The number of foreign troops, the majority from the US, who have passed through Ireland or its airspace in civilian aircraft almost doubled between 2014 and last year, figures from the Department of Transport reveal.
The number has increased from 101,029 in 2014 to 191,216 in the 10½ months to mid-November last.
The figures show that more than 760,000 foreign troops travelled through Irish airports or airspace in the past five years in civilian aircraft chartered by foreign military.
A total of 280,669 foreign troops landed at Irish airports while a further 486,256 flew overhead through Irish airspace in the period.
More than 86,000 foreign troops landed at Irish airports in the first 10½ months of last year, the highest number in any of the five years for which figures were provided.
Overall, more than 1,000 aircraft carrying troops and/or munitions were granted permission to land in or overfly Ireland last year.
Under Irish law, civilian flights carrying weapons must be given prior permission to overfly or land by the Minister for Transport.
Some of the chartered planes that passed through Irish airspace since the start of 2014 included 25 flights carrying explosives from the US to Afghanistan, SA80 rifles going from the UK to Canada, semi-automatic rifles from the US to the UK, explosives and detonating fuses from the US to Qatar, bombs with bursting charge from the US to Germany, and 9mm Jericho pistols from the US to Ethiopia.
When he became Minister for Transport in 2016, Shane Ross stopped granting permission for a small number of flights carrying explosives, his spokeswoman confirmed. However, this is a small fraction of the overall numbers of flights for which permission is granted. His spokeswoman confirmed that the policy change concerned only explosives, classed as “dangerous goods” under the regulations, while other weapons continue to travel through Ireland.
In June 2016, a month after Mr Ross took office, airlines that routinely transported certain types of weapons were contacted by Department of Transport officials notifying them that the Minister would not be allowing “dangerous goods” to continue overfly Ireland or pass through airports here.
A spokeswoman for the department said Mr Ross had used his discretion on about 10 occasions since taking office. Two of these decisions were taken on June 10th, 2016 when, despite officials in his own department and the Department of Foreign Affairs recommending the passage of Class 1 explosives, a rocket, small arms and cartridges through Irish airspace from the US to Afghanistan and of Class 1 explosives from the US to Germany, Mr Ross said no.
Under international aviation rules, goods such as explosives, detonating fuses and smoke ammunition fall within the dangerous goods category but heavy machine guns, grenade launchers and other firearms are not considered as such once they are not loaded.
There were 41 applications to transport these kinds of goods over the State in 2014 (26 granted) and 74 such applications in 2015 (46 granted). In the first four months of 2016, while Paschal Donohoe was minister for transport, nine of 14 applications were granted. However, in the latter part of the year, under Mr Ross, just five of 34 were approved.
One of the 17 applications received in 2017 was approved, this was for an Irish Defence Forces plane leaving to participate in a UN mission in Lebanon, and none of the four applications received last year was sanctioned.
In replies to parliamentary questions since, Mr Ross said he had used his discretion to refuse several applications, something which he noted had “rarely, if ever” been done in the past.
“These applications related to the transport of munitions of war, categorised as dangerous goods, ie munitions of war that contain material that is explosive, corrosive, flammable, toxic,” he told the Dáil.
“Since I used my discretionary powers in 2016 to refuse these cases, very few [if any] applications have subsequently been received by the air operator concerned in respect of this category of munition.”
However, a review of the administration of the law governing overflights and landings commissioned in 2017 has not been completed.
The US military accounted for at least 93 per cent of all flights that passed through Irish airports or airspace, with the American troops going to 39 different countries. Most of these were either returning to the US (385,353) from a variety of locations around the world or travelling to Germany (184,435) where the US has its military headquarters in Europe.
A large number of US troops also travelled to Kuwait (133,762), Jordan (2,212), the UAE (2,786) and Bahrain (2,186) – all of which are part of the US-backed and Saudi-led coalition involved in the war in Yemen. The US has also flown 1,798 troops to its military base in Djibouti, which is separated from Yemen by the Red Sea and is seen as a significant location on the route to the Suez Canal.
The flights that transited through Irish airports and airspace span four continents, with the US sending troops to some surprising destinations.
For example, the US has sent 2,459 troops to Kyrgyzstan and a further 124 to neighbouring Tajikistan, both of which border the rival superpower China.
Four flights carrying troops, their personal weapons and armoured vehicles all landed in Ireland en route to Iraq. Two flights carried 10 troops each while the other two, unusually, did not specify how many troops were on board. There were no flights to Iraq in any of the other years examined.
Three flights carrying 790 US troops travelled to Russia. The first flight in 2014 was an overflight carrying 350 troops while the other two flights landed in Ireland on March 21st and 24th, 2017 before carrying the combined 440 troops on to Russia.
These flights are in addition to the 2,759 requests made to the Department of Foreign Affairs between January 2014 and June 2018 for permission for military planes (as distinct from civilian flights chartered by foreign military) to land in Ireland. The US accounted for 2,350 (85 per cent) of these. The department declined when asked to provide more details surrounding these flights.
“Arrangements under which permission is granted for foreign military aircraft to land at Irish airports are governed by strict conditions,” a spokesman said. “These routinely 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 any military exercise or operation.”
A tranche of diplomatic cables previously released by Wikileaks give an insight into the longstanding agreement between Ireland and the US to allow US military personal or munitions of war to fly over Ireland or land at Irish airports.
“Shannon remains a key transit point for US troops and material bound for theatres in the global war on terror, while yielding diplomatic benefits for the Irish Government and significant revenues for the airport and regional economy,” says one cable sent by the then US ambassador to Ireland James Kenny, which was dated September 5th, 2006 and marked confidential.
Foreign troops transiting Irish airports or passing through Irish airspace are permitted only on the basis that their personal weapons are not loaded and that the ammunition is secured to a point where it is inaccessible.
However, questions have previously been raised by anti-war campaigners about the level of scrutiny placed by Irish authorities on flights chartered by foreign militaries. The Irish position is that the civilian aircraft are permitted to carry arms – as the above figures show – but that the military aircraft are granted permission on the basis that they are not carrying arms. However, there are no security checks on their contents of the planes that pass through Ireland.