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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 18 Jun 2008

Vol. 657 No. 1

Priority Questions.

Lisbon Treaty.

Billy Timmins


62 Deputy Billy Timmins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the role the Government played in the Lisbon treaty campaign; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23886/08]

The Government strongly supported the Lisbon treaty as an agreement that would allow the European Union to work more effectively in the interests of the member states, including Ireland. In this we were joined by a number of political parties and representative groups, and we are very grateful for their support. We are deeply disappointed with the outcome of the referendum. The campaign was hard-fought and the people have made their decision, which must be respected.

The Government set out last December to provide the electorate with information on the treaty. An explanatory pamphlet was published in December and a detailed 22-page guide to the treaty was published in February. This guide was distributed to all households in the country in April. These two documents were also distributed to all public libraries, citizens advice centres and Departments. A comprehensive White Paper on the treaty was published in April containing a detailed analysis of the treaty's provisions. This too was distributed to public libraries and copies were made available to the public on request. A dedicated website,, was established which contained comprehensive information about the treaty and copies of all the above publications.

The Government established the independent Referendum Commission. Under the Referendum Act 2001, the Referendum Commission is expected to prepare statements containing a general explanation of the subject matter of the referendum and to publish and distribute these statements. The Referendum Commission was provided with a budget of €5 million. This represented an increase of more than 20% over the amount provided to the commission for its work on the second Nice referendum.

My party held up to 60 meetings across the country to heighten awareness and understanding of the treaty. In addition, we participated in the meetings of the National Forum on Europe, with other political parties and in the series of public meetings organised by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs. The Deputy's question relates to the Government's role, but many political parties distributed leaflets. In the weeks before the vote, there was intensive canvassing to maximise support for the treaty at the referendum.

We now need to reflect on the way forward for Ireland and for the European Union, but this will take time. There is a need to avoid snap judgments and hasty decisions at what is a very important point in the history of Ireland's hugely successful engagement with the European Union, which has been a central pillar of our national development since 1973.

I tabled this question before the result of the referendum became known. I would have much preferred if the result was otherwise but it is important to recognise the result. I hope my supplementary questions are taken in the context in which they are asked.

Is it difficult for the Minister to operate within the parameters of the McKenna judgment when dealing with a referendum? From the point of view of the Opposition, it is difficult. Will he agree there is something inherently wrong when in the region of 96% of elected representatives are given the same air time as 4% of elected representatives? I will give an abstract example. If a referendum were to be held on the question that the sun should shine every day, would it be necessary for the national broadcast media to provide 50% of air time to an opponent of such a concept? There is a mechanism whereby there can be abuse of the system if someone has access to that time. Has the Government any plans to look at the impact of the McKenna judgment on democratic representation? Has the Minister plans to look at how the role of the Referendum Commission might be changed, evolved or otherwise?

One must be careful in the immediate aftermath of a referendum which produced a disappointing decision to make comments on the rules of the game, so to speak. People may be of the opinion that one was complaining on the basis that one lost and therefore wished to change the rules. On the other hand, I accept the validity of much of what the Deputy has said. If there were to be a referendum on whether the sun should shine every day there would be an obligation for an opposition to come forward and to create 50% air time for that opposing view. This may be a facetious argument but there have been other examples and the Good Friday Agreement is a good example of a referendum where the same situation applied.

The Government has no plans to change the rules and neither do I. However, a referendum is the voice of the people. The view has been expressed that certain groups may use that facility to take a particular stance on the basis of achieving a profile for subsequent election battles. There is then a danger that the modus operandi that now exists could actually incentivise people to take a particular stance or position in order to ensure they can have the 50% air time and profile which is very significant. That said, there are lessons to be learned on the substance of the debate more than the rules of the game.

Given the complexity of the proposition put to the people, we need to reflect on how it was presented to them. The media soundbite means that one will hear five minutes of one person saying something is black which is counter-argued by five minutes of another person saying it is white, with the punters trying to arbitrate between the two. A far more considered treatment in public sector broadcasting terms of such a complex treaty could have been better handled by us. I do not mean this to be a criticism but it is something which we should consider.

