Priority Questions

Good Friday Agreement

Brendan Smith

Question:

8. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the implications for the Good Friday Agreement of the British Government repealing its Human Rights Act; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19497/15]

The Good Friday Agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed on this island in referendums, North and South, and through parliamentary ratification in Britain. It is an international treaty which has been lodged with the United Nations. The British Government, in the Agreement, committed to guaranteeing the rights of minorities, and the Irish and British Governments are its co-guarantors. If the British Government presses ahead with its plan to abolish its Human Rights Act, it will breach the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, with highly negative consequences. The Government, on behalf of Irish people, must send a clear message that we will not tolerate any diminution in the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. The full implementation of the Agreement and subsequent agreements is necessary.

The commitment of Ireland to the promotion and protection of human rights is an underlying principle of Ireland's foreign policy and is a priority for the Government. Ireland is currently a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and we pursue our human rights priorities in many international fora. Ireland is a firm supporter of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights system and will liaise regularly with the UK in relation to the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers' supervision of states' implementation of court judgments. Early in my Ministry, I had the opportunity to meet the Council of Europe Secretary General, Mr. Jagland, and I reaffirmed Ireland's strong commitment in support of the European Convention on Human Rights.

I should note clearly at the outset there is not at this time any legislation before the British Parliament at Westminster to repeal the 1998 UK Human Rights Act. Indeed, the new British Government has not yet published its programme for government for this parliamentary term, although it is expected to do so later this month. In the absence of any detailed proposal, it is difficult to speculate on potential consequences. Obviously, were any proposal to be made it would have to be carefully analysed.

On the broad question of human rights and the Good Friday Agreement, the views of the Government are clear and unchanged. The protection of human rights in Northern Irish law, predicated on the European Convention on Human Rights, is one of the key principles underpinning the Good Friday Agreement. As a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government takes very seriously its responsibility to safeguard the Agreement's principles and institutions. The fundamental role of human rights in guaranteeing peace and stability in Northern Ireland cannot be taken for granted and must at all times be fully respected. The Agreement is clear that there is an obligation to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Irish law and this is an ongoing obligation.

We will follow developments closely. I plan to raise this matter this evening when I meet the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Even though the British programme for government has not yet been published, in view of the commitment in the Conservative Party manifesto to scrap the Human Rights Act, it is incumbent on the Minister and his colleagues in government to give a clear message to the Secretary of State that the British Government cannot renege on the provisions of an international treaty. As I stated earlier - the Minister referred to it as well - the Good Friday Agreement is an international treaty lodged by both Governments with the United Nations. Both Governments are co-guarantors of it. Can the Minister give us an assurance that he will make clear to the Secretary of State Villiers when he meets her today that under no circumstances can we tolerate any diminution in the terms of the Good Friday Agreement or in the provisions of an international treaty?

What is the situation regarding the long-proposed bill of rights for Northern Ireland? Will the Minister outline to the British Government, through the Secretary of State, the value of the European Convention on Human Rights generally and that if the British were to depart from it, the only states which would really welcome it are states with a less than positive attitude to human rights? Apart from the Northern Ireland issue, which is of significant concern to us, there is also the wider context of the safeguarding of human rights.

I do not disagree with anything Deputy Brendan Smith has said. I assure him that placing human rights at the heart of the peace process in Northern Ireland is very much an ongoing obligation and an ongoing piece of work because that has helped to ensure the full participation, trust and confidence of all communities. A shared emphasis on human rights and all that this implies is part of what makes the peace process both credible and effective. We will work continuously with the British Government and with the power-sharing Executive in Belfast to support the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions and the principles. We regard this as the foundational architecture underpinning the entire peace process and for this reason, I was disappointed that a renewed commitment to a bill of rights for Northern Ireland, based on the European Convention on Human Rights, as provided for in the Agreement, was not included in the recently completed Stormont House Agreement despite the best efforts and encouragement of this Government. However, I assure Deputy Smith that I will avail of other opportunities to secure progress on this and other outstanding issues pertaining to the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement.

I thank the Minister for his comments. The Human Rights Act, as the Minister implied, is particularly important in regard to dealing with sensitive and contentious legacy issues.

