Priority Questions

Northern Ireland

Brendan Smith

Question:

1. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the meetings proposed to be held in the immediate future with the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive parties on the implementation of some provisions of the Stormont House Agreement not included in the agreement, A Fresh Start, such as those dealing with the legacy of the past and the putting in place of appropriate supports for survivors and victims' families; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45606/15]

For Northern Ireland truly to progress and move forward mechanisms need to be put in place to deal with the legacy of the past. Victims and survivors, be they of atrocities committed in the North or the South, have a basic entitlement to the truth. Anger, frustration and disappointment are the responses of survivors and victims' families to the agreement, A Fresh Start. I would appreciate it if the Minister outlined the proposals he has to try to advance and make progress on these critical issues.

Notwithstanding the clear gains achieved by the agreement, A Fresh Start, I very much regret that it did not include agreement on the implementation of provisions of the Stormont House Agreement dealing with the legacy of the past. We share the deep disappointment of the victims and survivors of the Troubles and their families in this respect. I am particularly disappointed because real progress was made during the talks on many of the details for the establishment of the new institutional framework for dealing with the legacy of the past as envisaged in the Stormont House Agreement. We were, in fact, very close to agreement on a range of issues, including ensuring the operational independence of the historical investigations unit; guaranteeing the anonymity and inadmissibility of information provided for the independent commission for information retrieval, ICIR, while making clear that there would be no amnesty for criminal offences; placing the implementation and reconciliation group on a statutory footing and settling on the purpose and functions of the group; and defining the operation of the oral history archive. The Irish and British Governments have also agreed the international agreement necessary for the establishment of the ICIR. Therefore, many of the building blocks are in place for the establishment of the new legacy institutions.

The crucial issue on which agreement could not be found was striking the right balance between the onward disclosure needs of families and the national security requirements being sought by the British Government. In the absence of agreement on this key issue, my expressed preference during the talks was to reflect in the agreement, A Fresh Start, the range of legacy issues on which agreement was possible, while also frankly acknowledging the areas of disagreement where further progress was required.

It is important that we find a way forward that banks the good progress already achieved during the talks on legacy issues and secures a solution to outstanding matters, including the key issue of onward disclosure and national security. In this regard, I met Northern Ireland's victims commissioner on 26 November to discuss the concerns of victims and possible ways to take the issue forward in a way that would satisfy these concerns. I also met the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, Mr. David Ford, MLA, on 11 December to discuss possible next steps and I will meet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Theresa Villiers, MP, later this month to explore options for how best to secure an agreed basis for the establishment of the new legacy institutions.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am sure he will agree that the necessary mechanisms to get the facts must be put in place. Thorough and unimpeded investigations are needed and no Government, State agency or political grouping can be allowed to continue to block a truth process. It is not acceptable that the British Government is exercising a veto, citing national security concerns, on these issues. Will the Minister inform us whether he has had an opportunity to have discussions with representative groups which advocate on behalf of victims, victims' families and survivors? In the current period of disappointment for these groups it is necessary to have the maximum level of dialogue with them to assure them their concerns and issues will not be put on the backburner, that they will be given the urgent consideration needed and an assurance that progress will be made in dealing with these long-standing issues.

