Priority Questions

Northern Ireland Issues

Brendan Smith


1. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the discussions he has held with the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in relation to the outbreak of sectarian violence in Belfast over the past number of weeks over flag protocols at Belfast City Hall; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1357/13]

In recent weeks we have seen widespread street violence in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. We have seen attacks on the Police Service of Northern Ireland, including the attempted murder of police officers and widespread attempts to intimidate public representatives and their families. I have condemned these events unreservedly. I have remained in contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, MP, and with the party leaders in Northern Ireland throughout these events. Over the past week I have spoken with Peter Robinson, MLA, Martin McGuinness, MLA, David Ford, MLA, Mike Nesbitt, MLA, and Alasdair McDonnell, MLA. I will be travelling to Belfast tomorrow morning to meet with the Secretary of State, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Officials from my Department continue to work closely with the British Government and political representatives in Northern Ireland to identify ways to address not just the current crisis but its underlying causes. Security co-operation between the Garda and the PSNI is at its most effective level ever. The PSNI is on the front line dealing with the violence of recent weeks and, with 99 police officers injured to date, I want to reiterate my steadfast support for that force in dealing with these difficult circumstances. I also wish to take this opportunity to put on record the Government’s abhorrence at the attempts on the lives of police officers.

The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to see an end to street violence. The rioters are in effect wrecking their own communities. This year has the potential to be a great year for tourism to Northern Ireland. That potential must not be jeopardised by the recent terrible images from Belfast that have been beamed around the world by international media. The economic cost of recent events is becoming apparent. Apart from the cost of the policing operation, which is estimated at £7 million, foreign direct investment, the retail trade and tourism are all at risk. The director of the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland has warned of the economic damage being inflicted on local businesses, tourism and investment.

It is my hope that out of this setback we will see a redoubling of efforts to achieve a genuinely reconciled society in Northern Ireland. It is a reminder to all that the peace process still has some way to go. Political co-operation and security co-operation on this island have never been better and we can rely on these relationships of trust and on the resilience of the Good Friday Agreement to create space for progress beyond the current difficulties.

The Tánaiste correctly stated that the street violence in Belfast and elsewhere and the attempts on the lives of police officers are unacceptable and reprehensible. These are issues that we believed had been thoroughly addressed. The past 40 days in Belfast clearly demonstrate the need for both Governments to continue to take an active interest in developing the peace process. We spoke previously in this House about the need for constant vigilance over the peace process. I welcome that the Tánaiste has been in constant contact with the Northern Ireland Executive at First Minister and Deputy First Minister level and with other party leaders. I ask him to ensure the message is passed on to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister that politics must be seen to work. It is not a question of emblems or street violence; it is about improving the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. We must bear in mind the comments by the leader of the SDLP at his party's conference in November, when he described the Executive as the stagnation of a complacent and paralysed institution which is not delivering to the people in the areas for which it has responsibility. It is important this message is transmitted clearly to political leaders in Northern Ireland.

I agree it is important that politics be seen to work. All of the political parties and political leaders in Northern Ireland work closely together to communicate a clear message that the street violence seen in recent weeks should not continue because it is damaging and unrepresentative of the people of Northern Ireland. We have been working very closely with the Northern Ireland Executive over the past couple of years. I noted earlier today that approximately 50 ministerial meetings have been held under the framework of the North-South Ministerial Council. These meetings deal with practical issues, such as transport, education and health services. I have remained in close contact with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as well as the Minister of Justice, David Ford, MLA. My colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, is also in regular contact with the Minister, Mr. Ford. I have also maintained close contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, MP, and her predecessor, Owen Paterson, MP. The purpose of our meeting tomorrow is to discuss with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister a positive way out of the current difficulties and to assure them of the support of both Governments in finding a solution.

In view of the disappointment expressed by certain communities in east Belfast to Members of this House, including the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and me, on the lack of progress on employment and educational attainment, will the Tánaiste be in a position to discuss with the Northern Ireland Executive and whatever communities he meets tomorrow the support that he can offer to advance bridge-building projects between communities? Nothing can justify the violence but investment in job opportunities and education and training is particularly important for areas that have suffered terrible deprivation over a long period. These issues were clearly outlined to us by representatives of communities which come from a different political tradition from most of us in this House.

