Other Questions

Trade Relations

Brendan Smith

Question:

79. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the effects on exports from Ireland as a result of the EU-Russian trade sanctions; the further trade opportunities that have been pursued by the Department to counter the negative impact of the sanctions on Irish exporters; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37720/14]

Given that Russia is the third largest non-EU export market for Irish goods, after the United States and Canada, the sanctions being imposed by Russia on EU exports have to be of serious concern to us. It is not just about the direct impact on Irish exports; the indirect impact also means there is more competition among European exporters for a smaller market share. Can the Minister of State give an indication of the particular initiatives that are being taken by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, or by the relevant State agencies, to address the difficulties that have arisen following the imposition of those sanctions?

I thank Deputy Smith for his kind words at the outset this afternoon. The crisis in Ukraine continues to be a major focus for the European Union. On 29 July last, the EU agreed a package of restrictive measures targeting sectoral co-operation and exchanges with the Russian Federation. These measures limit access by Russian state-owned financial institutions to EU capital markets, impose an embargo on new contracts for trade in arms, establish an export ban for dual-use goods for military end users and curtail Russian access to sensitive technologies, particularly in the field of energy. These measures came into force on 1 August. On 7 August, the Russian Federation imposed wide-ranging sanctions on food imports from the EU, the US, Norway and Canada.

In response to a marked intensification in fighting in eastern Ukraine, the EU moved last month to reinforce the restrictions put in place in July. They are carefully calibrated and can be intensified or lessened according to how developments unfold on the ground in Ukraine. The EU measures apply to future contracts and agreements. Our current assessment is that the direct impact on the Irish economy of these sanctions is likely to be modest. It is clear, however, that the retaliatory measures taken by Russia in August have greater implications for Ireland’s agrifood exports. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has described the ban as a significant setback to our strategic plans to further access the Russian market. He is fully aware of the need to seek out alternative markets for Irish agrifood exports. He has already had some success in this regard, with the recent opening of the Philippines to Irish beef, pigmeat and sheepmeat and Vietnam to Irish pigmeat.

The Commission has also introduced a range of supports for EU farmers, growers and producers to mitigate the impact of the Russian ban that will benefit Irish food exporters.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Specific measures are being taken by other Government Departments and their respective State agencies to examine potential in markets other than Russia in order to help alleviate the effects on exports from Ireland as a result of the EU-Russian trade sanctions, not least the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in view of market access for beef exports to Russia. My Department will continue to liaise with other Departments and State agencies, including in the context of the Export Trade Council, in closely monitoring the impact on Ireland of these sanctions and taking necessary steps as required.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. In 2011, we exported food and drink worth approximately €150 million to Russia. In the meantime, there has been a substantial increase in these exports. The Minister of State referred to a modest impact, but this does not include the displacement factor. I know someone who exports a substantial quantity of food to Britain. His competitors are from central Europe. If they cannot export eastwards as they traditionally do because their products have been banned from Russia, they will export westwards. As such, some of our exporters are facing greater competition. I hope that the relevant agencies are not just examining the direct impact, but also the indirect impact of displacement.

I remember reading a figure in an Enterprise Ireland report to the effect that its client companies accounted for approximately 45% of total exports to Russia.

A question, please.

Between 2008 and 2013, the growth in sales was a phenomenal 87%. This shows the potential of the Russian market. Will the Minister of State assure the House that his Department and the relevant State agencies besides Bord Bia will ensure that some initiatives are taken to seek markets for other sectors, given the possible displacement of our products from Russia?

Measures are in place specifically to seek other markets. The Deputy is aware that sanctions have only been in place for a number of weeks. Bord Bia has established a helpdesk for exporters. We must also acknowledge that the recent discussions on this difficulty give rise to the hope that a political solution involving the EU and Ukraine will be found. This matter has the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, our Department, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, and his Department.

I thank the Minister of State. Perhaps he or his officials might check something for me. I have received representations to the effect that there is still great scope for some sectors that are loosely associated with the agrifood industry, including genetics, ingredients, food technology and agricultural consultancy, to increase their trade with Russia.

Does the briefing note prepared for the Minister of State by his Department mention adverse currency movements in terms of the ruble-euro exchange rate that could impact on us? If not, perhaps he might check.

If the Deputy has been contacted by groups that believe there is some potential, Enterprise Ireland would be more than willing to engage with them. If he passed on their details, we would happily facilitate him.

We are trying to secure a competitive advantage in new markets across a broad range of sectors, including the most vital one of agrifood products. The State has done significant work on trying to attract markets in Russia. The recent development is a setback, but we must be conscious of the bigger picture and our place within the EU. At this point, the impact is modest. As with Ireland through Bord Bia and the relevant Departments, the EU has a broad range of measures in place to support exporters and mitigate the effect on businesses and people to the greatest extent possible.

