Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said Irish troops could take part in a new rapid reaction force envisaged as part of the EU's long term security and defence needs, which have been rapidly updated in light of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
"As regards a rapid reaction force, yes, I think there's a good chance that we'll be involved in that," Mr Coveney said.
The rapid reaction force idea was approved by EU defence ministers as part of the so-called Strategic Compass, the EU’s new defence strategy which has been under discussion since November 2020.
He said that if there was a crisis "we could have up to 5,000 trained personnel that have trained together, worked together, have shared equipment, and are ready to go at short notice. And if Ireland chooses to be part of that, then of course we can be."
Speaking in Brussels, Mr Coveney said Ireland had already been part of the development of so-called EU battle groups, and the rapid reaction force was building upon that structure.
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"Ireland has been shaping and debating the so-called Strategic Compass for the last two-and-a-half years," he said.
"The EU has essentially been trying to achieve consensus on how we move forward on security and defence policy, how different countries contribute to that, because many different countries have different approaches to it and have Constitutions that require them to be careful in this space, as we do," he said.
Ministers today committed to greater defence spending and interoperability of military equipment.
Mr Coveney said any involvement in a new rapid reaction force, due to come into effect by 2025, would require compliance with Ireland’s "triple lock" when it comes to missions abroad.
"If Irish troops are going to be sent anywhere in the world into conflict, or potential conflict, then the triple lock applies. But I can't think of an instance where Ireland has wanted to send troops on a peacekeeping mission to a part of the world and has been prevented from doing so, because of the triple lock, not yet, at least," he said.
He said some people were "uncomfortable" with the triple lock because UN Security Council mandates could be blocked by Russia or China.
He said the triple lock was therefore "something for a future debate".
Under the triple lock, the commitment of troops requires the approval of the Government and the Dáil, as well as a UN mandate.
Arriving at the meeting of foreign and defence ministers this morning, Europe’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said it was not the answer to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but part of the answer.
"When we started working, we couldn't imagine that at the last moment of approval the situation would be so bad and Europe would be facing such a big challenge," he said.
EU leaders have said the invasion is a wake-up call and that a more muscular approach to security is needed.
Previous worries about the EU cutting across the role of NATO have been set aside, and both organisations are now working much more closely together in the light of Russia’s assault on Ukraine.
Central to the proposal has been the establishment of an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity by 2025, which could see up to 5,000 troops being sent into hostile environments.
The force was given fresh impetus by the chaotic evacuation of EU citizens from Kabul last summer, and the war in Ukraine has accelerated thinking on the idea.
It is understood the force would have land, air and maritime components and could be used in what is called a non-permissive environment, such as initial entry, reinforcement or as reserve force to secure an exit, according to a draft quoted by AFP.
The European Commission is due to come forward with new policies on increased defence spending and better coordination on investment into new military technologies.
Meanwhile, Mr Coveney said that "there is an appetite for increased sanctions and, certainly, Ireland is to the fore in this debate".
The minister said he did not anticipate a sanctions package would be decided on today, but the Brussels talks were "lining up the conversation" for the European Council meeting later this week.
EU spends €260m daily on buying oil from Russia
The European Union spends about €260 million a day on purchasing oil from Russia, and a similar daily amount on gas, Mr Coveney said.
He told RTÉ's News At One that the EU is "committed to moving away from a dependency on Russia for energy," but the timeframe that that can be delivered on, in a practical sense, was due to be discussed today.
He said that there are some countries that are 80% and 90% reliant on their oil and gas sources from Russia.
"I certainly accept that money that is coming from the EU, in the energy sector, is funding Russia right now and you don't need to convince me that we need to add significantly to the four packages of sanctions that are already agreed."
"What I am saying to you though, in order to get that agreed, I am not the one that needs to be convinced.
"This is about trying to create unity across 27 countries in the EU, some of whom are highly reliant on Russian energy sources and we are working on that."
Minister Coveney added that there had been "a very active discussion" on the issue for more than three hours this morning.
Strategic compass would not require referendum
Minister Coveney said that the strategic compass discussed in Brussels today would not require a referendum in Ireland.
He said that it would focus on "interoperability with other EU countries" in situations when collective interventions are needed in war zones.
When asked if the Irish Government supports the strategic compass, Mr Coveney said: "Not only are we backing this plan, we've shaped this plan and we've been debating the strategic compass for the last two and a half years.
"And we're hoping to conclude a document this week, so there's a lot in this strategic compass, it's about trying to provide more coordination for common security and defence policy within the EU.
"It doesn't require a new referendum in Ireland, but what it does do, is it allows us to work in a way that is focused more on interoperability with other EU countries so that we can provide collective interventions in parts of the world where the EU needs to be a peacemaker."
Mr Coveney said it could potentially include some members of the Irish Defence Forces, but that this was not an obligation.
"Don't forget for many years, we have been training with other EU countries in what are called battle groups, which is an unfortunate name.
"But essentially they are peacekeeping units that train with each other to make sure that they can work together in an interoperable way, should they ever be called upon, which hasn't happened yet.
"But that is not dissimilar to how we operate in terms of peacekeeping missions when we work with other countries all the time to UN standards," Minister Coveney said.