Priority Questions

Overseas Development Aid

Seán Barrett

Question:

1 Deputy Seán Barrett asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views regarding the apparent lack of progress being made to deal with the many difficulties existing after the earthquake disaster in Haiti; if he has any proposals on the way Ireland and or the EU could assist further; if the present UN peace keeping force could be further strengthened to deal with the many law and order problems facing the Haitian authorities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3031/11]

The earthquake in Haiti killed more than 230,000 people and left 1.3 million people homeless. I saw the conditions at first hand last July and since then the hurricane season, the cholera outbreak and political uncertainty have exacerbated the already terrible situation.

The international relief effort has, however, made much progress. Sanitation and clean water are being provided to the temporary camps and more than 30,000 transitional shelters have been constructed. Structures have been created to ensure the reconstruction effort is coherent and avoids duplication of effort. Nevertheless, it is clear that the pace of progress is too slow to respond to the needs of the population and a redoubled effort is essential.

Ireland, through Irish Aid, is supporting both long-term reconstruction and short-term humanitarian relief in Haiti. Tens of thousands of people have benefited from Irish-funded shelter, water and sanitation projects. We have provided vital technical skills via our rapid response corps, as well as €1 million to the Haiti Reconstruction Trust Fund. Ireland has provided €8.6 million of the €13 million I pledged on the Government's behalf at the Haiti Donor Conference last March. Total EU funding to date is €780 million.

The strengthening of the United Nations stabilisation mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, peacekeeping operation is a matter for the Security Council. The mandate and strength of the operation has been adjusted on several occasions, most recently following the earthquake.

A key focus of the mission is rule of law, public safety and public order. Some 8,651 military personnel, 4,391 police and almost 2,000 civilians serve with MINUSTAH. Ireland and its EU partners continue to follow the situation carefully and last December the EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton, reaffirmed the EU's commitment to the reconstruction of Haiti.

This will undoubtedly take many years as the country is not just recovering from the earthquake, but from many decades of crisis. It is essential, therefore, that the international community remain committed in the years ahead.

Did the Minister of State have the opportunity to see the recent television programmes about Haiti, particularly the programme dealing with the damage caused by escaped prisoners, of whom there are 4,000 and who have been convicted of all sorts of terrible crimes, including murder? These prisoners have caused havoc in the various shelters and temporary cities that exist in Haiti. My understanding is that only 450 peacekeeping troops are available to work with the police and round up these 4,000 people, who are causing havoc.

Is the Minister of State aware of a report presented to the EU Parliament by the Commission in November 2010? The report said experienced volunteers involved with the earthquake in Haiti confirmed the need for skilled and rapidly deployable volunteers as an immediate response to the emergency and also spoke of the possibility of using less skilled volunteers for auxiliary functions. The report went on to say the majority of volunteers used by agencies in Haiti were paid, either by companies or governments. Unskilled volunteers who arriveden masse during the early days with good intentions were less effective and, in some cases, even disruptive.

I raise this because I have been pressing for some time for Ireland to establish a civilian corps of skilled people, many of whom are unemployed at present. There is also, I understand, a desire on the part of the EU Commissioner for a skilled civil corps to be established.

Will the Minister of State take an active role at EU level to press forward with this proposal? There are far better ways of using our money to get proper results than continual statements that, through Irish Aid, we are giving grant aid. I would like to see personnel, who are at present unemployed, used in a proper constructive fashion.

I did not see the programmes but I am keeping a very close eye on the security situation in Haiti. As Deputy Barrett knows, I visited there last July and saw for myself the shocking horror of the scale of destruction there. I experienced at first hand the very fragile security situation that pertained, even six months after the earthquake. Even before the earthquake, the security situation in Haiti was perilous, to say the least. There is a history of gang violence and that has continued into the humanitarian camps that are being supported by us at present.

With regard to our intervention in Haiti itself, it is not within our remit to deal with the security situation, although we would naturally wish to see it resolved and have increasing concern for the safety and security of humanitarian workers. Needless to say, the Sharon Commins incident is a case in point. However, our job is to provide, first, humanitarian aid and, second, long-term reconstruction.