As Deputy Kyne, who has tabled Question No. 80 is not present, we will proceed to Question No. 81.

Question No. 80 replied to with Written Answers.

Foreign Conflicts

Bernard Durkan

Question:

81. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the extent to which the international community can co-operate in its efforts to prevent the public executions of innocent civilians by hooded and masked executioners, whose disguise prevents subsequent retribution for war crimes; if specific initiatives may be taken in this regard at an early date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37685/14]

This question attempts to focus on the issues with which Members have been greeted recently on their television screens, whereby there appears to be a policy in some quarters to wear camouflage uniforms to the extent that those who carry out executions of innocent civilians cannot be identified in the context of a war crimes tribunal. My inquiry is to ascertain the extent to which we in this country can influence the international community with a view to taking some action that may be suitable in this context.

I thank Deputy Durkan. The murders to which he refers have arisen mainly in connection with the campaign of terror waged by ISIS across Syria and Iraq. I have been appalled by these atrocities and am of the view that there must be accountability for all such actions, including through referral to the International Criminal Court. The recent report of the United Nations Human Rights Council-mandated commission of inquiry on Syria reported extensive violations by ISIS, including summary executions, torture, enforced disappearances and forcible displacement. Ireland supports the ongoing work of the commission and regards its work of gathering records and evidence of war crimes as an essential component in achieving legal accountability for the victims of the Syrian conflict.

Terrorism poses a global threat and therefore requires a co-ordinated response from the international community. At EU level, a special meeting of the European Council in August called for accelerated implementation of a package of measures agreed in June 2013 concerning four priority areas, namely, prevention of radicalisation, detection of suspicious travel, investigation and prosecution and co-operation with third countries. The European Council will review this issue next December. More broadly, UN Security Council Resolution 2178 of 2014 on foreign terrorist fighters was adopted unanimously in September 2014. Ireland co-sponsored the resolution, together with 103 other states, which included all other EU member states. The terms of this resolution are consistent with the European Council’s conclusions. The resolution takes a comprehensive, human rights-compliant approach to tackling the foreign fighters problem in accordance with international law. It highlights the need to tackle the underlying causes of radicalisation through community outreach initiatives, while at the same time focusing on strengthening legal and security measures. This comprehensive strategy is very much in line with Ireland’s approach on the issue.

I thank the Minister for his reply and congratulate him and his colleagues on their appointments. I wish them well in their roles for what hopefully will be many a long day. The execution of innocent people or the prevention of normal society to function by people wearing masks or hoods appears to have become common practice. For example, when the Dutch authorities and the relatives of those lost in a recent air crash tried to recover their personal belongings and to visit the site, they were prevented from so doing by masked and hooded men in military uniforms. As a supplementary question, can I ask the extent to which Ireland and the European Union together can create an environment internationally whereby it may not be so desirable and possible for people to act in this fashion, be it ISIS or other bodies and agencies?

The Deputy is correct and I believe that Ireland can play an important role, together with other member states of the United Nations and the European Union, in ensuring there is a co-ordinated approach across a range of issues. The Deputy will be aware of the EU approach to combating terrorism in the region, as outlined. Developments, particularly in Iraq and Syria, were discussed at a special meeting of the Council in August. The Council stated it was appalled and condemned firmly the indiscriminate killings and human rights violations perpetrated by ISIS and other terrorist organisations. The Council stated its determination to counter the threat and increased its emphasis on stemming the flow of foreign fighters. I wish to state with particular reference to Ireland that there are a number of issues in which we can engage to ensure we also are tackling the underlying causes of radicalisation.

This is done through community outreach initiatives.

In terms of preventative measures, in this jurisdiction the Garda Síochána continues to monitor the movements of suspects and those involved in extremist behaviour. In tandem with the Garda, gardaí at the highest level operate a progressive community relations programme through the racial intercultural and diversity office. That office was recently the subject of favourable comment by the UN counter-terrorism executive directive. I am in constant contact with my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, who recently published new counter-terrorism legislation, the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2014, and, when enacted, that Bill will create three new offences, the first being public provocation to commit a terrorist offence, the second being the matter of recruitment for terrorism, and the third being training for terrorism. I assure the Deputy that we look forward to ongoing engagement at national level, international level through our EU colleagues and partners, and the wider international community through our membership of the United Nations.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Is there a danger that the European Union and United Nations may be intimidated by people from whatever background who carry out such executions? As a result of being unable to respond in a fashion likely to convince the perpetrators of the need to change their modus operandi, what can the international community then do to counter this kind of terrorism?