My Department provides support through the peace and reconciliation funds and the anti-sectarianism fund for community-based projects which are aimed at building cross-community relationships in Northern Ireland. We also place a high value on funding from the International Fund for Ireland and the European Union's PEACE programme. One of the Irish asks in the negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework is successor funding for peace building and reconciliation purposes in Northern Ireland. I am hopeful that we will succeed in getting European Union funding in order to address the issues of disadvantage that lie at the root of some of the problems in Northern Ireland.

Use of Non-Conventional Weapons

Seán Crowe


2. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will support an international investigation to examine if the use of non-conventional weapons, such as chemical weapons and depleted uranium munitions, were used in Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza in November 2012; and if they were the cause of a rapid rise in the number of patients being admitted into hospitals in Gaza with grotesque injuries, that the Ministry of Health in Gaza said resembles the adverse effects of exposure to uranium or lethal chemicals. [1979/13]

In contrast to the 2009 conflict, no hard evidence has emerged to suggest that Israel used non-conventional weapons in Gaza in November 2012. While claims of this kind have been made, there has been no statement by UN organisations or reputable NGOs on the ground alleging the use of non-conventional weapons.

I have not seen any allegation to this effect from the de facto ministry of health in Gaza. As the Hamas authorities were one of the parties to the conflict, it would, of course, be desirable to have independent evidence of any such allegation. European and other diplomatic missions in the region, including those with professional military attachés, closely monitored the reports on the conflict and detected no suggestion of non-conventional weapons being used. There is, therefore, no basis on which to consider the international investigation the Deputy proposes.

Many observers can be shocked and misled by the dreadful injuries which modern conventional weapons are capable of inflicting. Ireland has stressed repeatedly, both internationally and directly, to the Israeli authorities that the use of conventional heavy weapons in a crowded and built-up area inherently risks serious and unacceptable harm to innocent parties, as has again turned out to be the case. The legitimate right of self-defence must be exercised in conjunction with the rights of others and the need to clearly distinguish military targets and avoid civilian casualties. It goes without saying that this should also apply to the deliberate firing of weapons by Hamas and others at civilian targets in Israel and the siting of weapons in civilian areas.

In 2006 the European Parliament adopted a resolution that called on the European Union and its member states to work hard to ensure the scope of the protocol to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons would be expanded to prevent the further use of white phosphorous shells and depleted uranium warheads against military and civilian targets. In the previous conflict in the area in 2009 Amnesty International found white phosphorous wedges in residential buildings in Gaza city and both it and doctors came out strongly on some of the weapons used. There were also reports on levels of radioactivity. I am basing my comments on the reports of some medics who suggest the burns they have come across in the latest conflict are not the usual ones seen as a result of the use of conventional weapons. I know the Israelis used a dense, inert metal explosive, DIME, which had a different impact with regard to the burns suffered as a result. Is the Tánaiste saying there is no demand to investigate what happened during the recent conflict and that there is no evidence from the region in that regard? We are getting our information second hand, but if there was evidence of the use of such weapons, would the Tánaiste support the view that these weapons should not be used in built-up areas or at all? There are many depleted uranium shells lying on the ground in some areas and we have received reports from hospitals that they affect children also. The doctors describe a Gulf war syndrome that affects many children. I would be surprised to hear these shells had been lying on the ground since a previous conflict and that they had not been used in the most recent conflict, but it is welcome if that is the case. If the view in the region is that there is a need for an outside investigation, would the Tánaiste support this?

We must deal with what we know. I would like to make it clear that non-conventional weapons should not be used at all. We do not have evidence that they were used, but we do have evidence of the considerable damage and deaths caused by the use of conventional weapons. Ireland was in direct contact with the Israeli authorities throughout the crisis, both through the ambassador here and through our embassy in Tel Aviv. We repeated our concerns about civilian casualties and the need to avoid further escalation, particularly through the possible launch of a ground campaign. We acknowledged, as was appropriate and as we had always done, Israel's right to protect itself and its citizens from attack, but we emphasised that this right was not a blank cheque. Any action taken must be proportionate and clearly distinguish between military targets and civilian facilities. During the recent crisis I made a number of public statements on this issue. We are also in regular contact with the UN agencies on the ground, particularly UNRWA. I met officials of UNRWA and other humanitarian agencies last January when I visited Gaza and commended them for their excellent work in challenging circumstances. I also met the director general of UNRWA, Mr. Filippo Grandi, when he visited Ireland last November. We have a very good donor relationship with UNRWA and discussed the situation on the ground.

