Inter-Country Adoption: Statements (Resumed)

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and ask Deputy O'Donovan to resume the debate. There are four minutes remaining on his slot.

On the last occasion when we were speaking about this I acknowledged the work the Department has been doing on inter-country adoption. As I stated, normally there is a temptation to focus on the developing world when discussing this issue. We know from anecdotal evidence of persons who present at such places as constituency offices and clinics that families and prospective parents encounter difficulties not only with developing countries, but with countries that one might refer to as the more developed. In my discussions with the Minister and her Department, and while I am aware there are resource issues in the Department and there is a finite amount of staff who, in fairness, together with the adoption board, do a good job, I have made the point, directly and indirectly, that the issue of inter-country adoptions, especially with Belarus, be put back on the agenda. There was a successful relationship between Ireland and Belarus, due in no small part to the work done by host families who were bringing in children on a regular basis in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. At a recent meeting with the ambassador from that country, I sensed that there would be an openness and willingness to open dialogue with the Government of Ireland on this issue. From speak with officials, both in Ireland and abroad, I am aware that this is something into which one cannot rush, which takes a great deal of personal dedication and which takes an amount of time and effort. Based on the history, there are families who could potentially be interested in Belarus as a possible country for inter-country adoption. Based on the amount of families that have taken in children for short stays, recuperation, etc., there is potential for us to look at that. I would implore the Minister, whose resources are finite and who has done much good work with Ethiopia and Vietnam in the recent past. There is a willingness in Belarus. The bilateral relationship that was entered into between Belarus and Italy shows that Belarus is a country that is open to looking at this as a subject matter in the future. The unfortunate aspect about it, for the families that may be interested or may be trying to pursue an inter-country adoption from Belarus at present, is that they look back at the historical numbers. There was always a steady flow of children who were fortunate enough to find a family that was able to raise them here in Ireland.

In the broader scheme of things, the children's referendum is something that will be confronted by this Dáil. It behoves all public representatives at national level to do everything they can to ensure that the Articles inserted into the Constitution whenever that comes around reflect the Ireland of 2012 rather than of 1937, and that we give children a voice for the first time in the Constitution. Whether those children are born in Ireland or are born abroad and adopted by Irish parents, it behoves us, for the first time, through the Minister's offices, to give children a voice through the Constitution that they have not had up to now and remove that cloud of scandal, reporting and everything else that happened in the recent past in terms of the drip-feed of bad news when it came to children who were put into care and where the State failed them. We will, finally, give children the legal and constitutional protection that they deserve. I again implore the Minister to look at Belarus in the context of the inter-country adoption issue.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this most sensitive of issues. Practically every Member in this Chamber has had some experience of adoption, whether it be in respect of his or her own family, a friend or a member of the public coming to them to look for some sort of support or assistance. Adoption, by its very nature, is a hugely emotive and emotional subject. There is an inherent conflict between the legal requirements associated with the process and the raw emotion that is evident at each step of the adoption process.

For better or worse, adoption must be a legal process. It involves the severing of ties with one family and re-establishing them with another. When such fundamental changes are being made to the status of a child, it is imperative that the legal basis is sound.

We debated the 2010 Adoption Act, which the former Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, Mr. Barry Andrews, took through the House. That legislation provided greater integrity around the adoption process in Ireland, and that was certainly welcome at the time. It is a reality, however, that in improving standards, we place an onus also on the sending countries to improve their domestic systems and reach the Hague standards.

I listened with interest to the contributions in this House in recent weeks on the Minister's actions. There has been a dramatic change in focus between those contributions and the tone of the debate during the passage of the Adoption Act 2010. At that time, all of the focus of the debate from the Opposition benches was placed firmly with the prospective adoptive parents. I suppose all of us probably attended meetings with parents who wanted to adopt and who felt there are all sorts of barricades being put up. While there was some acknowledgement of the central position of the child, the primary focus was on the plight of prospective adoptive parents who were facing the prospect of having to change countries from where they hoped to adopt. In my county, there was much work done and parents had gone to extremes to adopt a child only to find all of a sudden there was a road block in the way. That certainly raised emotions and people became very critical of politicians in general and how we were dealing with the issue. Given the long and protracted assessment process, it is only natural to empathise with prospective adoptive parents. However, adoption must always be about the child. The Minister has made strong statements to that effect in recent times and that is the way it should be. It is noteworthy that the tone of the recent debate has reflected the realisation that the child is most important and that is a change in the focus since 2010.

Difficult and politically unpopular decisions were taken by the previous Government in respect of inter-country adoption. There was much criticism from the then Opposition. That is the way matters turn out. There is a great deal of criticism from the Opposition from time to time. Indeed, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, criticised the decision to effectively suspend inter-country adoption from Vietnam despite the fact that there were two very critical UN reports, which raised serious concerns about the integrity of the adoption system in Vietnam. I am pleased that the Minister and the chairman of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, have stated that the adoption process has improved in Vietnam and that Vietnam has signed up to the Hague agreement. It is undoubtedly the case that standards have improved in Vietnam because of a genuine desire on the part of the Vietnamese authorities to accept the Hague agreement but also because of the position taken by Ireland and other countries in respect of inter-country adoption.

I look forward to the resumption of inter-country adoptions with Vietnam. I know many families in my home county of Wexford that have adopted from Vietnam, and these children are flourishing in a loving and caring environment. There always will be risk attached to inter-country adoption. Our job as legislators is to reduce that risk to a level whereby we can say, on balance, the child is being adopted following a process that has ensured free and informed consent.

Wexford, particularly the north of the county, has a number of children who were adopted from Vietnam. Families are looking after them to the best of their ability and the children are involved in the local community, including the GAA club. Hopefully, they will be able to help the Castletown GAA club in the future. At the time the barricades came down and adoption from Vietnam was no longer allowed, there was hell to pay in that area of the county because a number of families had adopted and a number of other families were in the process of trying to adopt. They had gone down a long road when, all of a sudden, they were not allowed to continue. With good reason, all sorts of allegations were made and questions were raised.

The Minister said Ireland will enter into an administrative agreement with Vietnam when Vietnam signs up to the Hague convention. Will she outline to the House what is the timeframe with regard to an administrative agreement? She has said that the profile of children who will be available for adoption will change and the children are likely to be older. Given that prospective adoptive parents have to make critical decisions about what country they hope to adopt from, can the Minister give any details on the changing profile of the children who are likely to be adopted from Vietnam?

