Deputy Owen gave me notice of her intention to raise on the Adjournment the subject matter of the plight of Irish people in Kuwait. The Deputy has ten minutes to make her case and the Minister of State five minutes to reply.
Adjournment Debate. - Irish Citizens in Kuwait.
I wish to share some of my time with Deputies Barnes and Fennell if that is in order.
Is that satisfactory? Agreed.
I find myself having to repeat — and this is in no way to diminish the role of the Minister of State — that a very short time ago the Minister was seen leaving the House. It concerns me that he could not have waited another 20 or 30 minutes to hear the views of the House about the continued holding of many Irish people in Iraq and Kuwait. Perhaps he had an appointment he could not have cancelled. Nonetheless it is important that he know of the deep concern of the House.
It is now 84 days since over 300 Irish people were taken hostage in Iraq and Kuwait. There are still others being held as hostages although their numbers have been reduced somewhat. The Parc organisation have managed to get approximately 91 Irish people out of Baghdad and others from Kuwait and Baghdad have been got home, mainly women and children. There are 180 Irish people still in Baghdad in the employment of the Parc Hospital. There are estimates of between 20 to 40 other Irish people in Iraq; it is difficult to ascertain exact numbers. In Kuwait, from where the most disquieting stories emanate, there are approximately 34 Irish passport holders. The stories emanating from there are most disturbing. In the case of all people being held hostage their loss of freedom and fear must be enormous; at times their feeling of having been abandoned must be very real.
I spoke today to the father of a girl who managed to escape some time ago with her baby from Kuwait. She received a letter within the last couple of days from her husband, still trapped in Kuwait, dated 11 September, which took over one month to arrive here. That was a most disturbing letter in which he said the resistance was very busy around his area. He said many young Kuwaitis had been arrested and tortured. He told her that the previous evening there had been a demonstration on the rooftop and the soldiers sprayed gunfire. He said the Iraqis were gutting and raiding all warehouses, burning them down. He said they were also commandeering all vehicles and petrol. On 11 September that man wrote also that there was no bread, meat or vegetables available to them.
I spoke today to the wife and children of another Irishman trapped in Kuwait. She received a letter yesterday, through the New Zealand Embassy, in which her husband said they were now reduced to flour and water. This is very disturbing news.
Obviously, it is not Irish people only who are suffering like this. There are many other non-nationals, Kuwaitis and Iraqis who are suffering also. But our concern in this Parliament obviously must be for our citizens. Probably we do not have the full or true story. Irish people in Kuwait know that if they endeavour to escape and get to Baghdad — where there is a certain amount of safety — they will be detained and arrested. Apart from that they do not have the petrol and, in most instances, the vehicles either. It is the lack of information that worries me. Indeed, we are lucky to have had those two pieces of information at all.
I understand that the position in Baghdad is not as serious as that in Kuwait. Nonetheless the low morale is of obvious concern. I understand from the Parc organisation there is not any great difficulty being experienced by way of shortage of food. I understand that, although transport, movement and petrol are being rationed, Parc have made facilities available so that their staff can get away from the hospital on their days off. I welcome the fact also that, within the last couple of weeks the Parc Hospital was granted special status. This means that people whose work permits have expired are gradually being furnished visas to leave. Not everybody has managed to leave but I understand another seven or eight will be home within the next few days and some more next week. At least there is some movement there which must help in some way people becoming too depressed.
I must stress that there is still concern being expressed to me by relatives that the Minister does not appear to be as serious as he might be. I welcome the fact that a delegation will be going to Baghdad which I hope will be effective and will be able to express the abhorrence of this country about Sadam Hussein. I am somewhat concerned that there might be an effort made to keep them quiet so that they can get in there, be seen to be friendly and so on. I hope that will not be the case. I hope that the members of that delegation will be forthright in their abhorrence of what Sadam Hussein has done.
We have been.
I will now allow in the other two Deputies to contribute.
The time available to the other Deputies is now rather limited.
I thank Deputy Owen for sharing her time with me. It is most regrettable that we have not debated this whole issue in this Chamber before now. We should give priority to a comprehensive debate enabling people to understand the full implications of the invasion of Kuwait and the awful summary detention of thousands of hostages.
At present people are receiving information about what is happening there secondhand; they have to cobble together bits and pieces of news from RTE and the press. They do not understand or know what is Government policy or thinking. That is unfair on relatives who are awaiting and hoping for news of their loved ones.
There are two such families in my constituency. One involves a young mother with a baby whose husband went out there 12 weeks ago to undertake a two week locum and who has not returned. She is desperately worried about him and his job. The other case is that of a mother whose son is in Kuwait. She does not know where he is, or how he is existing. She received a message from him by a very circuitous route and she is extremely concerned.
I want an immediate debate in this House so that people will know and understand what is Government thinking, what are the various issues involved. It would also mean we would be given a chance to discuss what is now the meaning of Irish neutrality.
