Appearance of Secretary General at Petitions Committee - Introductory Remarks03 December 2014
Thank you for the invitation to appear before the Committee today “to discuss the role of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the provision of diplomatic notes which allow foreign military aircraft landing facilities and/or permission to pass through Irish airspace”. I am joined by the Political Director, Barrie Robinson; the Director for International Security Policy, John McCullagh; and the Deputy Director for International Security Policy, Caroline Phelan. The Department’s role concerning these issues is set out in some detail in letters to the Committee dated 18 December 2013 and 15 May 2014. Nevertheless, it may be helpful if I give a short factual overview of Government policy in this respect. In order to maximise the time for questions and clarifications, I shall keep my remarks brief.
The Air Navigation (Foreign Military Aircraft) Order 1952, made under the Air Navigation and Transport Act, 1946, gives the Minister for Foreign Affairs primary responsibility for the regulation of activity by foreign military aircraft in Ireland. The Order provides that no foreign military aircraft shall fly over or land in the State without the express invitation or permission of the Minister. It further provides that the aircraft shall comply with such stipulations that the Minister may make.
Arrangements under which permission is granted for the landing and overflight of all military aircraft are governed by strict conditions. These include stipulations that the aircraft must be unarmed, carry no arms, ammunition or explosives and must not engage in intelligence gathering, and that the flights in question must not form part of military exercises or operations.
Ireland’s longstanding policy of neutrality, characterised by non-participation in military alliances, provides a context within which requests for overflights and landings are considered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Requests for permission are submitted to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade by the Embassy of the country in question. As part of the decision-making process, the Department circulates these requests to relevant Government Departments and agencies.
I know that the Committee is particularly focused on the question of landing facilities for US flights at Shannon Airport. Landing facilities have been made available at Shannon since 1959, a practice which has remained in place continuously under successive Governments.
The vast majority of troops that transit through Shannon Airport do so on commercial charter aircraft. Primary responsibility for the regulation of civilian aircraft, including chartered flights, lies with the Minister for Transport.
Under the Air Navigation (Carriage of Munitions of War, Weapons and Dangerous Goods) Order 1973, the carriage of weapons through Shannon Airport on commercial aircraft is prohibited unless an exemption has been obtained in advance from the Minister for Transport. The carriage of the personal weapons of US military personnel on board chartered aircraft in transit through Shannon Airport is subject to the issuance of an exemption in respect of each individual flight.
Such requests are considered in the first instance by the Department of Transport and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has an opportunity to provide input on any foreign policy issues that may arise.
Questions have been raised about allowing military aircraft to land at Shannon without being subject to routine searches or inspection. Embassies of the country requesting permission are required to confirm that aircraft are unarmed, carry no arms, ammunition or explosives and must not engage in intelligence gathering, and that the flights in question must not form part of military exercises or operations.
It has been the practice of successive Governments to accept in good faith that details provided by diplomatic missions to all Government Departments are accurate.
This approach is in accordance with international practice and reflects the principle of sovereign immunity. Information provided to other States by Irish diplomatic missions seeking diplomatic clearance for flights undertaken by the Air Corps is similarly accepted by those countries to be accurate.
I shall conclude my opening remarks there and would be happy to take any questions concerning the Department’s role in implementing Government policy on overflights and landings.