Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)

Official Engagements

Joe Higgins


1. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the Lebanese Prime Minister and other local officials; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26762/14]

Joe Higgins


2. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to the Middle East. [26763/14]

Richard Boyd Barrett


3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the discussions he had on his visit to the Middle East in relation to Gaza and the humanitarian crisis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39814/14]

Richard Boyd Barrett


4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he discussed the crisis in Iraq and Syria with the Lebanese Prime Minister; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39815/14]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

I travelled to Lebanon on 15 June 2014 as Taoiseach and at that time also as Minister for Defence. I was accompanied on the visit by the Chief Whip and Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe. The purpose of the trip was to meet Irish troops serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL. During my visit I also met the Lebanese Prime Minister, H.E. Mr. Tammam Salam. Items discussed at the meeting included Ireland's contribution to UNIFIL over nearly four decades, for which the prime minister expressed gratitude; the security, political and humanitarian position in Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory, and the burden this has placed on Lebanon; developments in Iraq; internal political developments in Lebanon; and the further strengthening of bilateral relations between Ireland and the Lebanon. I also announced an additional €2 million in support for Lebanon to address the humanitarian crisis arising from the presence of 1.4 million refugees from Syria. The prime minister expressed his deep appreciation for this and for Ireland's support for the humanitarian crisis to date.

I then travelled to the headquarters of the joint Finnish and Irish battalion in south Lebanon, where I met UNIFIL deputy force commander, Brigadier General Kumar, and the Finnish and Irish battalion chief of staff, Major Ollonqvist.

I received a briefing on the mission from Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Campion, officer commanding the 45th Irish infantry group. I then took the opportunity to spend some time with the women and men of the 45th Irish Infantry Group, who proudly wear the Irish uniform and the blue beret like so many others, past and present, in Lebanon and other locations around the world. It was a pleasure and an honour to meet them and convey the gratitude of the country for the work they and so many others are doing and have done over the years as part of our contribution to UN peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts around the globe. That afternoon I laid a wreath at the Irish UNIFIL memorial at Tibnin, south Lebanon, dedicated to the memories of the 47 Irish personnel who died in service with the United Nations in Lebanon. I returned to Ireland later that evening, Monday, 16 June.

Does the Taoiseach accept that the general policy of Irish Governments towards the Middle East has had zero effect? It has had no beneficial effect on the lives of those suffering in the region. Does the Taoiseach agree that this is the case because this Government and its predecessors subordinated their policies to those of major imperial powers, such as the United States, Britain, and, latterly, the European Union? The history of such powers in the Middle East has been one of slaughter followed by the theft of natural resources. Does the Taoiseach agree that the Irish Government colluded in the monumental lies relating to weapons of mass destruction told by the United States and Britain to justify the invasion of Iraq?

On Gaza, what has the Irish Government done that might allow it to stand proud in front of the world? What has it done regarding the slaughter of the innocents by the Israeli regime in successive invasions of Gaza? An entire people, confined in horrific conditions in the largest open-air prison camp in the world, has been pulverised, as has its infrastructure. The most recent bombardment of Gaza by the Israeli regime was a crime against humanity. What has the Taoiseach done about this horror, even within the confines of the European Union? Does the Taoiseach feel it is incredible that the state that has perpetrated this horror on an entire people gets preferential trade treatment from the European Union? European Union funds play a role in research programmes that build and design the increasingly horrific weapons that rain from the sky upon the people of Gaza. Does the Taoiseach find this acceptable? I have not heard him object to it.

Does the Taoiseach feel any responsibility to take a stand on the Middle East? If he took a stand the Taoiseach could visit the region and be greeted by ordinary people, but he does not do so. Neither this Government nor its predecessors ever took such a stand.

The Deputy raised a number of issues of global importance. The entire region of the Middle East, from Afghanistan to the northern Mediterranean countries, is huge and is host to tension, civil wars, slaughter, anxiety and geopolitics. The United States has withdrawn troops from Afghanistan and is considering doing so elsewhere. There are situations of conflict on the Turkish border and in Libya and over 1.4 million people have entered south Lebanon from Syria. Further, over a million people have entered Jordan from Syria. None of the countries in question can withstand such pressure and there is no strategic plan to deal with the assimilation of such massive numbers of people. The humanitarian programme to feed people and provide a minimal level of comfort is haphazard.