I confirm and reassure the House that the Irish Government has a long track record of defending and promoting the rights of victims and survivors. Records show that successive Irish Governments have rigorously and vociferously pursued justice and truth for those affected by the Troubles, in Strasbourg through the European Court of Human Rights and bilaterally on all occasions with the British Government. I agree with the Deputy. These issues are most sensitive and important. I had the opportunity to have a lengthy engagement with the victims commissioner since reaching agreement on A Fresh Start. I confirm that I am available on all occasions and at all times to meet representative groups and I have done so during the course of my time as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I can state on behalf of the Taoiseach that he is also firmly engaged on these issues and has met many of the groups involved. As we take the issues forward, it will be important that the process should offer a credible prospect of success for victims and survivors because I do not believe they can be disappointed again. In so far as these issues are concerned, I assure the Deputy that I am very much engaged on them and will continue to be so.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I raised issues in our previous discussion on Northern Ireland a week or more ago. Does the Minister agree that we need to deal with them with the utmost urgency? We do not want the atmosphere to be poisoned even more and people to continue to be disappointed. Does the Minister have in mind a timeframe in which he could envisage some progress being made on these issues? We should all be conscious that we are moving into electoral cycles in the North and the South and we know that this atmosphere does not help in moving sensitive and perhaps difficult political issues forward. I appeal to the Minister to continue to attach the utmost urgency to these issues. He mentioned meeting representative groups. Justice for the Forgotten which has been advocating on behalf of victims and survivors of many atrocities committed in the North and the South would value another meeting on what happened in Dublin, Monaghan, Belturbet and other atrocities committed in the North and the South. I hope the Minister will accede to the request for a meeting with the group at an early date.

I will be happy to pursue the issue raised by the Deputy.

I assure the House that the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, and I are actively engaged in this matter. Notwithstanding the fact that the intensive round-table talks have been concluded in a positive way by agreeing the fresh start agreement, there will always be issues of concern in terms of North-South relations, Northern Ireland and, in particular, victims and survivors. I look forward to having some important meetings as early as next week.

Human Rights Issues

Seán Crowe

Question:

2. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has raised concerns with his European counterparts over the European Union's new political and financial deal with Turkey to curb the number of refugees entering the Union; if he has human rights concerns over the deal; if he is aware that a very prominent Kurdish human rights lawyer, Mr. Tahir Elçi, was assassinated in Turkey on 28 November 2015; and if he will raise this case with the Turkish authorities. [45624/15]

Before I begin, I wish the Ceann Comhairle and his family, the staff, the Minister and the Minister of State a merry Christmas. I will probably not get another opportunity.

I am concerned that in an attempt to use Turkey as Europe's gatekeeper, the EU is apparently ignoring and, by extension, encouraging serious human rights violations in Turkey. I am also tabling this question in the wake of the assassination in broad daylight of the prominent Kurdish human rights lawyer, Mr. Tahir Elçi. The main party representing Kurds in Turkey, the Peoples' Democratic Party, HDP, contends that he was killed by a bullet fired from a police weapon. Has the Minister concerns about this case and has he raised it with the Turkish authorities?

I thank the Deputy for his question. On 29 November, the Taoiseach attended an EU Heads of State or Government meeting with Turkey at which it was agreed to activate the EU-Turkey joint action plan, which is aimed at managing the current refugee and migrant crisis, as well as several further shared commitments and actions. The joint action plan contains short and medium-term measures to be undertaken by the EU and Turkey. These will assist Turkey in providing for the refugees in its territory and preventing uncontrolled migratory flows from Turkey to the EU. As part of this, the EU has agreed to provide a financial package worth an additional €3 billion, with the establishment of a refugee facility for Turkey to co-ordinate and streamline actions financed by this package. The overall aim of the plan is to ensure that refugees in Turkey are properly supported. This should prevent desperate people from undertaking perilous journeys or falling into the hands of unscrupulous traffickers and people smugglers.

Ireland strongly supports the recently intensified engagement between the EU and Turkey, including the outcome of the meeting of 29 November. In particular, I welcome the agreement to implement the EU-Turkey joint action plan. The relationship with Turkey has been the subject of many high-level meetings and will be further discussed at the European Council in Brussels today. Most recently, the Turkish foreign Minister, Mr. Mevlüt Çavuolu, participated in a working lunch with EU foreign Ministers, which I attended, at the Foreign Affairs Council last Monday.

The EU's relationship with Turkey is of key importance, not only in terms of the current migration crisis, but also in the context of Turkey's status as an EU accession candidate. With Turkey now host to well over 2 million Syrian refugees, Ireland is of the view that EU support is necessary. In this context, EU financial assistance will go towards the provision of support to Syrians under temporary protection and to their host communities.