In the past, prospective adoptive parents had to pay a significant sum of money to adopt from Vietnam. Will this be the case in the future and, if so, what guarantees will be built into the administrative agreement to ensure this money is not used in a sinister way that would incentivise the placement of children for adoption?

As part of the last bilateral agreement with Vietnam, a mediation agency had to be licensed in Ireland and Hanoi. Will this be the case under the terms of the administrative agreement? Helping Hands was the agency that fulfilled this function in the past. As I recall, Helping Hands was criticised by the UNICEF report and was investigated by the Adoption Board, as it was then. Was that report ever published? Was it submitted to the Minister? Will Helping Hands be the agency that mediates the adoptions from Vietnam in the future? Will the Minister clarify what is the current status of Helping Hands and whether that agency is still in receipt of public funds from the HSE? If so, for what are these funds being used, given no adoptions have taken place between Ireland and Vietnam for more than a year?

I welcome the fact the Minister has adopted a hands-on approach to this issue. All of the Deputies on this side have come in for severe criticism given the slowness of the issue of the Hague convention and all that was to be signed up to with Vietnam, although I understand the reasons for that slow pace. There are many families who want to adopt and, obviously, there are many children in other countries that could do with being placed in the hands of families who would look after them and treat them as if they were born to them. It is important that we would move quickly in this regard and, at the same time, ensure all of the protections are in place.

I hope the Minister will reply to the questions I have raised. Overall, I welcome the fact the Minister has been up-front in regard to the issue of inter-country adoption. I hope we will speedily move to a situation where as many families as possible in this country will be able to adopt children.

I wish to share time with Deputies Michael McCarthy and Arthur Spring.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this matter. One aspect of this debate on which I want to focus is how prospective parents are viewed and commented upon both in the national commentary on this issue and sometimes, regrettably, by the Irish State itself. From my experience, adoptive parents are often described as being "desperate". They are portrayed as being so focused on completing an adoption that they have no regard for, or interest in, the ethical issues concerned. This is anything but true. In dealing with inter-country adoption, it has to be noted that nobody is more concerned about ethical issues than the parents involved. I have dealt with a number of parents on this matter and I can certainly vouch for the ethical standard of the people with whom I have dealt. We must remember that these people want to provide a home for a child - a loving, caring and safe home.

The people with whom I have dealt do not want a short cut. They want to assert, in the interests of the child, that the bilateral agreement with Vietnam, which was allowed to lapse during 2009, was a good agreement. During its operation, it was repeatedly represented by the Adoption Board at the time as a model which should be widely followed. It had several layers of safety built into it to protect the rights of both children and birth parents. That the agreement was allowed to lapse left nearly 20 children in an unfortunate limbo whereby their adoptions had been approved but not completed, which was in nobody's interest.

After the agreement had lapsed, the Minister of the day attempted to justify his inaction by referring to the UNICEF report on inter-country adoption and its "profound concerns" about the system that had been in place. This report was primarily concerned with American adoptions, which operated on a very different basis to those taking place under the Irish agreement. The concerns expressed were entirely invalid with respect to Irish adoptions, and the report failed to support its comments in any meaningful way. Repeated reference to the report in this context caused great hurt to adoptive families. To place a question mark over adoptions which are both ethical and legal can only damage the interests of the children involved.

The Minister has every right to defend the Irish adoption system. She is entirely justified in praising our ratification of the Hague convention. However, she must remember that all international agreements need to be constantly reviewed and updated. This will be the same in the future, just as it has been the case in the past. In advocating new agreements, she must show respect too for fully legal and ethical adoptions that have taken place under previous agreements. If she fails to do so, however inadvertently, she may cause great hurt to Irish children and Irish families.

I make my contribution today to highlight the need for the Minister and her Department to be extremely careful in all communications relating to the previous bilateral agreement with Vietnam, and to be mindful of sensitivities of adoptive parents who went through that process. All communications relating to new agreements must be proofed for inappropriate reference to the previous agreement, which was sound and ethical. Any lapse in this matter has the potential to be hurtful and damaging to those families and, with the certainty that anything that is said or published will remain available on the worldwide web forever, the risk is obvious.

I trust the Minister will take on board my comments. Should she require further information or wish to meet with the parents who have contacted me, I would be happy to arrange that.

I welcome the fact we are debating this important issue in the House, and I welcome the Minister's commitment to this area. I have been championing this issue, in particular, the need to establish a bilateral agreement between Ireland and Ethiopia due to the latter country's inability to ratify the Hague convention. On the back of these efforts, the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, wrote to the Adoption Authority of Ireland in December giving approval for the commencement of the process of examining the feasibility of a bilateral agreement with Ethiopia. The authority has now commenced this process and, with the assistance of the Irish embassy in Addis Ababa, it has sought an expert legal narrative and description of the current Ethiopian adoption law. It will be examined by the Adoption Authority of Ireland to test for compatibility and compliance with the Adoption Act 2010. This represents a very significant milestone in seeking to promote relations between the Irish and Ethiopian adoption authorities. It follows ongoing efforts by me and others in recent months to highlight the plight of Irish people who are unable to adopt from Ethiopia.

The Adoption Act 2010 was an extremely welcome item of legislation which reflected in our domestic law the highest standards in the provision of adoption services and an undertaking that they be child-centred in all aspects. There are now broader issues to be discussed as regards the processing of adoptions for Irish couples who were deemed suitable to adopt under the new Act. In December, following several parliamentary questions I tabled to the Minister in this area, it transpired that although 178 declarations of eligibility and suitability were issued by the Adoption Authority of Ireland to Irish people wishing to adopt from abroad since the Act came into force, none of the couples had managed to bring a child to Ireland. The explanation given by the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, is that waiting times between the sending of an application pack and the actual completion of an adoption in sending countries can vary greatly and may extend to as much as three years or more in some cases.