I assure the Deputy that the international community will engage at the highest level. Last week, I had an opportunity of attending a specially convened meeting by the Secretary of State, John Kerry, in the United States at which this matter was discussed. The Deputy will be aware that in terms of our international engagement from a political, security and humanitarian point of view, our strength lies in the political and humanitarian areas. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, is actively engaged in ensuring Ireland is to the fore in providing humanitarian relief aid across the region, including in Ukraine, as the Deputy mentioned, Syria and northern Iraq. From a political dimension, we are actively engaged at the EU Foreign Affairs Council level with our colleagues in the European Union and the wider community of the United Nations. First and foremost, we see a non-military solution to these crises throughout the region. We will, through political and diplomatic channels, actively pursue and spread, in so far as we can, diplomatic solutions to what are very real and serious problems from an international perspective.

Infectious Disease Epidemics

Brendan Smith

Question:

82. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the actions his Department has taken to address the ebola virus epidemic in west Africa; the specific projects funded by his Department in this area; the risk this epidemic poses to Europe and Ireland; the actions being taken to reduce this risk; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37717/14]

Last week, at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, representatives of GOAL and Doctors without Borders presented a frightening and horrific picture of what is happening in west Africa. We know that the current ebola outbreak has caused the deaths of at least 3,000 people and west Africa is experiencing the biggest outbreak of this virus ever known. The World Health Organization predicts there will be 20,000 cases by early November. Does the Minister think there is an adequate European response to this crisis? Is there an adequate response by the international community to this serious issue? It is difficult to have confidence when it is known the World Health Organization is the object of criticism, quite rightly, in regard to the delay of three months in identifying this particular virus.

Ireland is working directly in Sierra Leone and Liberia and internationally on a comprehensive and effective response to the ebola epidemic in west Africa.

I have just returned from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, where I saw for myself the devastating effects of the epidemic on people already coping with the impact of conflict and poverty. While in Freetown, I met with a wide range of people including the President of Sierra Leone, the Minister for Health, the Minister for Social Welfare and other senior members of the government, as well as the head of the new UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, UNMEER.
If one were to say there was a time lag in the response of three months, one must go directly to Sierra Leone and its response internally as a sovereign state. Ireland is playing a key role. We have a diplomatic mission there. Our ambassador to Sierra Leone, Ms Sinead Walsh, is working tirelessly in assisting the co-ordination of the containment response, and I pay tribute to her. If the response was slow for the first three months, in the past 72 hours there has been a significant ramping up of the international response through the WHO and organisations such as Concern, GOAL, PLAN - including PLAN Ireland - the UN infrastructure and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We have sought to influence the Government of Sierra Leone, because of the very poor state of its primary health care infrastructure and public health care system, to lift its response from government control and transplant it to international co-ordinated response. Although I am satisfied that the response is robust, sadly, the crisis will get worse before it gets better. I estimate, based on my interaction with agencies on the ground, that because of the very poor health care systems there, the numbers may be under-reported and will increase. It could take a number of weeks for all the organisations to get ahead of containment.

I welcome the fact that the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, visited the region and the substantial funding he provided. Hopefully, he will be able to provide more funding to assist in the very desperate situation. Has the Italian Presidency organised a special meeting of the Council of Ministers for international development to deal with the issue, help in co-ordination and ensure the funding provided by the EU and the individual countries is put to best effect? There is always an important role to ensure the public is conscious that the political system is reacting in a positive manner with the greatest possible urgency. Last week, I saw a statement attributed to the Italian Presidency and, unfortunately, it was more about doing something mañana than acting now. I hope the Minister and his colleagues, in every available forum, will ensure urgency is attached to the European response. The focus is shifting to what European countries are doing to ensure they are ready to deal with this very serious issue. Maybe it is a matter for the Minister for Health. Is there co-ordination at health service level throughout Europe on this very important issue?

We must see it in the context of where Ireland sits. Ireland is very much part of the international response which sits within the UN infrastructure where there is a special UN envoy, Mr. Anthony Banbury, who is on the ground in the three countries, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in particular. I did not participate in the donor conference in London last week because I was in Sierra Leone. The President of Sierra Leone was unable to attend the conference and we met him in Sierra Leone.

The issue here is not the monetary response per se. I am confident that, through the UN infrastructure, the political willingness exists given the mandate the United Nations has to deal with this. From a European Union perspective, I tend to agree with the Deputy's point in that there needs to be a more robust political response at an EU level to ensure that, with the €180 million which is committed by the EU, there is a political pressure or diplomatic effort applied in those countries as well as a medical and humanitarian response to ensure those systems-----

I request a little latitude, if I may - just 30 seconds.

