Priority Questions

Undocumented Irish in the USA

Brendan Smith

Question:

1. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the progress he has made in discussions with the US officials and President Obama regarding the E-3 visa programme for Irish citizens and the status of the undocumented Irish in upcoming immigration reform legislation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15822/13]

The position of undocumented Irish immigrants in the United States and the need to provide opportunities for future legal migration between Ireland and the USA through Ireland's inclusion in the E-3 visa programme are important priorities for the Government. Both objectives featured prominently in the meetings the Taoiseach and I held in Washington with the US Administration and Congress during the St. Patrick's Day period. Meetings took place with President Obama, Senators Leahy, Schumer, McCain and Isakson and several leading Members of the House of Representatives. I also discussed the prospects for immigration reform in my meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry on 6 and 18 March 2013.

The clear advice to emerge from these high-level contacts was that comprehensive reform remains the most likely way to resolve matters for the undocumented. The prospects for such reform have advanced in the wake of President Obama's re-election. He emphasised his commitment to achieving a positive outcome in his inauguration and State of the Union addresses and during his meeting with the Taoiseach and me on 19 March. Indications of emerging bipartisan support for reform in Congress are also encouraging. While work is under way in the Senate and the House of Representatives, full proposals have not yet been tabled and it is, therefore, not possible at this stage to identify an exact timescale during which progress might be achieved. It is also important to recognise that immigration remains a divisive political issue and that achieving a positive outcome will be very difficult. This issue will continue to receive the Government's closest attention in the period ahead.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply and welcome his assurance that this very important issue was raised in meetings with Members of Congress and the US Administration, including President Obama. Will he inform the House whether immigration reform generally or the specific inclusion of Irish citizens in the E-3 visa programme was raised with President Obama? While it is always difficult to predict the likely timescale for legislative processes to be completed, the electoral calendar moves faster in the USA than it does here as Members of the House of Representatives and certain Senators take part in the two year election cycle. Does the Tánaiste think there will be progress in the next 12 to 18 months? Naturally, we hope to see progress earlier. Constituents with family members in the USA have told us about their difficulties, which we have discussed in the House, on particular occasions when those family members have been unable to return. Will the Tánaiste provide the House with an assurance that the matter is being treated with urgency within the US legislative system and Administration?

There are two parts to the Deputy's question. The issue of comprehensive immigration reform which will address the needs of the undocumented Irish was part of the discussion. We also requested at our meetings that an E-3 visa arrangement be put in place for Irish people travelling to work in the United States of America. There are two parts to this, the first of which deals with the approximately 50,000 undocumented Irish in the United States of America who are part of a total population of 11 million undocumented immigrants living there and for whom comprehensive immigration reforms are being brought forward. The second issue is the question of an E-3 visa arrangement to enable those who want to work in the United States of America to travel there legally. Both issues were addressed.

On the question of the timetable involved, a cross-party group of eight Senators - four Democratic Senators and four Republican Senators - is working on comprehensive immigration legislation. Their work is continuing and we must wait to see what emerges. The expectation is that on the completion of the group's work, the matter will go to a Senate committee - likely to be the judiciary committee which is chaired by Senator Leahy - before being put before the Senate. Thereafter, it would have to go to the House of Representatives. We are maintaining a level of contact with key Senators, including those involved in the drafting of the proposals. We are also maintaining contacts with Members on both sides of the aisle in the House of Representatives.

Will the Tánaiste assure the House that we will not simply rely on the traditional supporters of Irish causes? It is an issue Deputy John Deasy raised previously. Is a specific effort being made to broaden the base of support within Congress for immigration reform and ensure the issue progresses? It is welcome that there are four Senators from the Republican Party and four from the Democratic Party. We need equal support from both sides of the Houses of Congress.