I take this opportunity to draw attention to the absence of what is known as the grandfather clause in the Adoption Act. Such a clause would permit couples to adopt more than one child from the same country and was supported by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, as the Bill was being passed through the House in late 2005. By enabling parents who have already adopted a child from one country to return to that same country it reduces waiting lists for other countries, thus benefiting first-time adopters. It also allows adoptive parents to complete their family from the same country of origin as their other child or children. The omission of a grandfather clause in the legislation is not in the best interests of existing adopted children, with all the academic research and experiences of adult adoptees pointing to the importance of ensuring a child's racial heritage is fully valued and expressed in his or her family life. To have a sibling of the same racial heritage can only add to each child's personal and shared experience of his or her racial heritage.

In 2005 the then Minister of State with responsibility for children, the late Brian Lenihan, indicated that a grandfather clause would be included in the Adoption Bill. In its 2005 annual report, the Adoption Board also reported its inclusion. However, in the end, a decision was made not to include the provision on the basis that it would represent a considerable dilution of the intent of the legislation in terms of setting improved standards for inter-country adoption. Will the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, examine the possibility of re-opening the issue of the grandfather clause? It would be much better for siblings to share a birth country rather than being from individual countries which may be continents apart. There are additional aspects to a shared racial heritage, even down to having a sibling who shares one's physical characteristics. All of this goes towards helping a child to have a strong identity and to feel comfortable in his or her skin.

I thank my colleagues for affording me the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I am grateful to the Minister for meeting with me to discuss the possibility of a bilateral meeting with the Ethiopian Government. The Adoption Authority of Ireland is advancing discussions with authorities in Mexico and Vietnam, but there has been less progress in regard to those people who wish to adopt children from Ethiopia, including the parents of the 250 to 300 children already adopted from that country and who wish to adopt another child. Best practice, as prescribed on previous occasions, was that a second child should preferably be adopted from the country of origin of the first child. There are 7 million orphans in Ethiopia, all of them looking for a loving, warm home. I have met with parents and adopted children and have seen the joy and fulfilment that adoption, inter-country or domestic, brings to families. It is incumbent on us to do what we can not only to look after Irish citizen children who have been placed for adoption but also the millions of orphans outside of the State.

It is important to note that some 80% of inter-country adoptions involve countries which are outside the Hague convention. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs, together with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, must work to dial up bilateral agreements with such countries and to assist the Adoption Authority of Ireland's capacity to oversee adoptions which fall outside the convention. Advanced and developed countries throughout the world are home to people seeking to adopt, while underdeveloped countries are full of orphans in need of homes. It makes sense to bring the two together, in a way that observes best practice.

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Joe Costello, who, days after discussing the issue with the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and me, travelled to Ethiopia to advance negotiations with the authorities there. As long as we keep the spotlight on the matter, we can bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. The issue of inter-country adoption was very much a focus of the previous Dáil, with Vietnam being the main concern. The narrative and debate at the time were not very positive, against the background of the many homes throughout the State in which Vietnamese children were happily living. It is important to be sensitive when analysing the reasons that Vietnam was closed to foreign adoptions at the time. Several darker reasons were put forward in terms of preventing Vietnamese adoptions. During the period that adoptions were suspended, 19 Irish couples found their applications to adopt were in limbo. It was a delicate time for them, including those seeking to adopt their second or third child having already adopted from the country.

I thank the Minister and her team for her proactivity in regard to getting Vietnam back on the agenda. There have been heartwarming stories in recent weeks. While the narrative in the previous Dáil focused on the negatives, there was insufficient recognition of the great working relationship that existed. I also thank the Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Pat Breen, who worked in tandem with the Minister in travelling to Vietnam to get the process up and running again.

In regard to adoptions from Bulgaria, there is confusion among prospective parents in regard to binding contracts placed with the ANIDO Association. A meeting took place on 2 December which was attended by representatives of the Arc Adoption agency, but confusion remains as to which organisation is the best vehicle for pursuing adoption applications to that country. Arc representatives indicated at the meeting that applicants were obliged to avail of its services in order for Bulgarian adoption applications to be processed. At a subsequent meeting, a Bulgarian attorney representing the ANIDO Association said there was no such legal obligation but that it would be advisable to avail of Arc's mediation services. With ANIDO's fees at €5,200 and Arc charging some €11,500 per client for services rendered, prospective adoptive parents are looking at an application cost of up to €17,000. This is the side of the adoption process that can lend itself to very negative perceptions in terms of the cost of the process and the timeframe it involves. I know that the Minister and her officials are on top of this matter which is causing much confusion for parents. I ask for her ongoing vigilance in ensuring that people wishing to adopt from this particular country are not exploited.

I want now to refer to the situation in respect of Florida, which has been on the agenda pre-Christmas and in respect of which I know the Minister has been proactive. Many parents were reluctant to continue the process as they believed their declarations with the American authorities and HSE were not right. Following a successful meeting in Washington in November, expectations were heightened that this matter would be resolved in the short term. While I am aware that the Minister is working on this I ask that her officials investigate any blockages in respect of which both authorities can work together.

Many parents involved in this process are in the dark. An example is a couple who applied in May 2009, took part in a preparation course in September 2009, received their declaration in 2010 and applied to the US in June 2010. This couple have been through a difficult three years owing to the difficulties between the United States and HSE. One accepts there will be ramifications for couples having to deal with the bureaucracy of two different jurisdictions in terms of the need to ensure everything is above board and so on. It is important vetting mechanisms are in place. However, many couples - I am sure we all do this - measure their lives against those of their colleagues and peers who got married at the same time as them and have families, often within nine months of their wedding day. This particular couple know other couples who married at the same time as them over four years ago, many of whom have had two and three children naturally. This is frustrating for them and is putting a great deal of pressure on them and their extended families. We are all aware of the goodwill within families to see their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters or grandchildren realise their dreams. We must be sensitive to the difficulties being experienced by people who must endure this two or three year process to have a child. We must in our efforts to sort out this issue put this at the top of our agenda. I again ask for the Minister's intervention in this regard. I know that her officials have been working hard on this.

I take this opportunity to commend the Minister's officials within the HSE. While the Government and Opposition are great at knocking civil servants, a few people in the HSE - I will not name them - two in particular, have been working hard with the United States authorities on this issue. I know that Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was involved in this process and has lent her support to those involved. We must do all we can to steer Florida in the right direction. Perhaps the Minister will ask that the Taoiseach put the issue on his agenda for his upcoming visit to Washington for St. Patrick's Day.

The narrative within public discourse is the economy, be it on local or national radio or local or national media. I welcome the positives in this regard as announced by the Taoiseach today. However, there is much more happening in the world. We must do what we can to assist those couples for whom having a child does not come naturally.

