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Speech by the Minister for Defence, Mr. Willie O’Dea, T.D., at the Conference on “EU Battlegroups - Perspectives from Neutral and Non-aligned states”
 

University of Limerick 


28th April 2006


Director General, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I am grateful for the invitation to deliver the keynote address to this Institute of European Affairs Conference on “EU Battlegroups –Perspectives from Neutral and Non-aligned states.”
 
I am pleased to welcome you all to our great city and am particularly delighted that you have chosen Limerick for this important conference. I want to welcome our esteemed colleagues from Finland, Norway and Sweden and hope that you get some opportunity to enjoy the delights of Limerick.
 
Turning to subject of our discussions today: as I have stated on a number of occasions; like many others I find the term “battlegroup” unfortunate. The word has connotations that some may wish to exploit to raise baseless fears. Nonetheless, it is the underlying concept we should focus on, not the word itself, which is essentially a technical military term.
 

The European Union today has the potential to play an increasing role in responding to emergency crises, in providing humanitarian relief and in supporting the maintenance of international peace and security in furtherance of the aims of the United Nations and the UN Charter.  Accepting this role is not just an EU ambition, it is an EU obligation and an obligation for Ireland as a member of both the EU and of the UN. 
 
In the past two decades we have seen some of the worst atrocities in man’s history. The horrendous carnage in Rwanda and at Srebenica not only appalled and shocked us, it brought home how powerless and ineffective the international community was in the face of such barbarity. The failure to act was not the failure of the United Nations as an institution. It was the collective failure of civilised nations to act together - rapidly, speedily and effectively in defence of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable peoples.
 
Today the EU has a range of political, diplomatic, economic and security instruments at its disposal to support conflict prevention, crisis management and reconstruction.  It is important that we bring all these to bear in a coordinated and effective manner such that we never again see another Srebenica or Rwanda.
 
The ambition of the EU to be able to respond rapidly to emerging crises has, and continues to be, a key objective of the development of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).  The tasks to be carried out under ESDP - the Petersberg Tasks - are defined in the Amsterdam Treaty as “humanitarian and rescue tasks, peacekeeping tasks and tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking.”  Our participation in ESDP, and in the Petersberg Tasks, has been endorsed and supported directly by the Irish people in the referendum on the Treaty on European Union and the subsequent referenda on the Amsterdam and Nice Treaties.  Our participation in ESDP is also fully in accordance with our traditional support for the UN and our obligations as members of the international community, to respond to crises, events and humanitarian disasters, wherever they may occur.
 
In the Headline Goal 2010, the EU set itself the objective, inter alia, of being able “to respond with rapid and decisive action applying a fully coherent approach to the whole spectrum of crisis management operations covered by the Treaty on the European Union”.  A key element of the Headline Goal is the capability to deploy forces at high readiness, broadly based on the Battlegroups concept.

The UN has long recognised the requirement for a rapid response capability.  Battlegroups have the potential to deliver this capability which has rarely been available to the UN and which could stop potential unrest in many locations throughout the world from deteriorating into a major crisis. 
 
Ireland favours the development of the EU’s rapid response capability in support of UN authorised missions and is positively disposed towards participation. To this end, I established an Interdepartmental Group to examine all issues relating to Ireland’s potential participation.  The Group reported in November 2005 and, since then, its report has been considered by the Cabinet Sub Committee on European Affairs and, informally, by the Government.
 
Following on from this, discussions with other like-minded nations on a potential contribution by Ireland to a Battlegroup have now commenced.  A delegation consisting of representatives from the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs and the Defence Forces met with their Swedish counterparts in Stockholm on 9-10 March to discuss possible participation by the Defence Forces in the Nordic Battlegroup.  Our representatives outlined Ireland’s position in relation to Battlegroup participation and international peacekeeping generally and gave a presentation on the capabilities which Ireland can make available to a Battlegroup.  These range from smaller niche capabilities, up to an APC mounted light infantry company group of approximately 200 personnel plus support elements. 
 
This is now being considered by Sweden, which is the Framework Nation for the Nordic Battlegroup.  Further consultations between the Defence Forces and the Swedish Armed Forces and between officials of the respective ministries are planned.  Any decision on a specific contribution to a Battlegroup will be subject to formal Government approval.
 
