Priority Questions

Overseas Development Aid

Seán Ó Fearghaíl

Question:

29Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the specific overseas development services and projects that will be affected by the €53 million reduction in the overseas development aid budget for 2012; the impact that this will have on his commitment to earmarking 0.7% of GNP for overseas development aid; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2484/12]

Ireland's aid programme prioritises the fight against global poverty and hunger, especially in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa. The programme is central to our foreign policy and enjoys very strong cross-party support. It reflects the true values of the Irish people and our long-term interests globally. It is recognised internationally as one of the best in the world - the OECD describes the programme as "cutting edge" - and a champion in making aid more effective.

Our programme for Government contains a clear commitment to supporting the aid programme and the UN target of providing 0.7% of gross national product for official development assistance, ODA. In the recent budget the Government has acted on that commitment in spite of the unprecedented difficult economic conditions and fiscal constraints facing the country.

For 2012, the Government will provide a total of €639 million for ODA, which, on current projections, will represent more than 0.5% of GNP. Given our current economic circumstances, this allocation represents a real commitment by the Government and people of Ireland to the world's poorest people. The allocation represents a total reduction of €20 million on the projected outturn for 201. This comprises a reduction of €10 million in funding for Vote 27, international co-operation, of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and an estimated fall of €10 million in overseas development aid provided from other sources, notably as a result of an expected lower allocation of Ireland's share of the EU development co-operation budget.

We are in the process of allocating the overall budget for 2012. The slight reduction will be absorbed across the programme but we anticipate that by extending programme timeframes and adjusting disbursement schedules, the reduction will not adversely affect the programme's overall objective.

The Government remains ambitious for our aid programme, is determined it maintains and builds on its high international reputation and that it continues to build the foundations of real change, future prosperity and well-being in the lives of many of the world's poorest people.

Is dócha go bhfuil sé ceart ag an bpointe seo comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis an Tánaiste as a bheith ceaptha mar chathaoirleach ar an OSCE, rud a tharla ón uair dheireanach a bhí seans againn na cúrsaí seo a phlé anseo. Ba mhaith liom freisin fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit nua, an Teachta Costello. Bhí ard-mhuinín againn san Aire Stáit a bhí ann roimhe. Rinne sí sár-jab. Táimid dóchasach go mbeidh an Aire Stáit nua chomh tugtha agus chomh gafa leis an ról seo is a bhí an Aire Stáit eile. Tá súil agam go n-éireoidh go geal leis an iarracht atá idir lámha aige.

One must acknowledge we are in the most dire economic circumstances. However, the Labour Party manifesto - in which Members on this side of the House took great interest - committed no further reduction in overseas development aid if it were elected to government. A further €53 million will now be reduced from the overseas development aid budget on top of the €212 million reduction since the all-time record investment of €920 million in 2008. Will the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade agree he has failed in the objective set in his manifesto? How will this reduction in expenditure, regrettable as it is, impact on the nine programme countries? Will he give us an assurance that the disaster unfolding in the Horn of Africa will not be adversely affected by this reduction in overall expenditure?

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Teachta Ó Fearghaíl tar éis dó comhghairdeas a ghabháil liom i ndiaidh mo cheapacháin mar chathaoirleach ar an OSCE, agus freisin le mo chomhghleacaí, an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Costello.

Deputy Ó Fearghaíl has acknowledged we are in difficult economic and fiscal circumstances. When these are taken into account, the adjustment made to the overseas development assistance budget is a small one. It is not €53 million as claimed by Deputy Ó Fearghaíl. That sum derives from the figure which was projected at the time of the 2011 budget, based on different assumptions about gross national product and the level of overseas development assistance that would apply through 2012. The actual adjustment is from €659 million to €639 million, a €20 million reduction.

When compared to the 29% adjustment made by Deputy Ó Fearghaíl's party when in government, which saw the budget go from €920 million in 2008 to €659 million in 2011, this year's adjustment is minimal. It will not impact on front-line services. Some of it will be absorbed by a reduction in administrative costs.

Does the Minister accept it will be impossible, given this reduction, to reach the millennium goal of 0.7% of GDP by 2015? That is something he will have to review to set a new objective or does he envisage spectacular initiatives, which will be required, between now and 2015 to achieve that goal?

We should never say that something is impossible. The 0.7% target was set as an objective internationally. It is important that we all remain focused on that objective and make it clear that it is our intention to reach it. There is no doubt that achieving that target by 2015, given our economic circumstances, will be challenging. The immediate objective is, as far as is practicable, to maintain the programmes that we are committed to and to ensure whatever adjustment we make in our budget, as we have done this year, does not adversely affect the world's poorest people, including the commitments, as the Deputy stated, to the relief of hunger and distress on the Horn of Africa.

