Statement by Mr Dermot Ahern TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ireland to European Parliament – TDIP Committee
I am here as the representative of the Irish Government in response to your invitation by letter dated 21 September. In that letter you stated that “since our aim is to give everyone concerned the chance to express their views and position on the allegations from different sources we think it is of the utmost importance to hear the political authorities in this respect.” I fully agree. However, I must state clearly that the Irish Government and I were extremely surprised at the fact that a draft Report was in the public domain the day before our Taoiseach visited the Parliament and two days before this Committee was due to hear the Irish Government's position. At the very least, we would have expected that no conclusions would be drawn in respect of Ireland until we had had a chance to put our position.
The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and I have made repeatedly clear that the Government of Ireland is completely opposed to the practice of extraordinary rendition. Our concerns in this area have been made clear at the highest level of the United States Government over an extended period of time. Long before recent public admissions in the United States that the CIA has operated a programme of this nature, and indeed over a year before the valuable Washington Post and Human Rights Watch reports of November 2005, we raised the matter with the US Government. I believe we were the first to do so. We emphasised to the United States Authorities our complete opposition to the practice, wherever it might take place, and made clear that extraordinary rendition would never be permitted through Ireland. We sought absolute assurances that there had been no attempt to use Irish airports or territory for this purpose. In response, and based on a process of extensive confirmation with all of the relevant agencies, the United States has stated authoritatively to us that prisoners have not been transferred through Irish territory, nor would they be without our permission.
These categorical, unqualified assurances have been confirmed to us repeatedly by the US Ambassador to Ireland. They were in addition personally confirmed to me by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, when I met her on 1 December 2005, shortly before her visit to Brussels. I mention these substantive bilateral exchanges over a period as they are fundamental to an understanding of the Irish position. The assurances which Ireland has received from the United States are of particular clarity and authority. Subsequent assurances by the US authorities to other European governments have tended to be more general or arguably even ambiguous — either along the lines that their sovereignty is respected or that prisoners are not transported for torture. By contrast, our earlier and repeated assurances are comprehensive, factual and not open to differing interpretations.
Ireland enjoys a very close bilateral relationship with the United States, based on ties of kinship and history which span several centuries. Our two Governments have worked closely and very successfully together, and with the United Kingdom, on building peace in Northern Ireland. Our economic ties are equally significant. It is well known also that the United States military personnel have for over 50 years been flown through Shannon Airport, and that this continues to-day in relation to the transport of troops to and from UN mandated operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But let me be emphatically clear. The close ties which bind Ireland and the United States do not in any way preclude frank and forceful speaking when the occasion demands it. In this regard, and while not directly relevant to to-day's hearing, I would like to make the point that at my meeting in December 2005 with Secretary of State Rice, I also raised our concerns regarding Guantanamo Bay. Both the Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern TD, and I have also publicly called for the closure of the Guantanamo facility.
The most detailed statement of the Irish Government's position on extraordinary rendition is contained in our response to the questions posed by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, in the course of his Article 52 investigation. The Secretary General judged our response to be one of only nine out of the forty-six national responses received which did not require further clarification. In keeping with the Government's position of transparency on this issue, our response was immediately placed on the website of my Department, and copies were delivered to each member of the Irish parliament.
Our response clearly set out the legal situation in Ireland as regards the illegal deprivation of liberty, and the roles of our police and other authorities in preventing such deprivation and investigating relevant allegations. The Government and our police authorities took very seriously indeed any allegations that aircraft chartered by the CIA engaged in illegal activity in Ireland. An Garda Síochána (the Irish police service), has investigated six complaints from members of the public related to extraordinary rendition. In keeping with standard practice, it has passed papers on two separate occasions to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. In Ireland, the Director of Public Prosecutions is the authority responsible for deciding—independent of the Government or the Garda—whether to charge people with criminal offences, for conducting prosecutions, and what the charges should be.
However, in neither of the investigations carried out by the Director of Public Prosecutions has any further action found to be warranted, owing to a lack of any evidence that any unlawful activity had occurred.
I note the allegation in your Rapporteur's draft report that aircraft associated with the CIA have passed through Ireland on 147 occasions. I have to say that I would have the most serious questions about the methodology used in establishing such a figure of allegedly suspicious flights. I would also seriously query the draft language used in the paragraph in question. I trust that the Committee will consider my reservations very seriously.
There are two fundamental points. First, it remains the case that despite intensive political, media and NGO scrutiny, national and international, not one shred of evidence of any sort has ever been adduced that extraordinary rendition has occurred through Irish airports or territory. Nor in fact are there any credible or sustained allegations of such illegal acts. Secondly, the patterns of activity which have been alleged are based on the retrospective study months or years after the fact of a mass of material which simply could not have been known at the time of the flights in question. Even if, hypothetically, an inspections regime had been in place, on what basis would planes have been searched?
In addition, several well-respected commentators have made clear that in their opinion it is highly unlikely that extraordinary renditions would take place, or would have taken place through Shannon. The Garda, of course, remain very ready to investigate any allegations of illegal activity where there are grounds to suspect that such activity has occurred, and have all the powers necessary to do so.
I will deal in a just a moment with that part of your mandate which concerns intelligence services. But let me say on the subject of CIA flights that we in Europe must accept, of course, that there are legitimate and important purposes for the use of aircraft, including chartered planes, by the CIA. European countries and the United States have, it goes without saying, a shared interest in combating terrorism.