The internal situation in Turkey remains a matter of serious concern, a point that was made clear in the European Commission's latest enlargement progress report. Turkey faces many internal and external challenges, as the Deputy will be aware. The murder on 28 November of the Kurdish human rights lawyer, Mr. Tahir Elçi, as well as those of two policemen killed nearby, is another tragic and worrying development in that regard. As a human rights lawyer, Mr. Elçi was critical of human rights abuses on all sides of the conflict. I strongly condemn Mr. Elçi's killing and offer my sincere condolences to his family and friends. I understand that the Turkish authorities are committed to accelerating the investigation into his murder. It is important that this happen at the earliest opportunity.

Yesterday, Amnesty International condemned the Turkish authorities for detaining scores of refugees, including people from Iraq and Syria, and pressuring them into returning home in an alleged breach of international law dating back to September. The EU seems to be setting aside many of its concerns about the growing authoritarianism of the Turkish Government and is instead promising €3 billion to Turkey, supposedly in aid of refugees, along with a package of political goodies in the naive and misguided belief that doing this will somehow help to solve the refugee crisis.

In its haste, the EU is also ignoring the claims that Turkey has allowed jihadist fighters and arms shipments across its border. Two Turkish journalists have been jailed, supposedly for espionage. Do these issues concern the Government? They are clearly linked to the package.

I assure the Deputy that Ireland is not silent on these issues. With our European colleagues, we will continue raising them. We raised them most recently at the meeting of Ministers' deputies at the Council of Europe on 2 December, when the arrest of two journalists, the importance of freedom of the press and expression in Turkey and the need to ensure a strong and healthy democracy were emphasised. The rule of law and human rights, including that of freedom of expression, are core principles of the EU. Deputy Crowe will be aware that these are prerequisites for accession to the Union. Ireland is clear that Turkey must live up to the same standards and commitments as all other candidate countries. Progress in the accession process can only be made based on clear benchmarks and criteria.

The video of the moment that Mr. Elçi was killed is concerning. It shows him taking cover behind police officers as they open fire on an armed man running towards them. Once the man passes them, they turn and fire in the opposite direction where Mr. Elçi was sheltering. A few seconds later, his body is seen laid out on the ground. He was killed by a single bullet to his head. Mr. Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's researcher on Turkey, has stated that the Turkish investigation already smacks of a cover-up.

We are aware of the killing of the human rights lawyer, Mr. Pat Finucane, in the North as a result of collusion. There is concern in the Turkish case that the authorities, which seem to be involved, are investigating this alleged killing. I urge the Minister to raise it, not only with the Turkish authorities, but with his European counterparts to ensure that a similar cover-up is not allowed to happen.

I wish to repeat for the benefit of the Deputy that these are concerns of a most important nature. Ireland has raised them and will continue to raise them. I assure the Deputy that officials in my Department, both at our headquarters in Dublin and in our embassy in Ankara, will continue to follow developments across a range of human rights concerns closely, but in particular regarding Mr. Elçi's murder. I would be happy to keep the Deputy informed of our interaction in that regard.

Northern Ireland Issues

Clare Daly

Question:

3. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has had discussions with the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, Mr David Ford, MLA, or the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Theresa Villiers, MP, in respect of the International Red Cross process in Maghaberry and the public announcement of a new regime for political prisoners, and the implications of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45530/15]

This question, which is tabled on behalf of the group of cross-party Deputies who regularly visit Maghaberry Prison, comes on the back of the damning inspection of that prison. The Minister is aware that there have been various initiatives to try to get the 2010 agreement implemented, including a stock-take report, but we have come to the conclusion that there must be another agenda at play because there does not appear to be any desire on the part of the prison authorities for a resolution. Has the Minister raised this issue with the various Northern Ministers and what is his reading of the International Red Cross process, which seems to be at a crossroads?