I am working on information I have been given based on the reports of medics. However, I accept that information has not come across the Tánaiste's desk and accept what he has said on the issue. We know ordnance used in previous conflicts remains on the ground in the region. Previously, I referred to the fact that the head of the medical authorities in Gaza was an Irish passport holder. I suggest it would be useful, if the Tánaiste was in the region at some stage, for him or some of his officials to talk to that man about the difficulties that have arisen, particularly since the current conflict began. There are reports of unexploded ordnance used in the previous conflict, particularly in the border region where children are suffering from Gulf war syndrome.

My officials and I are open to receiving first-hand information, particularly from people working on the ground. Apart from that, this is a foreign policy issue which is a priority for the Government. I expect the Israeli-Palestinian-Middle East peace process will be the subject of discussions again shortly at the European Union Foreign Affairs Council. While the hostilities have now ceased, the situation in Gaza is very grim, largely due to the blockade. We will continue our efforts to try to secure a settlement and a way forward. In addition, we will also try to ease the hugely difficult living conditions for the people of Gaza.

Northern Ireland Issues

Clare Daly


3. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will raise on the UN Human Rights Council, the fact that the arrest of Irish citizens including Martin Corey, have been found to be in breach of Article 5(4) of the European Convention on Human Rights but that this has been overruled by the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the basis of closed evidence; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1603/13]

Ireland was recently elected to serve as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council for a period of three years, which began in January 2013. We have long championed the vital role of the United Nations in the promotion and protection of human rights and will continue to do so as a member of the Human Rights Council. I am aware of the case of the individual mentioned which is being monitored by officials of my Department. The British authorities have confirmed that he was released under licence in 1992. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland revoked that licence in April 2010 and the individual has, as a result, been in custody for the past two years and nine months. I understand an appeal in the case will be heard by the Supreme Court in Belfast in February. As the case is the subject of an ongoing legal process, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.

I do not really accept the Tánaiste's response. He is aware that a cross-party delegation of Deputies and Senators visited Mr. Martin Corey and others in Maghaberry Prison prior to Christmas. What we encountered there was a man in a very difficult situation, without him or his legal team being privy to the reasons for his incarceration. This is an incredibly difficult position for anybody to be in and clearly a breach of human rights, as laid down by the European convention which provides that people have a right to liberty, subject to lawful arrest and detention.

People also have the right to be informed of the charges against them. In this case, clearly, that right is not being upheld. Martin Corey's arrest was deemed to be unlawful, but that decision was over-ruled by the Secretary of State. I ask the Tánaiste to use his new offices on the UN Human Rights Council to bring this issue to the fore of the discussions that are taking place. To be honest, if he does not use his position on the council to advance human rights issues that affect our citizens, what is the point of it?

It needs to be made clear that this man's case is due to be heard by the Supreme Court in Belfast shortly. It would not be appropriate to have a public discussion on the merits or otherwise of that case in advance of it being heard. I am very much aware of the cases of a number of prisoners in Northern Ireland. I have discussed them with the current Secretary of State and her predecessor. They will be the subject of further discussions. The UN Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body that is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights and addressing human rights violations. There are circumstances in which individuals can make complaints through the council's mechanisms. In all such cases, individuals are expected to exhaust the appropriate domestic remedies that are available to them before they do so.

While the Tánaiste is quite correct when he says the case is due to be heard, it should be made clear that this man will have been incarcerated for almost three years by the time that happens. The courts have already heard his case and decided there was no basis for his original arrest. That decision was subsequently over-ruled on the grounds of closed evidence. Given that this scenario affects a number of prisoners in similar situations, as the Tánaiste has correctly said, I suggest that the whole idea of closed evidence, whereby the basis on which a person has been incarcerated is not disclosed to that person or to his or her legal team, is absolutely reprehensible. The Tánaiste indicated previously that he would meet the delegation that visited the North to hear our feedback on that visit, particularly regarding the circumstances of Marian Price, whom we also met and whose incarceration is somewhat similar to that of Martin Corey. On behalf of that delegation, I would like to reiterate the wish of the delegation to meet the Tánaiste at his earliest convenience to discuss the issues that have arisen from our visit. I appreciate that logistical difficulties made it difficult to organise such a meeting before Christmas.