I agree with the Deputy that it is not acceptable for missiles to be fired into Gaza. The behaviour of neither side is acceptable. It is not acceptable for rockets to be fired indiscriminately from Gaza into Israel. The Deputy is well aware that the complex politics of Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and the surrounding countries have gone on for more years than the combined period he and I have occupied seats in this House. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade was in Cairo on 12 October to attend a major international conference, hosted by the governments of Norway and Egypt, on the reconstruction of Gaza. Representatives of more than 60 countries and international organisations attended and the Deputy is aware that this is not the first time the partial reconstruction of Gaza has been necessary. When I was in Gaza I saw buildings wiped out and the international school flattened. It is a horrific situation where there is 75% unemployment and many children and adults must be fed and looked after on a daily basis. Some €2.5 billion was allocated for the reconstruction of Gaza, and Ireland contributed a further €2.5 million towards the humanitarian response. Some €500,000 has been made available for displaced people with humanitarian needs as winter approaches, as well as €2 million for long-term goals including reconstruction, housing and essential infrastructure. Water presents an enormously complex problem in Gaza, as many wells there have been destroyed and poisoned. It is often necessary to bring in water from outside sources.

I am in favour of neither the firing of missiles into Gaza nor the indiscriminate firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel. Ireland is a small country with experience of conflict and 30 years of terrorist activities; therefore, we know that a situation can be brought about in which people sit down to negotiate peace and give hope to people. I hope wise heads get together to say that this wanton slaughter cannot be allowed to continue. The situation in Gaza and elsewhere must be addressed by powers greater than ours. We must consider the situations in Syria and Libya. We must look at the Assad regime and the mercenary opposition. We must consider the consequences of all this for hundreds of thousands of families in south Lebanon and Jordan. We must look at the situations in other countries in the same way.

Let us consider the slaughter of Christians in Afghanistan and the situation arising on the Turkish border with ISIS.

The Deputy asked what Ireland has done. We have contributed where we have had to in Lebanon. We are contributing in a very tense situation in the Golan Heights. The Irish contingent is exceptionally well trained and kitted out. Those involved are doing an exceptionally competent and professional job in difficult circumstances. We have contributed, as we always do, from a humanitarian perspective. Not only that, we have contributed through the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council directly. We have pointed to our experience in which we found that at the end of the day one must sit down and negotiate to reach a situation in which peace can be brought about and, hopefully, continue.

The complexities of politics, peoples and countries in that vast region have existed for 2,000 years and, unfortunately, the historical cycle has repeated itself at intervals during that period. Allegiances to one country have transferred to others in that time. Certain regimes and dictatorships have waged war on their own or different tribes because of religious beliefs or whatever. These things have been to the fore for centuries in the region. This does not mean we should not contribute what we can or attempt to play our part in bringing about some sanity in a situation in which millions have been unnecessarily slaughtered. We contribute through the United Nations, the Cairo- and Norway-hosted talks and the European Council, and we will continue to do so. Clearly, it is not the case that Ireland can sort this out on our own. We can contribute in a small but effective way to an overall programme which, I hope, will bring about some semblance of sanity in the region.

The greatest slaughter that has taken place in the Middle East in recent times was not, as the Taoiseach has suggested, a result of the people of the region slaughtering each other. The greatest slaughter in the region arose when the United-States-led coalition bombed Iraq back into the Stone Age and, in the process, according to some estimates, took up to 1 million lives directly or indirectly. This was the result of that barbaric assault. We are witnessing the bitter fruits of that US-led war now, as Iraq and Syria disintegrate.

If the Taoiseach is concerned about these things and wishes to make any contribution to resolving them, I call on him to undertake a simple thing. Will he join the international calls that are rising to de-list the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK, from the international list of terror organisations? If there is one bright spark in the disastrous situation that is the Syrian nightmare, it is the resistance in Kobanê against ISIS. That resistance is telling, because one of the first places in the Kurdish areas of Syria in which the people liberated themselves from the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad was Kobanê, where the people rose up in a united movement of all the different tribal, religious and ethnic groups against his dictatorship. These same people are now fighting to defend themselves against the onslaught of ISIS. Those who represent the genuinely revolutionary forces in Syria and who have opposed Assad and ISIS in Aleppo have made their views clear. They raised a banner in the past week in response to US bombing in Syria. It read: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Albert Einstein." Below that were the words: "Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003, Syria 2014." The very people who have been the biggest victims of Assad and of the chaos ensuing from the ISIS offensive are calling for the cessation of the bombing to let them sort it out. They are calling for the resistance organisations that are fighting ISIS to be de-listed from the international terror list and for pressure to be put on the Turkish Government to lift its blockade, which is preventing Kurdish fighters from getting into Kobanê to help with the defence against ISIS.

The extraordinary hypocrisy of Turkey in essentially allowing the slow strangulation of Kobanê because of its fear of the Kurdish movement for self-determination is sickening. The international community needs to raise its voice and support the Kurdish people, their representative organisation in Kobanê, the PKK, and other groups that are fighting ISIS. That is what the Taoiseach should do if he really cares about what ISIS is doing and the threat it represents, and that is what they have said. They have asked the international community to tell the Turkish Government to stop the blockade preventing Kurdish fighters from getting in to defend Kobanê, and they believe they can sort ISIS out. The last thing they need is US bombs. In fact, US bombs are cementing support for ISIS among groups that had been previously fighting against it.

