Pre-European Council: Statements

I welcome this opportunity to address the House in advance of the European Council, which begins tomorrow in Brussels. The agenda includes a discussion of the current migration situation; security; a range of economic and social development issues including youth; and external relations, specifically the Dutch ratification of the EU association agreement with Ukraine and the situation in Syria. Russia is also likely to be discussed. I have asked the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, to address the foreign policy issues in his closing remarks.

The December European Council will be followed by a separate meeting of the 27 Heads of State and Government, without Prime Minister May. This will be the first opportunity since June for a substantial discussion in this format about Brexit and our plans for what lies ahead. Ireland, as we all know, stands to be most affected by the UK's withdrawal from the EU and that issue is discussed regularly in the House. The meeting in Brussels on Thursday evening is likely to focus on the mechanics and timing of the negotiations from the EU perspective.

In June, the 27 Heads of State and Government agreed that the European Council will provide overall political guidance for the negotiations and that the Commission will lead on the technical discussions. As Deputies will recall from previous discussions in the House, Mr. Michel Barnier, the head of the Commission task force on Brexit, visited Ireland in November. He and his team are very aware of our concerns arising from Brexit, including regarding Northern Ireland, the peace process, the common travel area and our deeply entwined economic and trade links with the UK. There has been good ongoing engagement on these issues at official level.

I expect tomorrow night’s discussion to touch upon the process whereby the European Council’s guidelines for the negotiations will be agreed once the UK has triggered Article 50. This will allow for an orderly commencement of the negotiations. Our discussions tomorrow are also likely to restate the principles we agreed in June, namely, that there can be no negotiation without notification, that the UK remains a member of the EU with all the responsibilities that implies, and that the Single Market and four fundamental freedoms are indivisible. I do not anticipate a detailed discussion about the future of Europe, otherwise known as the Bratislava process. This will be the focus of discussions at a separate meeting of the 27 in Malta in February, before the process concludes in March to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

The European Council will begin earlier than usual at 12.30 p.m. with a meeting with President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz. There will then be a short update from Slovakia's Prime Minister, Robert Fico, on the implementation of decisions of the European Council. The President of Cyprus is also expected to provide an update on developments in his country's ongoing reunification talks.

Turning to the agenda, Heads of State and Government will begin by returning to the migration and refugee situation which is still very much a priority for the EU.

The Commission is expected to give an update on progress on a range of EU measures, including relocation and resettlement, the EU-Turkey statement and the partnership frameworks or "migration compacts" with third countries. A discussion is also expected on reform of the common European asylum system. Many of the EU measures are having a positive impact. The number of people attempting to cross the Aegean has reduced substantially since the EU-Turkey statement was agreed in March, and this is to be welcomed. Estimates from the International Organization for Migration show that there were more than 865,000 arrivals during the eight months before the EU-Turkey statement and a little more than 22,800 during the eight months thereafter. However, other routes remain extremely dangerous, and far too many people are still risking their lives attempting to travel to Europe.

The migration compacts aim to ensure coherence between EU migration policy and its external and development policies. These were discussed at the October European Council. Overall, we welcome the development of the migration compacts and their focus on working even more closely with countries of origin and transit as well as with countries hosting large numbers of displaced people. We support efforts to build on existing progress and policies. The first countries the compacts are being developed with are in Africa, and Ireland is supportive of the intention to make swift progress on the external investment plan in order to boost investments and job creation in these partner countries.

Although we are far less exposed to the full force of the migration and refugee crisis because of our geographical location and our non-participation in certain justice and home affairs measures, we continue to contribute to the EU response. As the House knows, the Government decided voluntarily to opt into measures and take in up to 4,000 persons in need of international protection under the resettlement and relocation programmes. There has been a good response to resettlement, that is, taking people from outside the Union. To date, 507 people have arrived in Ireland, mostly from Lebanon, and we are almost on course to meet our target of 520 by the end of the year.

On relocation, that is, taking migrants who have already arrived in Greece and Italy, progress has been slow. There have been some positive developments recently and 109 people have now come to Ireland from Greece. The Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Zappone, visited Greece this week. Arrangements are being made for more people to start coming here, and it is expected that there will be a further intake before the end of 2016. Thereafter, the plan is to increase the pace and receive up to 1,100 people by September of next year.

