Priority Questions.

US Military Intervention.

Bernard Allen

Question:

87 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has had discussions with his counterparts in the European Union regarding recent statements from the highest levels in the US Administration that military action may be taken against Iran to halt the possible development of nuclear capabilities; the approach he is taking to this situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2908/05]

There is widespread international concern about Iran's development of its nuclear programme, in particular its uranium enrichment component, and its compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This concern is the subject of regular consultations between the European Union and the United States.

Based on these consultations, it is my understanding that the US supports the EU's efforts to engage with Iran with a view to addressing through dialogue the concerns of the international community about its nuclear programme. I am not aware of any intention on the part of the US to take military action against Iran and I have not discussed such a possibility with my EU counterparts. Rather, our attention is very much focused on our efforts to reach a satisfactory outcome to our current dialogue with the Iranian authorities.

Last November, discussions between Iran, the UK, France and Germany, supported by the EU High Representative, resulted in an agreement with Iran on nuclear issues and future co-operation. Under this agreement, Iran,inter alia, reaffirmed that it does not and will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons and committed itself to full transparency and co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Moreover, it decided to voluntarily suspend all enrichment and reprocessing activities and to invite the IAEA to verify and to monitor the suspension. The agreement further provided for negotiations between EU and Iran on a long-term agreement that will cover political and security issues, technology and co-operation, and nuclear issues, work on which commenced last month. Iran’s commitment to sustaining the suspension while these negotiations are under way is stated in the agreement to be essential for the continuation of the overall process.

The European Council last December welcomed this agreement. It underlined that sustaining the full suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities was essential for the continuation of the overall process. It supported further efforts with a view to reaching an agreement on long-term arrangements. The European Council confirmed its conclusions of 5 November 2004 on the resumption of the negotiations on a trade and co-operation agreement after recent verification of suspension. The European Council confirmed the Union's readiness to explore ways to further develop political and economic co-operation with Iran, following action by Iran to address other areas of concern to the EU regarding the fight against terrorism, human rights and Iran's approach to the Middle East peace process.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

A steering committee to launch these negotiations met in December 2004 and established working groups on political and security issues, technology and co-operation, and nuclear issues. Those working groups met last month, and their work is ongoing. Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, the steering committee will meet again before the end of March to receive progress reports from the working groups and to move ahead with projects and/or measures that can be implemented in advance of an overall agreement.

Initial exchanges have taken place in an encouraging and businesslike manner. It is important to allow these discussions the time and the calm atmosphere which they need to proceed.

A parliamentary delegation was in Palestine and Israel last week and the assessment over there is that the perceived threat from Iran and its nuclear programme is having a destabilising effect on its fledgling peace process. There is a belief that within 12 months the enrichment and reprocessing programme will be irreversible and that Iran will have a nuclear weapon manufacturing capability.

Despite the best efforts of the European Union, last Thursday Vice-President Cheney stated that the US may have to take action on this matter and if it does not, he believed that Israel would take action, in other words would make a pre-emptive strike. Does the Minister agree that such intemperate language at a time of delicate negotiation is unhelpful to say the least and at worst almost giving Israel a free hand to use its best judgment to do what it needs to do in regard to the perceived threat from Iran?

As I said in my reply, discussions at EU level between the UK, France, Germany and the Iranian authorities have been extremely successful. I will not repeat that reply which outlines how far we have come at this time. Both Prime Minister Mr. Blair and Foreign Secretary Mr. Straw had recent contacts with the US authorities in this respect and they stated categorically that they are not aware of any consideration by the US authorities of any attack on Iran. Dick Cheney, to whom Deputy Allen referred, said he backed the diplomatic efforts of the EU in this respect.

While there may be some unease, and there is undoubtedly unease in respect of reports emanating from Israel in regard to what it might do, equally the US has not said at any stage that it would threaten military activity against Iran. Suspension and monitoring of the situation is ongoing, particularly at IAEA level, and as far as the EU is concerned that type of effort is bearing fruit, which I think is acknowledged by the US. While the start was relatively tentative a great deal of work has been done. I listened intently to Mr. Jack Straw in particular who took part in those negotiations. He clearly said that issues exist which need to be addressed but that Iran appears to be dealing with the EU on the basis of proper diplomatic relations. The Iranians have views regarding their sovereignty and what they do within their state, but at the same time they acknowledged the international context and the requirement to ensure that there would not be a proliferation of nuclear arms.