With regard to the deployment of a corps of people, we have one in place. It is the rapid response corps. The lessons from the 2004 tsumani were clear. We need fewer but more highly trained and skilled people. We have a corps of more than 150 people and we deployed more than ten of those to Haiti immediately after the earthquake to assist with the effort.

Are those the lines the Deputy was considering?

Anything is better than nothing but ten is very few, in this situation. The television programmes made it clear that the security situation is quite horrific.

I do not expect Ireland to solve the problem but we are a key member of the European Union. We can awaken the EU to its responsibility and offer to support any peace corps that is designed to protect the forces of law and order in the country. Recapturing 4,000 escapees and dealing with crime on the streets would give people a chance to get back to normal living. Our membership of the EU should be used in that way. We could offer some of the well-trained and professional members of our Defence Forces to assist in such a mission. These are the sort of things on which Ireland can lead.

There needs to be a very clear distinction between our rapid response corps, which provides specialist aid in humanitarian situations, and the security or violent dimension to an emergency. In Haiti, the security situation is of concern to us but it is not our responsibility. It would be the responsibility of global organisations, such as MINUSTAH.

There is discussion at European level as to how there can be a co-ordinated response on the security front by the European Union. The view, very much, is that because these disasters are of increasing frequency

What is the Minister of State's view?

We need to work with our European partners in this area. Discussions are being held at present as to how the European Union might contribute to a wider multilateral force. However, they are at the very early stages.

EU Free Trade Agreements

Michael D. Higgins

Question:

2 Deputy Michael D. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the monitoring and implementation measures that will prevail in support of any human rights clauses which may be imposed as conditions in any EU — Colombia Agreement on trade or other matters; if he will further indicate the similarities between this treaty and similar treaties signed by the EU and indicate any such further additional measures as are contained in the present proposed EU — Colombia Treaty. [2996/11]

EU relations with Colombia are conducted in the framework of regional relations between the EU and the Andean Community, comprising Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. In 2007, negotiations aimed at concluding a comprehensive association agreement between the EU and the Andean Community were formally launched. Such agreements cover all facets of relations between the EU and these countries, including political dialogue, economic co-operation and trade. However, as not all member states of the Andean Community are in a position to proceed with the negotiations on a framework agreement, the decision was taken to commence negotiations on a multi-party free trade agreement, FTA, between the EU and two member states of the Andean Community — Colombia and Peru. The negotiations were carried out by the European Commission on the basis of a mandate from the Council and they concluded on 1 March 2010.

In principle, where a free trade agreement is linked to a broader framework agreement, it does not contain political clauses, as in the case of the recent free trade agreement which the EU concluded with the Republic of South Korea. However, for the free trade agreement with Colombia and Peru, where there is no likelihood of a framework agreement being concluded in the near future, the EU required a human rights clause to be included in the FTA itself. This human rights clause constitutes an essential element of the agreement. It means that the concessions contained in the agreement may be unilaterally suspended in the event of violation by any of the signatory countries.

In addition, the free trade agreement with Colombia contains provisions that aim to improve labour and environmental protection standards. Commitments made in these areas are included in the title on trade and sustainable development. The agreement provides for a monitoring system to ensure the effective oversight and implementation of these commitments. The system will include an intergovernmental management structure and a mechanism for consultations which foresees a role for social actors through their participation in domestic advisory groups and in dedicated sessions with governmental representatives. While the details of this mechanism have yet to be agreed, it is envisaged that the structure will be put in place after the agreement enters into force.

The agreement will provide for an annual consultation with civil society organisations and the public on matters relating to the implementation of the labour and environmental aspects of the agreement. This constitutes a significant positive step and demonstrates the commitment of the Colombian authorities to engage in a more open dialogue with civil society on these important elements of the free trade agreement.