We have provided €42 million in response to the crisis in Syria since 2011 and we now pledge to bring this to €62 million by the end of the year.

Over the course of 2015 and 2016, Irish naval vessels have rescued 15,621 migrants in the Mediterranean. LE Samuel Beckett concluded operations on 5 December. On behalf of every Deputy and the people of Ireland, I commend the exemplary service of our naval personnel and thank them for their courage and professionalism. Consideration of a further deployment in 2017 will take into account a number of factors, including the ongoing situation in the Mediterranean, the overall EU response, the demands on the Defence Forces, overseas commitments and available resources.

Regarding security, the European Council will consider the implementation of the EU global strategy, the Commission's Communication on a European Defence Action Plan and EU-NATO co-operation.

These issues are of keen interest to the Irish people. We have a proud tradition, upheld by Governments from all sides of this House over many years, of military neutrality and non-participation in military alliances. This is subject to constitutional provisions and is protected in the treaties of the European Union. All of us intend to preserve this.

Tomorrow, the EU Heads of State and Government will hear from the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, before considering the matter of EU-NATO co-operation. This follows the statement on co-operation agreed in June, which took on board Ireland's specific concerns. Similarly, the EU global strategy reflects some of Ireland's key concerns. It commits the EU to promoting peace, prosperity, democracy and the rule of law. It has a positive focus on the Middle East peace process, disarmament, gender, the UN and the importance of multilateralism more generally. The strategy recognises the need to invest more in conflict resolution and tackle the root causes of instability. This involves using a mix of EU policies coherently to support international peace and economic development and help build state and societal capacity on governance, rule of law and human rights.

The Commission's Communication on a Defence Action Plan was published at the end of November. It examines how European industry can provide the capabilities required for the EU's peacekeeping and crisis management activities and ensure more effective and responsive common security and defence policy, CSDP, missions. We will consider these proposals very carefully. The EU common security and defence policy is an integral part of the Union's common foreign and security policy. It provides the Union with an operational capacity to undertake missions outside the EU for peacekeeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter. Our approach has been constructive and realistic. We are a strong supporter of initiatives, through the CSDP, which improve the capacity of the Union to contribute to international peace and security, particularly in support of the UN. We support co-operation with international partners where this adds value and contributes to the achievement of these objectives.

The follow-up to the EU-NATO joint declaration made in Warsaw, the implementation of the EU global strategy and the proposals in the defence action plan have no implications for Ireland's neutrality.

The European Council will also look at a number of issues under the heading of economic and social development and youth including the European Fund for Strategic Investments; energy union; the Youth Guarantee, the youth employment initiative and European Solidarity Corps; and, most importantly, the Single Market and Digital Single Market.

The Council will welcome last week's agreement by Finance Ministers to strengthen and extend the European Fund for Strategic Investments, and hopefully negotiations with the European Parliament can now be concluded quickly. While the impact of EFSI in Ireland remains modest at this point, we support strongly the further development of what is a key building block of the investment plan for Europe. The new Dublin office of the EIB, which I opened last Friday, should also provide further complementary support for project development in Ireland, building from the experience gained in tackling investment bottlenecks across Europe. The role of an enhanced EFSI in mobilising a stronger pipeline of SME finance will be very significant for Ireland, including in the context of the unique challenges we face on foot of the UK decision to leave the EU. More generally, we are not yet in Ireland at the vanguard in deploying EIB financial instruments to tackle investment bottlenecks. I want to see us make much better use of the enhanced lending volumes and risk capacity now available to the EIB, including through next year's mid-term review of the capital plan. I expect this to be quite significant.

We also have a keen interest in fighting youth unemployment and are supportive of the proposals in this regard.

We welcome the renewed commitment on energy union to promote energy efficiency actively as the most important means of achieving our shared climate and energy goals.

There will also be consideration of Single Market and Digital Single Market issues. I have spoken many times in this House on the priority we attach to completing this and the advantages for all of us in properly establishing the Digital Single Market. We have been active in generating support for an ambitious approach by the Commission. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation co-signed a letter last month highlighting the need for decisive action on services. I am leading an initiative in respect of the Digital Single Market in advance of this week's meeting and will be joined by 15 member states in my letter to President Tusk reaffirming the importance of maintaining strong political momentum in this regard. This work builds on that of the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, in co-ordinating a core group of digitally advanced countries.