Recently in the House we were discussing the position of Irish troops on the Syrian border at the Golan Heights. The Minister said we need not worry about Irish troops in the buffer zone because it was not ISIS that was active in the area but al-Nusra Front. Does the Taoiseach know what al-Nusra Front is? It is an al-Qaeda affiliate. Our Minister was saying that we need not worry and that Irish troops were totally safe because the only active militants in that area were from al-Qaeda, which is fighting against ISIS. In fact, since the US bombing started, al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked organisation, has made the case that the big enemy is the United States and that it will start to back ISIS from now on. The bombing has been counterproductive. The West needs to cut through all of that and simply allow the people who are resisting, the genuine revolutionary forces in Syria, to conduct their resistance against ISIS rather than manipulating the situation for its strategic interest. I am asking a specific question. Will the Taoiseach join the international calls to de-list the PKK from the list of international terror organisations, since it is fighting ISIS and defending Kobanê?

The true toll of the devastation in Gaza is only coming to light as the dust settles on the brutal 51-day assault by Israel. The consequences are absolutely devastating. Fully 13% of Gaza's housing stock has been destroyed in the offensive. A total of 20,000 housing units have been totally destroyed, leaving more than 108,000 people homeless. A total of 15 of Gaza's 32 hospitals have been damaged and six have been forced to close. Fully 45 of the 97 primary health care centres have been destroyed or badly damaged and 17 have been closed altogether. It is an absolute disaster. Against this background, will the Taoiseach please stop equating the firing of a few rockets from Gaza into Israel - with which I disagree - with this extraordinarily barbaric level of destruction of Gazan society? Will the Taoiseach join Desmond Tutu, who has called for the international community to boycott Israel? He said:

Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of “normalcy” in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice.

He is saying that in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians there must be a boycott against the Israeli state for what it is doing to the Palestinian people. Will the Taoiseach join Desmond Tutu in supporting that call for a boycott?

These are issues that always require an amount of concentrated negotiation before one can peel away problem after problem, like the layers of a vegetable, and expose the real nub of the matter, which dates back many years. On the second Iraq invasion, I could never understand why Mr. Blix was not given another six months to determine that there were no weapons of mass destruction readily available in depots all over that country, as was proved to be the case. However, geopolitics played their part in that regard.

The Deputy will recall from his own analysis of the history of the region the support for different regimes from different countries, how they changed and how the religious conflict can and has flared up in so many cases. Obviously, the people of Gaza made their decisions in the elections they held. Then there were the difficulties with the tunnels, access from Israel, the offers made and the negotiations that broke down. I saw some of the shells of the rockets fired from Gaza. They had been poorly manufactured in the early stages. Some of them that have been imported from other countries have been more sophisticated, with direction finders and global positioning system, GPS, locators. It is not true to say one just disagrees with this; we disagree with both sides very strongly, both at the level of engagement from Israel into Gaza which has resulted in the total destruction of regions in Gaza and the indiscriminate firing of more sophisticated rockets than previously from Gaza into Israel.

The Deputy is right that this is not the first time there have been reconstruction programmes in Gaza. I hope it will be the last, but given the nature of the historical series of engagements in that unfortunate area in the last 100 years, one would have to be very strong in one's faith to believe something might not happen again. For now, at the conference hosted by Norway and Egypt there were pledges of $4.5 billion for the region, of which $2.5 billion is directly for reconstruction in Gaza. Obviously, there is an international logistics issue regarding equipment, transport and capacity to build in the hope it might not happen again.

I have disagreed for many years with the housing policy adopted by Israel in areas of the West Bank in terms of the difficulties it causes. However, I am aware from attending European Council meetings that, for example, the sanctions imposed on Russian oligarchs have begun to bite from an economic point of view, but these things are not as easy as they appear when people suggest boycotts in either direction. The connections in terms of energy and industrial supplies either way mean that even in a situation where there have been mercenaries and military personnel unofficially or supported unofficially in Ukraine, it still means that one must do deals in respect of business and energy supplies for huge numbers of people facing into exceptionally cold winters.

I prefer the negotiation route, where people have the understanding or the courage to come to a table and hammer out the arguments and discussions to a point where they can reach a conclusion. We have all supported for a long time the two state solution of Palestine and Israel, but it is based on a conclusion being reached. It was the late 1940s when it was put in place in the first instance and it has been broken on many occasions since. It was never possible to put it in place in a lasting way. I do not agree that a boycott is the solution. It is not the first time that difficult and complex discussions and negotiations have taken place. Ireland, as a member of the European Union, has urged the parties to sit down and get together in a way that I hope could bring about a conclusion.