I will get back to the Minister. Deputy Smith is entitled to ask another question.

One of the suggestions made at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade was that there should be a national co-ordinated response to ensure medical or nursing personnel, if willing to travel to the region to use their skills and knowledge in that area, will be facilitated with leave of absence. Will that be considered? Naturally, the co-ordination of funding was raised. As I stated earlier, it was terrifying to listen to those who had been out there in a medical capacity trying to assist the people. We should take the opportunity to compliment sincerely all of those working out there at the coalface, particularly the Irish NGOs and officials from the Department.

If Deputy Smith is talking about medical evacuations, there needs to be a greater degree of clarity such that when Irish people go out there to help in the effort, there is some degree of assurance that they can have a pathway back to the most appropriate treatment centre. The national response on this was discussed at Cabinet this morning. This will take an interdepartmental group because we need to ensure if there are persons coming back from west Africa who display symptoms that there is a clear pathway from their houses or places of work directly to a fully staffed and equipped hospital - wherever that may be within the country - and that there is a clear protocol. That is something that is being discussed. It is a live issue as we speak.

If Sierra Leonean health care workers are not working on the ground, for instance, because they may not have been paid for a number of months, and if they do not have confidence in their own system on the ground, and I can only speak for Sierra Leone, it is difficult to ask an Irish front-line health care worker to work in those circumstances. That is where the UN co-ordinator, Mr. Banbury, is working. He is working with our ambassador and Irish NGOs, such as GOAL, Concern and Plan Ireland so that there is a cross-sectoral approach to dealing with this. I am not saying one takes it out of Sierra Leonean hands, but one manages and internationalises the effort. It is only in the past 72 hours that we are seeing a major ramping up of that effort. I assure the Deputy that this is being discussed in terms of an Irish response on the ground if somebody should contract the virus when on Irish soil.

Shannon Airport Facilities

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

83. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will ensure Shannon Airport is not in any way being used to facilitate US military action in the Middle East; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37745/14]

After the last US war in the Middle East claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and utterly destroyed Iraqi society, the United States and its allies are bombing again in the Middle East. Already the indications are that the consequences will be disastrous. The Minister might be aware that in recent days, all the major al-Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan and the Middle East who were previously fighting against ISIS have pledged their support for it. Incredibly, against this background of a disastrous move by the United States to bomb in Iraq and Syria, we continue to facilitate the US war machine at Shannon and the Government, like its predecessors, refuses even to search the planes going through Shannon to establish whether they are carrying arms and whether they are participating in a war effort in what is supposed to be a neutral country. Can the Minister offer us any hope that the Government will do more than the previous Government to protect our neutrality against a background of US warmongering?

Successive Governments have made overflight and landing facilities available at Shannon Airport to the United States for well over 50 years. The Air Navigation (Foreign Military Aircraft) Order 1952 gives the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade primary responsibility for the regulation of activity by foreign military aircraft in this jurisdiction. Arrangements under which permission is granted for US military aircraft to land at Irish airports are governed by strict conditions. These include stipulations that the aircraft must be unarmed, carry no arms, ammunition or explosives and must not engage in intelligence gathering, and that the flights in question must not form any part of military exercises or operations. Under the Air Navigation (Carriage of Munitions of War, Weapons and Dangerous Goods) Order 1973, the carriage of weapons on commercial aircraft, including chartered civilian aircraft, is prohibited unless an exemption has been obtained in advance from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. The majority of US troops transiting through Shannon Airport are carried on chartered civilian aircraft. Where it is proposed that troops on such a flight should be accompanied by their personal weapons, an exemption request must be sought in respect of each individual flight.

There are no plans to curtail or to stop the movement of military aircraft through Irish airports and air space which takes place in accordance with those strict conditions. I am satisfied that the arrangements are fully consistent with Ireland’s policies and legal requirements, including our long-established policy of military neutrality which involves non-participation in military alliances.

I was one of the organisers of what was probably one of the biggest marches in the history of the State in 2003, namely, the march against the planned war in Iraq. At the time we warned that the US bombing campaign would possibly claim up to 50,000 lives. Some estimates suggest that nearly 1 million people died in the war, and certainly it was several hundred thousand. It was an utter disaster that devastated Iraqi society. Now, 13 years later the United States is doing the same thing again and already the consequences look disastrous. It is shoring up support for the crazy and dangerous people in ISIS among other extremists in the region and beyond. A potentially explosive and dangerous cocktail is being fermented by US bombing. Against that background and the clearly demonstrated support in this country over many years for Irish neutrality, how can the Minister justify the passage of US troops through Shannon Airport to conduct a disastrous repeat of the war we saw in the Middle East?