Given that US political judgment in regard to that region is not great can the Minister be sure that there is not a conflicting two-handed approach here, one by Europe and one by the US? Will he take the earliest possible opportunity to bring this country's views on this issue to the attention of the new secretary of State as quickly as possible when they meet?

Part of my discussions with Condoleezza Rice will revolve around the Middle East and the Iranian situation. As far as the European Union and I are concerned there is no twin-track approach on this. Discussions are ongoing with the Iranian authorities and they are bearing fruit. All those who are involved, both the US and the Israeli authorities appear to be happy with the fact that discussion and dialogue is taking place rather than unilateral military intervention in that region. Military intervention is highly unlikely while talks are ongoing given the US experiences of the invasion of Iraq. That has to be acknowledged.

Humanitarian Relief.

Michael D. Higgins

Question:

88 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the Government’s medium to long-term proposals with regard to aid for the victims of the recent tragic tsunami in south-east Asia and overseas aid in general; if the Government will reconsider its broken promise and provide for an allocation of 0.7% of GNP for overseas development aid; if the €10 million which has been set aside for aid for the victims of the disaster is money in addition to Ireland’s existing aid budget and not simply taken from the existing fund; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2911/05]

All our lives have been touched in recent weeks by the events in the Indian Ocean region of Asia. We have witnessed the awesome destructive power of nature, the ensuing enormous loss of life and the heartbreak for families and friends of victims. We have also seen the best of human nature demonstrated in the global response to the disaster. My colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, saw the devastation at first hand and has already reported on the matter to the Dáil.

The emergency phase is slowly coming to an end. The immediate and initial focus on saving lives and recovery of the dead has been completed. Many thousands of survivors remain in temporary accommodation in public buildings and in some camps. These people will continue to require assistance for some considerable time to come. The Government is supporting key NGOs and UN agencies in meeting the immediate needs of these displaced persons.

India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand have all been badly affected by the disaster. The death toll in Indonesia is more than 225,000; in Sri Lanka it is more than 30,000; in India, more than 10,000; and in Thailand the figure exceeds 5,000. These figures are shocking but they do not adequately convey the sense of loss of the families and communities which have been decimated. The physical reconstruction can get underway soon. However, rebuilding the lives and livelihoods and a sense of community will take enormous effort, time and assistance.

The Government has allocated €20 million for the relief of the victims of the tsunami crisis. Some €10 million is additional funding to the budget for overseas aid announced in the Estimates for 2005. The remainder will come from the Government's emergency humanitarian assistance fund, which is specifically designed to be flexible in order to respond to disasters and crises wherever they occur.

As far as disbursement of funding is concerned, approximately €9.5 million has been approved by me so far in response to requests. This funding will be used to meet immediate and ongoing humanitarian needs in the affected communities. Contracts are currently being processed and payments are being made.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Ireland's assistance is targeted at the most vulnerable populations in the affected region. The key areas being addressed are food assistance, shelter, livelihood rebuilding, care and protection of children, water and sanitation.

The technical team appointed by the Government to visit Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand to assess the immediate and long-term needs of these countries post-tsunami has now returned. The team's preliminary assessment is currently being studied with a view to guiding Ireland's medium term strategy in the worst affected countries. As the region moves away from an emergency response to one oriented towards recovery and reconstruction, further funding will be made available. This will take account of the recommendations of the team and will be in line with emerging needs and priorities in the countries concerned.

Former Minister of State, Mr. Chris Flood, the current chairman of the advisory board of Development Co-operation Ireland, has been appointed by the Government as a special envoy to the region to monitor Irish funding. He will track the use of Ireland's funds and ensure that these are employed in line with best international practice.