Last Friday, I met Northern Ireland's Minister of Justice, Mr. David Ford. We discussed in detail the situation at Maghaberry Prison, including the regime for separated prisoners. My last meeting with the Secretary of State, Ms Theresa Villiers, MP, was on 17 November as we concluded the negotiation of the fresh start agreement. We will meet before the end of this month when I will again raise non-devolved matters relating to Maghaberry with her directly.

It is my understanding that there are no proposals to change the current regime for separated prisoners at the prison. Implementation of the independent assessment team recommendations remains the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

In our discussion last week, the Minister, Mr. David Ford, MLA, noted that while there had been some progress, full implementation had been affected by trust issues arising, in part from the sense of a threat to staff. This echoed a statement from the Northern Ireland Prison Service qualifying its commitment to the recommendations by making them conditional on an “an environment where staff are free from threat and intimidation”.

The naming of individuals by prisoners in public statements may not have been intended by them to be seen as threatening. However, having read their statements, I can understand if those named were to consider them intimidatory. It is my strong view that the full implementation of the recommendations of the independent assessment team is dependent on the establishment of a reasonable level of trust between the relevant prisoners and prison staff. The Deputy will agree that there must be a regime of trust.

Among the challenges I discussed with the Minister, Mr. Ford, were the obstacles to the operation of the prison forum which, since July 2015, has been chaired by a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross. A functioning forum would make an important contribution to reducing tensions in Maghaberry. My officials maintain regular contact with the chair of the prison forum and also with the members of the independent assessment team.

I am glad the Minister has raised the issues with the Minister, Mr. Ford. We are very concerned about what is happening there at present. We do not agree with the assessment by the Minister, Mr. Ford, that progress has been made. In fact, the proposals which were put forward, not by the prisoners but by the International Committee of the Red Cross, have been stymied by prison authorities. We continue to come back to this mysterious threat scenario, but it must be put on record that there is no factual basis for any threats. Prison officers have been attacked in other parts of the prison, not in the segregated wing. Indeed, it is a fact that two senior governors were caught on closed circuit television, CCTV, on 5 November last falsifying a threat from a republican prisoner. This has been referred to the Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and legal representatives.

This tactic is being used to delay and stymie the process. We believe a progressive system should be put in place, and obviously one that does not compromise security. I do not believe the Minister is being given the full version of the story. I will make a point later about the security forces, but I believe their hand is at play in this.

All Deputies will agree that there is no room or place for any form of threats or intimidation, implied or otherwise. It is important to make that absolutely clear in the context of a functioning democracy.

In the course of my meeting with the Minister, Mr. Ford, he updated me on progress in the implementation of the recommendations of the recent report by the criminal justice inspector, Brendan McGuigan, into conditions in the prison. I expressed my concerns about the deficiencies identified within the prison, which affect the entire prison population and prison staff and not just those in the separated regime. It is a matter of concern that the inspectors found that the demands of the separated unit are undermining the work of the entire prison, to the detriment of the majority of the prison population. One of my officials met yesterday with the criminal justice inspector to discuss the findings of the report and they have agreed to remain in contact. The criminal justice inspector will return to Maghaberry in January to monitor progress. I hope he will be able to report that significant progress has been made in terms of improving outcomes for all prisoners at Maghaberry.

We have met loyalist and republican prisoners who are involved in this process. Both sides are unhappy, but the republican side is more unhappy. That probably reflects the cultural problems there. That is important. The issue of threats continues to be used. Obviously, we would oppose any threats occurring, but there is no evidence of any threats and no activity of a negative character has taken place in the segregated wing against any staff. On the other hand, we see the hand of the security forces and MI5, in particular, operating in the prison. It is a fact that there is a close link between the DUP and the POA. Some of the problems that had to be addressed in the PSNI, and I am not saying that they are resolved, relating to the cultural background of staff still exist in the Northern Ireland Prison Service. It must be broken up, as it were, and there must be an overhaul of prison staff if there is to be equity and a regime that is respectful of human rights.