A brief supplementary question from Deputy Timmins.

The forum on Europe presented a very good information booklet which I acknowledge. Does the Minister envisage a change in the legislation dealing with the Referendum Commission? Will the commission continue and should it begin its work earlier in a campaign? In fairness to the commission, the subject was complex and there are time constraints. We need to consider changing the legislation, which ultimately would facilitate the public in the receipt of information.

The independent Referendum Commission did a good job but the expectations are too high within the timeframe constraints. I thought the booklet, which was issued to every household, was straightforward and simple. People may have different views on the advertisements but everyone has views on every type of advertisement. People argue about sports and everything else, and such analysis is subjective.

I made a comment on my canvassing experience which might have been misinterpreted. I was busily talking about the Council of Ministers and the European Commission and I could see the glazed expression of the person. As Deputy Jackie Healy-Rae might say, I put the tin hat on it by saying that the independent Referendum Commission said such and such. I could see the person did not recognise any of the institutions I had referred to. This is the challenge we face. To expect the commission to establish itself and, within the space of two months, become known to everyone is unrealistic.

Overseas Development Aid.

Michael D. Higgins


63 Deputy Michael D. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if Ireland will host a conference to discuss the different options available for responding to the food crisis in the developing world in general, and Africa in particular, in order to ensure there is an adequate consideration of the different models available for the achievement of food security and appropriate commercial usage as part of a development strategy best suited to such regions. [23532/08]

There can be no question but that the sharp escalation in the price of staple food commodities such as corn, wheat and rice is a matter for the deepest concern. These price rises are undermining the food security of many millions of individuals and communities throughout the developing world. We already had a situation where over 800 million people were food insecure. With the current price increases, this already unacceptable situation can only worsen.

We are responding with both short-term and long-term measures. In the short term, we have responded by providing a special grant of €3 million to the market mitigation account of the World Food Programme, the specialised agency of the UN system which is tasked with providing food aid to those most in need.

We are also responding in our programme countries in trying to promote food security for those communities most vulnerable to price shocks. Ethiopia is probably the programme country most deeply affected by food insecurity. There we have increased our support to the social safety nets programme by 25% to €11 million this year. This programme is seeking to prevent over 7 million people from tipping over the edge into destitution and starvation.

In the longer term, the crisis triggered by escalating food prices has underscored the importance of the work of our hunger task force. The task force is chaired by our colleague, the former Minister for Agriculture and Food, Joe Walsh, and has high-profile national and international experts among its membership. I look forward to receiving its recommendations in due course. I expect they will be a guide to our longer-term response to this crisis and to the issue of livelihoods more generally.

As regards convening a conference in Ireland to discuss the issue of food insecurity, the Deputy will be aware the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation has already convened a special high level conference on world food security, entitled "The Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy". This conference was held in Rome between 3 and 5 June and our delegation was led by my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The Rome high level conference adopted by consensus a declaration where the member states pledged themselves to embrace food security as a matter of permanent national policy and renewed their commitment to achieving the millennium development goals. The full text of that declaration is available in the Library. There is a further high level discussion to be hosted by the French EU Presidency, the Commission and the Parliament, scheduled to be held in Brussels on 3 July, on the issue of sustainable agriculture as a driver of development. In the circumstances, I do not think that any further conference convened by Ireland would provide added value.

We will continue to play our part in addressing the food issue through working with the international community to strengthen efforts to address the root causes of hunger as well as alleviating the immediate consequences of the current shortages. As I mentioned, I also await the report of our own hunger task force.

I wish the Minister of State every success with his new responsibilities and I appreciate his reply. The question I tabled contains two basic elements. First, I entirely support what the Minister of State said about increasing technical and practical assistance under the UN World Food Programme, particularly to Ethiopia where millions of people are threatened. The second element concerns a food security strategy based on appropriate agricultural production models. In its 2007 report, the World Bank acknowledged that its approach to agriculture has been unsuccessful. In fact, the word "failed" is used in the text. It neglected agriculture in the context of competing economic models in Africa in particular. One model, which has failed, involves supplying increasing agricultural output based on markets created by migration to cities. A different model exists in West Africa where 80% of the increase in agricultural production has been brought about by people working on small plots with a hoe.