Considerable efforts are being made to speak to Senators and Representatives to ensure we widen the number of individuals to whom we talk beyond those Senators and Representatives who have provided very welcome support for Ireland and Irish causes in the past. I met Senator John McCain during my visit and spoke to him on the telephone some time ago. I spoke to Representative Jim Sensenbrenner who has an interest in the immigration issue. I engaged in discussions with Representative Paul Ryan who was the Republican Party candidate for the position of Vice President in the recent election. We are widening the number of individuals to whom we are talking and emphasising that we are talking to people on the Republican as well as the Democratic side.

Foreign Conflicts

Seán Crowe

Question:

2. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on whether EU member states should be allowed to send military weapons to the Syrian opposition groups; and if he supported or opposed this position at the informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Dublin on 22 and 23 of March. [15824/13]

Brendan Smith

Question:

4. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the progress made at the 22 and 23 March EU discussions on Syria; the future steps that will be taken by the European Union to address the problems; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15823/13]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 4 together.

At its meeting on 14 and 15 March the European Council asked the Foreign Affairs Council to discuss EU policy on Syria, in particular the question of the sanctions regime and the arms embargo in place until 1 June. These issues constituted the major topic of discussion at the informal meeting of EU Foreign Affairs Ministers which took place in Dublin on 22 and 23 March and which I co-hosted with High Representative Ashton. It was obvious at the meeting that all EU partners wanted to see an end to the relentless violence that had been visited upon the Syrian population in the past two years and the departure of Assad within the shortest possible timeframe. It was equally clear that all member states remained fully supportive of a negotiated solution to the conflict and the assiduous efforts being undertaken by UN and League of Arab States special envoy, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, to broker a political settlement. There is no disguising, however, that there are genuine differences of opinion about the best way of getting to that point.

A small number of member states have argued that to apply greater pressure to the Assad regime to engage seriously in political dialogue, the European Union should consider lifting partially the arms embargo in place to allow the supply of weapons and military equipment to opposition groups, notably the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army. I have made it clear to my colleagues in the various discussions which have taken place Ireland's strong reservations about any proposal to lift the arms embargo. This view is shared by a large majority of member states which also oppose further militarisation of the conflict. Lifting the arms embargo could trigger an arms race in Syria and neighbouring countries which, given existing threats, would be extremely perilous for the stability of the entire region. It is also clear, based on the advice of people such as Lakhdar Brahimi who are centrally involved in efforts to promote a political resolution, that arming opposition groups would seriously undermine whatever prospects there may be to make political progress, even if these remain fragile.

Despite the differences between us, there was a strong collective commitment at our Dublin meeting to maintaining EU unity on the subject of Syria. Without such unity, the European Union's ability to exert a positive influence on the situation and other key actors would be greatly diminished.

It was agreed that we should continue to discuss this complex issue, notably at the next Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg on 22 April, with a view to reaching agreement before the end of May, when the entire package of sanctions against Syria will be due for renewal. I assure Deputies that, together with our European partners, Ireland will continue to address the crisis in Syria as a matter of utmost priority. We will use whatever influence we have in our current EU Presidency role to support and promote the Union’s efforts and initiatives towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

The breaking news on television is that a mortar attack was carried out on Damascus University. It is reported that 15 students were killed and 30 injured in an attack on the canteen. We should express our sympathies to the families of those killed or injured. The attack was reportedly carried out by Syrian rebels and is another attack on innocent civilians in a bloody conflict. It has happened on all sides. The UN reports that 70,000 people have been killed since fighting began. We see an increase in the strength and deadliness of attacks. A recent report referred to a chemical attack in Aleppo, with the rebels supposedly involved in that attack. Britain and France have repeatedly threatened to veto the renewal of sanctions on Syria if they do not get their way.

I appreciate that the Tánaiste opposes further militarisation of the conflict. We need to see a complete cessation of hostilities, not an escalation, which is what will happen if we lift the embargo. Everyone is aware of the review of the embargo on sanctions by 1 June. Britain and France have previously threatened to go their own way. I accept the EU is divided on the issue. Will the embargo be binned or is there a chance France and Britain will do their own thing? What implications will it have?