I am glad the Minister is raising this issue, but we are only hearing one side of the story. Throwing out the idea that there was going to be a new regime onto the back of this stalled process rang alarm bells. That type of operation would not be acceptable to anybody and would aggravate the situation even further.

In general, it is important that we continue to report progress on the matter of prison reform in Northern Ireland. Comprehensive reform of the Northern Ireland Prison Service based on the October 2011 review conducted by Dame Anne Owers concluded in March this year. It is disappointing that, despite the prison reform process, the inspection report found that conditions for prisoners under the categories of safety, respect and purposeful activity had all deteriorated. Only in the area of resettlement were prisoners experiencing acceptable outcomes. However, I assure the Deputy that both I and my officials will continue to monitor the situation. The recommendations contained in the inspection report are an agenda for change and I am anxious that we will see change and can chart progress in that regard. I was pleased to hear from the Minister, Mr. Ford, MLA, that progress is being made on this issue. I look forward to seeing this progress being demonstrated when the inspectors return in January.

Undocumented Irish in the USA

Brendan Smith

Question:

4. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of the proposed immigration reform legislation in the United States of America; if any further discussions are planned with the authorities there, given the ongoing concern of many Irish emigrant representative organisations, the difficulties facing the undocumented Irish and the concerns of their families at home; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45607/15]

In November 2014, we welcomed the administrative measures announced by President Obama, which could have benefited thousands of undocumented Irish emigrants based in the United States. Unfortunately those measures now face a legal challenge in the US federal court. Can the Minister inform the House, from his contacts in the United States, if there is any prospect of progress in the area of immigration reform, be it through executive action by President Obama or through legislation in the US Congress? What is the most up-to-date estimated number of undocumented Irish emigrants in the United States from the figures available to his Department?

Achieving relief for undocumented Irish migrants in the US and agreement on a facility for future legal migration between Ireland and the US is a priority in the Government’s relationship with the United States. Our embassy in Washington and consulates elsewhere in the US are active in advocating immigration reform and the issue is also the subject of high level political contacts between Ireland and the US Government. Meetings such as those between the Taoiseach, President Obama and other senior political figures around St. Patrick’s Day have provided an important opportunity to reiterate our concerns regarding the undocumented Irish and to encourage progress on a comprehensive legislative package by the US Congress.

In July, the Taoiseach and I met with John Boehner, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a number of his congressional colleagues when they visited Dublin. More recently, in Washington at the end of September, I met key Democrat and Republican contacts on Capitol Hill, including Senator Patrick Leahy, Congressmen Joseph Kennedy III, Paul Ryan, James Sensenbrenner, Richard Neal and other members of the Congressional Friends of Ireland group. In all of those meetings I stressed the importance we attach to immigration reform, as I did when meeting leaders of the Irish American community later that week in New York. I will take the opportunity to raise these points again when I visit New York in early January.

Following my meetings in September, a Bill was tabled by Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner in the US House of Representatives. The Bill is aimed at providing access to several thousand E3 visas for Irish citizens. I warmly welcome this positive step towards meeting the desire of many Irish people to live and work in the US for a time, but there is much work to be done in both Houses of Congress before this Bill might become law. I am also aware that while this measure would advance our objective of securing improved legal migration channels, it would not address the concerns of the many undocumented citizens currently in the US. These remain a key priority and continue to be the subject of ongoing contacts with the US authorities.

Our minds are probably more focused on this issue now than at other times of the year. Living without documentation can mean living in the shadows and in fear in a country which many consider their home. It also means that people might be unable to travel to Ireland to see friends and family. It can mean missing family occasions, be they celebratory occasions or occasions of bereavement. The Minister will know from his constituency as I do from mine, which unfortunately has a long history of emigration, that many families are torn apart because sons, daughters or siblings cannot return home.

