Dáil Éireann - Volume 591 - 03 November, 2004

Priority Questions. - Foreign Conflicts.

  78. Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his views on reports that gardaí are not inspecting US military aircraft or chartered civilian aircraft carrying US troops landing at Shannon Airport or elsewhere in the State; and the steps that are being taken to ensure that no UN conventions are being [1089] breached and no other laws are being broken by passengers on US military or chartered civilian aircraft landing at Shannon Airport or elsewhere in the State. [27529/04]

  Mr. McDowell:I refer the Deputy to Parliamentary Questions Nos. 226 and 227 of 27 October 2004, No. 218 of 7 October 2004, No. 125 of 19 February 2004, No. 142 of 3 December 2003 and No. 429 of 30 September 2004, which were answered by my colleagues, the Ministers for Transport and Foreign Affairs, respectively.

It is not the practice of the Garda Síochána to inspect aircraft unless it has evidence that criminal activity is being committed or suspects that it is. Permission for foreign military aircraft to land in the State is granted by my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, pursuant to the Air Navigation (Foreign Military Aircraft) Order 1952. Permission is normally granted on the basis of a number of policy stipulations, included among which are requirements relating to cargo contents.

Chartered civilian aircraft are also sometimes required to transport military cargo through the State. Permission for the transport of any such cargo on civilian aircraft must first be obtained from my colleague, the Minister for Transport, who in turn consults the Minister for Foreign Affairs before reaching a decision.

In the case of US military aircraft and-or chartered civilian aircraft transporting military cargo, the US Embassy submits applications to confirm that the aircraft seeking landing permission will comply with the operative criteria. The Garda Síochána is notified in advance of the arrival of all foreign military and chartered civilian aircraft carrying military cargo and of the cargo contents and passenger numbers. I am informed by the Garda authorities that although such aircraft are not routinely inspected, all such flights and military personnel are monitored by the Garda Síochána while transiting through the State.

As regards civilian aircraft generally landing in the State for refuelling or other purposes, there is no requirement under international or Irish law to notify the Department of Transport in advance, although many airlines voluntarily do so. I am aware of recent press reports which claimed that such a civilian registered aircraft may have been carrying military prisoners when in Ireland. My colleague, the Minister for Transport, responded comprehensively to these reports in Question No. 218 on 7 October last, in which he concluded that there is no evidence that this aircraft was being used for any illegal activity on any occasion when it was in Shannon.

Neither the Government nor I have any information to indicate that military prisoners are being transported through Irish airports. The US authorities have confirmed to our embassy in Washington that they have not been using Irish airports for this purpose and that they would not do so in the future without first seeking the authorisation of the Irish authorities.

[1090] In respect of any aircraft landing in the State, whether it be a military aircraft, a chartered civilian aircraft transporting a military cargo or an ordinary civilian aircraft, I assure the Deputy that the Garda Síochána would conduct a full investigation in any case in which a credible complaint of criminal activity — such as holding somebody in unlawful custody — is made, to include, where appropriate, an inspection of the aircraft in question.

  Aengus Ó Snodaigh:The Government appears to believe the assurances given to it by its US counterpart. In this case, that is not good enough. There is evidence that the Gulfstream aircraft in question, call sign N379P, had been used on a number of occasions to illegally transport al-Qaeda suspects for interrogation abroad and that it regularly travelled through Shannon. No one denies that. The difficulty with the Minister’s reply is that evidence is usually discovered after the fact. It is too late for us to investigate the movements of a plane which has reached its home base in America or wherever. The Minister must give an undertaking that gardaí will routinely check these planes when they land in airports in the State. I refer specifically to US military and civilian aircraft.

Are there so many of these aircraft landing here that Garda resources would be wasted in trying to search them? I do not believe so. International law is being violated on a regular basis in Irish airspace and at Irish airports. Will the Minister give a commitment that the Garda Síochána will undertake to check the cargo or personnel on board these planes? That is the only way in which to disprove what I have said.

  Mr. McDowell:I profoundly disagree with the Deputy. Members of the Garda Síochána have better things to do than stand on the apron at Shannon, waiting for flights to land in order to check their cargoes. The people expect gardaí to do other things which would be of greater benefit to the State and its citizens.

  Mr. Eamon Ryan:Arresting peace protesters, for example.

  Mr. McDowell:Gardaí never arrest peace protesters, as such. When they are monitoring flights, members of the Garda Síochána are in a position to intervene — and would do so — if there is evidence of any kind that people are being detained unlawfully or that a crime is being committed on Irish soil. However, the Deputy has extrapolated from the fact that a certain aircraft flew particular people from Sweden to some other destination a theory that the same aircraft was used to transport prisoners illegally through Shannon on the 13 occasions in the past two years on which it used the airport. We have been assured that this is not the case. I have no reason to believe that it is the case.

[1091] The Deputy has made assertions and asked me to place gardaí on the apron at Shannon to disprove them. However, there is not one shred of evidence that an offence of the type to which he refers was committed under Irish law or that any unlawful act took place on Irish soil.

  Mr. F. McGrath:The political will to carry out such checks does not exist. That is the bigger issue.

  Aengus Ó Snodaigh:The Garda has better things to do, one of which is to prevent breaches of international law. What steps have been taken to ensure that no breaches of international law have been committed on board Gulfstream N379P while in Ireland since the incident in 2001? How many planes have stopped at Shannon Airport while on their way to Guantanamo Bay? How can the Minister provide assurances that what the US authorities have said is correct in light of their record in respect of passports? I refer here to the case involving Colonel North when assurances were given that there had been no breaches of international law but when it subsequently emerged that such breaches had been committed.

  Mr. McDowell:It is interesting that Deputy Ó Snodaigh should become excited about the use of Irish passports. He should consider the case of the Colombia Three when he next becomes excited about this matter.

  Aengus Ó Snodaigh:The Minister should just answer the question. He can deal with that matter on another occasion.

  Mr. McDowell:It is amusing to see the pot calling the kettle black. If I take the Deputy’s logic and not trust anything that comes from the United States because, as the Deputy has alleged, Irish passports were once abused by that country’s intelligence services, it follows that I should never take anything on faith from Sinn Féin because members of that party on a delegation——

  Aengus Ó Snodaigh:The Minister never does so anyway.

  Mr. McDowell:——to Colombia used falsified Irish passports to enter that country. The Deputy cannot have it both ways.

(Interruptions).

  Mr. McDowell:Let us be realistic about this matter.

  Aengus Ó Snodaigh:How many planes used Shannon?

  Mr. McDowell:The aircraft in question has been logged in and out of Shannon on 13 [1092] occasions in the past two years. There is no evidence, and there is an assurance to the contrary, that it has never been used to carry somebody whose presence in Ireland would be unlawful or to carry prisoners through this jurisdiction.

  Mr. F. McGrath:Was the plane ever searched?

  Mr. McDowell:If the standard of reliability to be used is whether somebody has used or abused Irish passports, then Deputy Ó Snodaigh is on extremely thin ice.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:That concludes Priority Questions. I must point out to the House that there is a 30 minute limit on such questions and today we have taken 47 minutes to deal with them. The latter is completely unacceptable.

  Mr. Costello:That was the Minister’s fault. He was talking and waffling too much.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:We now come to other questions, the supplementary questions and answers to which are limited to one minute.