On a recent visit to Colombia with others, we put some questions directly to the European Union's representative in Bogota, who was not forthcoming on some of the specific matters I have raised in this question. First, how do the clauses contained in the European Union-Colombia agreement differ from, for example, the human rights clauses we have as a conditionality in the agreement with Israel? How will it be monitored? The Minister of State has just stated that the mechanism for monitoring will succeed the coming into effect of the trade agreement, which would be unsatisfactory. The Minister of State should note that the United States, in its trade agreement with Colombia, decided not to proceed with the agreement, curiously, on the basis that it was a human rights deficiency. My specific questions are how will the human rights impact assessment of the trade agreement be carried out and by whom? Will the annual review process and the human rights benchmarks be agreed before final approval of the agreement? It has yet, for example, to go back to the parliament in Bogota where no doubt it will be approved. However, in respect of the European Union, it is interesting. Can the Minister of State provide me with an assurance that this agreement will be classified as a mixed agreement, thereby requiring ratification by the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament and the parliaments of the member states? Will it be classified as a mixed agreement because of the importance of the human rights clauses? The Minister of State will appreciate this point because so many people have been killed. There have been so many extrajudicial killings and it is important that the transition from the presidency of President Uribe to that of President Santos should provide a human rights dividend.

At the outset, Deputy Higgins made the point that he was not satisfied with the answers he received during his visit. This disturbs me because I am aware that the High Representative would be concerned about that. I will draw that particular aspect of the Deputy's observation to the High Representative's attention. I accept the point made by the Deputy, particularly regarding the human rights deficiencies and the view that has been put forward by the United States. Nonetheless, the agreement is good and the monitoring system that is being put in place certainly is better than anything that exists at present. I am not in a position to state whether it will be treated in the manner requested by the Deputy, namely, as a mixed agreement, which would require separate ratification at Council level, at European Parliament level and at individual member state level. I am unsure whether this is the case and must check the facts in this regard. I am unsure whether this is the legal reality. However, I certainly will revert to the Deputy on that subject.

I raise this because, for example, 2,782 trade unionists have been murdered since 1986. There have been appalling exemplary killings and one can discern the reason for my questions when one considers that 70,000 people were killed in 20 years and a further 30,000 people disappeared, when there are 14,000 to 17,000 people in paramilitary armed gangs and when one has met, as my colleagues and I did, the mothers of those who were assassinated. The Minister of State should be aware of the important point that in the first 75 days of the new Government, five trade unionists, seven indigenous leaders, two community educators and two leading members of the organisation dealing with sexual minorities have been killed. The net point is on whether there is to be a dividend. In other words, people are saying that if the agreement is signed and then an attempt made to attach the human rights compliance afterwards, the point will be lost. The view from those who represent those who were murdered and their relatives, who believe there is impunity, is that one will be perceived to be rewarding an administration that has succeeded another administration that has not shown transparency in respect of impunity, compensation of the victims or land redistribution. This is the reason I asked for it to be a mixed agreement in order that the human rights requirements are central and not additional to the agreement.

I do not dispute that for a moment and accept the Deputy's point. Monitoring is carried out through its delegation in Bogota and this is the reason I was disturbed by the Deputy's initial comment. In addition, it must be noted that the European Union has engaged actively both with the Colombian authorities and with the United Nations Human Rights Council on the issue. I will pass on the Deputy's comment on that deficiency and will revert to him on the issue of whether it is a mixed agreement. I do not believe it is of that nature.

International Fund for Ireland

Seán Barrett

Question:

3 Deputy Seán Barrett asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the future of the International Fund for Ireland; if his attention has been drawn to any attempts in the United States to wind up this fund; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3032/11]

The International Fund for Ireland is an international organisation established by the Irish and British Governments in 1986 to promote economic and social advance and to encourage contact, dialogue and reconciliation between Nationalists and Unionists throughout Northern Ireland. Since 1986, the fund has received international contributions from the United States, the European Union, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. At present, the EU and US contribute all of the funding.

The issue of winding up the fund is dealt with in Article 14 of the agreement which states: "The Agreement shall continue in force until terminated by mutual agreement or by one Government giving the other six months' written notice, and thereafter shall remain in force for as long as and to the extent necessary for an orderly disposal of any remaining assets of the Fund in accordance with the spirit of the Agreement in full consultation with the donors."