International Agreements

Pádraig Mac Lochlainn

Question:

30Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade with respect to the provision, contained in the draft intergovernmental treaty, to introduce the 0.5% deficit ceiling and a tougher debt reduction target for States with debt ratios above 60% into national binding provisions of a constitutional or equivalent level, his views that this will require a referendum; his further views that it would be possible to honour this section of the draft treaty in any way other than via constitutional change; and if he is saying that there is an equivalent to Irish constitutional law in the Irish legal system. [2574/12]

In December, it was agreed that, as part of our collective response to the current economic crisis in the euro area, we needed to further strengthen economic policy co-ordination and to construct a new "fiscal compact" to achieve this goal. Negotiations are ongoing on a draft treaty to give legal effect to this agreement. This work is being advanced outside the framework of the EU treaties because it was not possible to secure a basis on which all member states would participate.

As the Deputy will be aware, an initial draft text was circulated before Christmas. Further drafts have been brought forward since. The text is still a work in progress and it is hoped that significant progress towards agreement will have been made before an informal meeting of the European Council scheduled for 30 January. Once agreement is reached, the text will then be prepared for signature and subsequent ratification by each of the participants, according to their respective constitutional requirements. Only when a final text is available will it be possible to reach a view on what will be required by way of ratification in Ireland. The test will be whether the proposed treaty is compatible with the Constitution.

As the Government has confirmed previously, the Attorney General will study the legal implications carefully and will advise on what steps will be necessary to enable Ireland to ratify. Until then, it is simply not possible to be definitive. As the Government has made clear many times, if a referendum is required, one will be held.

On the specific issues to which the Deputy refers, it is necessary to recall the extensive obligations that already exist in EU legislation, including under the strengthened Stability and Growth Pact, SGP, provided for in the six legislative measures adopted towards the end of last year. Inter alia, when a member state exceeds the 60% debt to GDP ratio in the SGP, it will be expected to adjust its debt downwards by an average of one twentieth per year. In addition, the legislation requires a differentiated medium-term objective for each member state which is within a defined range of between -1% of GDP and balance or surplus in cyclically adjusted terms. The fact is that tough rules already exist and these are necessary if we are to secure the stability of the common currency into the future.

It is widely agreed that the three crises we are facing across Europe relate to banking, sovereign debt and investment and what has been put before us by European leaders does not provide a solution to one of those crises. They have focused on, for bizarre reasons, the issue of permanent austerity to drive down wages and conditions and so on and to cut and privatise public services as a panacea to what is a fundamentally a dramatic failure in one sector of the economy - banking.

A question please, Deputy.

I will get to it quickly.

We are running out of time.

The target now is 3% now but a 0.5% target is draconian. Seeking to reduce the debt to GDP ratio to 60%, bringing it down 5% per year, is also draconian and has dramatic implications for the Irish people. The Government has been asked in the first draft to enshrine it in the Constitution or equivalent legislation. What is the position of the Government on that? Is the Minister willing to enshrine austerity in the Constitution?

As Deputy Mac Lochlainn stated, there are three elements to the economic crisis that we are facing, and all three of those elements are being addressed. On the banking dimension, as the Deputy will be aware, the ECB agreed prior to Christmas to make a very substantial amount of money available over a three-year period to the banking system throughout Europe.

On the dimension of jobs and growth, the Council meeting, which has been convened for 30 January, will be directly addressing the issues of jobs and growth in the euro area. It is not confined to issues relating to cuts.

On sovereign debt, the situation, as the Deputy will be aware, varies from one country to another. In the case of this country, we are already part of a programme. We must meet the terms of that programme. The terms, which are being discussed at present, are not any more onerous than the terms of the programme we are already in. Some the conditions to which the Deputy referred, for example, the 60% debt to GDP ratio, were already part of the Stability and Growth Pact, which was a condition of our membership of the euro.

In the first published document, it was stated that the balanced budget rule - basically, Draconian austerity - had to be enshrined at constitutional or equivalent level. The latest draft, the third draft, states that the Government should enshrine this through binding and permanent provisions, preferably constitutional. Is our negotiating team trying to avoid a referendum? Is it trying to change the text to avoid the need for one? Is the Government trying to avoid its responsibility of putting this before the people? Is it trying to circumvent putting it before the people? Is the Minister's negotiating team involved in that?