As the Deputy says, when one travels through portions of Gaza, one sees what happened - the children at the seaside, the wells destroyed, schools destroyed, the numbers that must be fed with humanitarian aid every day and the blockade of the sea - but there are the other arguments about the transportation of explosives, rockets and so forth, the political situation in Gaza and the support that comes into the country. These are all complex issues. I am glad that there is now a fragile peace and hope it will last in order that reconstruction can start and people can put some shape on their lives in respect of all those who were blown away by the 51 day barrage. It is one area of the Middle East that is riven with tension and war and it will not be sorted easily.

I accept the Deputy's point about the situation in Kobane. We have had discussions about the mercenary opposition in Syria. These are collections of personnel which are not really an opposition force and in many cases they have carried out worse atrocities than others. The Assad regime has Russian support. It is an atrocious situation. Libya is on the verge of civil war. There are 1.5 million refugees in south Lebanon and over 1 million in Jordan. Now Kobane is under siege. In the Iraqi area the airstrikes or military action must be sanctioned by the Iraqi Government, but no sanction has been given for anything in the case of Syria.

It is an exceptionally complex issue and I doubt that we will sort it out at Question Time today.

I had the privilege recently to meet Dr. Maqadma, the UN Relief and Works Agency chief for the medical field programme in Gaza. He was in Ireland at the invitation of the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union, SIPTU, health division and gave me and others a first-hand report on the situation in Gaza as he had been there during the recent onslaught. It is a frightfully dreadful picture. Nothing I saw in the North compares with the plight of the people there. Perhaps the Penal days or some other point was comparable but nothing in recent times, as the Taoiseach knows as he has visited the area.

The Government has the wrong starting point. The starting point must be the Government stating it wants to do something about this issue, but it has not taken that decision. Once one takes that decision, it is A, B and C stuff. The Israeli Government is in breach of international law. The separation wall and the blockade of Gaza are in breach of international law. The settlements are illegal and in breach of international law. The apartheid system being put in place on the West Bank is also in breach of international law.

I have raised these matters with the Taoiseach since I became a Member of the House. I have referred to reports from EU heads of missions and other reports, put them before the Taoiseach and asked him to raise these matters, but he did not do so. During the recent onslaught the Irish Government abstained in a vote on a UN committee probing what was happening. If we do not stand up for international law, who will? As the Taoiseach acknowledged, we have a history both of resistance and, recently, peace-making. If he decided to do something about this, he would raise these matters in all the appropriate fora in which the Government is represented.

I have raised these issues with the Taoiseach, the former Minister, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, and the current Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, ach táim an-mhíshásta lena bhfreagraí. Again, I make two suggestions which I have put to the Taoiseach in the past. One is to upgrade the Palestinian mission in Ireland.

This has nothing to do with anybody else. The mission is not afforded the same privileges, immunities, exemptions and facilities as are granted to other diplomatic missions in Dublin, pursuant to the provisions of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. A simple act will afford recognition of the Palestinian state and its people.

The Swedish Government recently announced that it will recognise the state of Palestine and Sweden was the first long-term European Union member state to do so. Will the Government follow Sweden's example and take the same decision, which is entirely within its province and authority?

The Taoiseach conceded that the most recent destruction of Gaza may not be the last time it experiences such destruction. We all welcome the money the Government has contributed towards Gaza's reconstruction. Dr. Maqadma stated that the recent destruction was the second time Gaza had experienced such destruction in recent times. Will it happen again?

Will the Taoiseach highlight Israel's breaches of international law? Why does he not state clearly that illegal settlement expansion should stop and that the separation wall, blockade of Gaza and apartheid system are wrong? Upgrading the Palestinian mission and recognising the state of Palestine would not be a judgment on the people of Israel. These steps would simply afford to the Palestinian people the same recognition that has been afforded to the people of Israel.

On behalf of my party, I express appreciation to the Defence Forces for the work they have been doing in Lebanon for many years. The Irish nation, through its soldiers, has made a distinguished contribution to peace, particularly in Lebanon and the Golan Heights. The House does not often collectively acknowledge the practical contribution of the nation, as opposed to the Government, in providing assistance in the Middle East. This contribution is highly appreciated and well regarded in the region. I recall that on a visit to Lebanon after some of our troops had been deployed to other locations and the Defence Forces strength in the region had diminished, there was a clamour for Irish troops to return because of the sensitive manner in which they operated and their overall approach.

