Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Council of Europe.

Mary Harney

Question:

3 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Council of Europe. [1793/96]

Bertie Ahern

Question:

4 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his attendance at the recent meeting of the Council of Europe. [1829/96]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 and 4 together.

At the invitation of the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe I addressed the Parliamentary Assembly on Thursday, 25 January last. In my address I focused primarily on the peace process in Northern Ireland, the role of the Council of Europe, Russia's application for membership of the Council, and the European Union with particular reference to the relationship between the EU and the Council of Europe. Following my address I answered questions from members of the Parliamentary Assembly.

In my address I made a strong plea to the delegates of the Assembly to vote in favour of the Russian application for membership of the Council of Europe. I was, therefore, very pleased with the Assembley's decision taken later that evening in favour of the Russian application.

During my visit to the Council I also had meetings with Ms Leni Fischer, President of the Parliamentary Assembly, and Mr. Daniel Tarschys, Secretary-General of the Council of Europe. I also signed the Council of Europe Convention on the Exercise of Children's Rights on behalf of Ireland. While in Strasbourg I visited the new Human Rights building which houses the European Commission and Court of Human Rights. I also hosted a reception for members of the Parliamentary Assembly and the Irish community in Strasbourg.

During his address to the Council of Europe the Taoiseach said it was the firm aim of the Government to have all-party talks before the end of February. Is he still optimistic that that target date can be met?

We are working towards that objective and I remain optimistic that it can be met.

Will the Taoiseach, who has the Government jet at his disposal, explain why he did not remain in the House to put forward the Government's response to John Major's statement instead of going to the Council of Europe meeting? I agree with the comments he made at the Council of Europe but it would have been possible for him to remain in the House to put forward the Government's response. When I raised the issue the Tánaiste was clearly not aware of the various developments which had taken place. Why did the Taoiseach, who was aware of the developments, not stay in the House to respond to the statement?

The Deputy is introducing new matter into the debate.

The position which obtained at the time of my conversation with the British Prime Minister on Tuesday evening was that the debate would be taken by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs for the Irish side and by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for the British side. The British decided to change the process on their side. I do not think there is any requirement on us to imitate any arrangement they might choose to make in this regard, particularly as the Tánaiste is handling the operational aspects of the twin track series of discussions. It was entirely appropriate that he should have taken that debate. On the question of my attendance at the Council of Europe, the time and date of the meeting had been fixed well in advance.

Whatever about the ambiguity of who said what to whom, may I ask the Taoiseach if it was his understanding that before the British Prime Minister would speak in the House of Commons the Secretary of State or his under secretary, Mr. Ancram, would make contact with the Tánaiste or a member of the Irish Government?

Deputies are deviating from the question before the House.

That was my understanding, based on what was specifically said to me.

I thank the Taoiseach for clarifying the matter. Obviously Mr. Major misled the Irish Government not only on many other matters but also on who was to speak in the House of Commons that day.

I did not say anything of the kind. I said I was told by the Prime Minister that that was the intention. He is perfectly entitled to change his arrangements as to who speaks on behalf of his Government in his House of Parliament but that does not require me to change the arrangements I make in regard to debates here. That is all I am saying and there is no question of anyone misleading anyone else on that point.

We are anticipating other questions to the Taoiseach today.

We should be careful not to make reflections of the kind Deputy Ahern is making.

No, but the Taoiseach stated in the House that the Prime Minister told him the previous night that he would not be speaking.

He told me that was his intention.

When did he change his mind?

That matter would be more appropriately addressed to him than to me.

Did the Taoiseach ask him?

It is not a matter of particular importance who addresses the House of Commons on behalf of the British Government.

The Taoiseach is more naive than I thought he was.

We deal here with the British Government as a collective entity in the same way as it deals with the Irish Government as a collective entity.

The Taoiseach is out of touch.

The Deputies are wasting much energy pursuing trivia in this regard.

The Taoiseach is politically naïve.

The questions deal with the Taoiseach's attendance at the Council of Europe.

Members of Deputy Cowen's party almost caught their death of cold waiting for Mr. Yeltsin in Shannon. Did they find out what happened to him?

This is a serious matter.

The Minister for Defence should not let himself down.

On the question of the progress the Taoiseach hoped to make last week on the Mitchell report, what were the views of the members of the Council of Europe on the Irish way forward as against the British Government's proposals on the way forward?

After I made my speech I was asked three or four questions. The Assembly consists of several hundred members——

How many were present?

——and no procedure exists to ascertain their views on the matters referred to by the Deputy. The questions that came to me indicated that at least those who put them fully understood the Irish position in regard to the matter in question.

I take it that the Taoiseach's speech raised a number of issues which would have been of concern to his Government and the Irish people. Did he refer to the environmental question, especially Sellafield and THORP?

No. I did not because the Council of Europe has no function in this area. I did, however, raise the questions I mentioned, namely the peace process in Northern Ireland, Russia's application and relations between the European Union and the new Council of Europe. Any matters in regard to environmental issues would more appropriately be raised at EU level, as distinct from the Council of Europe. As the Deputy is aware, the Government is raising those matters by representation at the current inquiries in Britain.

In theProgramme of Renewal, the Government made a commitment to raise this issue at every possible fora. It did not do so in this case. I would have thought this was the appropriate place to raise it, as indeed is the European Parliament and the European Commission.

The Council of Europe is not the appropriate forum to raise that.

He could have taken the opportunity to raise it.

It does not have the powers to deal with the matter. The matters which I addressed at considerable length, namely the peace process in Ireland and relations between the European Union and the Council of Europe, in view of Ireland's impending presidency of the European Union, were the appropriate matters to discuss in the relatively brief time available to me under the arrangements for addressing the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. If I had introduced another matter, I would not have been able to deal with the other matters in the detail I did.