This is the first occasion I have spoken while the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, is in the Chamber. I take this opportunity to congratulate Deputy Fitzgerald, who was my boss in a previous existence, on her appointment and to commend her on her efforts in the new Department. The Minister has taken a hands-on approach in trying to bring about a positive solution for many families and children.

I agree with Deputy McHugh's remarks in regard to civil servants and, in particular, the people who work in the Minister's office who are good at handling what is a difficult issue. Adoption is a sensitive issue. Many prospective adoptive parents put their lives on hold when involved in the process, the centre of which are the children. There are millions of children all over the world looking for a safe home in which to grow up. This is an area that is fraught with sensitivity on all sides. However, the Minister has made tremendous strides in this respect, in particular in terms of her efforts in Vietnam which brought about a positive resolution.

The Minister in her opening comments at the end of January mentioned that approximately 1,500 children had been adopted into this country from Russia. I am familiar with a number of families who have adopted a child from Russia and are considering adopting again from Russia. I understand that Mr. Shannon engaged in negotiations on this issue in Russia prior to Christmas and that some constitutional issues were raised during those discussions. It is hoped those difficulties can be resolved. I was struck by Deputy Michael McCarthy's reference to the grandfather clause. In excess of 1,000 families in Ireland have adopted a child from Russia. A particular number of those families are keen to adopt another child from Russia. Obviously, the grandfather clause would kick-in in such a scenario. It is hoped that something positive can happen in 2012 for the families in that position. As I stated I am familiar with a number of such families whose lives are on hold waiting for positive news in this regard. I am conscious that from an Irish perspective every effort is being made to bring the Russian authorities on board in reaching a positive result.

I was not aware before entering the Chamber this evening that 80% of countries in the world are not party to the Hague convention. A number of those countries have been mentioned by previous speakers. A number of developing countries have a large number of children who are orphaned and potentially available for adoption and in need of a loving home in which to grow up. I urge the Minister and her departmental officials to engage constructively and proactively - as they have done to date - in agreeing bilateral arrangements with those countries outside the Hague convention. While it may not be possible within this Chamber, the Adoption Authority of Ireland should be asked in another forum to outline approximate timeframes for resolutions to discussions that are taking place with countries such as Russia and Ethiopia, which I note was mentioned earlier. Mexico is also a country about which there was some media comment a few months ago regarding difficulties in which a number of Irish families found themselves and I include the state of Florida in the United States. The authority might be in a position at least to provide an indication to families that are hoping to adopt from the aforementioned areas regarding potential timeframes. Moreover, it should tell people the truth, as the last thing one wishes to do is to build up hope when there will not be a positive resolution. However, the authority should provide people with an idea on what might be a potential timeframe for resolution in this regard. This is the gist of what I wished to ask the Minister, other than to again commend her and her officials on their approachability on this issue, as well as to express the hope they will continue to have success in this regard into the future.

Each year, hundreds of children from other jurisdictions are welcomed into Irish families and this tradition of inter-country adoption is in evidence throughout Ireland. It is a wonderful thing to do to offer a new life to a child who cannot be placed with a family in the country of his or her birth. However, I agree with the Minister that the rights of the children must always be at the top of the agenda, and by some distance, with regard to this issue. Ireland ratified the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption in 2010, on the same day the Adoption Authority of Ireland was established. We must be bound by this convention and must adhere strictly to its guidelines. In cases in which the country from which one wishes to adopt is a co-signatory, the processes are clear but as Members have discovered in recent months, there are some countries in which the processes are far more difficult and complex. This is the reason the existence and diligence of the Adoption Authority of Ireland is so valuable. The legislation of 2010 allowed for a transitional provision in cases in which a declaration of eligibility and suitability to adopt had issued prior to November 1 of that year but these adoptions from non-Hague and non-bilateral countries must always be guided by the expertise of the Adoption Authority of Ireland. Each process and procedure must be in the best interest of the child and to this aim, the highest national and international standards of governance regarding adoption procedures must be adhered to. One must adhere strongly to the Hague convention's guiding principle of subsidiarity, in which every effort must first be made to find a child a permanent placement in his or her own country. One must also adhere absolutely to the principle of supporting birth families in their decision and on ensuring absolute and informed consent. Moreover, one must avoid completely any situation in which money changes hands, beyond legitimate expenses, in the process of adoption.

Recent years have seen a decline in inter-country adoptions into Ireland. In 2003, the then Adoption Board registered 341 foreign adoptions, which rose to a high of 397 registrations in 2008. Since then, the number of registrations has declined somewhat and in each of the years 2010 and 2011, the number of registrations of inter-country adoptions totalled approximately 200. Since the enactment of the new adoption legislation in 2010, the Adoption Authority of Ireland has registered a total of 368 foreign adoptions. Of these adoptions, 244 registrations related to inter-country adopters resident in Ireland with declarations issued by the authority, while the remaining 124 registrations related to expatriates who were resident abroad and who were seeking recognition of adoptions effected abroad.

While inter-country adoption rates have fallen slightly in recent years, like many Members, I know families on a personal level who have adopted a child or children from outside the State. Members have seen at first hand the amazing and positive impact this has had on both the lives of the children and the families who adopt them. It is a long, painstaking and often agonising process for the families in question but a positive result of course is the ultimate reward. I urge anyone considering inter-country adoption to avail to the fullest possible extent of expertise and advice available from the Adoption Authority of Ireland, which is an independent statutory body and which delivers a comprehensive and integrated service of a high quality. Particular concerns exist in respect of Vietnam and I commend and congratulate the Minister on her trip to that country to oversee the work being done on the ratification of the Hague convention. This comprises progressive and hands-on governance at its best and I anticipate an easing of this process as a result of such political links being forged. Russia is another country in which there is a history of Irish inter-country adoptions and I welcome the news that an official delegation from Ireland recently visited there to hold preliminary discussions regarding the potential for a bilateral agreement. I hope this will be put in place soon.

