In the Dáil, during Leaders’ Questions, which were taken by Tanáiste Simon Coveney.
People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett raised this afternoon’s debate and vote on Permanent Structured Co-operation – an EU security and defence agreement – otherwise known as PESCO.
The ultimate aim of PESCO is to “deepen” defence co-operation among EU members states.
Mr Barrett ended up asking Mr Coveney to publish the Attorney General’s advice on PESCO but Mr Coveney pointed out the AG’s advice is never published.
From their exchange…
Richard Boyd Barrett: “Tanaiste, minister, this is the week that Donald Trump has declared war on the people of Palestine and the wider Arab and Muslim world by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – threatening to inflame conflict right across the Middle East.
“Now, against that background of war mongering, increased militarism by Trump, it is more important than ever that Ireland holds on to its traditional position of military neutrality and opposing war mongering and militarism.
“And yet, it is precisely in this week, that the Government has rammed through and quite successfully, to this point, buried what is the biggest betrayal of Irish neutrality since the decision to allow US forces use Shannon Airport to bomb Iraq back into the Dark Ages.
“The vote that will take place today, for us to join permanent, structured cooperation on a new common defence project in the European Union is an absolute betrayal of Ireland’s neutrality.
“It is a step towards involvement in what is explicitly being touted by Donald Tusk, by Juncker, by Macron as a new European army and common defence pact.
“And you have buried this. You misled the business committee because the decision to join PESCO was taken, we were informed by Minister Kehoe who didn’t know much else frankly about this, but the one thing he informed us last night, was this decision was taken on the 21st of November and yet, for two business committee meetings, afterwards, not a mention that you were planning to push this vote through this week.
“No doubt you’ve been briefing the media that there’s nothing to see here, it’s irrelevant, not significant, there’s no legal implications, but the truth is this is us joining up in a common defence which will require us regularly, I’m quoting, increased defence budgets in real terms, to meet the 2% GDP benchmark, that would mean a quadrupling of our Irish defence expenditure.
“These are binding..common commitments. It will involve bringing our defence apparatus in line with other member states.
“It will involve establishing permanent, inter-operability with NATO, it will involve increased expenditure on arms and weaponry to benefit the European military industrial complex and now my question is not only why have you mislead the country, and try to bury this significant betrayal of Irish neutrality but I want to ask you seriously: is this not unconstitutional?
“Apart from everything else, is it not unconstitutional? Article 29.4.9 of our constitution says the following: ‘the State shall not adopt a decision taken by the European Council to establish a common defence pursuant to Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union where that common defence would include the State’, our state.
“This is a common defence, it is explicit, anybody who wants to, who doubts that, should read the PESCO agreement. We are signing up for a common defence, in defiance of our own constitution and you’ve mislead the public, you’ve mislead the Dail, and played fast and loose with the business committee.”
Simon Coveney: “What I don’t agree with you on, deputy, is the attempt by you, and others, in this House, to paint PESCO, Permanent Structured Cooperation, as something that it’s not.
“I’m a former Minister for Defence, I’m somebody who has listened to many debates in relation to this initiative. The truth is, deputy, that is simply a structured initiative that allows member states to opt in and opt out, depending on what they’re comfortable with, on different projects.
“We have other non-aligned countries, and usual countries like Sweden, Austria, Finland that have already signed up. And from an Irish perspective, this is an opportunity for us to essentially share resources and access other resources in areas where we are comfortable in co-operation and it’s no more or less than that, on a case-by-case basis.
“I suspect we will want to use this in terms of counter-terrorism, in terms of peace-keeping and training, in areas potentially like marine surveillance, so that Ireland can be part of collective initiatives when it’s appropriate to be a part of those collective initiatives in the context of the European Union.
“As the Taoiseach said yesterday, other countries will see it differently. Other countries may want to get more involved in a more structured way in projects that will not have an involvement in.
“And so I would ask the deputy to actually call this what it is, as opposed to trying to create some kind of conspiracy that simply doesn’t exist.
“This is a conversation that’s been happening since the Lisbon Treaty and it is now something that is coming to finality, following a long debate that a lot of countries have been involved in, neutral states, NATO members and others.
“And Ireland insisted, as others did, on language in the context of the setting up of PESCO to ensure that it is constitutional, to ensure that it doesn’t undermine Irish neutrality, to ensure that the triple lock still applies if we’re going to send troops to any other part of the world.
“So, from that point of view, we have tested this in the context of some of the questions that you’ve asked and it does not undermine what is important to Irish people and what is important to me which is that Ireland remains non aligned militarily and a neutral state.”
Boyd Barrett: “That is the most cynical rubbish I have ever heard.
“Right. And I really appeal, I really appeal to the public and the press to simply read the document. Notification on Permanent Structure Cooperation. OK?
“It includes, for example, binding commitments. First of all, it refers to 20 binding commitments, there’s no ambiguity about the language. One of those includes commitment to agree on a common technical and operation standards of forces, acknowledging that they need to ensure interoperability with NATO.
“That’s NATO that involves Donald Trump and the United States, right?
“That’s what we’re talking about. We are committing to the integration of Irish defence forces with NATO. It commits us and we still haven’t got answers on this, it commits us to real increases in defence budgets ok?
“Successive medium-term increase in defence investment. Increasing the share of expenditure allocated to defence research and technology which will be reviewed on an annual basis. A national implementation plan to meet these targets.
“This is the military equivalent of the Fiscal Treaty and we are signing up to it. And what, this is what, I’ll just conclude on this.
“This is Tusk said about PESCO, it’s purpose is to protect the bloc from the effects of the migrant crisis and hostile bordering states. Effects of the migrant crisis? 35,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean thanks to Fortress Europe.
“And they want to militarise the wall that Donald Trump dreams of building to keep those desperate people out. This is what they’re about. And you have deceived the public. And I would just ask this simple question: Give us the legal advice that that doesn’t run counter to Article 29. Can you give us that advice before we have to take the vote today?
“From the Attorney General that that does not run counter to Article 29 of the constitution.”
Coveney: “Well I can tell you deputy that we wouldn’t be bringing a vote to this house if we hadn’t….sorry…you know only too well, that the AG’s legal advice is not published, ever. So, so. You know. Stop asking for things you know you can’t access…”
“The AG’s responsibility is to get legal advice to the Government and the Government then brings proposals to the House that’s consistent with that, that’s the way this House works. That’s the way this House works.
“In relation to interoperability, deputy, there’s nothing new in that. The Irish Defence Forces have worked with NATO in the past. We’ve done it in Afghanistan and any time you send peacekeepers to any part of the world, are you seriously suggesting that our peacekeepers shouldn’t be interoperable with colleagues that they work with? In parts of the world where they put their lives at risk, deputy, to defend peace and stability of strangers that they’ve never met.
“The problem that you have is that you don’t seem to understand the risks that Irish troops put themselves in, in the pursuit of peace and stability
“And my job is to make sure that we reduce those risks by making sure that they have the budgets and the equipment to do the job properly to ensure that we have enough people in terms of personnel in the Defence Forces to make sure that they’re well-equipped and well trained.
“And to make sure that when they’re working with others, when we make the voluntary decision and it’s confirmed by they triple lock, to send troops to parts of the world, that they have trained, and that they are interoperable in a professional sense with others that they will be working with.
“And that makes perfect sense to me. It is also absolutely consistent with the new White Paper on defence which was supported and passed in this House.”
Watch the Dail debate on PESCO live here
Related: Dáil hears claims Ireland ‘selling out’ neutrality for EU support on Brexit (The Irish Times)