Is there any hope of immigration reform being achieved? We spoke about the electoral cycle in Northern Ireland and an electoral cycle is in full swing in the United States at present, with the caucuses to start in the next few weeks. Has the Minister had any indication from the ambassador, or our representatives at official level, whether there is any hope of the legal challenge to President Obama's executive decision being finalised or the previous legislation, inaugurated in the House of Representatives and then the Senate, being moved forward?

The President's executive action is now the subject of court proceedings and I do not have a date on which this matter will be decided. I assure the Deputy that this is a matter of priority on the part of the Government. I intend visiting the United States in early January and I will raise this issue again. It is difficult to put precise figures on the exact number of undocumented Irish citizens in the US but we estimate there are many thousands. These individuals are living in something of a twilight zone, who are in breach of US immigration law and do not have the means of ensuring their status is regularised. They wish that the US Government would develop a mechanism to allow them to acquire a documented right to continue their lives in the US, to fully participate in the life of their adopted communities and to travel in and out of their country.

I am conscious of the difficulties being experienced by Irish citizens who are undocumented in the US and their families who remain in this jurisdiction. I am very much aware of the pain they feel when family members are unable to return for a family occasion, be it a celebration or a bereavement.

We need to keep the issue on the agenda and to assure the undocumented Irish, of whom all of us know and whose family members we know at home, that this is an issue that will continue to be treated with the utmost urgency, be it through political contacts or contacts at official level. There was a proposal to have visa waivers for the undocumented Irish, which focuses on permitting undocumented immigrants to travel back to Ireland without triggering the three-year or ten-year bars on returning to the United States. Is there any progress with regard to that proposal, apart from the overall immigration reform measure that would deal with all the undocumented?

I am aware of and have raised the matter of the waivers for three-year and ten-year travel bans in relation to US visa applications for Irish undocumented who have overstayed their visa in the United States. At my request, the Secretary General of my Department wrote to the US ambassador earlier this year requesting that he further explore the question of such waivers. The US Embassy indicated that the waiver system is applied strictly in accordance with US laws and regulations and is operated uniformly on an international basis, including Ireland. Such a waiver can be applied for in the case of a three-year or ten-year ban having been imposed for overstaying a visa in the United States of America.

I acknowledge the difficulties on the part of the many Irish undocumented. I assure the Deputy that this continues to be a priority and I intend raising the issue early in the new year. The Government continues to actively pursue all opportunities to advance immigration reform that would benefit our citizens. In the meantime, the Government provides significant financial support, in the order of €1.5 million in 2015, to assist the work of various Irish immigration centres across the US.

Human Rights

Seán Crowe

Question:

5. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he is aware that a person's (details supplied) trial took place on 15 December 2015; the specific assistance the Irish Embassy in Cairo in Egypt gave to this person and the person's legal team in advance of and at this trial; and his future plans to ensure that the person is released and allowed to return to Ireland. [45623/15]

On Tuesday, the trial of Irish citizen Ibrahim Halawa in Egypt was postponed yet again. His trial has been postponed ten times and is now due to take place on Saturday, 19 December. If convicted he faces the death penalty. Last Sunday, he marked his 20th birthday in prison, his third birthday in jail, and I attended a sad, though good-natured, vigil at the embassy at the weekend. I put forward this question to discuss the case and to ask what assistance the embassy has been giving to Ibrahim and his legal team in advance of the trial and to hear again from the Minister any future plans he has to ensure Ibrahim is released and returned home to his family in Ireland.

I am aware of the hearing that took place in Egypt on 15 December concerning this citizen. Officials from our embassy in Cairo attended this hearing, as they have all previous ones, and met directly both with members of this citizen's family and with his Egyptian legal team who represent him in court. At this most recent hearing, the trial was adjourned for five days until Saturday, 19 December, due to the non-attendance of one defendant. This citizen and his family have been the recipients of comprehensive consular assistance from my Department and, as well as attendance at his trial hearings, the individual in detention has been visited on numerous occasions by embassy officials, most recently on 23 November. Numerous interventions have been made with the Egyptian authorities on his behalf at the very highest levels. The Government has also formally supported applications that have been made by this citizen's legal team in Egypt for his release on bail and under the presidential decree, law 140. The key focus of our extensive engagement on this complex and sensitive case remains securing this citizen's best interests in so far as we can, working to see him released by the Egyptian authorities at the earliest possible opportunity, and providing consular support for his welfare while he remains in detention.