I will leave the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, to respond to the debate.

This week's summit has a wide agenda but few substantive decisions to consider. It is more a summit about reflecting on problems than tackling them. Part of this is inevitable because of the state of uncertainty which the European Union will be in until there is some idea about what future relations with the United Kingdom will look like. Beyond this important fact, there is unfortunately also the reality of other issues being allowed to drift because of division and a lack of solidarity.

The first item on the agenda is the ongoing migration crisis in the Mediterranean. Monday night's documentary was a powerful reminder that our absolute priority must be the humanitarian duty to help those desperately in need. In "The Crossing" we all saw the magnificent work of members of our Naval Service. We should be immensely proud of them and their continuing the tradition of Óglaigh na hÉireann in representing us all as part of an international community. Having helped more than 15,000 people, their mission is clearly an absolutely essential one which we must continue to support. Every one of the people helped has a personal story of why they would undertake such a dangerous and desperate journey. There is no single cause of this migration and there is no single answer to it. Fundamentally, though, there is a common thread of escaping danger or intractable poverty. Different types of repression, including rising fundamentalism, are bringing different societies beyond crisis point. Europe does not realistically have the capacity or the resources to provide the stability and opportunity which these societies need. However, there is much more it can do. Currently, Syria's development aid is limited and we have no strategy equal to the scale of the challenge. More and more resources are being directed to managing the impact of migration and relatively little to addressing the core causes.

It is long past time for a more urgent and ambitious strategy to deal with the causes of large-scale migration on the southern and eastern Mediterranean. We cannot realistically have a policy of no control of migration but we can and should have a more generous approach to help those who may believe that leaving their homes is their only option. In north Africa, the current development agreements are small and not fit for purpose. What we need is effectively a Marshall aid plan for north Africa but what we have is little more than a sticking plaster.

The situation in respect of Syrian refugees is even more serious because the entire crisis is directly caused by the actions of certain states. We are nowhere near providing refugees with the basic facilities required for camps in the region. Without these, they will continue to seek refuge elsewhere. The people of Syria want to live in their own communities in peace and freedom. They are not what are termed "economic migrants". They are refugees from a cruel and still-escalating conflict. The root of this conflict is a regime that will not recognise the human rights of the Syrian people and a world power which has decided that it must use its extraordinary military muscle to defend non-democratic regimes.

ISIS is a barbaric group which has waged genocidal war against Christians and many Muslim groups in the region. It has no legitimacy and defeating the group should be a focus for international co-operation. However, one country has decided that its priority should be to aid the Syrian regime to destroy democratic opposition and to terrorise millions of people into submission. ISIS is not in Aleppo, yet large sections of that city have been blanket bombed with critical civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals, repeatedly and deliberately targeted. It is a sad reflection on current realities that many parties and politicians in different countries are eager to turn a blind eye to this. If they react at all, it is to try to down play specific responsibility and to search for the quickest way to return to the anti-western rhetoric which is their core business.

We should note Russia's stated intention to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. The reason is to avoid being accountable to the only international body capable of holding people responsible for war crimes. The fact that Ireland is the only country in the world which has written co-operation with the ICC into its constitution is something of which we should be proud and we should be a voice defending the role of the court. Syria is part of the wider crisis in relations with Russia and therefore part of what has to be discussed at this summit. We should be alarmed at the current push by some countries to legitimise what can only be described as constant aggression by Russia.

Let us be clear about what is going on. For a number of years Russia has seen its interest in undermining public faith in democracy as a system. It has been an active supporter of extreme right and left parties in many European countries. For example, it has close ties to the neo-Nazi Jobbik party in Hungary, the Freedom Party of Austria and the Golden Dawn party in Greece. It has provided an acknowledged loan of €9 million to support the sinister National Front party in France. Nigel Farage has long played a starring role in the Russian state-controlled media. On the far left, many parties are directly linked with Russia, including the communist parties in Sinn Féin’s European Parliament group, while many more politicians are at the least fellow travellers. The coalition of interest between the far right and far left is, as it has always been, directed against the democratic centre. We can see this in the non-stop attempt to avoid criticising Russian actions and claims that this is really the fault of others. The recent campaign to support Mr. Trump by undermining his opponent for president should cause us all to stop for a moment and consider the scale of the threat now being targeted against democracy. I find it incredible that we can hear voices in this House raging angrily against Mr. Trump but remaining silent on the undeniable campaign to assist him.

