SPEECH BY MR. MICHAEL SMITH, T.D., MINISTER FOR DEFENCE, RE MOTION ON IRAQ, DÁIL ÉIREANN, THURSDAY 20 MARCH 2003
A Cheann Comhairle.
This is a solemn time for the world. Several weeks ago this House heard statements on the developing crisis and speaker after speaker on all sides of the House, including myself, stated that the Irish people did not want war. The intense diplomatic and political endeavour, driven primarily by the UN, appears to have run its course. When we last debated this matter, the push towards war was gaining momentum. But we held out a strong hope through Resolution 1441 and modest progress by Dr. Hans Blix and his team, that war could be avoided. That we now find direct military action underway without a further Resolution of the UN, is a matter of great regret to the Irish Government. It is our hope that military action by the coalition will be of as short a duration as possible and that the minimum suffering will be endured by the Iraqi population.
As members of the United Nations since 1955, Ireland has always believed in the concept of a collective system of international security. This has been the position of successive Irish Governments and is reinforced in our Programme for Government. Our position has consistently re-affirmed the primacy of the UN and the Security Council as the keeper of international order based on justice and law. The unmistakable desire of the international community to bring about regime change in Iraq is undiminished. But that the mechanism to precipitate this now appears to be war, without a second UN Resolution, is a scenario the Irish Government and people would not have wished for.
Despite what is undoubtedly a setback for the UN, Ireland’s commitment to its pivotal place in the international order remains undimmed. Through the UN, generations of Irish Defence Forces personnel have built a reputation as peacekeepers of world renown. Since 1958, our peacekeepers have served in some of the world’s most troubled spots, bringing a professional commitment and natural humanity, which has brought much admiration. Our UN service in the name of peace has not been without cost, as 84 personnel have given their lives over the years in such service. We will continue this commitment to the UN and its ideals and through its auspices, expect to play a full part in the inevitable humanitarian needs that will arise post any conflict.
To those on the Opposition benches who are against this motion, I would ask them accept the Government’s assurance that it was our firm desire to see a second UN Resolution before any armed strategy was embarked upon. This has regrettably and beyond our direct control, not come about. The Government, in keeping with its promise, has brought this motion before the House in response to the critically worsening situation. While regretting the outbreak of hostilities and the failure of diplomatic efforts, it is the Government’s considered view that our national interest is best served in allowing a continuation of overflights and the use of Shannon by US aircraft.
To many it may seem desirable to end our arrangement with the US now events have taken a turn for the worst. To do so would be shortsighted and would be to the detriment of this country and its people. Good Government is about taking hard decisions which may at first glance appear to be against the will of many. Government must lead and not follow, provided the motivation is at all times in the best interest of the people who have chosen them to govern.
As the Government has already outlined in the ongoing debate, overflights and refuelling stops at Shannon by US forces have taken place over many decades. Our geographic position on the periphery of Europe is of strategic importance to what is a friendly nation with which we have very close ties of kinship, economy and political support. These ties, which are also strong with Great Britain, go back many generations and in recent times provided much assistance in the context of the peace process in Northern Ireland and through ongoing inward investment and trade links, on which thousands of jobs are dependent.
For Ireland to discontinue this longstanding arrangement, would be to threaten to introduce an element of discord to a relationship which is in our national interest. This departure would undoubtedly cause a negative and damaging reaction in the US. Such low level co-operation in no way effects our long held position of military neutrality. We have stated clearly that we will not participate in military action against Iraq and it is wrong to interpret our position as endorsing unilateral action by the coalition. Ireland remains firmly outside any military alliance, a matter reinforced recently at EU level through the Nice Treaty. It is a bit rich to listen to Fine Gael lecturing the Government on neutrality, when they were the first and only party to advocate abandoning a long held position in their policy document of 2000 “Beyond Neutrality”, which advocated Ireland’s participation in a formal EU defence pact. The author was none other than Gay Mitchell who seeks to champion Fine Gael as the party of neutrality! Humbug indeed, but surely symptomatic of a party increasingly drifting towards irrelevancy.
We must not lose sight of the main and underlying reason why we are here today. Had Saddam Hussein not defied the will of the UN and the international community for over twelve years, then his country would not be facing such upheaval. He has shown utter contempt for the UN and ignored numerous resolutions, which have sought to compel him to give up his deadly arsenal of mass destruction. His belated engagement with the UN weapons inspectors has been grudging and inadequate. This is the tyrant who invaded the neighbouring countries of Iran and Kuwait and in the former campaign showed no compulsion about using chemical weapons. His most chilling and infamous use of such weaponry of mass destruction was, however, against his own people, when over 5000 Kurds were massacred in the village of Halabja in 1988. He has also sought to exploit the economic sanctions imposed by the UN in the wake of the first Gulf War for propaganda purposes and despite immeasurable personal wealth, presides over a once developed country which now endures such frightening statistics as an infant mortality rate of 107 deaths per 1000 live births.
This is a debate the Government would have preferred had not become necessary. The fact that we are here today signifies that strenuous diplomatic and political efforts have been unsuccessful. Whatever lies in store for the people of Iraq, it is our earnest hope that military conflict will bring about minimal death and destruction and that the UN will be to the fore in a new era of hope and opportunity.
A Cheann Comhairle I commend this motion to the House.
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