Ireland's contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, in Gaza over the past five or six years has been good. The current head of UNRA and his predecessor, Mr. John Ging, have been appreciative of Irish Aid's commitment to the agency. Without UNRWA, the people of Gaza would be in an appalling position. The agency, one of the unsung heroes of the region, does not receive the support it needs from the United Nations or the major powers. It is the key to the region in terms of education, health and basic humanitarian services. I ask the Taoiseach to review the budget of the wider Irish Aid programme to establish whether we could do more for UNRWA and the citizens of Gaza in the aftermath of the appalling savagery of the recent conflict.

When the Government came to office, it took the decision - the wrong one in my view - to adopt a very pro-Israel stance. This decisive shift in Ireland's relationship with Israel clouded the Government's response to issues as they unfolded. During the onslaught on Gaza, the Government was slow to come to the table in terms of condemnation and it equivocated in the early stages of the bombing about some of what was taking place. It is not logistically possible to bomb Gaza without killing innocent women and children. I have always condemned Hamas rocket attacks on Israel but the response to these attacks has been utterly disproportionate and has resulted in an unacceptable loss of life. While I accept the legitimacy of the Israeli state and believe in its viability, Israel's strategy and policies have served to support extremists in the Palestinian world and have continuously alienated moderate Palestinians. Time and again, Israel has left President Abbas beleaguered.

The ongoing discussion about a two state solution has to some extent served as a cover for the diplomatic responses to events as they unfold. Many states and the European Union indicate they are fully in favour of a two state solution, which could be achieved if only people would come together and talk. It is time to face the reality that Israel may not be in favour of a two state solution as all of its policies appear to be aimed at ensuring it is never achieved. By continually promoting and developing settlements, Israel is ensuring that a two state solution will never be viable. The settlements are growing and expanding without regard to international law and Palestinian rights are cast aside time and again.

At some point, anyone who looks at a map of the region and asks where the two states are will conclude that it is not viable to have two states, the reason being the urge of the Israeli Government to pursue a never-ending policy of settlement. This strategy is designed to ensure the two state solution will never be viable. In essence, Israel's approach is one of containment; in other words, it seeks to contain Gazans in the Gaza Strip and manage the Fatah Government in the West Bank by keeping it on a drip feed which is cut off every time it becomes boisterous or objectionable. That is essentially what is happening and it creates a very difficult situation.

What should Ireland do? We should recognise the state of Palestine. Israel has strongly resisted moves towards recognition and most countries in the European Union and most members of the Quartet do not favour pursuing this option because they want talks on a two state solution to commence. In their view, we should give talks a chance and the recognition of Palestine would cause further difficulty. At this stage, we should read the tea leaves because there will not be a successful talks process. When President Obama was first elected, he put his reputation on the line by appointing George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy. Prime Minister Netanyahu defied Mr. Mitchell, saw him out and created pressure in the United States to ensure the peace initiative to which the president was committed would not work. While I believe the efforts of John Kerry are worthwhile, he too will be fobbed off and the issue played out by the Israelis until the next presidential election in the United States. That appears to be what is happening.

More affirmative action needs to be taken and Sweden deserves great credit for taking the stance it has adopted. The Fianna Fáil Party led the way on this issue in the Seanad when, with others, it made a proposal on recognition. The Oireachtas, as an entity, should consider recognising the state of Palestine, as should the Government. Ireland was the first European country to recognise the right of Palestinians to a homeland. Given everything that has happened, we should not move to change the international diplomatic response to the continuing breaches of international law by Israel. More important, we should give some concrete expression to our belief in a two state solution. Why not recognise a Palestinian state, with all such recognition would entail, and press for this recognition at United Nations level? This should be Government policy. I am open to holding discussions with other party leaders on the issue. It would be wonderful if the Oireachtas could arrive at a unified position, free from partisanship and knockabout politics. If we were capable of uniting on this issue, I believe it would make a difference.

Deputy Gerry Adams raised a question on Israel being in breach of international law and asked about the upgrading of the Palestinian mission to Ireland arising from the 1961 Vienna convention.

In regard to the situation to which Deputy Micheál Martin referred, the Seanad passed a motion calling on the Government to formally recognise the state of Palestine and do everything it could at an international level to help to secure a viable two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Deputies Gerry Adams and Micheál Martin will be aware that the House of Commons in the United Kingdom adopted a similar non-binding motion earlier in the month. Sweden has taken a different view. Deputies will be aware that for many years Ireland has supported the full achievement of a Palestinian state and that there was always a belief this might actually happen and might happen soon. I remember the meetings at Camp David with different American Presidents at which peace was brokered and deals were done but which did not measure up.