As we approach the marching season, we should take note of the fact that all Parades Commission determinations are subject to the European Convention on Human Rights as interpreted in the Human Rights Act. A repeal of the Human Rights Act would have a devastating effect on the work of the commission and its determinations and guidelines.

The European Court of Human Rights, through the Human Rights Act, has had a substantial impact on peace in Northern Ireland, and it is that court which has held successive British Governments to account for countless human rights violations. Therefore, it is a very important body, and full participation in it by the British Government, particularly from the point of view of Northern Ireland, is absolutely essential.

I wish to assure the House of my continued and intensive interest in the matter of any proposed or potential changes to the Human Rights Act. The Deputy mentioned the Conservative Party manifesto, but beyond the manifesto pledge, which promises to protect the basic rights such as the right to a fair trial and the right to life, it is unclear at this stage what is envisaged by the Conservative Party or the British Government in respect of a bill of rights.

I had the opportunity yesterday to have a brief meeting with my counterpart, Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, and I relayed to him our concern - a concern about which I had the opportunity of making a statement in the Seanad last week. It is my intention this evening to meet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, and this issue will be very much on the agenda. However, we await developments in terms of the publication of the legislative programme at Westminster and the subsequent draft Bill. I can assure Deputy Smith and the House that we will continue to make our position very clear on this important aspect of our relationship with the United Kingdom, with particular reference to the Good Friday Agreement.

Deputy Seán Crowe is not present, so his question lapses.

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Human Rights

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

10. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he and the Irish Government will make clear the level of human rights due diligence they expect of Irish companies operating in Africa, particularly in Irish Aid partner countries; and if Ireland will take a leading role in ensuring that poverty reduction and human rights-based approaches to development are central to the work of multinational financial institutions. [19377/15]

My question is to ask the Minister if he and the Irish Government will make clear the level of human rights due diligence they expect of Irish companies operating in Africa, particularly in Irish Aid partner countries, and if Ireland will take a leading role in ensuring that poverty reduction and a ##human rights-based approach to development are central to the work of multinational financial institutions.

Our aid programme is focused on some of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It is recognised internationally for its effectiveness and for its strong partnership with African governments and communities. Recent years have seen strong economic growth in many African countries, which presents trade opportunities for Ireland and Irish companies. Many of our African partners are keen to foster opportunities for expanded trade and investment ties. As outlined in the Government’s policy for international development, One World, One Future, we will strive to ensure that economic development is compatible with Ireland’s commitment to human rights. I expect Irish companies operating abroad to have full regard for human rights, international law and the laws of the country in which they are operating.

My Department’s work in this area is guided by the United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights, which highlight the duty of states to protect against human rights abuses, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and the need for victims to have access to an appropriate remedy. A national plan on business and human rights, which will assist companies in advancing the UN guiding principles, is currently being drafted in consultation with civil society, business and all interested parties.

Multilateral organisations play a vital role in building international agreement on development challenges. We believe that all development work, including that of the multilateral organisations in which we actively participate, should be framed explicitly in the context of sustainable development, inclusive economic growth, poverty reduction and the promotion and protection of human rights.

I refer to a report commissioned by Trócaire, Where Aid Meets Trade, which I helped to launch last week. The report is both informative and challenging. It is the first time private sector policy and development policies have been examined.

As the Minister stated in his answer, Irish Aid comes off remarkably well because the aid is 100% untied and 100% focused on poverty reduction. We know that African, Latin American and Asian countries are keen to do business with Ireland and, such is our reputation, they expect an ethical engagement. In the One World, One Future document there is a commitment to ensuring that economic development, including engagement by Irish companies, is compatible with our commitment to human rights. However, there has been a rather poor track record to date. We know of companies that have been involved in land grabs and displacement. Certain employees of Irish companies are incentivised, via the foreign earnings deduction, to work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, yet there is no accompanying provision for human rights due diligence. What is happening in Qatar is frightening, and Irish companies are working there. We do not see respect for human rights or the rights of workers there. I am asking that we ensure Irish companies operating in this countries engage with our embassies - they are now part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - to ensure human rights due diligence from those companies.

I am pleased that the Deputy acknowledges the statement in our One World, One Future document. I agree with Deputy O'Sullivan that during the consultation period we should ensure we avail of the opportunity that will ultimately result in a robust regime. We are in the process of consulting with other Departments on the outline and content of our plan. An interdepartmental working group has been formed consisting of focal points from each Department.