Likewise, how can the Minister justify the fact that the planes are never searched? He told this House that he depends on assurances from the American Government that it is not doing anything that it is not telling the Government. During the previous war the number of US troops going through Shannon dramatically increased and I have no doubt the same will happen again this time around. Why is the Minister allowing that to happen and not even searching planes when the US is involved in conducting a war?

The Deputy will be aware of long-standing practice in that regard. The more he wishes to alarm Members of this House and the Irish community, the more the issue becomes surrounded in hyperbole of a type to which the Deputy is most accustomed. Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me repeat that the use of Shannon Airport by US military is a long-standing practice that has been in place for more than half a century. The period covers many crises and military confrontations. We have never withdrawn or suspended the facilities at any stage during that period. The transiting of US troops and aircraft through our airport will continue to be subject to the strict conditions of which the Deputy is fully aware and which I have outlined to the House.

Let me assure the Deputy and the House that there are no implications arising for Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality, which involves the non-participation by Ireland in any military alliance.

We have not entered a military alliance with the US or any other country or organisation and permitting the use of Shannon Airport neither challenges nor undermines our position in any way. Of course there are strict rules and regulations. Deputy Boyd Barrett has made wild allegations on the use of Shannon Airport by US personnel time and again and if he has evidence that Ireland is in breach of national or international obligations he should come forward with it.

The problem is the Minister told this House that foreign military aircraft passing through Ireland with the permission of the Government are not subject to routine searches or inspections. How can we get evidence when the Government refuses to search the aircraft? The Government relies on assurances given by the US Government - the same government that told us there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and used that lie to justify the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the devastation of society in that country. The current actions of the US Government are even more dangerous and this is not my hyperbole as, in a recent interview with "USA Today", the former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, Mr. Leon Panetta, said we are now looking at a 30-year war. A lead spokesperson for the al-Nusra Front, which operates in the area of Syria near Irish troops and previously fought Islamic State, ISIS, was recently reported as saying it may support ISIS to fight the foreign crusader. Numerous groups are starting to support ISIS because of US bombing and Ireland is facilitating the military machine that is involved in that disastrous policy. Does this worry the Minister? Irish troops are in the area and Shannon Airport is facilitating this.

I assure the Deputy we will follow the practice of successive Governments on this, in accordance with international practice. My Department and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport are kept fully informed of all developments. In spite of his assertions to the contrary, the Deputy will be aware that the vast majority of the flights in question concern civilians and have no military capacity.

The aircraft have troops on board.

There may be troops but the transit of troops is in accordance with long-established practice.

There is time for brief supplementary questions from Deputies Timmins and Wallace.

I come at this issue from a different angle to Deputy Boyd Barrett but, in fairness to him, this matter has been on the agenda for over ten years due to the ambiguous type of neutrality adopted by Ireland. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, would do this country a great service if he opened a debate on Irish neutrality, given the sham neutrality that has operated here. Successive Ministers have lacked the political and moral courage to have such a debate.

The Minister must have felt inadequate when he was in New York recently due to the Irish position on this. I heard his response to earlier questions but is there not something inadequate about a nation that refuses to defend what it believes to be right. It is time we matured and this Government should give the Irish public an opportunity to pass judgment.

The Minister says Ireland's military neutrality has not been breached, our non-participation in military activity is solid and we have not breached our international obligations. I beg to differ. Can the Minister explain why Shannonwatch has reported a serious increase in activity in recent weeks? The use of Shannon Airport by the US military is directly linked with the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, a region that has been destabilised and devastated beyond recognition by US military activity. When will Ireland work for peace in the Middle East instead of supporting those who favour war and the arms industries that put them in power?

I assure Deputy Wallace that Ireland will continue to use its powers to promote peace and diplomatic relations. As I said in an earlier reply before the Deputy entered the House, Ireland always opts for political, diplomatic and humanitarian aid solutions over military solutions.

The Government facilitates those who favour military solutions.

Deputy Timmins wants to join NATO.

It strikes me as extraordinary that Deputy Finian McGrath, the Reform Alliance and Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett appear to be ad idem on this.

Deputy Timmins wants to join NATO.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I inform Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett that, in accordance with international best practice, foreign military aircraft passing through Ireland with the permission of the Government are not subject to routine searches or inspections.

The principle of sovereign immunity applies automatically to foreign state or military aircraft in the same way that it applies to Irish State or military aircraft abroad.

Why did Bank of Ireland close Cuban accounts?