He is supported by Russia.

If that does not represent hypocrisy and double standards, then I do not know what does. The situation in Ukraine will be discussed tomorrow. The attempt by some to lift sanctions and basically allow Russia to bear no responsibility for its actions must be opposed by Ireland. What clearer signal to a return to the 1930s could there be than to allow a large and aggressive country to get away with annexing territory. At a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, some Deputies made it clear to the Russian ambassador that we are not willing to sit quietly as these actions continue. The chairman, Deputy Brendan Smith, ensured that this was a forum where the lies and disinformation would be challenged. I note the contributions of Deputy Seán Barrett and Senator Ivana Bacik. In contrast, once again, Sinn Féin has shown that it will not defend a country that has been invaded and partitioned by a neighbour. Deputy Crowe said that the European Union and the United States were equally to blame for Russia's actions, something Deputy Adams did not feel the need to repeat on his recent fundraising trip to America. The closest Deputy Crowe could come to challenging Russia was to say that the travesty of a so-called referendum in Crimea was not in line with good democratic norms. It seems that Sinn Féin is now trying to present the situation in Crimea as an act of self-determination rather than the invasion and partition which is was in reality.

Deputy Martin should have repeated the rest of my comments.

Let us all note that today there are prisoners in Russian jails whose only crime was to fly a Ukrainian flag. The Tarter minority organisations and media have been systematically repressed. There are no political or media freedoms in Crimea. The separate identity of the region is being destroyed. There can be no normalisation or lifting of sanctions while Russia maintains this aggression and the policy of promoting separatism in eastern Ukraine.

Separately, it is obvious that we need to dramatically step up procedures for protection democratic processes in Europe. We have been given a warning and we must act. I do not see this as being linked to the scheduled discussion on security and defence at the summit. Co-operation on civil protection and policing is welcome and its expansion is delivering real benefits for all countries. However, there is no compelling reason to change provisions concerning defence and external security. Exiting treaties provide a strong enough basis for action while still respecting the different traditions of a number of member states, including Ireland. The provisions are in place for co-operation based on the principles of solidarity and defence of core democratic values. We do not need another military alliance and we do not need to waste time which could be usefully spent on other more needed reforms to the operations of the Union.

The discussions on Brexit will be informal and it is not clear that anything substantive will be considered. It appears there will be little more than an update on matters already understood. In recent weeks, Fianna Fáil has set out in some detail our approach to what we believe should be Ireland's policy in these negotiations. It is transparently obvious that we will not and should not try to conclude a side deal with Britain in advance of the wider discussions. We will not join them in this potentially disastrous decision and our priority has to be to ensure the Union of which we are a member can work. In truth, the bulk of our bilateral relations with Britain will have to be defined through the overall negotiations. For a start we must insist that the unique situation of this island, North and South, be reflected in post-Brexit arrangements. We will feel the impact more than any other part of the European Union and this must be addressed. We need to help the industries and communities worst hit and this means we need to secure permission and support for targeted assistance with diversification and market replacement. We must also demand that the particular situation of Northern Ireland be addressed through a special status.

Post-Brexit Northern Ireland will contain the largest concentration of EU citizens outside of the European Union borders. The right to Irish citizenship, which conveys the right to European Union citizenship, is fundamental to our Constitution and to a serious of international commitments. For the sake of clarity, we will vote against any deal which seeks to alter this right in any way. Northern Ireland residents must retain their right to full EU citizenship and, equally, they must not be forced to choose between Irish and UK citizenship. As the Taoiseach will clearly have some form of discussion with the UK Prime Minister, Mrs. May, tomorrow, he should make a point of raising with her a concern about the unilateral and unacceptable approach to the EU-related provisions of the British-Irish Agreement and Northern Ireland Act. The UK Government has no legitimate right to unilaterally change the importance of EU law to the Northern Ireland settlement. Any amendment must be negotiated and must not conflict with the provisions voted on in free referendums on this island.