I take the point Deputy O'Sullivan has made about the trade mandate of my Department. It is important that we have the opportunity to consult widely and that this consultation be real and meaningful. I am unsure whether Deputy O'Sullivan was present at the open forum on 7 November in Dublin Castle. That provided an opportunity for non-governmental organisations, academics, businesses and public representatives to exchange views on the plan. It is important now, in the context of the fact that we have received more than 30 submissions, that we allow an opportunity for those submissions to be taken on board - certainly, it is open to Deputy O'Sullivan to make a submission - to ensure that all possible elements are taken into consideration in the context of the relationship between Irish companies and Africa.

There is a danger that economic growth is being seen to equate with poverty reduction and a reduction in inequality. There are some interesting statistics from Africa. For example, in Nigeria, economic growth in the past ten years has increased by 6% per year, yet on the human development index the country is placed 152nd out of 176. Equally, Botswana has considerable economic growth but minimal poverty reduction, whereas Ghana has modest growth but significant poverty reduction levels. We cannot simply speak of economic growth without looking at how exactly it impacts on poverty reduction and inequality.

I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. This is a rather concerning development, because there is the potential to do the opposite to what is intended in terms of food exports, biofuels and land grabs on a vast corporate scale. Given Ireland's reputation, we need to stand up, and the Minister and the Government must be a strong voice in this regard. I hope that in the context of the three conferences coming up, Ireland and the Minister take the opportunity to be heard.

As I mentioned, our document commits to the implementation by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Africa Strategy, which underlines the need to respond to requests from our African partners from time to time to develop a more rounded relationship. This includes economic ties as well as a more intensified political relationship with our bilateral partners.

As Deputy O'Sullivan may be aware, we have a total of 11 embassies in Africa, including in Nairobi, Kenya and Freetown, Sierra Leone, both of which opened only last year. We now have embassies in the strongest economies of western, eastern and southern Africa, particularly Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. What we need to do now is to ensure that we can move towards the achievement of a sustainable solution to poverty.

In this regard, countries need to generate their own revenues through sustained and equitable economic policies and we will be looking towards a greater level of employment, revenue, growth, trade and investment.

I am very conscious of the points Deputy O'Sullivan makes. I would hope that, at the earliest opportunity, we will be in a position to have an acceptable plan and a form of due diligence that will ensure that best practice from a human rights point of view exists in the relationship between all Irish companies and the African nations.

EU Membership

Brendan Smith

Question:

11. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the proposals he has to discuss Britain's continued membership of the European Union with the British Foreign Secretary and with the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in view of the British Government's proposal to hold a referendum on this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19498/15]

It is just over two weeks since the British general election. It appears the referendum in regard to the continued British membership of the European Union could be held in 2016 and the latest reports from Westminster suggest the parliamentary Bill which will pave the way for the vote will be published next week. We are all conscious that each sovereign country makes its own decisions. At the same time, however, we have a major selfish and strategic interest in Britain continuing its membership of the EU. There is over €1 billion of bilateral trade per week between the two countries and our two economies are very strongly linked. Therefore, there is an onus on us to get a clear message to the British Government about the value and strength of its continued membership of the EU, which will also be beneficial to our country.

The debate in the United Kingdom regarding its relationship with the European Union is followed extremely closely by the Government. That focus will now only intensify following the recent general election in Britain and Prime Minister Cameron’s commitment to holding a referendum on the country’s EU membership by 2017. My Government colleagues and I have been clear in voicing our view that joint British-Irish membership has been very beneficial to our country and our relationship with the UK. The important role the EU has played in the context of Northern Ireland should also not be forgotten, as the Taoiseach emphasised recently in a speech in Belfast. The Taoiseach also restated our view when he spoke to Prime Minister Cameron by phone following the re-election of the Conservative Government in recent weeks.

Our unique relationship with the UK, in economic, social, cultural and historical terms, means we have a deep interest in the outcome of this debate about that country’s future in Europe. We also value the contribution the UK has made to the EU during the four decades we have been members together. We share a similar approach in many key policy areas. Given the importance we attach to their ongoing membership, a key priority will be ensuring that our UK partners remain fully aware of the potential consequences for Ireland of any fundamental change in the nature of their membership of the EU.