Of course I am willing to meet the delegation that travelled to Northern Ireland. As the Deputy has acknowledged, there has been some confusion about the logistical arrangements for the meeting. I would be quite happy to have the meeting as quickly as it can be arranged. I would be particularly interested to hear the assessment of the delegation that visited the prison. I must make it clear that I do not want to comment on the appeal or on the legalities of the issue. I hope that can be accepted. I am concerned about the prisoner issue in Northern Ireland. It is and will continue to be the subject of ongoing discussion between me, the Secretary of State and our respective officials.

Northern Ireland Issues

Brendan Smith


4. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the steps he has taken in relation to requesting a full independent inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane since the publication of the De Silva report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1358/13]

Over 3,500 people died during the Troubles. The pain that their relatives and friends continue to endure to this day is considerable. There is no hierarchy of loss or grief for these families. They all seek the truth of what happened to their relatives. The Finucane family is no different in this regard. The Government continues to seek a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane, as committed to in the various agreements, on the basis of the findings of Judge Cory on the likelihood of state collusion. The work undertaken by Desmond de Silva QC can facilitate this by helping to ensure the inquiry does not need to be lengthy, open-ended or inordinately expensive. As I said when the report was published, we must build on the progress that has been made to date. In my contacts with Secretary of State Villiers following the publication of the report, I made it clear that the Government will continue to seek a public inquiry. The Taoiseach has passed this message to the British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron. I will continue to work with the Secretary of State to ensure the full implementation of all the agreements.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. He is right to make the point that there is no hierarchy of grief or pain for the families of the 3,500 people who died or the many thousands of people who were injured. The de Silva report clearly exposed the shocking level of brutal state collusion during the Troubles, which represented a dark chapter in this country's history. It is obvious that the publication of the report does not equate to the establishment of a fair and objective full investigation into the murder of Pat Finucane. In 2006, this House agreed an all-party motion that called for a public inquiry into the matter. That was also provided for in the international Weston Park agreement. Can the Tánaiste tell the House whether Secretary of State Villiers has indicated that the British Government will give further consideration to the all-party motion in which this House called for a full public inquiry to be held, in line with an international agreement? Did the Tánaiste raise these matters in his discussions with Secretary of State Villiers? If I recall correctly, the Tánaiste mentioned the last time we discussed this matter that he intended to raise the issue with the British Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Clegg, as well.

The British Government is aware of the Government's position on this issue. The Taoiseach has communicated that directly to the British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, and I have communicated it directly to Secretary of State Villiers. When I have had an opportunity to do so, I have raised it with Deputy Prime Minister Clegg and Foreign Minister Hague as well. The British Government decided not to hold a public inquiry in this case. Instead, it asked Desmond de Silva to carry out a review and to publish a report. The Government's position has not changed since I made a statement in the House after that report was published. We are continuing to seek a public inquiry. Concern has been expressed about the length of time a public inquiry would take and the amount of money it would cost, but I suggest the work that has been done by Desmond de Silva would facilitate the holding of such an inquiry. Given that a great deal of evidence has already been examined, the inquiry should not be protracted. A commitment to the holding of a public inquiry was included in the Weston Park agreement. Indeed, we were required under that agreement to hold an inquiry of our own - the ongoing Smithwick inquiry. Our view is that the full terms of the various agreements, one of which relates to the holding of an inquiry, should be implemented.

The Finucane family, which has been very dignified throughout its campaign for a full public inquiry, has completely rejected the report as a whitewash. I ask the Tánaiste to continue to pursue this matter with the British Government, especially given that an international agreement is being breached. As he said, the other part of the Weston Park agreement involved the establishment of a tribunal in this jurisdiction to investigate allegations of collusion. The Government implemented its part of the agreement when it established the Smithwick inquiry. Every opportunity at every forum needs to be followed up to ensure the British Government changes its mind about this issue. The de Silva report clearly outlines the brutal collusion by State forces in the murder of an individual.

I agree with Deputy Smith that the Finucane family, Geraldine Finucane in particular, have pursued this issue with great determination and great dignity. I spoke with Geraldine Finucane on the day the report was published. We agreed I would meet her and her family early in the new year to discuss where we go from here. I hope to arrange that meeting in the near future and to keep in close contact with her and her family about the issue.