This is a sensitive and complex issue and can be a highly difficult process for the families and the prospective parents involved. The moves that are being made at international level hopefully will remove the uncertainty and stress of this process for such families. However, at all times, all steps necessary to keep the welfare of the children at the top of the agenda must be adhered to. The HSE's suitability requirements for parents set out clearly what adoptive parents must be thinking and must be willing to do. The requirements include the capacity to safeguard the child throughout its childhood and to promote the child's development with a due regard to the child's emotional, social, educational, cultural and spiritual dimensions. They also include the capacity to provide an environment in which the child's original nationality, race and culture are embraced. The guidelines also recognise and understand the impact being an adoptive child has, which is highly important, as well as the capacity to arrange additional supports this child may require. This is important and not simply for inter-country adoptions because for many years, adopted children have had issues, some of which may have arisen from the fact that parents were not properly helped along the way. Moreover, for some reason I never understood, society had an issue with adoptions and a child always was referred to as being an adopted child when in fact the child was an integrated member of that particular family. A dramatic number of people are seeking information to try to trace their birth relatives at present and while all Members have recognised the unbridled joy of those people who get a child to mind and to rear, one must be cognisant of the situation that led to that child being put up for adoption in the first place. Consequently, it is good to see the HSE guidelines in this regard because they help the adoptive parents to recognise the pressures under which the birth parents were operating in the first phase and this leads to better integration in the longer term.

I heard recently that the Vietnamese ambassador visited Charleville, which is near my home, where he met a number of people who had adopted children previously and who were highly appreciative of his visit. Moreover, they are highly appreciative of the Minister's engagement on a positive level. As an open economy, Ireland should embrace all its connections and links with other countries and adoption offers a special link that cannot be ignored. It is important that while such a special link exists, one should try to make the most of it in a positive fashion and I thank the Minister and her departmental team for their positive engagement on this matter.

I welcome this opportunity to speak on inter-country adoptions and at the outset, I acknowledge the proactive role the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has taken since she assumed responsibility for this issue. The creation of the Ministry for Children and Youth Affairs shows the Government's commitment in respect of all matters relating to children. The Minister's indication in recent days that her intention is for a stand-alone referendum on children's rights to take place is an endorsement of the Government's position.

I am quite familiar with many of the people involved in the various groups which represent those seeking to adopt and I am, therefore, aware that there is a genuine recognition of the Minister's proactive efforts, and those of her Department, in respect of how we might best move forward and make real progress post-ratification of the Hague convention. It has taken some time to reach this point. Ironically, the ratification of the convention resulted in a reduction in the number of inter-country adoptions from 397 in 2008 to just over 200 in 2011. That was to be expected. People have been patient. They understood that there was a need to recalibrate the entire process.

I have received feedback from those who have been waiting patiently to adopt. Adoption is primarily for the benefit of the child involved and ensures that he or she will have access to opportunities of which he or she would not have been able to avail had he or she not been adopted. I have seen real and tangible evidence of this. Within a few months of their being adopted, one can see genuine improvements in children over two years of age. I refer, in particular, to their physical and mental well-being in this regard. That is due to the care provided by and the genuine and sincere intentions of the people who adopt them. As a result of the work of our missionaries and NGOs, Ireland has a reputation as, and is recognised and respected for being, a caring nation. We sometimes do not give ourselves enough credit in this regard.

There are a few matters which must be progressed in order that the process relating to inter-country adoptions might return to the levels which previously obtained. If it did return to those levels, this would lead to adoptions taking place on a more regular basis each year. The first of the issues to which I wish to refer in this regard revolves around clarity for prospective parents with regard to the different countries from which children can be adopted. Will the Minister indicate the states from which it will be possible to adopt? Will she also indicate the level of engagement the Adoption Authority of Ireland has had with various countries, regardless of whether these are compliant with or are signatories to the Hague convention? Information in this regard will allow prospective parents to make a choice and to concentrate their efforts on particular countries. They will be in a position to seek as much knowledge as possible in respect of the culture and history of the country from which they would like to adopt a child. They can also seek to discover what would be involved with regard to adopting a child or children from that country. The provision of information such as that to which I refer would be of immense assistance in the context of speeding up the assessment process as it relates to prospective parents.

Vietnam's ratification of the convention is welcome. It will, however, be necessary to ascertain the number of applications which remain outstanding as soon as possible. This will allow us to better judge the timescales involved. There are quite a few people whose cases became known as "pipeline cases" when the process was originally delayed. Many of them had already adopted one child and were in the process of adopting another. They are now in a state of limbo. This is a matter which must be addressed. The Adoption Authority of Ireland has approved Arc Adoption as an accredited agency for the purposes of adoption mediation in respect of Vietnam. Applications for accreditation from other bodies in this regard remain under consideration by the authority. The latter is expected to make its decisions on those applications known in the near future. It might be of assistance if the Minister could provide an indication of the number of agencies she envisages might be accredited.

Ireland has a bilateral agreement with Russia in respect of adoptions. The majority of children adopted from abroad have come from either Russia or Vietnam. I understand a meeting involving Russian officials and the Adoption Authority of Ireland took place in December. Will the Minister outline what was the outcome of that meeting and will she indicate when it is likely that progress will be made in respect of this matter?

The Adoption Authority of Ireland has stated that it requires a budget of approximately €100,000. It is obvious that the authority requires resources. Will the Minister outline the level of funding that will be made available to it and indicate the number of staff she is going to be in a position to appoint?

Pathways to Adoption has raised a number of matters. In the past many issues arose in the context of post-placement reporting, particularly in the context of Russia. There was a difficulty in ensuring that the process in respect of such reporting was as complete as the Russian authorities would have desired. This led to a consequent delay in other adoptions being assessed and approved. This is probably an administrative as well as a resources issue. I have no doubt, however, that with the assistance of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, it can be addressed. It is important that unnecessary delays in the system should not have knock-on effects whereby adoptions would be slowed up.

As a Member of the previous Dáil, I took a keen interest in this matter. I intend no disrespect to the then Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs when I say that it was difficult to inject a sense of urgency into what was a stalled process. That process was denying children the opportunity to have a better life.

A secondary but very important aspect of adoption is the fact that it allows parents and couples to achieve a level of fulfilment in their lives which is of benefit to them, society and their children. It is important to bear that in mind. It is always politically correct to state that children come first. The latter is certainly the case but we should not disregard the overall benefits which accrue.