The need for progress in resuming substantive peace talks in advancing the realisation of a two state solution was one of the central messages the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, brought to the discussions in Cairo. That remains the position of the Government, as it does of most European Union partners. As the Deputies are aware, it was always the position that the formal recognition of a Palestinian state should come about as part of a comprehensive peace agreement. To what are we agreeing? It was also expected until now that the question of recognition of the Palestinian state would be subject to a common decision by the European Union, but Sweden took a different view and recognised Palestine. I do not know the boundaries of territories such as Gaza and the West Bank which it has recognised and whether it refers to the situation in the late 1940s. Sweden's decision may well alter the situation at a European level. I am quite sure it will be reflected in discussions at the Foreign Affairs Council as a consequence and will arrive on the table at the European Council through that method.

I am aware that there is some tension in east Jerusalem at the Temple Mount. We have made contact to have those involved draw back and reflect on the situation. In view of the decision made by Sweden, while it was always contemplated that Europe would react to Palestine, we need to reflect on the changed consequences.

Deputy Micheál Martin raised the question of UNRWA and I share his view. When I was in the Middle East some years ago, I had a long meeting with Mr. John Ging, an extraordinary man who comes from Dublin. I met him recently at the UN climate change conference in New York. What he did, even though there was a price on his head in Gaza by different forces, was extraordinary. He was not afraid of any of the forces which were not working in his interests. I take the Deputy's point - there may well be something here. Let us consider the wider aid we can give. I saw children being fed and a curriculum being developed which was not one sided but rather very broad and fair to give children a chance of having some understanding. I will discuss the matter with the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan.

I stood in no man's land for a considerable period on the way into Gaza from Israel. I hope I have not shown any pro-Israeli stance. In regard to rockets, I agree that the reaction was utterly disproportionate. There is a requirement in international law for it not to be so. I am still of the opinion that there should be a two state solution, whether it is words or, as the Deputy said, leads to a question of containment. The water supplies on the West Bank are drying up which means that farming will become more difficult. We will discuss this issue and reflect on the consequences of the decision made by Sweden and how it will impact on Europe's decision and view of the recognition of a Palestinian state. I will, in view of the Deputy's comments, consider the question of wider aid for UNRWA. We had a particular interest when Mr. John Ging was involved and it is still a very important programme, even more so now given the consequences of the 51 day war.

Constitutional Convention Recommendations

Joe Higgins


5. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach the referenda scheduled for the period ahead. [35179/14]

Micheál Martin


6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the position on the implementation of the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35202/14]

Micheál Martin


7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the position on the Constitutional Convention's recommendations; the actions that will be taken; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35660/14]

Richard Boyd Barrett


8. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the referenda he plans to hold before the end of his term in government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39816/14]

Gerry Adams


9. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the position on implementation of the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention. [39822/14]

Gerry Adams


10. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the position on the Constitutional Convention's recommendations; the actions the Government will take; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41688/14]

Gerry Adams


11. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the referenda his Government plans to hold before the end of the current term of the Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41689/14]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 11, inclusive, together.

The Government has implemented a programme of constitutional reform. There have been six referendums held since we took office, namely, on investigative powers for Oireachtas committees; judges' remuneration; the fiscal stability treaty; children; abolition of the Seanad; and the establishment of the Court of Appeal. Of these, five arose directly from commitments in the programme for Government. It also made a commitment to the establishment of the Constitutional Convention to examine a wide range of other constitutional issues.

Following agreement with the Opposition representatives, the convention was duly established in 2012. It has been a very valuable innovation in our democracy. I commend the members, the chair and the staff involved for their significant contribution. The Government has responded in the Dáil in detail to four of the reports of the convention as follows: to the first report on the voting age and presidential term on 18 July 2013; to the second report on the role of women and women in politics on 10 October 2013; to the third report on same sex marriage on 17 December 2013; and to the sixth report on blasphemy on 2 October 2014.

In response to recommendations made in the first three reports of the convention, we have announced that we will bring forward proposals for referendums on marriage equality, reducing the voting age to 16 years and reducing the eligible age for candidacy for presidential elections to 21. In response to these reports the Government also decided to refer to the relevant Oireachtas committee the question of a constitutional amendment to give citizens a say in the nomination process for presidential candidates. This has been done.

The Government also undertook to consider making Article 41.2 of the Constitution on the role of women gender neutral and including in it other carers within and beyond the home. It undertook to consider amending the Constitution to include the principle of gender equality, as well as the use of gender inclusive language in the Constitution. That work is under way in the Department of Justice and Equality.

A major outcome of the fourth report was that there should not be a change to the electoral system. It recommended the establishment of an electoral commission. The Government announced that it had accepted that recommendation and the preparatory work has commenced in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

There are a number of other recommendations that do not require a referendum. I should, of course, add that the Government has implemented a range of reforms to the Dáil, including longer sitting times, better opportunities for Members to raise topical issues, changes to committees, the introduction of pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills and the establishment of a proper framework for parliamentary inquiries.