That is not the primary objective of the Government. The primary objective of the Government is to work with others in Europe to bring stability in the first instance to the euro and to the eurozone and to ensure that the European economy grows and second, in doing that, to do so in a way that secures the best possible deal and arrangement for the taxpayers and the public of this country. We have made it clear that if at some stage either this agreement or another agreement requires a referendum, we have no difficulty in presenting that to the people. Of course, the Deputy will appreciate that in pursuing our work and in pursuing our negotiations, which are ongoing and in which senior officials of Government are involved on a day-to-day basis, the officials will comply with the Constitution. We have an obligation to work in a way that complies with the Constitution.

Human Rights Issues

Mick Wallace

Question:

31Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the use of Shannon Airport as a stopover by US forces en route to Afghanistan, in view of the footage which emerged in recent days that appears to show US marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters and laughing; his views on the fact that the Guantánamo Bay detention camp remains open despite President Barack Obama’s promise to the contrary; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2585/12]

I fully share in the widespread revulsion at the images to which the Deputy refers. International humanitarian law obliges parties to an armed conflict to treat the dead with respect and dignity. The footage appears to show disgraceful acts which are in clear violation of these obligations.

The Deputy will be aware that the incident disclosed by the footage has been condemned in the strongest terms by senior figures in the US Administration, including the Secretary of State, Ms Hillary Clinton, and the Secretary of Defence, Mr. Leon Panetta, and that the responsible US authorities have instituted an investigation into the matter.

The images in question are deeply upsetting and shameful. Assuming that the images are accurate, those responsible must be held fully accountable for their behaviour. They have betrayed not just their own country but the Afghan Government and people and all in the international community who have supported the international action to sustain the elected government in Kabul.

There are no plans to change the arrangements for the overflight and landing of US military aircraft, which have been continuously in place under successive Governments for over 50 years.

Under the Air Navigation (Foreign Military Aircraft) Order 1952, foreign military aircraft are not permitted to fly over or land in the State save on the express invitation or with the express permission of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The majority of US troops which pass through Shannon Airport are carried on commercial flights.

As for the Deputy's reference to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, Ireland has called for the closure of this centre and has urged that those detained there be brought to trial or released. I have discussed this issue personally with the US Secretary of State, Ms Clinton. We would, of course, hope to see the earliest possible fulfilment of the pledge made by President Obama in 2009 to close the centre. I am aware that the President's efforts to do so have been frustrated by the absence of the necessary agreement on the part of the US Congress. I welcome his continuing political commitment to close the centre and I assure the Deputy that we will continue to press for this action to be taken with all possible speed.

The fact that the US Government is looking into the matter does not give me much comfort. To take one example, Frank Wuterich, a US marine, was charged in 2005 with killing 24 Iraqis. He was commanding a group of soldiers who burst into the victims' homes and shot men, women and children in their night clothes. This individual is accused of manslaughter.

I remind the Deputy that this is Question Time.

With regard to our involvement in these matters, Colm O'Gorman stated last week: "Ireland is not an innocent bystander. We have been complicit in kidnapping and torture by allowing Shannon airport to be used as a stop-over for rendition flights". Last year, in its concluding observations on Ireland, the UN Committee against Torture highlighted allegations of complicity in rendition and the State's failure to properly investigate these matters. The committee was concerned about the various reports of the State allegedly co-operating in a rendition programme under which rendition flights used the State's airports and airspace. It was also concerned about the inadequate response by the State in terms of investigating these allegations. It recommended that the State should provide further information on the specific measures taken to investigate these allegations and asked for clarification on measures to ensure such cases are prevented in the future.

I must call the Tánaiste. I will allow Deputy Wallace another opportunity.

The UN is clearly unhappy with our performance.

I take seriously the strong condemnation by the US Secretary of State, Ms Clinton, and the US Secretary of Defence, Mr. Panetta, of the behaviour we saw on our television screens. This State is in no way complicit in providing comfort for torture, rendition or other actions which breach the human rights of anybody, irrespective of whether they are in this country or elsewhere. If specific allegations are made in this regard they will be investigated but the State does not give comfort or support to kidnapping, torture or mistreatment of individuals in custody or otherwise.

The programme for Government states: "We will enforce the prohibition on the use of Irish airspace, airports and related facilities for purposes not in line with the dictates of international law". I ask the Tánaiste to outline his plans to investigate the use of Shannon Airport as a stopover point by aircraft on the rendition circuit and to address any shortcomings in Irish law which permitted our territory to be used in this way, in breach of our obligations under international law. We can say what we like and we can say we are not in favour of this, that or the other, but whether we like it or not, if we continue to allow these planes to land in Shannon, there is blood on our hands too.

Our law is very robust in respect of the control of our airspace and airports by military aircraft. As I am the Minister with direct responsibility for approving flights, the Deputy can be assured that the use of our airspace and airports will comply with international law. There is no question of any doubt about that.