I have seen a change in people who, as a result of adoption, have been in a position to give of themselves. Those to whom I refer have resources but they did not adopt until they were well into their 40s. When they were adopting ten years ago, they could have done so much sooner if the system had been somewhat more efficient. Unfortunately, the exception which proved the rule and which slowed down the process in respect of certain countries relates to the one or two high-profile cases where things went wrong. There was a Wicklow connection in respect of one of those unfortunate cases. What was done in that case was not deliberate but it attracted a high profile. Untold damage was done to the process relating to Vietnam at that time. Cases of this nature continue to arise and the Adoption Authority of Ireland must be provided with resources, particularly if it is, under the auspices of the Minister's Department, going to be thede facto statutory body with responsibility for overseeing adoptions. It should be given the resources it requires. As a country, we have a moral obligation in this regard.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important matter. Anyone who has been present in the Chamber for the past 30 to 45 minutes will be aware of the complexity of this issue. Many Deputies referred to different countries in the context of adoption and if one had been present for an hour of this debate, one would have obtained a clear understanding of the issues which arise.

Since taking office, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, has shown an extremely commendable level of dedication in respect of the issue of child protection, from areas such as safeguarding policy to the very important and emotive question of inter-country adoption. I have been approached by many prospective parents in east Galway in respect of this matter who are seeking clarification on a number of aspects relating to it. I am glad the legislation currently before the House is clear and concise and places the welfare of the child at the very centre of the debate. When prospective parents enter the field of inter-country adoption, they do so in the hope of giving a happy home to a child from another country. It is only fitting that the very highest quality control checks are put in place to ensure that birth families are given free and informed consent in respect of an adoption.

Recent years have seen a substantial drop in the numbers of registered foreign adoptions in Ireland, declining from 397 in 2008 to approximately 200 last year and the year before. Much of this is down to the fact that the provisions of the Hague Convention make it more difficult for couples to adopt. However, the provisions of the convention are key in ensuring the welfare of a child is paramount.

The provisions of the Hague Convention have placed a hugely increased workload on the staff of the Adoption Authority of Ireland since its inception in late 2010. This independent body is tasked with explaining the changed process to prospective parents, allaying their concerns and coming to terms with the different legal processes in the many countries with which it works.

The Hague Convention came into force in Vietnam on the first day of this month, a significant milestone in adoptions from that country. I note the Minister's comments that the Vietnamese authorities have put considerable effort into ensuring stronger regulation of adoption practices following the suspension of adoptions from that country a number of years ago. It is welcome that immediately on taking office the Minister decided to re-establish political and diplomatic links with Vietnam and I know she recently had a positive experience while visiting the country. At the time Vietnamese adoptions were stopped 19 couples were about to adopt and a further 200 have since named Vietnam as a country from which they would like to adopt. Therefore, the Minister's efforts in this respect mean a great deal to many families throughout the country.

The issue of adoptions from Mexico needs wider debate at national level. Huge concerns were expressed following the arrest of several Irish people in Mexico in recent weeks who had unwittingly got caught up in what was a truly awful situation. I note the chairman of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, has stressed that any adoption from Mexico must be effected between the respective central authorities and that there is no provision under the arrangements for processing private adoptions. All 11 cases which recently made the news headlines involved private adoptions. That the Adoption Authority of Ireland has stated it has no evidence that previous adoptions involving Irish people were unsafe is very welcome, but the coverage given to the recent arrests should reinforce for all involved in adoptions the need to ensure all intercountry adoptions are conducted to the highest standards and in accordance with the provisions of the Hague Convention.

Now that the provisions of the Hague Convention are in force, greater efforts are being made to increase the number of signatories to it, which will greatly facilitate and streamline the process, in the process reducing the resources necessary to effect adoptions. Complex constitutional issues arise in the case of Russia, but I urge the Minister to continue to do all in her power to ensure Irish couples can safely adopt children from there.

The decision to adopt a child is momentous and not taken lightly. Similarly, the decision to give up a child for adoption is not taken lightly. Every effort must be made to smooth the path of prospective Irish parents who wish to adopt from abroad, just as every effort must be made to uphold the provisions of the Hague Convention in respect of intercountry adoptions, ensuring at all times that the welfare of the child about to be adopted is paramount.

We will now move to the question and answer session.

In my contribution I asked about those in a legal limbo as a result of the ratification of the Hague Convention. They did everything by the book but found the adoption process in which they were engaged was being finalised as the Hague Convention was being transposed. I refer specifically to approximately 20 families adopting from Florida. They did everything in accordance with what was required by the Irish authorities at the time but the adoptions were being finalised as the Hague Convention came in to force and as a result, they found themselves in a legal limbo.

Another example is a family adopting from Vietnam who did everything correctly at the time but found when the Hague Convention came into force the adoption agency they had been using in Vietnam was no longer accredited in Ireland. As far as the Florida cases are concerned, the 20 children have been adopted legally as the State is concerned. When we move forward we must not forget these families.

I understand a review is taking place of adoptions from Kazakhstan. Will the Minister provide an update on the matter?

Before the Minister replies, she will have five minutes to wrap up at the end if she wishes to respond to any other questions posed.

As we have seen from the range of contributions to the debate, many questions arise about intercountry adoptions. As soon as I took up this brief I realised we were in a transition period with new adoption legislation and the signing of the Hague Convention. Many of the countries from which Irish people had adopted, for example, Russia and Ethiopia, had not signed the convention. Effectively, this meant couples who had adopted from Ethiopia and Russia and were hoping to adopt from there again were in a different position.

I want to take up a point made by a number of speakers about the language used in discussing what happened prior to and after ratifying the Hague Convention. It is extremely important that there be no implication that something was wrong with those adoptions. This point was very well made by a number of speakers, including Deputy Ryan. Those adoptions went through the processes in place at the time and were registered with the Adoption Authority of Ireland. There is, therefore, no need for anyone to be concerned about them or raise questions about the processes in place at the time. However, we are in a new situation with the Hague Convention and specific standards and criteria have to be met.

To answer the question on the 19 couples seeking to adopt from Vietnam and caught in this transition period, I met the Minister for Justice in Vietnam and he specifically asked me to inform Irish families that Vietnam is ready to implement the Hague Convention and that it is the desire of the Vietnamese Government to co-operate with Ireland in the intercountry adoption of children for whom a suitable family cannot be found in Vietnam. Consent must be very clear; there must be no exchange of money, as a number of Deputies pointed out; the best interests of the child must be considered; and domestic adoption must be considered first. Having stated this I hope we can progress the suggested administrative agreement discussed during my visit to Vietnam.