In response to the sixth report of the convention, the Government announced that it would bring forward proposals for a referendum on the removal from the Constitution of the offence of blasphemy. The Government is continuing to work on its response to the remaining convention reports, namely, the fifth report on giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections, the seventh report on Dáil reform, the eighth report on economic, social and cultural rights and the ninth report which contains the conclusions and final recommendations of the convention.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is considering the recommendations on votes for citizens outside the State in co-operation with the newly appointed Minister of State with responsibility for diaspora affairs.

Work is also under way on the seventh, eighth and ninth reports. These contain a number of recommendations that require consideration throughout a number of Departments. I anticipate the Government will consider all of these remaining reports within the next month and that we will have Dáil debates on each of them before the end of this session. The Government Whip will consult Opposition Members on the timing of these debates, once the Government response is ready for consideration in the Dáil.

In regard to referendums, the Government also intends to hold a referendum on the unified patent court. This follows on an international agreement which will assist business and job creation in Ireland by facilitating cost effective and uniform patent protection throughout the 25 EU member states through a single patent court, with a local division here in Ireland. The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation is making the necessary preparations for that referendum.

Once all of the remaining reports of the Constitutional Convention have been considered, the Government will make its decision on the timing and number of referendums to be held in 2015.

I call Deputy Higgins. As we have only seven minutes left, I suggest we allow one and a half minutes to each Deputy contributing.

I will be brief, as I was at the outset. The offering of my colleague here should also be taken.

We will try to do the best we can, but the clock is against us.

In the past few days, some members of Government parties have been speaking about a referendum to keep Irish Water resources in public ownership. What is the Taoiseach's attitude to that? While I am not opposed to it, is the Taoiseach as amazed as I am at the audacity and sheer neck of some of these people, who are responsible for making water a market commodity, therefore, opening it up to privatisation, and who are now trying to pose as champions of keeping water public by looking for a referendum? These people are the hapless Green Party members, the politically condemned in the Labour Party and the politically threatened in Fine Gael. The Fine Gael mayor of Drogheda has gone native in the past 48 hours.

Will the Taoiseach agree that the clearest protection to ensure our water resources remain in public hands is not to turn it into a commodity and, therefore, to abolish these hated water charges? Let me save him much time and trouble by telling him that if he persists in this, he will go down to perdition on the issue. He will not win. These charges will be abolished and the Taoiseach should listen to the people in that regard.

I counted approximately five referendum proposals in the Taoiseach's comments. He promised an inclusive approach to these issues, but what has happened is that he has simply announced that the Government will decide what will happen and when it will happen. The Dáil will have no role other than to vote on what the Government decides and puts before it. That is a long way short of the democratic revolution that was promised.

Does the Taoiseach have a schedule for the proposed referendums and for when they will happen? As he knows, significant work must be done in advance. For example, the legislation must be published and the electoral commission must be established. We know from previous debacles and the children's referendum, which is still in the courts, that the referendum must be conducted properly and people must be given proper information. When people are denied a proper debate, they get angry. The Taoiseach read out the list of referendums we have had so far and, as he said, the Government got a wallop on some of them, not least because of the proposal in one of them but also because of the manner in which they were handled.

It seems the Taoiseach is saying we will have a referendum on a voting age of 16, marriage equality, blasphemy and the age at which a person can be elected to the presidency. He was not quite clear in terms of proposals pertaining to women in the Constitution and whether we will have a referendum in that regard. He mentioned a unified patent court and said we would have a referendum on that issue.

I have looked to see what scheduled legislation has been published, but not even one Bill is promised before the end of this year on any of these issues. We are running against the clock on this, in terms of the lifetime of the Government and the capacity to have these referendums. Is it proposed to have them all on the same day? I urge the Taoiseach to ensure the referendum on marriage equality is kept separate in order that people can debate the issues properly, without being clouded by other referendums. The referendums deserve careful consideration and I ask the Taoiseach to share his thoughts on the issues with the House. We may not have the time for that now, but will he share his thoughts in terms of the timing and scheduling of the referendums?

In the past few days, some Government spokespeople have indicated the possibility of a referendum on the right to water. Given that the Constitutional Convention supported by 85% the idea that economic, social and cultural rights should be enshrined in the Constitution and, more significantly, given from 150,000 to 200,000 people came out on the streets at the weekend under the broad banner of the right to water, does the Taoiseach accept that access to water is a human right? We do not need a referendum to vindicate that right. All the Taoiseach needs to do to ensure it is a human right is to abolish water charges and ensure that all citizens have access to water, regardless of whether they have the money to pay charges for it. Does the Taoiseach believe access to water is a human right? If so, is it not encroaching on and subverting that right to have any sort of user charges?