I am conscious, bearing in mind the European Parliament's mandate of 18 January 2006, of the Temporary Committee's concern to focus on whether or not “Member States, public officials, persons acting in an official capacity or EU institutions have been involved in or complicit in illegal deprivation of liberty of individuals.” As you will be aware from our Article 52 response, following a thorough, inter-departmental investigation into the State's practice, we are completely satisfied that there has been no such involvement or complicity in Ireland. This investigation involved, among others, the responsible Government Departments, the Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service, Prison Governors, the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention, the Chairpersons of all the Prison Visiting Committees, the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, the Army Director of Legal Services and the Army Director of Intelligence.
Since the Government's reply to the Council of Europe Article 52 inquiry was submitted in February, revelations in other countries about the actions of the intelligence services have raised the issue of the participation by members of the security and intelligence services in extraordinary rendition operations without the knowledge of central Government, and I know that this is of concern to your Committee.
Let me make clear firstly that there is no separate intelligence or secret service in Ireland. The Garda Síochána acts as both the State's national police service and national security service. The same requirements of law, oversight and discipline apply to the national security elements of the Garda as to the rest of the service. There are absolutely no “special” privileges, rights or powers enjoyed by Garda personnel assigned to security service duties. Similarly, the Permanent Defence Force incorporates a Military Intelligence directorate which is not a separate agency and is bound by the same law, oversight and discipline as apply to the whole of the Defence Forces.
Both the Garda and Military Intelligence co-operate with non-national law enforcement and security services in the EU, US and elsewhere on law enforcement and national security issues and in countering terrorism. But both are also very vigilant in relation to any possibility of illegal activity by non-national security services or other agencies in Ireland. The bottom line is that the transfer of prisoners through our territory may occur only in accordance with law, and in the circumstances set out in our Council of Europe response.
The Government have always made it clear that were evidence of criminal activity on Irish territory ever to emerge, we would act immediately. I want to make it clear that the State has available to it the full panoply of legal remedies, including boarding planes, applying for court orders, criminal prosecution and extradition. The Irish Government has full confidence that the Garda Síochána and the Director of Public Prosecutions, which as I have said, are independent in their operation, would use these remedies if necessary.
I would now like to speak briefly about the investigations taking place here, at the European Parliament, and separately, in the Council of Europe. From the outset, it has been the Government's position that Ireland would cooperate fully and actively with all investigations. It is important for the sake of public confidence in European institutions that national administrations engage, and be seen to engage, with such investigations. Secondly, and very importantly, it is at the Europe-wide level that any necessary remedial action will ultimately need to be taken if it is to be effective. We need therefore to consider the findings of all the investigations.
Moreover, while the extent to which the Union as such can be involved in this issue is a complex question, given the primary competence of Member State governments for matters of criminal law and national security, I believe that we should stretch to the maximum to develop common positions. I have already taken this approach at the European level. At the December General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) in 2005, for instance, I was the first Foreign Minister to raise the question of extraordinary rendition. The Committee will be aware that this initiative resulted in a letter from the then UK Presidency to the US Secretary of State, underlining EU concerns. I was also glad to support my Spanish colleague, Miguel Angel Moratinos when, following his recent appearance before the Temporary Committee, he raised the matter at the GAERC in September.
No European country more than Ireland, has had to deal with the threat of terrorism. We had to deal with it for decades from various sources, including the Provisional IRA, the Official IRA, the Real IRA as well as loyalist paramilitaries, with, in their case, clear evidence of past collusion with security forces. Nowadays, the world has to deal with much more dangerous terrorism, from groups like al-Qaeda and others. One of the new aspects of cross-frontier terrorism is the use of the internet and aviation as means to organise terrorism.
The aviation scene has changed dramatically since the Chicago Convention was concluded sixty years ago. Let me give you some statistics which reflect this and which will put the scale and complexity of the challenge of air traffic management in Europe in context. In his meeting with this Committee on 3rd October last, I understand that the Director General of Eurocontrol, Mr Victor Aguado, said that there were some 36,000 flight plans filed daily. He also made the point that the information Eurocontrol receives regarding the activity of a flight before it enters European airspace is limited to the last stop.
In Ireland's case, I understand from our Department of Transport that, depending on the season, there are between 750 and 1,750 movements of private aircraft through Irish airports each month. In addition, to date there have been some 224,614 overflights by aircraft between January and September this year.
It is clear, therefore, that there are aspects of the regulation of international aviation which, after 60 years, need to be reviewed. A review of the Chicago Convention might, for instance, include a look at the system of classification of flights for clearance and notification under the Convention. It is clear also that, for any future action in this area to be effective, it will require to be taken on a European level. That said, I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge, nor the need to strike a balance which allows for the continuing easy movement of international air traffic. But I have made it consistently clear that Ireland is prepared to consider carefully and constructively any proposals in the above regard.
I noted with interest the proposals made by the Director General of Eurocontrol, at your meeting on 11 October. From their initial study, officials at our Department of Transport consider that many of Mr Aguado's proposals would be workable. It is also encouraging that there is a clear overlap with the issues identified in the course of the Council of Europe's Article 52 investigations. I am thinking in particular here of the deficiencies identified by Secretary General Davis in the international framework for air traffic control.
If there are gaps in the European system of regulating air traffic, we should all be concerned, all the more so if such gaps could be exploited to facilitate illegal activities. Ireland is fully prepared to engage in any European and international efforts to address deficiencies in the current situation. As the Committee is aware, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is presently studying the recommendations of Secretary General Davis. I hope that the Committee of Ministers will remain engaged and will carry the work forward to a positive conclusion. Ireland will certainly take a constructive approach.
Mr Chairman, I have endeavoured to set out Ireland's position as comprehensively as possible. I have described the situation in Ireland, our position with respect to the investigations underway in Europe, and what we might anticipate in terms of issues which your work may highlight. I would finish by emphasising once again that we are totally and absolutely opposed to extraordinary rendition and very happy to look, with our European partners, at any practical proposals for preventing or deterring it.