When the International Fund for Ireland, IFI, board adopted its strategic framework for action for the period 2006 to 2010, it indicated to donors that it would no longer be seeking funds after 2010. Existing funding for the IFI would see it bringing its current programmes to a close by the end of 2013.

Following detailed analysis undertaken by the IFI in 2010, however, the board reached the conclusion that there was much work yet to be done to pursue reconciliation, especially in so-called hard–to-reach communities in Northern Ireland. I agree with the board's analysis. I have no doubt that real challenges remain to be addressed and that the IFI is well-equipped to play an important role in addressing those challenges.

For that reason and with the support of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive, the former Minister, Deputy Micheál Martin, raised the possibility of further United States funding for the IFI in meetings in Washington last year with Secretary of State Clinton and other political leaders on Capitol Hill.

I thank the Minister of State. Is he aware of a front page article that appeared in theIrish Echo regarding a statement by one of the new Representatives from the Republican Party elected to Congress to the effect that he proposes to table a Bill to abolish this fund? The piece contains several apparently contradictory quotes, including a statement from the ambassador to Washington. As the Minister of State will appreciate, this is causing some alarm as to the level of confusion as to what is the exact position of the Irish Government or, as the Minister of State noted, of the British Government. Is the Government aware of this threat that the fund could be wound up fairly quickly, particularly because of the change of responsibility in the House of Representatives? This matter should be carefully discussed and I ask the Minister of State whether Ireland, through diplomatic channels, stresses the ongoing need for support, especially in view of the recent unfortunate rise in subversive activities by dissident groups in Northern Ireland. If it was to be wound up, would aid continue to be provided, such as through the George Mitchell scholarship fund or another programme which could be of benefit to Northern Ireland? I understand that approximately $50 million is contributed each year by the US Government. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that.

I am aware of the debate in the US. As the Deputy is aware, there are issues regarding the budget in the US Congress. Some on the Republican side take a particular view. There has been no approach from the US authorities on winding up the fund. It may be the view of some in Congress that it should be wound up. I am aware of the article the Deputy mentioned. Some comments were made by a person associated with the George Mitchell scholarship fund on it being wound up. The contribution is of the order mentioned by the Deputy.

On continuing funding, there has been an ongoing contact, in particular by the former Minister, Deputy Martin. He had discussions last year and during the St. Patrick's Day period he had fairly extensive contact with the US. As I said, our view would concur with the board of the IFI. There are hard-to-reach communities that need continuing support. The effort will continue to made to ensure the fund exists, as long as it has a role to play.

I appreciate what the Minister of State said and I do not mean to be in any way derogatory towards the US. One has to accept that for over 20 years it has contributed a large sum of money to the fund, which we very much welcome. I ask the Minister of State to give an assurance today that this matter will be discussed at the highest level and that there is a clear understanding on our position and why we think it is necessary that this fund should continue.

We would then gather support in the US for the continuation of the fund. In view of the comments of the congressman in question it could be very easily eliminated without much attention being paid to it. When we are warned of the possibility of that happening, there is a need for immediate diplomatic and ministerial action.

I agree. We have had ongoing contact. The US authorities have not given any indication that they will end the fund. The Deputy will be aware that the budget discussions on Capitol Hill will continue until the end of March. Given the announcement made by the Taoiseach today, there will be a significant Irish presence, from whatever side of the House, in place on 17 March. I have no doubt that will continue. We have also had contact with the UK authorities and there is a consensus on working to reach the hard-to-reach communities and on the continuing value of the fund.

Human Rights Issues

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

4 Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs further to recent revelations from leaked US Cables which indicate that the Government misled the public in relation to the use of Shannon Airport by US aircraft involved in rendition flights, if he was aware that Shannon airport was being used for extraordinary rendition and the action, if any, that was taken. [3161/11]

The issue of extraordinary rendition has been raised on numerous occasions in this House. As has been made repeatedly clear, the Government is completely opposed to the practice of the extraordinary rendition of prisoners.