I have addressed many of these points directly with the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Philip Hammond, including yesterday, Monday, when we spoke at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels. I also wrote to him following his recent re-appointment and will remain in close contact with him in the time ahead. I will also maintain close contact with the Secretary of State, Ms Theresa Villiers, with whom I will be meeting this evening in Dublin, on a range of issues pertaining to Northern Ireland and our shared interests.

A debate in the UK on this important issue may be seen as an opportunity to highlight the many benefits of EU membership. We will work closely in the coming period with both our British and EU partners with the objective of ensuring continued UK membership of the EU.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he take the opportunity this evening, in his meeting with the Secretary of State, to outline very clearly to her that a very strong pro-European Union view is held throughout Northern Ireland? In fact, as the Minister mentioned in his reply, all of us recognise the very valuable contribution the EU has made to the political advances and the major progress in Northern Ireland over the past 17 or 18 years.

If Britain were to leave the Single Market, it would be catastrophic from our point of view. I represent the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan which has a very long land border with Northern Ireland. I grew up along the Border, with its customs posts and permanent vehicle checkpoints.

I do not want to see either in situ along the Border ever again. I sincerely hope the Minister will continue to send a strong message to the British Government that membership of the EU, with access to 500 million people in a Single Market and the very valuable trade on a bilateral basis throughout the EU, is of critical importance to all the people on this island. It is important to reflect there is a far stronger pro-EU sentiment in areas outside of England.

The matter of the EU-UK relationship is a strategic priority for the Government because we believe British membership of the EU is fundamental to Ireland's interests on a variety of levels, not least those evidenced by Deputy Smith. It now seems clear there will be a referendum, most likely in 2017, and that means our focus must intensify. The UK knows how much we value its presence in the EU and I and my Government colleagues have made that clear on a number of occasions, as did the Taoiseach, most recently in his conversation with Prime Minister Cameron.

Extensive work has been under way across a range of Departments for some time to ensure a full understanding of the various issues at stake. My Department has been working alongside other Departments to identify issues and areas of foreign policy that could be affected by the potential withdrawal of the UK from the EU. Our main objective remains helping to keep the UK in the EU, rather than mitigating the effects of a potential withdrawal.

Would the Minister agree the lacuna or lack of clarity that will exist for some time will probably be detrimental to attracting inward investment to Northern Ireland? Such investment benefits the entire island. I hope a clear message can be sent, namely, that trade and investment are very important from the point of view of Britain's continued membership of the EU, from which we also benefit. Does the Minister have any inkling of what the British want to renegotiate regarding its terms of membership of the EU?

It seems that there are three issues upon which this debate will pivot. The first is the area the British Government describes as over-regulation. The second is the matter of immigration, workers' rights and labour law. The third is the role of national parliaments. No formal plans have been presented and, therefore, we are not yet in a position to outline the precise approach we will take. The UK, as a key member of the EU over the past 40 years, continues to make an important contribution to the ongoing development of the Union. As our closest neighbour and as a partner, we share many similarities with it in terms of our economic model and legal system. We value its perspective on how we can continue to improve the effectiveness of the Union.

I wish to assure the House that over the next few months and as the debate intensifies, one will see a very strong and close relationship across a range of Government Departments, led by the Taoiseach in his relationship with Prime Minister Cameron. I understand they are arranging to meet very shortly, perhaps over the coming weeks. I have already met Foreign Secretary Hammond and we also agreed to meet in London in June. I wish to assure the House that when this debate intensifies, the Government will be most vociferous in ensuring that the British Government is clear on our position. There may be areas in which we will be in a position to assist it.

Overseas Development Aid

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

12. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in view of the fact that 2015 will see three high level international meetings on critical global challenges, with a July conference in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia on financing for development, if Ireland will support a global intergovernmental body on tax matters; and if the Government will support the calls for a commitment by countries to meet the 0.7% of gross domestic product commitment deadline for 2020. [19378/15]

This year, we are working for global agreement in three major international conferences on sustainable development. The conferences are interlinked. They are on financing for development in Addis Ababa in July, on a new framework for global development at the United Nations in New York in September and on a new climate change agreement in Paris in December. The aim is to deliver a new and transformative sustainable development agenda, with sustainable development goals up to 2030.