Can I ask a brief question?

Please conclude. We have only one minute 50 seconds left and Deputy Gerry Adams had three questions.

On the issue of the right to housing and given the housing crisis, is the Taoiseach thinking of responding to the Constitutional Convention's call for these sorts of rights to be enshrined in the Constitution?

The citizen delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention did their work, as did the chair and staff. I attended a number of the meetings and noted that citizens who had no previous political experience were well prepared and were uplifted by the experience. They played their part, but the Government has not played its part.

The Taoiseach said there were five reports from the Constitutional Convention and that there would be Dáil debates on all of the outstanding reports in this session. He said the same in July and when I raised this matter previous to that. I have formed the view now that this delay is due to nothing other than that some of the issues coming forward, such as the right to housing, the reduction of the voting age, social and economic rights and voting rights for the diaspora, are issues the Taoiseach is against and that this is why they have not been brought forward. There has been no other satisfactory explanation for the delay given by the Taoiseach on the number of occasions I have raised these issues. We will see whether these issues come forward in this session, but will the Taoiseach explain why there are five outstanding reports?

Deputy Ruth Coppinger has ten seconds.

The Taoiseach raised the question of gender equality. I am the only woman present in the Chamber, but I have only ten seconds.

The Deputy did not submit a question in this grouping. I am obliging her by allowing her put a supplementary question.

The Taoiseach listed a significant number of issues on which there will be referendums, including, laughably, gender equality. However, the one issue he did not mention was a repeal of the eighth amendment. How can we have gender equality when a woman is equated to a foetus? Ireland is the only country in Europe where this happens. Do women's lives matter? Does their health matter? Should women be able to make their own decisions over their lives and bodies?

We are over time.

Some 56% of people believe the eighth amendment should be repealed in the lifetime of the Government. The Taoiseach is bringing people out to vote on a range of important issues, but none of these issues is more important than the issue of women's lives.

We have seen victims of the eighth amendment this year, but when is the Taoiseach going to let people concentrate on a 31 year old amendment?

I ask the Deputy not to abuse the situation please. We are over time. I call on the Taoiseach to reply.

It is not proposed to hold a referendum in respect of a right to water being enshrined in the Constitution. We live in a democracy and as far as I understand, no party or individual in the House favours privatisation of our water system. Any party that decides it does favour privatisation can put in its manifesto that it stands for this.

The Fine Gael Party does not stand for it; the Labour Party does not stand for it; the Fianna Fáil Party does not stand for it; the Sinn Féin Party does not stand for it and I understand, given the range of views among the Technical Group and Independents, that they do not stand for it either. Therefore, it is not going to arise that there will be any question of privatisation of the water system in Ireland.

What I said was that when the Government had considered the reports and decided whether there should be a referendum on each of them, we would come back and discuss them at that stage. The reason there are so many reports outstanding is that there is quite a range of complicated work to be done in different Departments arising from the considerations that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention actually made. I have outlined the ones we have announced - that is, propositions for referendums on marriage equality, on reducing the voting age to 16, on reducing the eligible age for candidates in presidential elections from 21, and on the unified patent court. Most of these are from the people themselves in that the requests have come through the Constitutional Convention. The intention would be to hold a number of referendums on the one day, as I do not believe we can have a series of referendums, one after the other, each month. I take Deputy Micheál Martin's point about the importance of the marriage equality referendum. I hope to be able to stand over the discussions on the remaining reports in this session and to bring forward the legislation to give effect to the referendums that the Government will actually decide to hold, some of which are mentioned here, and deal with it in that way.

It is a fact that people are entitled to water and, in a democracy, where that water is supplied through an infrastructure provided by the State or, in previous times, by the local authorities, they are entitled to look for a contribution in respect of the cost of provision of that water which is fair and affordable.

Even if they cannot pay?

A total of €2.5 billion was announced in the recent budget for social housing, and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, is anxious to get this moving. In fact, we discussed this at a Cabinet sub-committee yesterday. Significant progress has now been made on voids here in Dublin. These are places that are boarded up but are well capable of being reconstructed and regenerated as good-quality housing.

I would say to Deputy Ruth Coppinger that it is not intended to repeal the 1983 amendment in the lifetime of the Government.

What we did after 20 years of waiting was to address the issue in legislation, as was required and determined by the Supreme Court in its interpretation of the Constitution.

It failed over the summer.

That meant giving effect to legislation which applied where the life of the mother was threatened, as distinct from the health of the mother.

It filled a long-standing void whereby no Government attempted to deal with the interpretation of the Supreme Court in respect of what the people put into the Constitution.

Four thousand women a year will still go.

I have said before that the question the Deputy raises will not be dealt with in the lifetime of the Government and is one for consideration by the next Government.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.