Supplementary Estimates 1988. - Vote 41: International Co-operation.

I move:

That a supplementary sum not exceeding £99,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 1988, for contributions to International Organisations and for certain Official Development Assistance, including certain grants-in-aid.

The only substantive element in this Supplementary Estimate is the provision for disaster relief which will enable my Department to pay £100,000 to the Irish Red Cross in respect of medical supplies sought by the Soviet authorities for the relief of victims of the earthquake in Armenia last week.

The other items are simply normal transfers between subheads which have taken place during the year and which have to be brought to the attention of the Dáil when a Supplementary Estimate is introduced. They involve increased expenditure in respect of our contribution to the European Development Fund, and in respect of the Inter-Governmental Committee on Migration who handle the travel arrangements for refugees coming to Ireland under the series of Government decisions on admission of Vietnamese refugees to Ireland. It is not possible to predict exactly the demands on the various subheads in the Vote in any year given the nature of the programmes involved and the shortfalls in the two cases I have mentioned have been met from savings on other subheads. Details of the excesses and savings are set out in the covering statement before the House. Savings were possible because of favourable exchange rates. I might add that as a result of a carry-over of £627,000 approximately from 1987 expenditure on the bilateral aid programme for 1988 will be in excess of £10.5 million.

On Wednesday, 7 December 1988, the northern half of the Soviet Republic of Armenia suffered a major earthquake which caused massive loss of life and unprecedented damage to housing and infrastructure. The most recent official estimate for casualties puts the death toll at 55,000, with 10,000 more being treated in hospitals and a half million people left homeless. The total population of the stricken area is put at over 700,000. The major cities of the area have been devastated and other towns and villages have been almost completely destroyed. The city of Leninakan with 300,000 inhabitants is reported to have suffered 80 per cent damage while the city of Spitak, with a population of 50,000 people, has been virtually wiped out.

Just one week ago — last Thursday — the Minister indicated to this House that the Government would assist in any way they could should the USSR wish to have assistance. On 10 December 1988, following consultation with the Soviet authorities as to their needs, the Government decided that funds would be provided for the medical supplies requested by the Soviet authorities and that this assistance would be channelled via the Irish Red Cross Society who are working with the League of Red Cross Societies to Coordinate Humanitarian Assistance for Armenia.

The Irish Red Cross are also co-ordinating the efforts of voluntary groups and suppliers of medical products and are working closely with Aer Rianta at Shannon Airport who have also donated medical supplies and with Aer Lingus and the customs authorities. The airlift of supplies is being organised by Aer Rianta in close co-operation with Aeroflot, the Soviet national airline, which operates through Shannon.

I would like to draw to the attention of the House the fact that the relief effort from Ireland, as indeed from some other countries, is being carried out as a joint operation with the Soviet authorities who have kept us informed through our embassy in Moscow and their embassy in Dublin as to requirements. Free transportation is being provided on Aeroflot flights to Moscow. There the supplies are consigned to the USSR Red Cross for rapid transportation to the stricken areas of Armenia.

I would also like to take this opportunity to ask any group thinking of providing assistance to contact the Red Cross who have the list of the requirements as indicated by the Soviet authorities and who can arrange bulk purchases of the necessary supplies.

The extent of the catastrophe has triggered a massive international relief effort and many countries have allocated emergency funds for the provision of a range of relief materials while others have sent specialised rescue squads and earth-moving equipment to assist in the search for survivors trapped under the tons of rubble. The most recent information puts total moneys from the European Community and its member states at over £7 million.

The rescue operations, which have been complicated by low weather temperatures and the survival needs of the hundreds of thousands of homeless people, are still proceeding. However, the prospects of rescuing more people alive from the rubble have, I am very sorry to report, significantly diminished.