I attended the interparliamentary conference at the weekend along with the Tánaiste. In debates on Syria, there was broad agreement across delegates from all countries, including Britain and France, that this was the wrong path. I welcome the firm statement by the Tánaiste today. People want to know what we can do in respect of Ireland being an honest broker. Are there channels of discussions with the EU during the Presidency? How can we enhance the channels and is there a possibility of a cessation? That is what we are looking for. Is the possibility a pipe dream at this stage?

I welcome the Tánaiste's statement. He is adopting the right approach. It is an important issue and I tabled a number of Priority Questions on it over the past months in view of the correspondence we receive from interest groups and the absolute humanitarian crisis that has erupted. Some 70,000 people have lost their lives. The Save the Children report referred to boys and girls being maimed, tortured and killed. Is the EU conveying to the United Nations that the United Nations has failed to act decisively on this issue? We know the type of veto Russia has been using. Can the Tánaiste assure us the Assad regime is not directing humanitarian aid to its supporters? The Tánaiste has received correspondence and seen media reports on aid being diverted by the Assad regime so the people most in need do not receive much-needed and belated humanitarian aid from across the world, including the European Union and the Irish overseas development aid programme.

I did not see the television report to which Deputy Crowe referred but I join him in expressing my sympathy and the sympathy of the Government to those who have been killed in Syria.

There is a continuing slaughter of people in Syria, as the Deputy said. Current UN estimates are that 70,000 people have been killed, although that may be a conservative estimate. Approximately 1 million people have been driven out of Syria altogether and are in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Approximately 2 million people have lost their homes. There is a huge humanitarian crisis.

One of the areas where the European Union is making a big contribution and where we, as a country, have made a very significant contribution is in the provision of, and funding for, humanitarian aid. The question of where humanitarian aid gets to is a problem. I recently discussed with OCHA and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva what needs to be done at a practical level to ensure humanitarian aid gets to where it is needed.

As regards the political path and the question of how we get a resolution to the crisis in Syria, it must be based around what Dr. Brahimi is doing. He is the UN representative and the representative of the League of Arab States. That must be supported by the UN Security Council. It has not been possible to get a robust resolution at the UN Security Council largely because Russia and China have vetoed efforts to get such a resolution. The European Union and individual member states have had discussions with Russia and China about the position they are taking on this because there is a necessity for the international community to speak with one voice on the issue. As a country, we have taken a number of initiatives to try to encourage that. For example, during the OSCE ministerial conference in Dublin, we facilitated a meeting between Dr. Brahimi, Foreign Minister Lavrov and the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, with a view to getting some progress on the situation.

It is against a backdrop of a degree of frustration that political and diplomatic progress is not being made on Syria. Meanwhile the Assad regime continues to be supplied with arms, as do some of the extremist forces in Syria. The question of whether the arms embargo should be lifted has been raised by some member states in the EU Foreign Affairs Council. There is a sanctions regime which, including the arms embargo, remains in place until 1 June. It will obviously be reviewed by the Foreign Affairs Council between now and 1 June. On the last occasion we looked at this, it was agreed there would be a variation of the embargo to allow for the delivery of non-lethal equipment, including protective gear, flak jackets, helmets and material that would protect people from attacks on them.

It is probably overstating it to say the European Union is divided because there is a unified position on Syria which has been agreed by the Foreign Affairs Council. However, it is no secret that some member states are seeking a relaxation of the arms embargo.

Alternative Energy Projects

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

3. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the European Commission's proposal to limit the use of crop based biofuels in transport by 2020 to 5%; if he will include this issue on the agenda of the upcoming Hunger Summit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15510/13]

My colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, takes the lead on Government policy in regard to bio-fuels. The EU Renewable Energy Directive 2009 requires that 10% of transport fuels should come from renewable sources by 2020. The directive also provided that the ongoing effects of its implementation be monitored by the European Commission. Following a number of studies, in October 2012 the Commission published a proposal to amend the Renewable Energy Directive and the Fuel Quality Directive. The Commission included a proposal that the 10% quota be reduced to 5%.