There are three reasons for such a conference to discuss options to respond to the food crisis. One is that the European Union supplies 48% of all the aid in the world. Second, Ireland is a lead country in the debate, not just on emergency food aid but also food security. Third, intellectual and practical NGO and State involvement is needed in a debate on the various models of food security, particularly in Africa.

I thank the Deputy for his supplementary question. I share his deep concern on this issue, not least because the problem of rising food prices has the capacity to undermine the whole international aid effort. In the first instance, we must examine the causes of the current situation, some of which are man-made and others natural. The man-made aspects of this situation are interesting. They include the increased consumption of higher value foods in places such China and India, which is beginning to take from traditional markets and production areas. In itself, that is a man-made aspect. In addition there are natural disasters and climate change. Sometimes, those who are least to blame for climate change are regrettably the first to suffer from its effects.

As regards the strategies to be adopted, our policy programme recognises the importance of agriculture which is enshrined in a White Paper on aid. I referred to the FAO conference in Rome and I understand the incoming French EU Presidency intends to hold a conference of this nature at its earliest convenience, although I do not have the full details to hand. Because this is essentially a global issue, it requires a global response. We must work together and the fora through which we can progress this matter include the EU Development and Foreign Ministers' Councils and the United Nations.

Flexibility must be afforded to African countries in terms of the WTO. The Minister and the Minister of State both appreciate the importance of integrated thinking between trade and development. It is important, however, that African countries should be allowed to apply tariffs and subsidies to create food security. For example, Asian rice is being dumped in Africa where production of upland rice is forbidden by trade restrictions. In addition, African farmers are not allowed to produce chickens, while Germany exports large quantities of chicken portions to Africa. This makes no sense in food-insecure countries. Does the Government favour an integrated approach to allow adjustments in trade regulations in the multilateral institutions, thus saving the development intention?

I accept the Deputy's thesis that there is a connection between food shortages, agriculture and trade. The WTO talks provide the opportunity to progress this issue. As part of our input into the negotiations at European level, one of our primary concerns has been, and will continue to be, to ensure that the food security and supply of developing countries, but particularly African ones, will be recognised and enshrined in any comprehensive future agreement.

Foreign Conflicts.

Billy Timmins


64 Deputy Billy Timmins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs when he last had contact with the South African ambassador to Ireland; the recent contacts the Irish Ambassador to South Africa has had with the authorities there; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23887/08]

I met the South African ambassador this morning in Dublin at the unveiling of a plaque in Henry Street commemorating the stand taken by Dunnes Stores workers against apartheid more than 20 years ago. In the near future, I also intend to have a more formal meeting with all seven African ambassadors resident in Ireland. This will provide us with an opportunity to discuss key current African political issues. The agenda is under discussion but I am sure that Irish priorities, such as the situations in Sudan, Chad and Zimbabwe, will be among the topics to be discussed. The situation in Zimbabwe was among the topics discussed during the meeting which the former Taoiseach had with the Deputy President of South Africa here in Dublin on 9 April.

The Irish ambassador to South Africa is in regular contact with Ministers and senior officials in the South African Government across the full range of issues that concern the Irish Government. He has had a number of recent meetings with the South African authorities, particularly regarding the situation in Zimbabwe.

On 29 April 2008, on the basis of an instruction from my Department, the ambassador formally called on a senior official in the South African Department of Foreign Affairs to present a démarche on the situation in Zimbabwe. On 6 May, the ambassador again had a meeting at the South African Department of Foreign Affairs to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe. Most recently, on 2 June, the ambassador formally called on the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sue Van der Merwe, to discuss a number of issues, including the domestic situation in South Africa, and events in Zimbabwe, about which he raised the Government's continuing serious concern.

The Minister has fallen on his feet since he went into his new job, notwithstanding the result of the Lisbon treaty referendum. Did the Minister say in his reply that he will be meeting with the seven resident African ambassadors shortly?

