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Saturday 30 September 2023 Dublin: 17°C
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Air policing deal between Ireland and UK signed off without ministerial signature
Controversy broke out last week as opposition TDs asked for clarity on the supposed deal with the RAF.

TWO SENIOR CIVIL servants were involved in the last update to a deal that allows RAF aircraft access to Irish airspace but there was no ministerial input, The Journal has learned.

Sources with a knowledge of the memorandum of understanding said that the last renewal of the deal was in 2016 when a senior official from the Department of Defence and another from the Irish Aviation Authority signed the document.

The understanding has been in place since the 1950s.

It is understood that the deal is less a direct clearance for military intervention and rather a deal which permits British military flights into Irish airspace with communication between both Governments.

In September last year, The Journal revealed that Senator Gerard Craughwell was suing the Government in an effort to compel it to state whether a deal exists with the UK which allows for the interception of rogue aircraft over Ireland.

It has been claimed by the Senator and other defence sources that a memorandum was signed with the British to provide a jet fighter response to incoming suspicious aircraft.

Tanaiste Micheál Martin, the Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs, denied last week that Ireland depends on the agreement for adequate policing of airspace. He claimed reporting of the issue by the Irish Times was inaccurate. However, he refused to explain further – citing a policy to not comment on national security issues. 

The Irish Times report, which led to the Dáil discussion, outlined how concerns about the so-called secret arrangement had been raised by ministers and military officers over the years.  

Our own reporting has established that a deal regarding air policing exists – both from civilian, political and security sources. 

Sources have suggested that the lack of ministerial input could be designed to give a “plausible deniability” about its existence. 

‘International partners’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in the Dáil that Ireland does depend on international partners to assist in national security measures. 

The UK is not the only country to benefit from an agreement allowing flyover permission for military planes – the US are also permitted to fly unarmed aircraft across Irish airspace unchecked.

Sources have said that the US agreement was tested some years ago when a cargo aircraft flew over Europe – it is not known if the aircraft entered Irish airspace. The sources said the aircraft wasn’t alone and two armed stealth aircraft were flying in close formation.

On that occasion, a jet from neutral Austria was sent up to inspect the aircraft and it was then that the fighter jets were discovered.   

The latest statistics, available on the Department of Defence website, show that in March two requests were received for overflights by British aircraft.

In the same period, 52 US military aircraft landing requests were received with zero overflights recorded.

The statistics do not show any overflight data listed for the UK in February and, in January, the British made two overflight requests and had one landing request cancelled. For its part, the United States had 40 landing requests and 39 overflights documented. 

There are a large number of other countries recorded on that list including Italy, Poland and Hungary. Egypt, Kuwait and Japan were also on the list. 

The DOD website explains how these overflights work and it makes particular reference to the fact that under the Air Navigation (Foreign Military Aircraft) Order, 1952, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has the “primary responsibility for the regulation of activity by foreign military aircraft in Ireland and in Irish airspace”. 

“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 as the Minister may make,” the document states. 

The document also states that requests for permission for foreign military aircraft to land in or overfly Ireland must ensure the flight is unarmed; that it carries no arms, ammunition or explosives; and that it will not engage in intelligence gathering.

The applications must also specify that the flights do not form part of a military exercise or operation. 

“These conditions are applied to ensure compatibility with Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality, which is characterised by non-membership of military alliances,” the document states. 

The document also states that, in the case of US military aircraft, under an arrangement dating from 1959, overflights are permitted without prior notification, on condition that the aircraft are unarmed, carry only cargo and passengers, and comply with navigational requirements.

The DOD outlines that if US military aircraft do not meet the criteria, blanket clearance is not permitted.

Sources have said that there is no scope for Irish aircraft to routinely visually inspect those aircraft while in flight. 

It is understood that the agreement document between Ireland and the UK was shown to senior military officers about eight years ago. 

The Department of Defence referred our query to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). 

A DFA spokesperson said: “The Government’s consistent approach is that we do not comment on national security but policies are conducted with full respect for Irish sovereign decision-making authority and for Ireland’s policy of military neutrality.”

A statement has been requested from the Irish Aviation Authority.

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