As manifested by the international response to the disaster, events of this nature serve to diminish the barriers between nations which reflect their adherence to differing political and economic systems and challenge us to transcend those barriers in the common name of humanity. This massive tragedy has brought great pain and grief to the people of the Soviet Union. We sympathise with those who have lost their families and friends, their homes and their familiar landscapes. By contributing to medical supplies which have been sought by the Soviet Union we are glad to be in a position to respond in a practical way to the crisis.

Have we five minutes?

I might indicate to the House that we have gained time. Business is to be interrupted at 9 p.m. so it would appear to me we would have an hour for discussion.

There is an order for five minutes——

That was in circumstances where we thought we would not have gained anything. Do we have to live with that order?

The House could change it.

The order of the House is five minutes and we must stay with five minutes. I think most Deputies will be able to encapsulate their thoughts into five minutes.

I would like to take this opportunity of expressing the sympathy of the Fine Gael party with the peoples of Armenia and the USSR on the dreadful tragedy they have suffered. We welcome the Government's response although we regret it was relatively slow in coming over a weekend when there was instant response from most other countries. Late this afternoon, having had an opportunity to look at the Estimate which was available only then, I found that one of the striking and shocking things about this is it seems — and the Minister will tell me if I misread it — that this has been funded by a cutback in the bilateral aid programme; we have provided £99,000 extra for disaster relief in Armenia by a number of means, one of which was an £82,000 cutback in subhead C. which is our bilateral aid programme.

We are looking for £99,000 tonight from the Dáil. We are providing it from there. We are looking for the excess money from the Dáil. That is what we are here for.

And we are finding that from juggling about in the Department. Effectively, it is a cutback in the bilateral aid programme. The Minister referred to the fact that last year he was able to carry over £600,000 from that fund. That money could have been used for works in regions that experience disasters almost every month and, certainly, every six months. It is shocking that we have funded this project in this way. I could not believe what I read this afternoon. Originally we were told that the money would come from the lottery fund but last night we were told that there was a change by the Department. Today we have been told that £83,000 will be taken out of the bilateral aid programme which had been cut to the tune of £12 million in the last two years.

If the Deputy looks at the Estimate she will see that that is not true.

According to subhead C. there is a saving of £82,000. The Minister will have an opportunity to clarify the position in regard to that when replying.

I mentioned to other Deputies that in regard to Supplementary Estimates a Minister seeks the permission of the Dáil to provide an amount which has not already been provided. In their contributions Members are expected to refer to that and the purpose for which the money is being provided.

About three weeks ago I asked the Minister if he had any intention of introducing a Supplementary Estimate for disaster relief. On that occasion I was thinking of a sum of money to cover this year and next year because we could be called upon again to give assistance. On this occasion the call for help has come not from the developing world but from the USSR. We can expect to be asked for aid in 1989 but we do not have any plan to deal with such requests.

In the Estimate for 1989 the Minister has provided a nominal sum of £1,000 for disaster relief. The Minister has presided over an unprecedented change in regard to such relief. I do not think I will be able to accept any explanation put forward by the Minister. We must be able to respond immediately to the crises that occur regularly in the Third World. If we are serious about providing relief we must have a plan. Disasters do not occur occasionally; they are a way of life on many continents and sub-continents. If we do not provide an adequate sum of money in the Estimate for such relief we will have to resort to taking money from areas of great need, as the Minister is doing tonight.

I do not share the view that we should look to the lottery funds too often but we understood that the funds for the relief work would be coming from that source. Lottery funds have been used for many projects.

And £800,000 was provided for disaster relief.

I welcome the decision to provide this money and that we, however slowly, responded to the appeal for help. I hope the Minister can convince me that I am misreading the Supplementary Estimate and that my shock and disappointment at the meanness of the Government is not justified.

I should like to direct the attention of the House to the second paragraph of the Minister's statement. The Minister is seeking approval of the House to provide a sum of £100,000 for this purpose.

That will be forthcoming but I am questioning the way the money was found.