If there are specific allegations that can be investigated, they will be investigated. We do not tolerate and will not tolerate the use of our airspace or airports for any illegal purpose - for torture, rendition or the unauthorised detainment of any individual - and we have no evidence that this has taken place.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl

Question:

32Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the protest, if any, that he has made regarding the erosion of individual and press freedoms in Hungary; the discussions he has held with his EU counterparts on this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2485/12]

The Deputy is referring to the new Hungarian constitution, which came into force on 1 January, its associated cardinal laws and the media law adopted in 2010. While the stated aim of the new constitution - the consolidation of democracy in Hungary - is commendable, aspects of the new constitution and the cardinal laws have given rise to concerns expressed by many parties, including the European Commission, the Council of Europe and the United States. These include concerns about the impact of the laws on the fairness of the electoral system, and on the judiciary, the fiscal council and the national data protection authority. The media law was revised following discussions with the European Commission, and the Constitutional Court of Hungary ruled in December that a number of its provisions were unconstitutional. The modified version of the law remains, however, the subject of continuing concern.

The medium for EU engagement with Hungary on this issue is the European Commission, as guardian of the treaties. The Commission has written to the Hungarian authorities about a number of concerns, including with regard to the judiciary. The Commission has noted that it stands ready to make full use of its prerogatives to ensure member states respect the obligations they have accepted as Members of the European Union. The Hungarian foreign Minister, Mr. Martonyi, recently wrote to EU foreign Ministers and the European Commission on these issues.

While recognising the legitimate concerns that the new constitution and laws have prompted, I welcome the Minister's intention to engage in discussion of these issues. I and the Government encourage Hungary to engage substantively with the European Commission. There has been a recent development in the last few minutes in this regard. The European Commission has just launched accelerated infringement proceedings against Hungary over the independence of the central bank and data protection authority and the measures affecting the judiciary. The first stage in those proceedings has just been initiated with the sending of three formal letters from the Commission to the Hungarian authorities.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. Press freedom would appear to be under threat in Hungary and individual freedoms are being jeopardised by the erosion of the rule of law. The role of Parliament in providing oversight and scrutiny is also, it would appear, being steadily eroded. We have had comments in this regard from the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who wrote to the Hungarian Government about her concerns.

I know the Minister met with the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, in June. Did he have the opportunity to express any concerns about the direction he and the Fidesz party were taking? Maybe it was the Minister of State who met the Prime Minister. There was certainly a meeting in June as part of the-----

It was the Taoiseach.

Were any concerns raised at that point? I welcome the fact that infringement proceedings have been taken today, but is the Minister of State satisfied, given the serious nature and variety of issues that are giving rise to concern on the streets of Hungary, that the Commission has acted with sufficient expedition?

To clarify, it was the Taoiseach, not the Tánaiste, who met with the prime minister. It is the norm that Heads of State would meet. The Tánaiste has had meetings on many occasions with his Hungarian counterpart, as indeed I have.

This issue came into particularly sharp focus in the autumn months. The media law was under scrutiny in the earlier part of last year, particularly during the Hungarian Presidency. It was well aired at that point and there was much discussion and analysis, with at least verbal intervention by other member states. That accelerated in the latter half of the year. The intervention of the Commission, among others, was timely. The Council of Europe was particularly vocal about the media laws, and the other aspects of constitutional change which came to the fore in the latter half of the year have been addressed by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, among others.

However, the role of the Commission has been expeditious and decisive. The important point is that while we demand high standards in terms of democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression in other parts of the world and from other partners, we must impose those same standards on ourselves within the European Union. That is necessary if we are to have any moral authority and credibility. I am pleased the Commission has intervened and that the necessary accelerated infringement process has begun. It will send a clear signal to the Hungarian authorities.

I will restrain myself from commenting on the fact that Fidesz has a two thirds majority in the parliament there and on the dangers of having governments with very large majorities.

It must be handled responsibly.

Will the Minister of State outline her understanding of what can be done by the Commission through the infringement proceedings it is now invoking? What timeframe might be involved?

Article 258 of the treaty provides for a mechanism whereby the Commission, if it considers that a member state has failed to fulfil an obligation under the treaties, delivers a reasoned opinion on the matter, giving the state the opportunity to send back its observations. It is a two-way process. Obviously, there must be due process and Hungary will have to be afforded a reasonable opportunity to respond. I understand it can happen relatively quickly but I cannot give a precise timeframe at this stage.