The Government remains strongly committed to achieving the UN target for expenditure on ODA. In the coming months, Development Co-operation Ireland will launch a consultative process that will lead to a Government White Paper on development assistance. All interested stakeholders will be asked for their views. The issue of how best to meet the UN target and in what timeframe will be taken into account in the preparation of the White Paper.

In the context of the tsunami disaster, will the Government return to its commitment to an overseas development aid budget of 0.7% of GDP, given that there has already been a major deflection by other countries of aid from, for example, the African project within the world millennium development goals? In this context, it would be very valuable if Ireland returned to its solemn commitment to the United Nations.

The Minister of State referred to the figure of €20 million which has been pledged to the disaster. Before the Finance Bill is introduced, will he make sure the €10 million from the humanitarian assistance fund will become additional if necessary? For example, the humanitarian assistance fund is reported to the Dáil in terms of a gross sum. Will there be a specific reference to the €10 million and how it will be replaced within the fund so we can claim the €20 million is genuinely additional?

I noted with interest the Minister of State's statement that Irish aid would concentrate on Irish NGOs. How is such Irishness to be defined? For example, will it include all the affiliated NGOs in Dóchas or is there another criterion of Irishness which he wishes to announce?

I do not attribute anything to it, but the Minister of State made no reference to Somalia or Burma in his list of mortalities. There are very particular reasons why we do not know the figures in Burma, whose military regime was unfortunately recognised by the Government with poor results not so long ago. The omission of Somalia appears to be the result of a certain amount of disinterest on the part of the international community. Will the Minister of State reply to those questions specifically in the time available?

As I have said in response to previous questions asked about the commitment to an ODA budget of 0.7% of GDP in the Houses of the Oireachtas, we have not retreated from it but rather we hope to achieve it. Moreover, we hope that before the White Paper process — which will be announced shortly in newspaper advertisements — is exhausted and we travel to New York in September for the high level event with my colleague the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the Taoiseach, we will put in place a new timeframe for the achievement of the target of 0.7%. However, I emphasise that the percentage target as a figure stands and the issue is now how we can realistically reach it in steps and set out the indicative figures, percentages and amounts of money which will be required in order to reach the target figure.

I reassure the Deputy that there is no question of Ireland following the practice in other countries in previous crises such as the Iranian difficulties in Bam and the floods in Mozambique, whereby pledges made were not followed up in terms of an actual contribution. This has never been the case with Irish emergency humanitarian assistance. We have always honoured our pledges by disbursing the amount pledged. There has been a practice internationally of the authorities over-pledging and not delivering.

However, we have put in place specific procedures. We are appointing our own envoy to scrutinise and oversee the spending of the money. At OECD level, I have asked Mr. Richard Manning, the chairman of the development assistance committee, whom I met in Paris prior travelling to the Indian Ocean region, to put in place a system to track the donations. He will correspond and deal with Jan Egeland of the UN so that we can track the money properly.

In regard to Somalia and Burma, I must emphasise that the recommendation from the task force of officials from my section of the Department of Foreign Affairs, namely, Development Co-operation Ireland, which travelled to the region, is that we concentrate in two countries, namely, Indonesia and Sri Lanka because they are in most need. I emphasise that the €9.6 million which we have already disbursed reflects the emergency needs of this crisis. The next €10 million will be focused on the reconstruction and recovery cost and it will be a slower spend than the early disbursements which, by their nature, were emergency funds. The follow-on figure of €10 million will be spent in a far more careful and cautious fashion, concentrating on the two countries in greatest need. Critically, however, we will also be making funding available for smaller lesser-known areas in which devastation has taken place. The Maldives have been mentioned, to which issue I intend to respond.

Perhaps the Minister of State will communicate with me on the issue of defining Irishness and the mechanism by which he proposes to secure the second €10 million, whether that is before or after the publication of the Finance Bill.

I do not intend to get into the definition of Irishness because all the allocations from Development Co-operation Ireland are open to all NGOs, whether they are international or Irish. There is no restriction on any NGO or organisation applying for funding from the Irish sources.

The time for this question has concluded. Six minutes are allocated for each question and we have already exceeded eight minutes on this one.