This exceptional level of action has been taken by the Government and by my Department because of the very particular nature of this case – he was a minor at the time of his arrest and the group nature of his trial gives rise to particular concerns. We will continue to take all appropriate action that we believe to be in the best interests of this citizen. However, the reality is that any decision to release this citizen will ultimately be taken by the Egyptian authorities, not by the Irish authorities.

Given that the trial is ongoing, the Government has to be extremely careful to ensure that its actions, both public and private, are well judged and do not detract from our key goal of securing positive progress for this citizen at the earliest possible time. I am aware that there are those who do not agree with the Government's approach but I would appeal to all those who also have this citizen's best interests in mind to ensure that their actions and public statements are not such that they could jeopardise our considered and concerted efforts to achieve positive progress for this citizen. The Government's considered view remains that the firm, measured and sustained diplomatic approach we are taking continues to be in his best interest and represents the best hope to achieve his return to Ireland at the earliest possible date.

We are all on the same page on this. We all want to see him come home and the only difference is how this can be achieved. I welcome the fact that the ambassador to Egypt, Damien Cole, was present at Ibrahim's trial on Tuesday. I also welcome the consular assistance Ibrahim is getting. Will the Minister confirm that the Irish Embassy has access to a translator who speaks the legal, formal Arabic that is used in the Egyptian courts? I understand that legal Arabic is quite different from the usual Arabic spoken every day.

Significant concerns have been raised by Ibrahim's family that he has only been able to meet his Egyptian legal team once while in prison. There were reports in the media to this effect, as there were about his international legal team. Is the Minister concerned about this? This case has been going on for approximately three years but he has only met his team once. He also seems to have no access to details of the charges against him.

I assure the Deputy that the concerns raised by him and others are treated with the utmost gravity and importance by the Irish Government. We continue to keep in very close contact with the citizen, and with his family here in Dublin, while he is in detention.

There have been many different views and suggestions for actions on the case. We keep the possibilities for action under ongoing review in light of the best information available on developments. However, I assure the House that we are guided at all times by what action is most likely to achieve positive practical progress for our citizen at the earliest possible date. In the meantime, pending the hearing of the case, we have raised the issue of concern regarding prison conditions. I assure the Deputy that the matters of the citizen's health and welfare, access to a legal team and prison conditions are all under constant discussion with our team in Cairo and at headquarters in Dublin.

The Egyptian Embassy has been briefing Deputies, Senators and Members of the European Parliament on this case. Is the Minister concerned about some of the information emerging at these briefings that seems to be erroneous? There was a suggestion that the prisoner addressed the court in regard to his hunger strike. My information is that there is no opportunity to address the court. We are being told it is not a mass trial but the fact that the court case is not going ahead would indicate it is. Is the Minister concerned about that?

The motion in the European Parliament today calls on the European External Action Service, through the EU delegation in Cairo, to get involved in the case of this European citizen. Will the Irish authorities request the service, on the basis of its international standing, to monitor the case of Ibrahim Halawa and use whatever resources it has available to it in this regard?

I note the debate in the European Parliament. The Deputy will be aware that I have specifically raised this case through discussion with High Representative Mogherini on a number of occasions. She has assured me that the case of the Irish citizen will continue to remain high on the European Union's bilateral agenda with Egypt until his release. The European Union remains supportive of our position and, on several occasions, has raised its support for our concerns with the Egyptian authorities at appropriate opportunities.

While we continue to take all appropriate action that we believe to be in the best interest of the citizen in question, the reality remains that any decision regarding his release will ultimately be taken by the authorities in Cairo, Egypt, and not by the Irish authorities.