Foreign Conflicts

Pádraig Mac Lochlainn

Question:

33Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if his attention has been drawn to the fact that in a public declaration by a number of leading international and national figures, including Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams, Kofi Annan, Gro Harlem Bruntland, Pierre Joxe and Jonathan Powell at a public conference in San Sebastian on 17 October 2011, representatives called for support to advance the Basque Peace Process by calling upon ETA to make a public declaration of the definitive cessation of all armed action and to request talks with the Governments of Spain and France to address exclusively the consequences of the conflict; and in view of the fact that since this declaration the Basque militant group ETA has committed itself to a total and definitive ending of all armed actions, if he will support these developments and encourage the Spanish and French Governments to a process of inclusive talks with all actors and political representatives in the Basque Country, in order to further develop the peace process. [2575/12]

I have closely followed developments relating to the Basque country, including the public declaration at the San Sebastian conference on 17 October 2011 referred to by the Deputy, and the subsequent declaration by ETA on 20 October 2011 that the organisation had "decided on the definitive cessation of its armed activity". As I have said previously, the Government supports any development that could lead to definitive peace in the Basque country and I welcome the declaration by ETA on 20 October 2011 in this context. The declaration by ETA was welcomed by the leaders of all political parties in Spain as good news, as a victory for the rule of law and as a result of the determination of successive Spanish Governments to put an end to violence.

The new Spanish Government, led by Mariano Rajoy, which took office in late December, is undoubtedly now examining the situation and taking account of all relevant developments, including the content of the ETA declaration. It will need to determine how best to move forward, including on the question of any possible process of dialogue involving relevant political representatives. The outcome of the Spanish general election in November has resulted in the full range of Basque nationalist opinion being represented in the new Spanish Parliament. It is to be hoped that this can result in further progress and in the relevant actors moving forward in accordance with democratic principles and the rule of law.

The intervention at the international conference in San Sebastian last October was a key one, particularly as it included figures from the Irish peace process, Kofi Annan and Jonathan Powell, the former chief of staff under Tony Blair. This was a key intervention to which there has been a positive response. As in the case of the Irish peace process, the next step is to definitively demonstrate to those in the Basque country who wish to secure independence - I refer specifically to young people - and have their rights, especially cultural rights, fully recognised that there is a different way forward and an alternative to violence. We learned to our initial cost that it is critical to have engagement with the key players following this type of announcement. Will the Tánaiste call on the French and Spanish Governments to engage with the key protagonists in the Basque country to move the position forward?

The ending of violence by ETA is very welcome. As the Deputy stated, the way forward in pursuing political objectives should be peaceful and democratic and all of those involved should reject the use of violence. I welcome the statement that was made by ETA arising from the declaration made at the San Sebastian conference which contained five different elements or objectives. It is, in the first instance, a matter for the Spanish Government to respond to the statement. A new Government has recently been elected in Spain and will reflect on it. All of the political parties in Spain welcomed the cessation of violence and I hope the matter can be progressed and all the parties can participate in it.

The Tánaiste will agree that because of our relatively recent experience we are well qualified to constructively assist the Spanish Government and the people of the Basque country in finding a lasting solution. In the recent parliamentary elections, to which the Tánaiste alluded, a cross-section of Members of the Spanish Parliament was elected in the Basque country which was representative of its different strands of opinion. I urge the Tánaiste, whether on the floor of the House or in private, to encourage the new Spanish Government to take this home and to once and for all demonstrate that there is a pathway for addressing concerns, including, as happened in the Irish peace process, those relating to prisoners, and moving forward on a peaceful and democratic basis that addresses the needs of the people of the Basque country. I also urge him, either on the record or privately, to communicate to the Spanish Government that this key initiative has created a momentum and offers a great opportunity to realise what would be a key objective of any Spanish Government, namely, to take this issue home once and for all.

It is important that we in this House recognise it is a matter for Spain and the Spanish Government as to how to respond. If one lesson was learned in the Northern Ireland peace process, to which the Deputy referred, it is very much that the initiative needs to be left to the countries concerned. In the first instance, this is now a matter for the Spanish Government. Prior to the general election, all of the political parties in Spain welcomed the statement. As I stated, it is a matter for the Spanish Government to reflect on how the issue is to be taken forward. As a State and Government, the first thing that we need to do is recognise that this is a matter for Spain.

The declaration made in San Sebastian was a non-governmental statement made by individuals who were drawing on their own experience and acting in their individual capacities. As I stated, the declaration has a number of elements. It made the point that if an announcement of a cessation of violence were made, it requested the Governments of Spain and France to welcome it, which they have done, and accept the initiation of talks with a view to dealing exclusively with the consequences of the conflict. The statement goes on to deal with a number of other elements of the conflict but as I said, that is a matter for the Spanish Government to reflect on and to respond.