Statement by Minister Cowen to Dail Eireann Part 1
A Cheann Comhairle,
I wish to move the motion on behalf of the Government.
I will speak shortly about the current situation with regard to Iraq, but before doing so I wish to deal with comment and speculation on current arrangements to allow for access to Shannon Airport by transiting US military aircraft and personnel.
Let me begin with the historical and geographical background.
Ireland's geographical position places it on the main flight path between North America and Europe. Shannon was initially developed as a refuelling point for Transatlantic flights when limited aircraft range obliged most aircraft to touch down in Ireland when travelling to and from the US.
For many decades, military aircraft of various nationalities have been refuelling at Shannon or, as aircraft ranges have extended, overflying Ireland on their way to or from North America. There has also been a practice, again going back decades, for civilian aircraft carrying US and Canadian military personnel and civilian staff to refuel at Shannon on their way to and from various bases around the world. Shannon has continued to be popular because of its efficient and friendly service. This business has brought jobs and income to the wider Shannon area and generated revenue for Aer Rianta.
The fact that these connections developed should come as no surprise to anyone. Ireland is not a military ally of the United States. We are not obliged to the United States by any mutual defence commitment. But Ireland and the United States are good friends. These good relations are obvious. We are bound to America by close ties of blood and history. Irish men and women found prosperity and a future in the United States when Ireland could offer them nothing. These men and women helped make the United States what it is today. Ireland's recent prosperity and the staunching of the haemorrhage of emigration is partly due to US investment. Our new found peace is in no small measure due to the support received from successive US Administrations, Congress and private interests. These facts do not make us a military ally of the US, nor do they require us to uncritically support US foreign policy, but they are factors which no responsible Irish Government, conscious of the interests of the Irish people, would wish to ignore.
The practice of facilitating the overflight and landing of US military aircraft and personnel dates back to a time before not a few of us in this House were even born. This practice continued throughout the Cold War, and all the conflicts, wars and upheavals of the last fifty years. It has been maintained under successive governments, comprising various political parties. Claims that this Government has adopted a new policy which undermines Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality are nonsense. They are nothing more than political opportunism.
Let me now explain in full the details of the arrangements which apply, and the steps which I initiated last September to improve the implementation of these arrangements. These improvements have been introduced with the full cooperation of the US authorities. I will deal first with military aircraft.
The legislative basis for control of military overflights and landings is the Air Navigation (Foreign Military Aircraft) Order, 1952, which prohibits foreign military aircraft from flying over or landing in the State except by the express invitation or permission of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Successive Foreign Ministers have routinely granted permission on condition that the aircraft is unarmed (ie, not carrying arms, ammunition or explosives), not involved in intelligence-gathering and not engaged in military exercises. It should be noted that these conditions are policy stipulations applied at the discretion of successive Ministers and not legal requirements. Under the 1952 order, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has full discretion in the granting of permission to foreign military aircraft to overfly or land in the State.
Landings of Military Aircraft
The arrangements for granting permission for the landing of foreign military aircraft are the same for all countries. The Embassy of the country concerned is required to submit a written request, via a Third Party Note, in respect of every landing for every landing. In almost all cases, this will include confirmation that the aircraft carries no arms, ammunition, explosives, photographic or intelligence gathering equipment. After consultation with the Department of Defence and the Department of Justice, my Department, if satisfied with the application, issues a written response by Third Party Note the Embassy concerned granting permission for the overflight. Any request for a landing by a military aircraft carrying munitions would be examined particularly closely.
Many of the landing requests relate to refuelling of VIP transports. In the case of the US, there are also a substantial proportion of cargo planes, which we are informed do not carry munitions.
Overflights of Military Aircraft
The same procedure and conditions applying to landings of military aircraft generally applies to the granting of permission for overflights of military aircraft; that is military aircraft flying through sovereign Irish airspace but not landing in Ireland. In other words, permission must be sought and granted for the overflight of each and every military aircraft.
There are two categories of exception to this rule. First, there is a group of seventeen countries which have, at different times over a long period of years, been granted blanket permission for the overflight of military aircraft on condition that they give my Department advance notice of the details of each flight.
The specific arrangements that apply to the US regarding overflights were agreed in the exchange of letters in January 1959 between the then Minister for External Affairs, Mr. Frank Aiken, and the US Ambassador.
Under this agreement, the US is granted blanket permission for overflights of unarmed military aircraft. The terms of the permission specify that the aircraft be “unarmed, carry only cargo and passengers and comply with the navigational requirements and flight patterns specified by the Government of Ireland under the International Civil Aviation Organisation”. The blanket permission includes a stipulation that the permission “will be subject to re-consideration in the event of a serious deterioration in the international situation”. In exchanges between the Embassy and the Department of External Affairs, which preceded the exchange of letters, “cargo” was defined “generally” as “support supplies” (eg. food, clothing and household equipment). The US Embassy provides regular post hoc statistics of overflights, broken down by month.
Requests for overflights by US military aircraft carrying munitions are extremely rare. Indeed, I understand that internal US guidelines make clear that Ireland does not generally permit the overflight and landing of armed military aircraft. At my direction, officials of my Department have reminded the US authorities that advance permission must be sought for each and every flight not meeting the usual conditions.