May I briefly answer the other question about the Supplementary Estimates?

No. I would prefer that the matter be dealt with in a different manner. We have already spent eight minutes on this question.

Overseas Development Aid.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

89 Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the reason he has decided to produce a White Paper on development assistance. [3041/05]

I welcome this opportunity to confirm to the House the decision to produce a White Paper on Ireland's official development co-operation programme. The Deputy will be aware of the increases in funding for official development assistance with €545 million being allocated this year, an increase of €70 million over 2004. In addition, further increases of €65 million have already been agreed by the Government in each of the two succeeding years to 2007. Taking these substantial increases, together with the extraordinary expression of sympathy and generosity of the Irish people to the victims of the recent disaster in Asia, it is obvious that the Government and the people are of one mind in wishing to strongly assist those who are at risk in the world today.

I intend to use the production of a White Paper as an opportunity to engage in a broad public consultation regarding the future direction of the Government's official development co-operation programme. The public, as well as NGOs and others who are familiar with the problems of the developing world, should be given every possibility of expressing their views on all aspects of our development co-operation policies. During the course of our consultation, we will seek to inform and engage the public in the work we do, not only in offering assistance in the event of natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami, but also in our bilateral country programmes in Africa and elsewhere, and in collaboration with our partners in Europe and with the United Nations and other international organisations. This consultation will lead to a White Paper, setting out coherent, effective and sustainable policy priorities for the Government's official programme of development assistance. It will also accurately reflect both public and expert opinion and meet with best practices in the field.

Does the Minister of State accept that consultations on the UN overseas development aid target are unnecessary? Will he admit the proposal is nothing more than a cheap stalling tactic which insults people's intelligence? The public has demonstrated how fundamental the issue of international solidarity is by donating €50 million of its hard-earned cash to the tsunami relief fund, more than twice that of the Government. Will he accept that the development co-operation sector, including the umbrella organisation Dóchas and Development Co-operation Ireland, has made it crystal clear what is required to implement the overseas development aid target of 0.7% of GNP by 2007? This is the only acceptable timeframe and there is a consensus, other than on the part of the Minister of State, on this issue. Rather than delaying with the consultation process, he should be working to deliver the target endorsed by the Government.

I disagree with every sentiment expressed by the Deputy. However, it is hardly surprising since the Deputy did not open his ears before giving his monologue.

The Minister of State should cool down a little.

If Deputy Ó Snodaigh was listening, I indicated earlier that the consultation process is not about the 0.7% target. He has conflated two distinct issues.

The White Paper process to which his question formally relates, but his subsequent verbal content did not, is simple. It is designed to raise public awareness of the programme. It is also designed to get greater public expressions of concern as to how to progress the programme. It is a listening exercise that will enshrine certain principles in the White Paper. It mirrors what the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Dick Spring, did some years ago with the White Paper on Foreign Policy.

There are certain issues where the public are entitled to express an opinion and should be brought into the picture. It is not a stalling or long-fingering tactic nor is it about the 0.7% target. I have indicated that we will not prohibit the public from contributing opinions on the issue. It is my intention, shared by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the Taoiseach, that the timetable for achieving the 0.7% target will be put in place before we travel to New York in September for the Millennium Project Summit. It is ignoble and wrong of the Deputy opposite to suggest that the White Paper is a stalling tactic. However, it does not surprise me as the Sinn Féin Party does not believe in including the public in its calculations, as evidenced from its record over the last 30 years. I hope I have made clear our intentions in this area.

How can the Minister of State say the public is not aware of this issue and has not expressed an opinion?

Hear, hear.

Public contributions to the tsunami relief have exceeded what the Government has promised. The timetable for the target on overseas development aid is tied in with the White Paper. The White Paper is discussing the same issues. How can the Minister of State claim the opposite? The timetable was already agreed by the Government agency, Development Co-operation Ireland. Now the Government is turning its back on its commitments. Is the Minister of State claiming that Development Co-operation Ireland's timetable is now wrong?

A timetable will be put in place in advance for the Millennium Project Summit.

Yet it is already in place.