I thank Deputy Owen for having shared her time with me and Deputy Fennell. What is coming across from us, and from other Members who have not had an opportunity to speak, is the vital importance of sharing information with people here who have relatives in Kuwait and in Iraq — any reassurance, any sharing of information is of the utmost importance. The sense of isolation and vulnerability of such relatives cannot be overstated. Any effort by the Government, and at European level, must include full dissemination of such information to relatives and, indeed, to all our people. I know that other Members will accept that some of the relatives of Irish people with whom I have spoken have said they are not asking that the special position of Ireland's neutrality be used in any concession for the Irish over and above any other nationality or to damage the European collective decision at UN level. However, they asked that Ireland use its neutrality and particular acceptability in certain countries in the most positive way to help continue the non-violent and, above all, diplomatic negotiating that is going to be needed.
I am sorry to interrupt the Deputy.
First, I thank Deputy Owen for putting down this question and Deputy Fennell and Deputy Barnes for their contributions. The Government, as indeed all of us in the House, share the Deputies' concern for those Irish who are trapped in Iraq and Kuwait as a result of Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait. We can fully appreciate the frustrations, the distress and the sense of helplessness which are felt by those relatives who have family members in these two countries. The House can be assured that the Government are doing everything in their power to tackle the problems caused to Irish citizens as a result of Iraq's actions.
In relation to Deputy Owen's opening contribution, let me say I am here with the full authority of the Government to speak on behalf of the Minister, and of myself because I have been in constant touch with the situation since it arose.
Since 2 August, the safety and welfare of our over 400 citizens has been and will continue to be the Government's foremost priority. In both countries all Irish citizens are safe. No Irish national has been detained as part of the "human shield" as is the unfortunate case for the nationals of Britain, the United States of America, France, Germany and Japan. The only Irish citizens who are detained are the three men facing specific charges and on whose behalf we are in constant contact with their lawyers, the Iraqi authorities and their families here in Ireland. The Embassy in Baghdad has also been afforded consular access to the three men.
Our citizens must be given their rights under international law to travel freely and to leave Iraq and Kuwait for the destination of their choice. We have insisted that these rights be respected by the Iraqi authorities. My colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, in his meeting last month with the Iraqi Ambassador to Ireland formally protested on behalf of the Government at the Iraqi treatment of our citizens. He told the Ambassador that the refusal to allow Irish people to leave Iraq and Kuwait was unacceptable and a breach of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iraq is a party. The Government are sparing no effort to secure the maximum possible number of exit visas but it is not within our power to bring our citizens home without the consent of the Iraqi authorities. All possible pressure is being brought to bear to achieve this end and that will continue to be done.
In the days following the invasion of Kuwait, the Minister for Foreign Affairs together with his two EC Troika colleagues visited a number of capitals in the area. The question of the welfare and safety of our citizens was specifically raised during the meetings with Arab leaders. The Ambassador at Baghdad has made and will continue to make repeated and strongly worded protests to the Iraqi authorities from the Foreign Minister downwards about the situation of our citizens. We have increased the staff levels of our Embassy in Baghdad — all of whom have worked tirelessly to obtain the right for all our citizens to leave Kuwait and Iraq and to make the necessary arrangements in the case of those permitted to leave.
However, in relation to that, I must say with sorrow that the Iraqi authorities today informed the Irish Ambassador in Baghdad that the First Secretary of the Embassy, Mr. Adrian McDaid, was being asked to leave Iraq in retaliation for the withdrawal of the diplomatic accreditation of the Iraqi military attaché based in London and accredited to Ireland, the withdrawal of the accreditation of the Military attaché following the decision of the Twelve on 7 September to expel all Iraqi military attachés from member states. My colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, has commented that he is extremely disappointed and regrets this decision, which is unjustified and disproportionate. Our views on this matter have been conveyed to the Iraqi authorities by our Ambassador in Baghdad.
At home, in order to keep relatives as fully informed as possible — this for information though I am sure the Deputies know it already — the Government formalised the provision of information with the establishment of the Special Information Service on the Middle East. The service collates all available information from our diplomatic missions, the EC and other sources. It provides up-to-date information to relatives — 12 hours a day, seven days a week. My Department also readily agreed to provide a venue for the weekly meetings of the Gulf Relatives Support Group. Senior officials of the Department have met with the group every week since the invasion to brief the relatives on the latest developments. The Government have also provided to the relatives group an office with telephones, fax etc. for their exclusive use. This is intended to enable relatives of people stranded in the Gulf to speak to others who are in a similar situation. In addition both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs on two occasions have met with the relatives' committee to have a full discussion as to how the Government could assist the relatives in this most distressing situation for them and to explain what the Government were doing to seek the early return home of their loved ones.
I can fully appreciate the distress and frustration which the present situation causes to the relatives. We in the Government are sparing no effort to secure as many exit visas as possible for our citizens. At the time of the invasion of Kuwait, we had a total of 109 Irish citizens in Kuwait; today there are only 30. Some 68 per cent of the total have now returned home. Of those remaining, 19 are men of whom 11 are dual nationals, four women and seven children. The 11 women and children could have availed of evacuation arrangements but, for the moment, have chosen to remain. All of the men in Kuwait are free to leave Kuwait for Iraq but so far have not taken this option.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but I must say the time available to him is exhausted.
Sir, I have to accept your ruling of course. Let me say on this "green ribbon" day for those stranded in the Gulf, I can appreciate the sense of tension and distress felt by relatives of the Irish citizens trapped in Iraq or Kuwait. They can rest assured that the Government will not cease efforts to secure for their family members an early and safe return home.