Immediately following the first reports suggesting that the US was practising extraordinary rendition, the Government demanded and received specific assurances from the US authorities that such prisoners had not been transferred through Irish territory, nor would they be, without our permission. These assurances were confirmed at the highest political level. They are of a clear and categoric nature, relating to facts and circumstances within the full control of the US Government.

I am satisfied, as previous Ministers have been, that it is appropriate for the Government to rely fully on these assurances. We would not normally make reference to unauthorised documents such as those referred to in the recent commentary on this issue.

The documents in question, if true, raise serious questions about the record of this House, as presented by the former Ministers for Foreign Affairs and, in particular, Justice and Law Reform. In the cables between the US ambassador and Administration the Minister is quoted as believing three rendition flights landed and refuelled at Shannon Airport. When we questioned the Minister he denied having such knowledge or having formed that opinion. Did the former Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern mislead the Dáil? If he did not, on what basis did he form the belief that only three rendition flights landed? Why would an Irish Minister ask for the permission of the US Administration to search its planes if he believed that a crime was committed?

It would be normal practice in question relating to the Minister for Justice and Law reform to be put to the successor Minister.

There is a certain irony in any Member of the House putting on the record categoric criticisms of successive US Administrations on this issue and depending on a political response on the basis of a document, the provenance of which is probably questionable, from WikiLeaks. We can have it one way or the other. We can either accept the assurances, which are categoric and on the record, from the highest political levels or something of a lesser degree.

It seems that the Deputy is citing the leaked US cables as if they were somehow gospel but will not accept the suggestions made on the record. We have always opposed extraordinary rendition. That has been the view of all sides in the House and will continue to be the case. We have always sought to ensure that Ireland was not involved in it and all of the evidence we have is that Ireland has never been involved in it. All of the categorical assurances from the United States at the highest political level have supported that view.

I am not singling out one Minister because there was a series of them. When we started this debate the former Minister, Michael McDowell, was the relevant Minister. Deputy Martin was Minister for Foreign Affairs during the period in question. The Minister of State did not answer my question. Why would an Irish Minister seek permission from the US authorities to carry out a lawful action, namely, search planes in Shannon airport if he or she believed a crime was committed?

I am not suggesting that WikiLeaks or the cables are gospel. At the time we asked questions and the then Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Justice and Law Reform said they did not believe any extraordinary rendition flight went through Shannon airport. However, it seems that they had formed a belief which they were willing to share with the US authorities but not the House.

They were afraid they would get caught.

The basis of the Deputy's question is that he attributes credibility to the WikiLeaks document.

If Members have not read the Wikileaks document, it is interesting in that one of the authorities quoted on this is the Leader of Seanad Éireann, a member of my party.

As I said earlier to the Deputy, it is not credible to suggest that we could give more credibility to the conspiracy theory he is propagating here. All of the evidence is contrary to his assertions.

Foreign Conflicts

Seán Barrett

Question:

5 Deputy Seán Barrett asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the up-to-date efforts to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and if the EU has any plans to assist with same. [3033/11]

As Deputies are aware, the direct Israeli-Palestinian talks were suspended shortly after they began in September, following Israel's refusal to extend its partial freeze on settlement construction. The United States, as the convenor of the talks, engaged in a period of intensive engagement with the parties, particularly Israel, to try to bring about a resumption of that freeze, and thus of the talks. The US view was that a period of intensive and committed engagement to negotiations on the final status issues, especially the issue of borders, could take the heat out of the settlement issue and allow for further progress. Regrettably, that did not happen. The realistic view was taken by the US in December that this approach was not going to succeed, because the demands of Prime Minister Netanyahu in return for a renewal of the freeze were too high and because there was a general lack of confidence that the time provided by a short extension to the freeze would be enough to make real progress.

Secretary of State Clinton has made clear that the US Administration remains firmly committed to the talks process, which is expected for the moment to continue by reverting to the proximity talks model. The US is also engaged in internal reflection and consultation with other parties, including the EU, on what might be the next steps to move the process forward. The Quartet is also expected to meet shortly, with the same objective.