On what date will that meeting take place? I do not know if the Minister got the chance to have much of a discussion with the South African ambassador this morning. It is imperative that he contact her as soon as possible because the events unfolding in Zimbabwe are a disgrace.

Is the Minister aware that Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change wrote to South African President Thabo Mbeki outlining his concern, condemning President Mbeki's chairmanship of the regional mediation attempts between the two sides in respect of the running of the election campaign and accusing him of being biased towards Mr. Mugabe? The position is unacceptable.

While I do not want to encroach on the next question in the name of Deputy Michael D. Higgins, the Dáil's long-standing condemnation of Mr. Mugabe is falling on deaf ears. The regional powers have a responsibility in this regard. In light of Ireland's close ties with South Africa, it is imperative that the Minister inform the South African ambassador of the strong views of Irish people, as represented in the House.

I assure the Deputy that the South African Government and authorities are under no illusion about the strong views in Ireland, as recently articulated in special statements in the House. After that debate, in which the Deputy participated, we again contacted the Irish ambassador in South Africa to convey directly to the South African authorities our strong views on this matter. The countries with the greatest influence on Zimbabwe are regional states, notably South Africa. They bear the greatest responsibility to influence events in Zimbabwe to the good.

While the Government accepts that much more remains to be done, some progress has been evidenced, not least in respect of having observers present for the recent election and the posting of results outside election polling booths. These improvements helped to deter some elements of intimidation, although matters have since deteriorated and the position is unacceptable. I accept the prospect of free and fair elections is seriously undermined by developments in Zimbabwe.

The key point is that the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy has, to a certain extent, reduced the leverage that western European countries can exact on the Zimbabwean leader and authorities. We must work, through our partners in SADC and the African Union, to pursue the genuine issues the Deputy has raised and the Government's genuine concern that we move on.

The question relates to contacts with the South African ambassador. While the issues being discussed are relevant, I do not want to pre-empt the next question.

I am conscious of that. Will the Minister outline the contents of his most recent communication with the South African ambassador?

I had a brief discussion with the ambassador this morning.

I refer to Ireland's ambassador to South Africa.

The import of the communication to which I referred was to press the South African authorities to influence the Zimbabwean Government to facilitate fair and free elections and to have a stronger influence on the events unfolding in that country. I am conscious this is the subject matter of the following question.

Michael D. Higgins


65 Deputy Michael D. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the action he has taken to implement the wishes of Dáil Éireann as expressed in the all-party motion on Zimbabwe on 15 May 2008; if he has sought assurances regarding the issues relating to voting conditions in the second round of presidential elections set for 27 June 2008; if election results will again be posted outside polling stations; if licences have been granted to domestic election observers; if there will be sufficient numbers of domestic and international election observers in all constituencies; and if the police and the army will be banned from entering polling stations. [23503/08]

The situation in Zimbabwe continues to be shocking and deeply disturbing. At least 50 people have been killed since March and targeted violence has resulted in thousands being displaced, rendering it impossible for them to vote. Opposition Movement for Democratic Change activists, including MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, have repeatedly been arrested and detained. Political meetings have been banned and the opposition has no access to state controlled media. Suspected MDC supporters are losing their jobs and in many cases have been beaten and tortured. Most recently and very worryingly, the decision to suspend NGO activities, including the delivery of humanitarian aid and provision of health services, will threaten lives.

I welcome the wide consensus on Zimbabwe in the Dáil when we debated the issue on 15 May. The House agreed on the urgent need to end violence and create an environment conducive to a fair election. We agreed on the importance of election monitoring and on continued Irish Aid support for the Zimbabwean people. We also agreed on the pivotal role which Zimbabwe's neighbours have to play in resolving this crisis.

In keeping with the wish expressed by many Deputies that Ireland's views be conveyed at European Union level, at the meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations meeting in Brussels on 26 May Ireland urged that strong political pressure on the Mugabe regime be maintained until the crisis is resolved. Following that discussion, EU Foreign Ministers again called on the Government of Zimbabwe to ensure a level playing field and secure environment. They specifically underlined the importance of the publication of results outside polling stations, as stipulated by Zimbabwean law. EU Foreign Ministers again discussed the situation in Zimbabwe on Monday, 16 June.