Peace and Reconciliation Programme

Seán Crowe


5. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the programmes which will benefit from the €315,000 increase in Reconciliation and Cooperation on the Island services of his Department as laid out in Budget 2013. [1675/13]

With the move to performance budgeting in 2012, the layout of the Estimates has changed. All expenditure is now grouped under departmental programmes which combine administrative and direct expenditure attributable to each area of activity. In the case of programme C – Reconciliation and Co-operation On This Island, the overall allocation for 2013 is €18.334 million, a slight increase on the allocation for 2012. Overall, the Estimates for 2013 published on 5 December last in respect of my Department show a reduction of some €4.1 million for Vote 28 - Foreign Affairs and Trade, compared with the allocation for 2012.

In preparing the budget, every effort was made to protect direct expenditure and the direct programme expenditure allocations, comprising €2.7 million to support the reconciliation and anti-sectarianism funds and €195,000 to support the International Fund for Ireland, remain unchanged. The particular adjustments to programme C, shown in the Estimates, are the result of an updated estimate of the administrative costs attributable to the programme in light of the experience of the first year of the operation of the new performance budgeting system.

As well as incorporating the overall reduction in administrative funding, there has been some minor redistribution of expenditure across the various administrative subheads. Taking these adjustments together, the revised administrative allocation has then been associated with the relevant programmes according to standard criteria. It is this process that has resulted in a slightly higher figure being assigned to programme C for 2013.

The Revised Estimates volume, which will be published in the coming weeks, will provide more detailed information on all expenditure. That volume will take account of the 2012 outturn and will also include a number of adjustments, often technical, that are made as part of the budgetary process.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I welcome the fact there has been an increase in the reconciliation fund from the Department. However, I would like to know where the money is going, what groups avail of it and what type of work they are doing. It would be useful to get that information onto the public record.

This work is vital. As Deputy Smith said, some Members of the House recently visited Belfast and met people from south, north and east Belfast. We saw the actual work taking place on the ground, much of it funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is hugely important work and, if only for selfish reasons, we want to see it continue because the work these groups are doing will determine the type of society, country and people we will be in the future.

The flag flying issue creates problems for many of those groups. At the end of the day, however, reconciliation and equality is not about putting things on the back boiler. Rosa Parks did not one day decide "Oh well. I will sit down the back", and think about when it would suit people to change. Equality is very important to the whole work of reconciliation. It is about shared spaces.

A question, please.

It is about people being comfortable working together. That is part of the difficulty in regard to what is happening at the moment on the flag issue.

What is the Minister's view on how the flag issue and what is happening on the streets are affecting those groups? The trouble seems to be happening in isolated areas whereas the work is still going on outside the Belfast area and it is still going on in the Short Strand, in east Belfast and in communities like the Springfield Road, where houses have been attacked. The Minister talked earlier about the importance of politics. What more can we do, as politicians, to make this work, to bring about that shared space and to make people feel comfortable to be involved in this process?

First, in respect of the Estimate, which was the subject of the question, I would be very happy to take the opportunity at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade or the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, if the Deputy wishes, to tease through some of the detail. The 2012 Estimate was the first on which we undertook this performance budgeting. The idea was basically to reflect in the Estimate what the real cost of staff and all resources would be. To some extent, that is a learning experience and, in the adjustments in this year's Estimate, we have learned from this and are coming to the conclusion that we are doing more on the Northern Ireland side than was reflected in the 2012 Estimate. That is just a technical point.

In respect of the issue in Northern Ireland, one of the great strengths of the Good Friday Agreement was the idea of mutual respect - that there are two national identities and there is respect for each. As we move forward, it is critical that we retain that fundamental principle of the Agreement. We also need to understand and to be respectful of people whose identity is British and to be sensitive to that identity, particularly at a time of demographic change in Northern Ireland. Above all, this needs to be done in a collective way by all of the parties in Northern Ireland.

Everybody in Northern Ireland needs to feel at home and needs to feel comfortable, and we need to understand and be sensitive to that. Where we have to draw the line, however, is where the expression of that, or protest about that, spills over into the kind of street violence we have seen in recent times. As the Deputy said, we have to work on the ground in building up local communities and building cross-community relationships. That is where the anti-sectarianism and the peace and reconciliation funding of my Department comes in.