As part of its study, the Interdepartmental Group recommended some changes to current legislation in light of the increasing range of operations where military forces can play a role and in light of the need for increased interoperability and training so that Irish troops can be more effective and more efficient once deployed.  Overseas training, where we can learn from best practice in other countries, is essential to the development and maintenance of high standards in the military, and our existing peace support operations, where we work alongside many other armies. 
 
Also, in light of developments since the Defence Act was amended in 1960 to provide for participation in UN peace support operations, for the avoidance of doubt, it is intended to update the wording in the Act to more closely reflect current practice in the formulation of UN Security Council resolutions endorsing Peace Support Operations.  The Triple Lock requirement of UN, Government and Dáil approval will stand irrespective.
 
I also propose to provide for the participation by Defence Forces personnel in humanitarian operations in response to natural and man-made disasters, such as, the tsunami in South East Asia or the earthquake in Pakistan.  Currently, personnel must volunteer for service with a civil undertaking, in the same manner as any ordinary citizens and cannot be deployed at the behest of the Government. 
 
All of these issues are important and must be addressed.  To this end I will be bringing the draft heads of a bill formally to Government for approval in the next few weeks and I expect to have the necessary legislation enacted before the Summer recess.
 
Battlegroup commitments can be met within the context of the 850 ceiling on the number of military personnel serving overseas, set by the Government in the White Paper on Defence in 2000.  Moreover, participation by the Defence Forces in EU Battlegroups raises no policy issues in terms of Ireland’s commitment and approach to the maintenance of international peace and security, which is, and will remain, grounded in the framework of the UN Charter.  There is no conflict between Ireland’s participation in regional arrangements including EU Battlegroups and our traditional policy of support for the UN.  Participation in any EU operation remains a national sovereign decision, and our policy on the “Triple Lock” will not be compromised by participating in Battlegroups. 
 
To date 22 of the 25 EU Member States have made a commitment to a Battlegroup.  We will seek, in cooperation with like-minded nations, to contribute to the development of the Battlegroup concept and, through this, to remain at the forefront of developments within the international community in supporting international peace support operations. 
 
Participation in a Battlegroup imposes no obligations in relation to international or multilateral defence.  Participation of our troops in individual missions will be decided by our own national decision-making process, on a case-by-case basis.  Any decision to participate in any mission, irrespective of our commitment or participation in a Battlegroup, will be a national sovereign decision.
 
Battlegroups are no panacea.  They will not take over the role of larger forces deployed by the UN on peace support operations.  They do, however, in specific circumstances, have the potential to stabilise a situation and create the conditions into which a more substantive force can be deployed.  The EU’s operation ‘Artemis’ in the Democratic Republic of the Congo clearly showed what can be achieved.  There, the EU stopped a potentially destabilising situation in Bunia from escalating into something more dangerous.  This intervention allowed the UN to expand its force and provide a deterrent effect.
 
I would like to take this opportunity to draw attention to the humanitarian aspects of Ireland’s participation in peacekeeping missions.  Increasingly, in the international environment, humanitarian tasks go hand in hand with military tasks in peacekeeping missions.  This has been a particular facet of Ireland’s participation in overseas missions over the years, where the importance of leaving a lasting legacy has been recognised.  In this regard, Irish troops serving overseas, display not alone their professional commitment in fulfilling the United Nations mandate, but also their support and encouragement for the local population.
 
Most of this work is completed by Irish Defence Forces personnel on a voluntary basis in their spare time.  These types of projects are part and parcel of the manner in which Ireland has in the past and continues to discharge its peacekeeping mandate which respects and supports the dignity of the people and communities we serve. 
 
In conclusion, I would like to say that Ireland remains fully committed to the UN and to the obligations that membership brings.  We will respond to its call, as we have done so many times in the past, with any appropriate resources at our disposal, whether that is through missions led by the EU, or NATO on its behalf, through Battlegroups, or through traditional “Blue-Hat” operations.
 
Thank you.  I will be happy to take any questions that you may have.

ENDS


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