Aircraft Operating in pursuit of Resolution 1368
One other point in relation to the overflight and landing of foreign military aircraft. The House will be aware that on 21 September 2001, the Taoiseach, with my full agreement, announced that the State would facilitate military aircraft operating in pursuit of UN Security Council Resolution 1368 by waiving the normal conditions applied to the granting of permission for landings and overflights by such aircraft (namely that they be unarmed, carry no ammunition or explosives, not be involved in intelligence-gathering and not engaged in military exercises). Deputies will recall that in this Resolution, the Security Council classified the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 as a threat to international peace and security and called “on all States to work together urgently to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers, of these terrorist attacks”.
In the event, no request seeking to avail of this waiver has been received to date. The US has continued to follow standard procedures, notwithstanding the availability of this exemption from normal requirements
I will now deal with the situation regarding civilian aircraft. These arrangements are the responsibility of the Minister for Transport, but I address the matter on behalf of the Government with a view to providing a complete account of the present arrangements.
Civil aviation standards currently in force internationally are governed by the provisions of the Chicago Convention, established in 1944 and to which Ireland is one of the signatories. Article 35 of this Convention states that “no munitions of war may be carried in or above the territory of a State in aircraft engaged in international navigation, except by permission of such State”. The provisions of the Convention have come into effect in Ireland through the Air Navigation and Transport Act, 1946. That Act makes provision for the making of Ministerial Orders to give effect to the terms of the Chicago Convention.
Sections 6 and 7 of the Air Navigation (Carriage of Munitions of War, Weapons and Dangerous Goods) Order, 1973 and as amended in 1989, prohibit the carriage of munitions of war, including weapons and dangerous goods by aircraft overflying or registered in Ireland. In this context, munitions of war includes, weapons and ammunition designed for use in warfare and ammunition and parts thereof on an aircraft in or over the State. Under Section 5 of the Order, as amended, and in the context of a specific aircraft operation, the Minister for Transport is empowered to exempt a specified aircraft from this prohibition to allow for carriage of munitions of war. The requirement for an exemption does not apply to munitions of war carried on board aircraft registered in another state where munitions of war may legally be carried to ensure the safety of the aircraft or persons on board - for example, weapons carried by authorised air marshals or bodyguards.
To sum up in simple language: any civilian aircraft seeking to land or overfly the State requires the permission of the Minister for Transport to carry military weapons or munitions.
Civilian Aircraft carrying unarmed troops are treated as normal passenger freight and do not require special authorisation to overfly or land, aside from permission for the wearing of military uniform. However, as I have indicated, under the Air Navigation Order, 1973, carriers of troops accompanied by their arms, are obliged to seek exemption from landing and overflight prohibitions.
During the course of a review of arrangements, initiated at my direction, it came to the notice of my Department that US troops travelling by civilian aircraft were often accompanied by their personal weapons. The US authorities made clear that such weapons were not loaded, are normally stowed in the hold, that they are not taken off the aircraft while on the ground in Ireland, and that troops are issued with ammunition only on arrival at their ultimate destination. It was pointed out to the US authorities that the airlines concerned were nevertheless obliged to seek the permission of the Minister for Transport to carry such weapons and ammunition. The Department of Transport wrote directly to the carriers concerned reminding them of this requirement.
The civilian carriers involved are now routinely submitting advance information on sidearms, and any other military cargo, to the Department of Transport so as to facilitate compliance with the terms of the 1973 Order. This accounts for the reported rise in the number of authorisations issued by the Minister for Transport for the shipment of so-called “munitions of war”. We are not talking about large-scale movements of heavy munitions, but rather the personal weapons of the soldiers on board and limited quantities of ammunition for those weapons. I am informed that the practice of troops being accompanied by their personal weapons and limited quantities of ammunition is not unusual and has sometimes been followed by contingents of our own Defence Forces when travelling abroad on overseas missions.
As regards requests for exemptions to the 1973 Order for overflights of civilian aircraft carrying munitions, 43 overflight exemptions were granted between 11 September 2001 and early January 2003. The only permission for the landing of a civilian aircraft carrying munitions granted during that period involved the delivery of munitions to our own Defence Forces.
Another matter on which I have acted to tighten the application of regulations relates to the wearing of military uniforms by foreign troops. Under Section 317 of Defence Act, 1954, military personnel are forbidden to enter or land in the state while wearing a uniform, except with written Ministerial permission. Following discussions between my Department and the US Embassy, the Embassy sought, and was granted, Ministerial permission to wear duty uniform in the “immediate vicinity of an arrival/departure airfield.” Any requests for exceptions to this policy are to be submitted to my Department.
I hope that this description of arrangements will make clear for the House the precise arrangements which apply in relation to overflights and landings. I would hope too that this Government will be recognised as having done more than all of its predecessors put together to ensure that the practices and arrangements built up over years are operated in strict compliance with the precise legal requirements.
Before leaving the issue of Shannon, I would like to express my serious concern at the incident which occurred this morning involving a violent attack on a US military transport aircraft at Shannon Airport. This is the second such incident of this nature in recent months. I fully respect the rights of people to their political opinions and their right to protest peacefully in support of those views. However, a line must be drawn between peaceful protest and acts of trespass and the infliction of wanton damage to property. Pacifism is one thing, but violent pacifism, surely a contradiction in terms, is another.
I would also point out the irresponsibility of acts which could surely come to the attention of terrorist groups keen to identify potential targets. Security will be stepped up at Shannon in response to the recent attacks of aircraft stationed there.