I confirm that the Adoption Authority of Ireland has invited the head of the central authority for adoption in Vietnam to visit this country in the coming weeks. When we were in Vietnam, he indicated that he wanted to come to Ireland and we expect the administrative agreement to be established during the visit, the date for which must be confirmed.

One adoption agency, Arc Adoption, has been accredited for adoptions from Vietnam and another may also be accredited. There is no reason to have only one agency accredited. I hope, given the accreditation of an agency, or agencies, and the proposed visit by the head of the adoption authority in Vietnam to Ireland, we will begin to move as quickly as possible to end the long wait for the many families involved.

I stress the position has changed with regard to the children available for adoption because there will be more domestic adoptions in Vietnam. Most likely the children will be older and I do not think as many children as before will be eligible for intercountry adoption from Vietnam. Certainly, adoptions will begin again between Vietnam and Ireland. There is no reason for them not to. It is a question of establishing the scheme of administrative arrangements needed between the two countries. This will involve examining the processes in Vietnam and Ireland and ensuring they are compatible. It is a technical job more than anything else and I am reasonably optimistic. We are in a transition period because we have signed the Hague Convention.

Many Deputies spoke about the number of children available for adoption. It is heartbreaking to see so many children eligible for adoption, having been abandoned or orphaned. However, if we do not have an agreement in place with that country and arrangements have not been put in place that respect the principles of the Hague Convention, it is not so easy. There are processes to be gone through to ensure adoptions are safe.

The Deputy asked about Florida. I can confirm to the House that the Adoption Authority of Ireland has met the US central authority in Washington. A delegation travelled there at my request on 17 November to meet representatives of the State Department. A memo of understanding relating to inter-country adoption between Florida and Ireland has been drafted from this side and transmitted to the US State Department in its role as the central authority. The various issues which were under consideration were dealt with in that memo of understanding. If these are dealt with satisfactorily, I believe the situation regarding Florida will be clarified. I am in touch with the State Department on this matter, but it is primarily an issue between the two central authorities.

A number of speakers mentioned diplomatic initiatives. More satisfactory arrangements can be made between different countries this way because, clearly, there is a diplomatic side involved. A number of people, including the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, have done work in this area. I recently had a meeting with the Tánaiste in regard to his visits to different parts of the world to ensure that, during those visits, there would be a discussion on inter-country adoption in countries where this is appropriate. That is a helpful initiative. The chair of the Adoption Authority of Ireland briefed the Tánaiste and me in recent weeks.

I acknowledge the importance of the Minister putting inter-country adoption on the Dáil agenda for statements and to allow Deputies across the House to contribute and discuss the issue. There are not many parishes throughout the country where there are not families with parents who have adopted, are in the process of adopting or who wish to adopt. As all speakers have acknowledged, the recent past has been a very stressful time for many of those families who were in the process of carrying out adoptions when agreements, with Vietnam in particular, were stopped.

I welcome that the Vietnamese authorities are to make a return visit to Ireland in the near future when the Minister hopes to sign agreements with them. She outlined the process required to achieve that. I realise it can be difficult to put a timeline on this process but can the Minister outline when she believes adoptions can start again with Vietnam? This is particularly relevant for those prospective parents who were well along in the process of adoption when the arrangements were stopped. When can they expect to have adoptions processed and finalised? For many, the limbo of not knowing is very difficult, and if it is possible to give a timeline, it would be helpful.

I have sought to bring urgency to the situation. As Deputy McConalogue pointed out, that is important because there has been a long period of delay for the parents and families who were hoping to adopt from Vietnam. That is the reason I asked officials from my Department and the AAI to visit the country last year to do some preliminary work. When I thought it was appropriate I, too, visited for two and a half days of meetings with the relevant people. The good news from that visit is that Vietnam is prepared to engage with Ireland. It is up to Vietnam to decide whether it wishes to engage with a particular country and it will not necessarily engage with all Hague Convention countries. However, it made clear that it would engage with Ireland. We heard from Deputy Barry about the Vietnamese ambassador to Ireland visiting Charleville to meet families who had adopted children from Vietnam. I met the ambassador on two occasions and he was extremely helpful.

The visit was successful in terms of re-engagement with Vietnam. That country has brought in new adoption legislation and has a new approach and new standards in regard to adoption. It has signed the Hague Convention. We have a new Adoption Act. The memo that went to Government two years ago in regard to this issue stated that when these matters were in place - a new Adoption Act here, the signing of the Hague Convention by Vietnam, and new arrangements in place in that country - the Government would examine the situation again. That is what I have done and I believe I have brought an urgency to it to hurry things up and expedite the opening up of the adoption situation between Ireland and Vietnam.

The next step was to invite the head of the Vietnamese central authority to this country. I do not yet have a date for his visit but I hope it will be in April or May. As soon as that takes place, I believe we will be in a position to finalise some of the outstanding and necessary technical discussions. That is my expectation. I hope this will happen but I am reluctant to give a definite date. The two groups, of 19 and 200 couples, respectively, awaiting adoption from Vietnam have been given many dates and I realise how very difficult this is for them.

Timeframes around adoption have been far too long. I am very dissatisfied with the length of time couples have had to wait for a first assessment. That has changed now but it is unacceptable to have to wait so long. I want to see a more efficient but also a thorough process. It must be both; there is no reason it cannot be both. That is why I stated we need to clarify the situation for couples in respect of the various states we discussed today in the Chamber, namely, Russia, Ethiopia, Florida and Vietnam. That is the reason I asked the Adoption Authority of Ireland to visit all those states to assess the situation. If necessary, I too will visit, but in the first instance it is for the AAI to assess and try to get clarity one way or another. Ireland can either have adoptions with Russia or it cannot. It is the same with Ethiopia.

That is the intention. I hope before the summer period we will have greater clarity on Vietnam and that an agreement can be concluded.

Some Deputies mentioned specific countries. My question concerns Russia. The Minister might outline some of the specific issues involved with that country at present. She might also spell out how she sees us working through them. I realise she wishes to stay away from giving actual dates but when does she believe these issues might be resolved?