The Government would have strongly supported election monitoring by Irish observers through the European Union or the United Nations. However, Zimbabwean Government representatives have explicitly made clear their refusal to accept monitors from the EU or any EU member state. The consent of the host country is a practical necessity as without permission to visit polling stations and count centres, it is not possible to make a credible assessment of the election.

The European Union, including Ireland, has strongly supported monitoring of the Zimbabwean election by the Southern African Development Community and the African Union. I welcome the fact that there will be an increased number of monitors from both organisations on the ground for the second round, many of whom are already in place. Local observers, however, have been told their invitations are no longer valid for the second round. The Ambassador of Ireland to Zimbabwe, who is resident in South Africa, travelled to Zimbabwe to witness the election on 29 March and will do so again for the 27 June round. Due to a change in the law in March, police will be allowed to enter polling stations, as they were for the first round.

Many Deputies have made helpful proposals about how Ireland should react to positive change in Zimbabwe. I assure them the Government will respond, including by examining how Irish Aid can make a strong and significant contribution to the new democratic dispensation that hopefully will be in place.

I am grateful for the Minister's reply. We will shortly arrive at the point at which we must discuss a response from the United Nations. The decision at the UN summit meeting of 2005 to regard human rights protection as a core principle was a defining moment in the history of the organisation. With the election in Zimbabwe having taken place in imperfect conditions which cannot be scrutinised, one is left with a discussion about human rights violations and human rights protection. The question of the role of South Africa also arises in this context.

The UN Secretary General and his predecessor spoke of the delegation of competences to regional authorities, including the African Union. I agree with this proposition and it may well be the case that Ireland will, perhaps through the European Union, raise at the United Nations the question of whether the African Union proposes to exercise a competence which may be given to it under the 2005 United Nations declaration on the protection of human rights. This issue is underlined by the blockage placed in the way of non-governmental organisations which could have been partially allowed to return and the incarceration of members of the opposition in Zimbabwe.

In the all-party motion the House discussed on 15 May Members were ad idem on the conditions which would have a positive effect, including the posting of results and the presence of observers as well as the right of the police or the army to enter polling stations. We need a description of events as they unfold. The African Union cannot resile from its obligations as a regional authority, possibly with delegated functions under a universal declaration on human rights protection made at a UN summit in 2005.

I am in broad agreement with the Deputy. The Government would welcome further initiatives to address this issue in the United Nations framework. I was taken by an article written by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, which appeared in today's edition of the Financial Times. In it, Mr. Annan stated that the victor of an unfair vote must be under no illusions and will not have the legitimacy to govern or receive the support of the international community. The UN Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, recently publicly expressed his concerns. Ultimately, we will have to move beyond the election result in the sense that reconciliation is what is really required. It is not just about mere victory in an election. There needs to be a national reconciliation and——

The Minister may find himself facing a Chapter 7 resolution.

——that is where we must head.

I would probably be among the most reluctant in this House to invoke a Chapter 7 resolution of the United Nations, but I cannot see how the 2005 declaration at the summit on human rights protection can mean anything unless it can also accommodate a motion which may ask the regional authority with the delegated function to intervene to ensure human rights protection. I know what I am saying carefully here, that sovereignty cannot be tolerated after 2005 as a shield for the abuse of human rights.

I understand the Deputy's point. It is a fundamental issue——

——that demands careful consideration. Our strategy to date has been to work with our southern African region partners as the people who ultimately have the strongest influence and access. We believe that has yielded some results. We would accept that it has not done enough and that the progress has not been of a degree or nature that we would find acceptable here.

Our judgment call at this stage is to continue — both directly with the South African authorities and in the context of the EU — putting pressure on and liaising with the African Union and SADC to have that necessary influence to move matters in the right direction. It is something that will be kept under constant and active review. We are very conscious of the strong views in this House and in the country on this issue.

Overseas Development Aid.