The priority objective of the EU is to support the efforts to restart the talks. A final agreement can only come about through the two sides working through the key issues, with whatever assistance the international community can give. High Representative Ashton visited the region on 5-6 January this year to learn the views of both sides and encourage them to move forward. The EU will continue to discuss these issues with the US, with other Quartet members, and with other parties in the region.

Ireland will remain actively engaged, bilaterally in the region and within the EU, to support this process. We will also continue to work to highlight and improve the practical justice and humanitarian issues on the ground resulting from the continued occupation.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. All of us are interested in getting the discussions recommenced. I noted recently that President Mubarak of Egypt has been involved in discussions and as the Minister of State mentioned, Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief as she is called, also had a two-day meeting on the situation. I was heartened by a comment I think is worth pursuing. When speaking about the blockade, Catherine Ashton made the point that the crossings must be kept open to allow the flow of humanitarian aid, imports, exports and people continue. We need to enable children to go to school and ordinary people to reconstruct their homes and get on with their lives. We would all welcome that. The reply that came from the Israeli Foreign Minister to Catherine Ashton's point on the closure of the crossings was interesting. He said that the closure was imposed in an effort to stop the smuggling of arms into the Gaza Strip. He went on to say that if one wanted to bring about a lifting of the closure around Gaza, one should take responsibility and establish a strong, real and effective force to prevent smuggling.

This is a similar situation to one in which Ireland played a major part, namely, the reconstruction of the Lebanon. We had troops in the Lebanon and we know that region well. In fact, Irish troops are returning there now. I was Minister for Defence for some of the years the Irish troops were there and am aware they had a huge reputation in the region as peacekeepers. I am convinced that if the EU takes a more positive and active role, not one supporting the US——

They should have supported John Ging, whom we all congratulate.

Indeed, yes. If a positive step was taken and the European Union offered peacekeeping troops to go in and do what the Israeli Foreign Minister suggested, that would be a positive step forward. I urge the Minister of State to instigate discussions through the European Union to see if it is possible to establish an EU peacekeeping force that will examine the position. It should examine the issue of the blockade and the so-called Scuds coming into Israel. We could make significant progress if we took the lead on that. I urge the Minister of State to take the lead in this regard.

I would not disagree with the Deputy. Given the impasse that has existed for some time, we need to look at alternative approaches. Given the assurances the Israeli people need on the issue of arms going in and the clear necessity for the Palestinian people to have a decent standard of living, we must look for an alternative approach, but the talks have dragged on. As I mentioned to the Deputy once or twice at an Oireachtas committee meeting, there are ideas which are well worth exploring. I have always taken the view, for example, that there could be internationally certified customs clearance of material coming from a Cypriot or other port to Gaza and that this clearance would satisfy the legitimate concerns about security and at the same time secure the flow of funds. I have mentioned this to colleagues, in particular Cypriot colleagues, at EU meetings. It is worthwhile exploring alternatives. It is beyond question that leaving an entire population in this situation will not serve peace, let alone humanity.

I am pleased to hear the Minister agree with my point of view and I urge him to bring forward formally the proposal that we should discuss the possibility of an EU peacekeeping force there. I would hope that Ireland would offer to participate in that. We have a huge amount to offer, given our experience in Northern Ireland, our proud record in peacekeeping and people like John Ging who is a former Army officer. It is important to remember the respect in which the Irish Defence Forces are held in terms of peacekeeping, which is second to none. Our peacekeeping forces are trusted. We have a huge contribution to make. We may be a small country, but when it comes to operations related to peacekeeping, we are first class. The greatest compliment I can pay the Irish Defence Forces relates to when I was Minister and had a visit from the then US military attaché. He came to see me to see if it would be in order for him to apply to his superiors in the US for permission for senior officers of the US defence forces to come and learn about peacekeeping in our peacekeeping college in Kildare. That recognised Ireland as a country that could teach people about peacekeeping. It is worthwhile pursuing this issue and I would like the Minister of State's assurance that will be done.

The Deputy's points are well made. I am not sure it is a peacekeeping force that is required or whether it is a mixed police and customs force. The idea is worth exploring.