The proposal for a reduction to 5%, in conjunction with the incentives for advanced, or next generation, bio-fuels, signals the desire of the Commission to move towards the use of advanced bio-fuels made from feedstocks which do not compete with the production of food. While member states agree that the issue must be addressed, it is an extremely complex matter and there is no agreement yet on the appropriateness of a 5% cap.

Progress is being made in this regard at an ad hoc working group of the EU energy and environment Councils, with the objective of producing a progress report for both Councils in June 2013.

I share concerns that bio-fuel production, unless properly regulated, can have a negative impact on food production and food prices. Higher food prices accentuate the challenges faced by poor people in developing countries in accessing sufficient food and having a nutritionally balanced diet.

The international conference that the Government is hosting with the Mary Robinson Foundation, the World Food Programme and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research in Dublin on 15 April and 16 April will be a dialogue on the interlinked issues of hunger, nutrition and climate justice. The event will bring together a diverse audience, connecting key policy-makers and global thought leaders with local people and practitioners facing the realities of rising food prices, failed crops and malnutrition.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The objective will be to learn from practical experience and from robust evidence of local solutions to these challenges, which will be presented during the conference by representatives of grassroots organisations from developing countries.

This year, the international community will review progress on the millennium development goals, two years before the target date for their achievement. Policy discussions will also begin on the post-2015 development agenda. It is essential that these policy processes be firmly rooted in the reality of people’s lives and objective evidence of what has worked and what has not.

In hosting this conference, we hope to inspire new ways of thinking about global development challenges and to invigorate and broaden the debate, at all levels, listening to and learning from the experiences of local people, and rooting future thematic policy approaches in their lives and their efforts to cope.

It is rather ironic that the renewable energy directive, which has the grand ideal of working to combat climate change, should have such a negative effect. There is no doubt that the bio-fuel industry is driving land-grabbing in Africa. Some of the scientific data and reports we have received bear this out. Recently an NGO from Kenya told us about the circumstances in that country. It is reckoned that 40 million hectares have been taken from African land for bio-fuels since 2000, and this is having very negative effects, such as land displacement and evictions. These, in turn, cause hunger and water shortages. I will not address the labour issues associated with some of the companies involved.

Is Ireland supporting the reduction of the cap to 5%? When the Tánaiste addresses the Mary Robinson Foundation's conference, will he be saying that Ireland will support the 5% cap?

Ireland is supporting the 5% cap. As I indicated, the discussions are ongoing. They are quite complex in the sense that there are a number of countries, particularly in eastern Europe, that regard any change to the 10% cap agreed in the original directive of 2009 as interfering with their industrial status. There is considerable awareness about the discussions. It is hoped that some progress will be made. The matter is being discussed under the Irish Presidency. Everybody would like to see us begin the process of separating the approaches to bio-fuels that interfere with food production from those of producing fuels from waste and other materials.

It is recognised that much land has been purchased in Africa recently. Some of it has been purchased for the production of bio-fuels and some for other purposes. This could have an impact in a continent in which food security is a major issue. This is a major consideration that we are taking on board. It will be very much relevant to the conference to which I referred.

Let me refer to two excellent reports on bio-fuels. The first, Fuel for thought: Addressing the social impacts of EU bio-fuels policies, was produced by ActionAid, and the second, The Race for Land, was produced by the Swedish Cooperative Centre. They really provide great insight. The last thing we want is for Ireland to be giving aid to alleviate hunger while it is taken back owing to the energy issue, thus creating more hunger in Africa.

I look forward to supporting the 5% cap. There should be direct discussions with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on this matter in the interest of policy coherence.

I have seen the reports. Only yesterday I had a meeting with the Sierra Leone group, which produced a report on its concerns about what is happening in that country. This is very much taken on board. As the Deputy knows, Ireland devotes 20% of its overseas development aid to tackling hunger. It is the only country in the world that does so.

The area of hunger, nutrition and food security is central to our policy. I spoke as recently as yesterday with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, about his position on the negotiations taking place on the European Union regulation. We will be continuing our discussion in that manner.

As Deputy Pringle is not in the House to deal with Question No. 5, we will move on to Question No. 6.

Question No. 5 lapsed.