Planned growth and expansion of the programme is required. We do not believe in unplanned growth but in achieving best value for the taxpayers' money pledged to overseas development aid.

Middle East Peace Process.

Bernard Allen

Question:

90 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has met or spoken with the new president of the Palestinian Authority; the steps the Government will take to assist in the development of improved relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2909/05]

I have not yet had the opportunity to speak directly to President Mahmoud Abbas. The Taoiseach telephoned President Abbas to congratulate him on his success in the elections and assured him of Ireland's continuing support for efforts to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This contact also gave an opportunity for the Taoiseach to re-emphasise Ireland's consistent concern for the situation of the Palestinian people and the Government's ongoing commitment to supporting international efforts to bring about a lasting peace in which the two states, Israel and Palestine, can live side by side in peace and cooperation.

We are also in regular and ongoing contact with the Palestinian Authority through diplomatic channels. I intend to visit the Middle East region in the coming weeks when I hope to meet with President Abbas. I also expect to meet him in the course of his forthcoming visit to Brussels to meet with the EU later this month. The Government stands ready, in concert with our EU partners, to assist the parties to the conflict in their efforts to move forward on the basis of the roadmap. Ireland, through its membership of the EU, and its relations with Palestine, Israel, the United States, Arab and other key partners, will strongly support early action, led by the international quartet, to advance the implementation of the roadmap.

On Monday, the General Affairs and External Relations Council reaffirmed the EU's commitment to support the efforts of both parties to relaunch political contacts at all levels. Developments in recent days have been encouraging and we look forward to a constructive outcome from the meeting scheduled to take place between President Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon on 8 February.

When the Minister makes contact with President Abbas and the Israeli authorities, will he impress upon them that the new peace process should not be derailed by the first atrocity that occurs? Lessons from the Irish peace process should be learned. The Omagh atrocity did not derail our peace process. Will he impress upon the Israeli authorities that President Abbas now needs credibility among his people? President Abbas needs delivery from the Israeli authorities on the disengagement of illegal settlements and the release of non-terrorist prisoners. He also needs delivery on the plantation of Hebron by Israeli settlers which sees poor Palestinians being driven from shanty towns by official actions of the Israeli Government. Last Friday, people who spoke to an Oireachtas delegation to the area were subsequently arrested and their properties razed to the ground. Will the Minister give a guarantee that this appalling incident will be raised? These incidents are not helpful to a peace process.

We are aware of the incident and have been in contact with the Israeli authorities through our embassy. The portents have been good regarding last week's contacts between the Israelis and Palestinians. Public statements from all parties are encouraging. Some of the moves, apart from the incident described by the Deputy, are positive. We are under no illusion that the process could be derailed by an atrocity. At EU level we will endeavour to impress this on President Abbas and the Israeli authorities.

Overseas Missions.

John Gormley

Question:

91 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on his discussions with the Foreign Affairs Ministers of other EU states regarding EU battlegroups; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2993/05]

The battlegroups-rapid response elements concept is one that has been under development in the European Union for some time. From the outset of the establishment of the European Security and Defence Policy in 1999, it has been envisaged that, to carry out the full range of so-called Petersberg tasks, the EU's crisis management capabilities would need to include rapid response elements, available and deployable at very high readiness.

Significant work was done during the Irish Presidency in the first half of 2004 to develop these capabilities. The overall battlegroups concept was agreed under our Presidency in April 2004. Since April, work has progressed on developing the concept and, at a military capabilities commitment conference last November, member states committed up to 13 battlegroup formations, which will be on stand-by for a six month period to deploy to crises within a 15 day period. In the initial 2005-07 period, these formations will be primarily national. From 2007 onwards, it is envisaged that battlegroup formations will be largely multi-national in character. As the Deputy will be aware, the United Nations Secretary General has strongly supported the development of the battlegroups concept. These formations have the potential to play a significant role in support of the UN, including through deploying at the request of the UN as a "bridging force", i.e. deploying quickly to a crisis for a relatively short period, while a larger and longer-term UN peacekeeping force is established.