I understand people looking for timeframes. It is what I would like to see. To arrive at a clear timeframe, we must look first at the situation between the two countries. If a country is not Hague-compliant, a bilateral agreement must be negotiated, as is the case with Russia, for example. I would not rule this out because it is a possibility. Given the large numbers of children who have been adopted from Russia, I understand perfectly that couples would wish to adopt from the same country. Even though it has not signed the Hague Convention, I believe we should examine the feasibility of entering into a bilateral agreement with Russia, and also with Ethiopia for the same reason. Many families have adopted from that country too.

I will outline the situation for Deputy Connaughton. I asked the AAI to meet the Russian authorities, which it did in December. There was a preliminary discussion about the potential for a bilateral inter-country adoption process. That was a follow-up to discussions in March which took place at the initiative of the Russian authority, something I take to be a good sign. I await a full report and some follow-up work from the AAI.

One of the issues is whether we can come to an agreement with the Russian authorities on post-placement reports. In the past, the Russian authorities have insisted on a type of post-placement report which is not constitutionally feasible for us. What appeared to be on the table from Russia would run into constitutional difficulties. It dealt with the follow-up process with families who had adopted. For us to allow, for example, visits to families to see how an adoption is going is constitutionally difficult. We see adoption as a final event, although many couples may be very happy to have a type of open adoption.

There are constitutional difficulties and that is the nub of the discussion. We have to work with the Russian authorities in this regard. I had a discussion with the Russian commissioner for children during which I explained the constitutional difficulties and he said that was useful information. I also asked the chairman of the AAI to further discussions to establish whether there is leeway and whether we can come to a satisfactory agreement. If these difficulties are considered to be a serious impediment, we are in a new scenario but efforts are being made to resolve this and I would like to bring it to a conclusion in order that families will know one way or another.

I referred to countries with adoptions open in my contribution, how many children might be available and the general information related to this for prospective couples. Is the AAI authorised to make that information public?

With regard to the assessment process, the 2010 Act deems that the HSE must carry out the assessments. All applications must go through the HSE and it can then accredit agencies. I am not sure if the Minister can answer this question. Three agencies have been accredited to date. PACT has carried out assessments on behalf of the Church of Ireland for some time. Have either of the other two agencies been given applications to process? The HSE has taken up to five years to process applications whereas Hague Convention countries take nine months. Can the Minister envisage the enhancement of the role of these agencies to bring the timeframe into line with other countries?

I will correspond with the Deputy regarding the detailed questions he has asked but, as far as I am aware, the three agencies have not begun carrying out assessments. The reason for that is a number of policy issues must be decided. For example, the agencies have to be financed and the issue is where the financing will come from. Will it, for example, be provided by the HSE or will there be a system of fees for couples? If such a system was introduced, equality issues would have to be examined. However, those policy decisions are on the table. I will come back to the Deputy about developments in this regard.

The numbers of inter-country adoption applications are reducing significantly due to a number of factors, including the uncertainty regarding various countries, improved fertility treatments and reduced family incomes. A range of factors have had an impact on waiting times, which have reduced considerably around the country. For example, there is no waiting time for a second assessment with the HSE and, in the Dublin service area, covering Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow, there is no waiting time for a first or second assessment. If the Deputy has information to the contrary, I would be interested to hear from him but circumstances have changed.

When clarity is provided by the various countries, we can expect the number of applications will increase and the accredited agencies will have a role to play. It is up to the HSE to discuss whether in terms of priorities it might make a decision in discussions with me that these agencies should conduct adoption assessments as opposed to the executive. However, finance is an issue.

The time for questions has concluded. I ask the Minister to make a statement in reply to the debate.

I thank the Members who contributed to this important debate. Clearly, there is huge interest in this area and, as Deputies McConalogue, Doyle, Harris and others said, people in every county have been affected and they are interested in inter-country adoptions. Ireland has wished to engage in such adoptions. Many children have been successfully integrated into families here from a range of other countries, including Russia, Ethiopia, the US and Vietnam. It is heartwarming to meet representatives of the organisations that have developed to support those families such as the Vietnamese, Ethiopian and Russian support groups. I have met all of them and discussed the issues that arise in the context of inter-country adoption.

I am sensitive to the issues raised by Deputies from every party. We do not disagree on them and every Member wants to lend his or her support. A wide range of issues arise currently because we are in a transition period. I want to achieve certainty and I have asked the AAI to bring as much certainty as possible as quickly as possible to the relationship between Ireland and the various countries mentioned. Deputies have asked for this and I will ensure the members of the AAI board are given a copy of the transcript of the debate in order that they become aware of the interest of Members and of the questions they have raised.

My Department and my officials are working hard on this complex area, which covers not only Irish adoption law but also the adoption laws of the countries to which I have referred. It must be ensured that the Hague Convention standards apply. Ireland has signed up to the convention and if we have bilateral agreements with other countries, we must be clear about the best interests of the child and that consent is freely given and ensure there is subsidiarity. In other words, the countries with which we are dealing must be committed to domestic adoption in the first instance before children are put forward for inter-country adoption. That is what we consider to be best practice and those are the standards that we will uphold.

We will ensure that the best interests of the child are paramount at all stages of the adoption process. A number of Members pointed out that if we had taken this debate a number of years ago, there would have been a different tone to it. We would not have referred as much to the best interests of the child and it is encouraging that many Members believe this needs to be at the centre of the adoption debate. Likewise, the children's rights referendum will be about hearing the voice of the child, putting the best interests of the child first and understanding that the child has inherent rights. We will have that debate during the referendum campaign but this is also relevant to the issues we have debated regarding adoption.

As Deputy Doyle said, parents experience great satisfaction and happiness from inter-country adoptions. The main aim is to provide children with an alternative family and, therefore, the child's interests must be paramount. It is through that prism that we have to view the ongoing discussions. I understand people's impatience in regard to finalising agreements with the various countries mentioned in the debate. The AAI has limited resources. I will ensure the organisation is provided with additional staff but there are many priorities relating to children. The first priority in my Department is the protection of children.

It is my intention and that of my Department to bring as much clarity to inter-country adoptions as possible in order that parents know precisely what is the relationship between Ireland and other countries. There is significant interest in this area and it would be worthwhile to organise a briefing for Members in the future. I undertake to do that given the level of interest. I thank Deputies from all sides of the House for their interest in this issue and for their contributions. Many questions were raised and I will communicate with some of the Deputies individually.