On behalf of the Progressive Democrats I should like to unreservedly support the Supplementary Estimate. I should like to suggest that there are occasions when it is appropriate for us to go into the minutiae of how policy evolves but in the context of a tragedy like this I suspect that this is not an ideal opportunity for doing so. The over-riding concern of the discussion is to facilitate the joint expression of sympathy and solidarity with the people who suffered so greatly in the tragedy in Armenia, to express to the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the people of Armenia, our sympathy and make resources available to them. I support the Government's initiative.

I should like to suggest that where such tragedies occur, and where it is not possible to plan for them, it should be open to the Government to create a fund from which they can draw without having to go before the Dáil for approval of a Supplementary Estimate like that before us. I understand that that has not impeded the work of the Red Cross and the other excellent agencies, some semi-State bodies, who have been engaged in the air-lift and the remedial action to date.

The Minister of State should consider establishing on a statutory or formal basis a committee which Members have been requesting, to deal with international affairs. It would then be possible to thrash out the issues we are concerned about in international politics, international co-operation and international interface in a constructive fashion. We would be willing to put our best foot forward and make positive contributions so that we could assist in the structural arrangements for the disbursement of such funds when such tragedies occur.

In my view that would facilitate the commitment by the Government to ensuring that UN targets in relation to overseas aid generally are met and would not be sacrificed under any circumstances to the understandable rigours which governments have to endure in trying to cope with national finances. I am convinced that if the Government, perhaps in the wake of an inter-party approach of that nature, took an initiative and informed the public that they would match pound for pound the public's contributions on occasions like this it would be warmly and widely welcomed. I do not believe there is a person here who would begrudge those who may have been buried alive, as in the case of this tragedy, and could not be rescued by virtue of delay in the provision of machinery or manpower. Our nation has a proud tradition in responding to international tragedies.

My hope is that there was not any delay occasioned by the necessary bureaucratic hoops through which the Government have to go through these days. If there was a delay I suggest to the Government that they should seek a legislative initiative to allow them to respond immediately as a sovereign, elected Government to such tragedies, wherever they may occur. We are pleased to commend the Supplementary Estimate. We hope it will be adequate but, if it is not, we will be happy to support a further request for funds. We would like to commend the Minister, and the Taoiseach, for their prompt and humanitarian response in the circumstances.

I should like to thank the Minister, and the Government, for responding in such a generous way to the appalling catastrophe in the Soviet Union. Last weekend I was critical of the fact that the Government had been so slow in responding but now I must congratulate them on their action. The sum of money is significant in Irish terms although in terms of the scale of the catastrophe it may in world terms be seen as small. It will be appreciated by the people of the Soviet Union as a gesture by the Irish people in their time of need irrespective of considerations regarding its size. It is significant also that the Irish people voluntarily, both individually and through various organisations, have responded in an extremely generous way as they have done in relation to other catastrophies of this kind. I hope, as a result of initiatives taken by the Soviet Union mainly that the appalling arms race which absorbs so much of the world's resources, and which the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as others, have been engaged in for the best part of the last 40 years, will now slowly come to an end.

It must be said that many of the problems in terms of world hunger and development would be far more quickly resolved if the massive expenditure on arms, East and West, was reduced. I have seen the figure quoted that the amount of money spent annually on the arms race would feed the world. It is a disgrace that so much resources, not just in terms of money, but in terms of manpower and technology and a whole range of other things are used in the arms race. I have no doubt that the position in which the Soviet Union found itself in maintaining their side of the arms race has resulted in their lack of preparedness in dealing with the catastrophe with which they are now faced.

I am very pleased with the way our Government have responded. The Irish people in responding in this humane way to this tragedy have been motivated by the growing trade and cultural links between the Soviet Union and Ireland. It has enabled Ireland and people the world over to see the Soviet people as human beings and not as some caricature built up by 40 years of cold war rhetoric. The initiative is important and I hope that the money is used soon and effectively.

