Forces to carry out surveillance, intelligence gathering and target acquisition for peace support operations and provide a low cost, low risk means to increase capabilities and enhance force protection by performing missions which do not demand the use of manned aircraft.

UAVs have a wide range of civilian and military applications, particularly in the area of surveillance over land and sea. They have the ability to perform tasks that manned systems cannot perform, either for safety or economic reasons. UAVs can effectively complement existing manned aircraft or satellite infrastructure used in environmental protection, maritime surveillance, natural disasters, crisis management, border control etc.

Deputy Gino Kenny: Does the Minister of State not find it abhorrent that this State buys any sort of military equipment from Israel? This is a state that has killed 50 unarmed protesters, including journalists and children, on the Israeli-Gaza border over the past eighth weeks. They were shot dead, some of them in the back. Israel also routinely jails children under military court. This is not a normal state. People will be sickened to their stomachs that the State buys any sort of military equipment from the state of Israel.

The company in question from which the UAVs were purchased, Aeronautics Defence Systems Limited, states on its website that it sells battle trained and battle hardened drones which have been trained in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am sure the drones have also been used in the occupied territories of Palestine. There is blood on the hands of the Minister of State. He is complicit with the Israeli Government when buying any sort of military equipment. The vehicles are not benign; rather, they are meant to carry out surveillance and to destroy.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: I do not accept the Deputy’s assertion that there is blood on my hands.

Deputy Gino Kenny: There is, unfortunately.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: My number one priority is that we have the best equipment for our personnel when they go overseas and that our equipment matches the best equipment that is out there. I hope Irish personnel are never injured or killed overseas because of a lack of equipment. If we sent members of the Irish Defence Forces overseas without the very best equipment available, I can assure the Deputy that he would be breaking down the doors to tell me that we let our Defence Force members go overseas with equipment which was not the very best that is out there. The Deputy would say I had blood on my hands if that happened. My number one priority is to get the best equipment available for our personnel while still operating within the processes and parameters which have been set out. I outlined those parameters in my original reply.

Deputy Gino Kenny: There is blood on the hands of the Minister of State. There are pictures of what is happening on the Israeli-Gaza border. The Israeli army is using drones to drop gas canisters on protesters, resulting in people having respiratory problems, inflammation and bleeding. As I said, 50 people have been killed. The Minister does not get it. Israel is not a normal state. It is a racist and apartheid state and this State is buying arms from it which are being used against Palestinians and ordinary people across the world.

The Department of Defence defended the cost of UAVs last year. What about the cost of Palestinians? The Department did not think about that. Does the Minister of State think that Israel, which has killed 50 innocent people, is a normal state? Did he think apartheid South Africa was a normal state? Does he think it is acceptable that this State buys any sort of military equipment from a state which has killed thousands of Palestinians? If the Minister of State can give me a good answer to that question he will not have blood on his hands.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: I have asked about the purchase of drones on numerous occasions. I have never received an answer I have been happy with from the Minister of State. I recently received an answer from the Secretary General in a committee. The answer has been that the best kit for colleagues is what is purchased. Even in military purchasing, there has to be some type of ethics and morals.

The Minister of State has also argued that barring Israeli companies from entering tendering processes for the provision of military goods would be akin to Ireland unilaterally placing an embargo on such goods from Israel. I believe in that embargo, but the weapons system, which is what UAVs are used for by the Israel army, is live tested on civilians in Palestine. We have seen the horrific consequences of that in recent times.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: As I already outlined in my reply, trade policy and market access are largely EU competencies and any restriction or ban on imports from any particular country would have to be decided at EU level. I am happy that the Department of Defence has abided by all guidelines through this process. The Government has consistently been opposed to proposals for trade, diplomatic, cultural, academic, sporting or other boycotts of Israel in the absence of a general trade embargo of Israel. The Department of Defence cannot unilaterally preclude Israeli companies from participating in tender competitions for military or any other type of goods. I repeat that my number one priority is that we stick to the guidelines and I am happy to confirm that my Department has done so. We cannot preclude any Israeli companies from any of the tendering process.

Deputy Gino Kenny: Why not? Will the Minister of State tell me why?

Deputy Paul Kehoe: The other priority is that we get the best available equipment out there for members of the Irish Defence Forces when they go overseas. I have been reassured by the Chief of Staff that members of the Irish Defence Forces have the best equipment while participating in any of the peacekeeping duties overseas.

Deputy Gino Kenny: The Minister of State has not answered the question.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Has the Minister of State ever considered a need with military purchasing to have an ethical and moral position rather than just the best price possible?

Deputy Paul Kehoe: I have outlined that this is European Union tendering and the Department of Defence has not set the guidelines. The Deputy knows about EU guidelines as well as I do. We must go through EU procurement guidelines when more than a specific amount of money is being spent.