The Minister for Defence has already outlined to the House the parameters of the Government's position in terms of a possible Irish contribution to rapid response elements. After consideration by the Government, Ireland indicated at the military capabilities commitment conference in November 2004 that we were prepared to enter into consultations with partners with a view to potential participation. An important element of such consultation includes discussions at foreign minister level. I have already held bilateral consultations in Stockholm and Helsinki last week with both my Swedish and Finnish counterparts. These consultations included the issue of the ongoing development of the European security and defence policy and the role rapid response elements can play in enhancing the EU's crisis management capabilities. We discussed plans by Finland and Sweden to participate in the initiative, including the establishment of a Swedish-led battlegroup with the participation of Finland and Norway. I briefed both Ministers on considerations that will be brought to bear in considering Ireland's participation in the initiative, including our commitment to the triple lock policy, involving the need for Government, Dáil and UN authorisation in the deployment of defence forces personnel to crisis management missions overseas. I also informed my colleagues of the decision to establish an interdepartmental group, which includes representatives of my Department, the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Defence, the Defence Forces and the Attorney General's office, to examine the policy, legislative and operational issues arising from Ireland's possible participation.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am particularly interested in the discussions he held with the Finns and the Swedes. Will he agree that the Swedes, Finns and Austrians accept that while we are not members of a European army, we are heading towards a European common defence? Why do the Swedes and Finns now describe themselves as "non-aligned" and not "neutral"? Will the Minister agree that the description "non-aligned" is far more accurate for Ireland's status at the moment? What problems associated with the triple lock did he discuss with his counterparts? Do they consider the triple lock compatible with membership of the battlegroups? Will participation in the battlegroups inevitably lead to increased defence spending? Is it the case that we will have to commit ourselves to improving our military capabilities under the new EU constitution, and does that inevitably mean increasing military spending?

What legislative changes will be required if we are to participate fully in the battlegroups? I am asking particularly about the Defence Act 1960. I asked the Minister for Defence to supply me with information on the legal opinion on this matter. While I have not yet received the information, I would be very interested to know the Minister for Foreign Affairs's opinion on the matter.

I must say as a preamble, I was intrigued by the discussion that took place this morning at the European Council meeting. On the one hand, the Deputy appears entirely wedded to the triple lock while, on the other, his potential rainbow coalition partner is totally at variance with this view. I am not sure about the Labour Party.

I certainly am.

I would be very interested to hear about the negotiations on a Mullingar accord or a Dublin 4 accord.

On a point of order, we ask the questions here and the Minister should answer them.

I am not asking questions; I am just making a point. I am entitled to make a point. It is a very interesting point, something the Deputy should articulate at some stage. While Deputy Kenny said recently that it is not the time to air the policies of the alternative Government, I would be intrigued to hear the Deputy's views on that issue.

I will not lose sleep over it.

Most of the discussions with my Swedish and Finnish counterparts were not about battlegroups, they were about the civilian response in the aftermath of the tsunami. After expressing my sympathy, particularly to the Swedish people, most of the discussion involved trying to examine the need for the EU to be prepared, from a civilian point of view, to deal with this concept and, if necessary, to use its military capability, not from an aggressive point of view, but from the point of view of what is happening in Sri Lanka. Our military personnel are currently out there helping the people to build up their road infrastructure and so on. We also discussed the issue of the EU mandate. I made it quite clear that this was our position, and remains so. They have a slightly different view in this regard. I do not wish to get involved in using tags. The Deputy may wish to use descriptions.

What about Willie O'Dea?

It is the wish of the Irish people that——

They are more honest.

The Minister without interruption.

——our troops should be involved in humanitarian assistance worldwide. They expect the Army to be used in a positive way in that sense. They also want to be sure that if the Army goes abroad, it is with a UN mandate, the mandate of an organisation to which they adhere.

There are issues in regard to our troops going abroad on such missions as battlegroups and rapid response forces. One of the issues involves training, and whether it is possible for them to train with other troops if they were part of one of these groups on foreign soil. I do not think that even Deputy Gormley would want our troops participating blindly in a multi-national group, whether for military crisis management or civilian crisis management, without having trained with the personnel with whom they are supposed to work.