I wish, very briefly, to join with my colleague, Deputy De Rossa, on behalf of The Workers' Party to add a voice of unison in the House tonight in extending our deepest sympathy to all the people of Armenia and of the Soviet Union as a whole who have suffered such an appalling tragedy. I also want to add a voice of unison in welcoming the proposals of Government in forwarding this gesture by way of aid directly to the people of the Soviet Union to help in remedying the problems with which they are now faced. The amount of money involved is not significant but we must appreciate that it is a fine gesture on our part. I do not think we should be concerned about the extent of it. The fact that it is being made so willingly and with the support and agreement of this House is what is important.

A feature of this disaster is that both within and outside the House there has been a quick and willing response to a dreadful appeal. The fact that this is the first international appeal from the Soviet Union to people abroad generally to help indicates, among other things, the appalling extent of the tragedy. I do not think we have realised the extent of the tragedy. More than 55,000 people lost their lives so tragically in those fateful hours on Wednesday 7 December. But in the depths of disaster we can find light. The fact that our European friends in the Soviet Union are appealing abroad to the other countries indicates major changes both within and without the Soviet Union in our attitudes towards them.

I hope that at the time of this disaster we will take the positive side of this co-operation as an initiative and that we will look positively at the things that are happening and changing within the Soviet Union and not take the line adopted by some western spokespersons that it is all a ploy or some clever footwork. There are fundamental things happening for good in the Soviet Union and we should all respond to those positively. We should respond in particular to the initiative of President Gorbachev who recently indicated a unilateral decrease in the arms and military personnel within his own country. Deputy De Rossa has indicated the impact that that arms race in industry has on the whole availability of resources, both East and West, to deal with disasters such as this and to deal with the wellbeing of mankind generally. The discontinuation of the crazy arms race is the most effective way in which we can confront and deal with the need for aid anywhere in the world. I hope the Irish Government will be positive and active in that debate in the future and ensure that our partners in the EC respond positively and constructively to what is happening. Then should similar disasters occur again there will be no need for appeals for money for aid worldwide because the resources will be there. That is the lasting solution to these problems. Let us hope we never see anything of the scale of the tragedy that has occurred in the Soviet Union in the recent past.

I am sure the Minister of State will not mind if I remind him that he will be subjected to the five minute constraint.

I will not need the five minutes. I thank Deputies for the very warm welcome they have given to this Estimate and I would like to make some comments. I would like to say to Deputy Flaherty that I do not agree that the savings have come from the bilateral aid programme. The savings she sees in the Estimate are due to the favourable exchange rates. The amount of money we had committed at the beginning of the year to various BAP projects has been spent. If we had not made the £1,000 provision for disaster relief I would not have been able to come to the Dáil tonight to seek approval for this Supplementary Estimate.

If the Minister had made provision for £100,000 he would not have needed this.

Already this year £800,000 has been spent from the lottery funds on disaster relief. Those are the facts relating to the amount of money that has been spent on disaster relief this year. So far as I am concerned I do not care where the money comes from so long as it comes and it is spent well. I will take on board and seriously consider the suggestions made by Deputy Keating and I will communicate with him.

I would like to assure the House that the fact that we had to come in here and seek sanction for the money has not meant that the relief could not be provided. Some of the medical supplies from here have already reached the Soviet Union and my understanding is that the final consignment, out of the £100,000, will go tonight.

I would like to congratulate all who have been involved and particularly the Irish Red Cross who have co-ordinated the effort. There was some criticism that we did not respond in time. I think we went about it in the right way. We asked the Soviet Union what they required and on that basis we have carried out with them a joint operation. They have kept us informed through our embassy in Moscow and their embassy in Dublin as to what their requirements were. That was the reason we delayed somewhat. We actually channelled to the Soviet Union the specific requirements and medicines they asked for. Again, I thank the House for agreeing to this £99,000.

Has the Minister any plans to set up a committee on Foreign Affairs? It is important that that would be done.

Vote put and agreed to.

We must proceed now with the Adjournment Debate.