The Dáil has accepted by an overwhelming 72 to 25 majority Ireland’s participation in an EU battle group, led by Germany, to be established next year.
Sinn Féin and members of the technical group of Independent TDs opposed the State signing a memorandum of understanding on the principles surrounding the start-up and operation of the battle group. They argued that it compromised Ireland’s neutrality.
Other countries involved as well as Germany include, Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Introducing the debate, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said the term "battle group" was "unfortunate and misleading".
He said it described the force size rather than its role and said it was a “standard technical military term for a battalion-sized force with support elements comprising 1,500 personnel”.
Ireland would deploy 175 personnel under the plan, but to date no EU battle group has ever been deployed.
Mr Coveney said their role was to provide an initial entry force in a crisis management or humanitarian situation or to reinforce an existing mission. “They would be better described as a rapid response group or a peace management force,” he said.
Participation in EU battle groups “represents another means for Ireland to express our commitment to the UN and the maintenance of international peace and security”.
He insisted that “Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality is unaffected by our participation”.
Mr Coveney said: “The guarantees under the Lisbon treaty and Ireland’s declaration make this clear. We are not and will not become part of any military alliance or permanent military formation. We will not enter into any mutual defence arrangement.”
In the case of battle groups, each participant “retains the right to deploy or not to deploy its forces, irrespective of an EU decision to launch a battle group operation”.
The Defence Forces’ commitment would involve a reconnaissance and intelligence company, together with staff posts at the operational and force headquarters. The total number of Defence Forces personnel involved will be approximately 175.
Their role will be to generate and deliver specific information and intelligence to decision makers in support of the planning and conduct of operations.
Fianna Fáil defence spokesman Sean Ó Fearghaíl said his party supported the battle group and rejected “any assertion that taking part in battle groups undermines our neutrality”.
Mr Ó Fearghaíl said the Defence Forces were keen to participate in battle groups and their continued participation of Defence Forces units, contingents and individual members “is essential for individual and unit professional development, unit operational viability and cohesion”.
Sinn Féin defence spokesman Sean Crowe said, however, that the move would undermine Irish neutrality.
It allowed the EU to deploy troops and military equipment quickly to regions as far as 6,000km from Brussels for a minimum of 30 days, which can be extended to 120 days if they are resupplied.
“They are designed as a rapid reaction force that can deploy anywhere within that range, supposedly within six days,” he added.
‘Go into battle’
While “some people try to portray these battle groups as humanitarian soldiers, their ultimate purpose is right there in the name - that is, they are primarily established to go into battle”, he continued.
Sinn Féin, he said, “considers these battle groups to be more about military powers in Europe wishing to push Europe in a certain direction militarily than about a sense of responsibility to peacekeeping”.
Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy said the battle group was honestly described. “It does what it says on the tin.”
He said the kind of equipment being made available by the Irish Defence Forces includes an Orbiter unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), as well as communications and sniper equipment. “This means this is not about helping people affected by natural disasters, but is about going to war.
“This supposedly neutral country, which allows American weaponry to land in Shannon Airport on the way to Iraq and Afghanistan, where it will kill innocent people, proposes to be available for participation in a battle group.”
Independent TD Clare Daly said the key objective of battle groups was to provide a military force directly under the control of the EU political elite "and the EU structures that are dominant there".
She added: “An Irish entanglement in military alliances makes us complicit. It is an absolute affront to the citizens of the State, who believe in our neutrality.”