Billy Timmins


66 Deputy Billy Timmins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has plans to re-evaluate the allocation of Irish Aid; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23889/08]

As Deputy Timmins will be aware, I was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development last month. I am proud, as I believe the large majority of Irish people are, of our overseas development aid programme and the work of Irish Aid. At the same time, it is my intention to look at all aspects of the programme having due regard to the White Paper on Irish Aid. The White Paper sets out in clear terms the road map for the future development of Irish Aid, provides a framework for expenditure into the future and sets a benchmark against which our partners in Ireland and internationally can measure our performance.

In the past month I attended the General Affairs and External Relations Council in Brussels where I met Development Ministers from the member states. I received a number of delegations from Irish NGOs and other implementing partners. I plan to meet the advisory board of Irish Aid in the very near future. In addition, I will travel this week to Malawi, Irish Aid's most recent programme country, which will give me first-hand knowledge and a greater insight into the complexities and challenges facing Irish Aid in one of the poorest countries in the developing world.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, for his reply. I wish him well in his appointment. I also wish the Minister, Deputy Martin, well — I did not mention that at the outset.

Irish Aid is granted a great deal of money amounting to €814 million this year from his Department, or €914 million across all Departments. Irish Aid will come under the microscope increasingly to ensure we are getting value for money.

One of the areas where Irish Aid has been spent well is in the World Food Programme. With the increase in world food prices, what implications are there for the aid granted to that programme and is the Minister of State giving consideration to moving aid from the current programmes to the World Food Programme?

As I did not get an opportunity to stay on at the committee yesterday, I want to ask him about the smaller groups looking for funding for small projects. I refer to individuals or small NGOs, as opposed to the likes of Trócaire or Concern. My understanding from a few people who have approached the Department is that they have found the rules of engagement too cumbersome to make a submission worthwhile.

First, I share the views of the Deputy on the World Food Programme. This follows on from our discussion on the previous question, that world food prices is a major concern to the Deputy. That concern is very much shared on the Government side for the reasons I have explained.

We are already major contributors to the World Food Programme but I also see avenues available to us in terms of diverting additional moneys within our existing programme to the agricultural area. We already have a relatively high proportion of our aid going directly into agriculture through direct aid but also through our NGOs. Food security and supply will in the coming years become the key issue in international aid. We can explore that further.

Second, I take fully Deputy Timmins's points about the smaller NGOs. The reason I say so is that I believe such micro projects have an enormous capacity to inculcate and engender, particularly in young people, a sense of philanthropy and international development aid which in the long term may pay rich dividends for the country.

I am conscious of their interaction with Irish Aid. I met with representatives of one of those smaller projects earlier today and I can see the sort of road blocks of which the Deputy spoke. That is one of the matters I will examine over the coming months.

There are two issues that I want the Minister of State to look at — these are only small in monetary terms. The first is the issue of the cost incurred by persons going to assist in aid projects in getting visas from the embassies. For example, the Indian embassy, the one with which I am familiar, charges for a visa. It is not much, but the sum might provide much benefit in the country of destination in relative terms. Where an Irish individual must get a visa to travel abroad for aid work, the embassies might look at giving a multiple visa to cover a period of time rather than a visa for one visit.

The second is account transaction fees. I am aware of an individual who is building a school in India on their own and each account transaction to withdraw money costs €25 which could provide many benefits to an individual in the country concerned. The Minister of State could make contact with the financial institutions to see whether they might look at waiving the bank fee for a transaction where the person is carrying out aid work.

I can see the Deputy's point about visas. Certainly, smaller NGOs do not have the capacity, the experience or the logistics of the bigger NGOs and I can see how they would face such problems. The issuing of visas is outside the ambit of the Department as it relates to embassies of other countries and we do not have the power to influence those, but I take Deputy Timmins's point.

The issue of fees charged for account transactions is also very much outside the ambit of the Department, although I can see how it would cause difficulties to smaller NGOs. The Department can write to the financial institutions to see whether something can be done in that area.

On the general point, it would be our intention to streamline the process and make matters easier for the smaller NGOs, which could become much bigger NGOs in the future. I am excited about some of the projects in which they are involved and I want to encourage them in every way.

That concludes Priority Questions. We will now move on to Other Questions.