The Addis Ababa conference, which will be attended by the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, will seek to unlock the range of financing sources required to implement the new universal goals. These include domestic resource mobilisation, private sector contributions and official development assistance, ODA, which remains critical for the poorest countries. The Government remains fully committed to reaching the 0.7% target and to making further progress towards it as our economy continues to recover. Ireland is a world leader in the proportion of our aid which goes to least developed countries and we strongly support the UN target of providing between 0.15% and 0.2% of GNI for the least developed countries. Currently, we exceed that target.

Issues of taxation will be central to the financing of sustainable development. We believe the most effective way to deal with global tax issues is through the OECD. In an effort to ensure the involvement of the developing world in these processes, the Minister for Finance, at the OECD, has previously called for all countries to undertake spill-over analyses of the impact of their taxation regimes on the developing world, similar to the analysis already commissioned by the Department of Finance in respect of Ireland.

The tax issue is vital to economic justice. We have seen already the harm that has been done by tax and financial systems which facilitated tax dodging, illicit financial flows and the illegal movement of money or capital from one country to another. There is a frightening statistic that in one year there was an estimated loss of $634 billion for developing countries, and another that $5.3 trillion of effective subsidies went to fossil fuel industries. Ireland sits on quite a number of multinational and international fora and, as we have such a good reputation and as our aid is second to none, we can also be a voice when it comes to economic justice. There is a need for us to be strong on the five main areas of trade, debt, tax, gender and climate.

While I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, it is disappointing that the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is not going to Addis Ababa. My understanding is that very high level delegations are coming from many of the African countries. There is a need for Ireland to be much stronger on these issues. Is Ireland committed to the ODA target by 2020?

I wish to assure the Deputy and the House that the Government will be represented by a Minister at the conference in Addis Ababa. Ireland has a proud record of attendance at these conferences and of influencing the outcomes of many international fora. The Deputy will be aware that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, has the lead on tax issues. My Department works closely with the Department of Finance on the role of taxation in development. Ireland takes the position that the most effective way to deal with global tax issues is through the OECD. It is, therefore, important that the United Nations works on taxation and that it takes into account the ongoing work at the OECD. It is necessary for us to adopt an approach that avoids conflict between the various organisations' activities. I would be concerned about having a number of approaches rather than one approach. It is in the best interests of our endeavours to ensure that we work and deal with global tax issues through the OECD.

Lack of action and lack of courage on issues of economic justice are very strong contributing factors for the people who are migrating in vast numbers and at great risk from various African countries.

I wonder about the role of officialdom versus the role of Government intentions. When our Ministers return from these three conferences, my wish is that they will tell us they had the courage, passion and commitment to speak out in a strong way on issues of tax justice and they did not take a cautious or conservative approach.

The Minister spoke about civil society in his previous reply to me. There has been a joint civil society statement on the second draft of the Addis Ababa outcome document. Has the Minister taken this and the various issues on board, because civil society has concerns? In many cases they are the people working on the ground with immediate experience of the effect of some of these policies which are made far away from these countries.

The parameters of a useful agreement at Addis Ababa would need to be broad if they are to support the new sustainable development goals, which we hope will be adopted in New York in September. These goals are universal in nature and will be implemented by all countries. It is essential, therefore, that all contribute to a successful outcome to the finance and development conference in Addis Ababa.

I will make a brief reference to the Government's commitment to Ireland's overseas aid programme, which is at the heart of our foreign policy. It is articulated in the recently published document, The Global Island: Ireland's Foreign Policy for a Changing World. Our policy on international development restates the programme for Government commitment to achieving the United Nations' target of providing 0.7% of GNP for overseas development aid once our economic circumstances permit. Since 2011, the Government has allocated more than €3 billion to overseas development aid. In 2011, some €657 million was allocated, and between 2012 and 2013 the level of contribution increased from €629 million to €637 million. The final outturn for 2014 shows Ireland contributed slightly in excess of €610 million to overseas aid. For 2015, we have again allocated a sum in excess of €600 million to overseas development aid. We will continue to endeavour to increase this sum until we reach the committed target.