This is a dark and challenging moment for Europe. It faces assertive enemies from outside and opposition from populist movements within. This is not a time for timid action. We need clarity and determination to move forward. We need a spirit of solidarity. We need leaders who understand that we cannot afford to move back to business as usual.

Deputy Gerry Adams is next and he is sharing time. Is that correct?

I am sharing with Teachta Seán Crowe.

How are you dividing it, Deputy?

We will take five minutes each.

I note that Teachta Martin's fixation with Sinn Féin continues. In discussing the awfulness of the war in Syria, he mentions us in his prayers for the conversion of Russia. We have no truck for Russia or for any of the big powers. We are clearly against aggression of all kinds, unlike Teachta Martin, who seems to be in support of some of the forces engaged in Syria. All of them should cease their violent actions. Through the Taoiseach, we should raise these issues at the European Council meeting. We should be putting these issues on the agenda. The meeting is of key strategic importance because, although it is an informal meeting, it is primarily about the Brexit process.

The only thing that is clear at the moment is that the day is approaching when the British finally get around to making clear what they are going to do. We do not think the Irish Government is properly prepared for these discussions. We hope that a document we launched last week, The Case for the North to Achieve Designated Special Status within the EU, will inform the Government's negotiating position in the EU. I have sent copies of the document to the Taoiseach and other leaders in the Dáil. Essentially, we are arguing for an Irish solution to an English problem.

I remind the House that the Scottish First Minister told the Seanad recently that these "unprecedented times require imagination, open minds and fresh thinking". We need to think and act on an all-island basis and in Ireland's interests internationally and nationally. We can be sure that the British Government will be standing up for Britain's national interests. Therefore, the Irish Government needs to be doing exactly the same thing, but in an unprecedented way across the entire island. We cannot let our economy, our rights, our protections and our peace agreements to become collateral damage during the negotiations.

The Government has a habit of getting bad deals in the European Union. That cannot happen again on this issue, which is too vital for the people of this island to be short-changed in respect of it. That is why we are arguing for a collective focus on securing the entire island of Ireland within the EU, in line with the democratically expressed wishes of the people in the North. We talk all the time about the need to get the consent of the people in the North, which is something I agree with. This is an example of the people in the North saying "No" and not giving their consent to leaving the EU. I ask the Taoiseach to bring this message to the Council and to the informal meetings of Heads of State and Government on Thursday evening.

The Speaker of the Catalan Parliament has been summoned to appear before the Spanish High Court in Friday, 16 December. She is to be prosecuted for allowing a Parliamentary debate and a vote on Catalan independence. The Spanish state considers this public figure to be guilty of a crime because she facilitated a public debate on an issue of huge importance to Catalan and Spanish citizens. I ask the Taoiseach to raise the prosecution of the speaker of a democratic legislative body for facilitating a debate because it is putting at risk the democratic standards that people everywhere hold dear.

I join everyone else in commending the amazing efforts of the Defence Forces in rescuing 15,600 refugees. That is the size of a small county town. The members of the Army and the Navy richly deserve the European of the Year award. I say "well done" to Óglaigh na hÉireann.

Brexit is not the only cause of uncertainty in EU. The Italian people rejected a referendum on constitutional change on 4 December last and the Government of Matteo Renzi subsequently resigned. On the same day, an independent candidate just about beat a far-right candidate in the Austrian presidential election. As Deputy Adams has mentioned, the Spanish authorities are threatening to prosecute the Speaker of the Catalan Parliament for facilitating a debate in that democratic legislature. The EU has responded to the growing anger about its democratic deficit and its economic failures with further federalisation and reductions in member state sovereignty. This can best be seen in the unprecedented attempt to ram the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement through the European Parliament and provisionally apply it before member state parliaments have had the chance to debate the agreement and vote on it. I am conscious that there was no real debate on it in this Chamber. The EU's approach to these issues can also be seen in the move to create a standing European army and to increase military spending among EU member states. This is happening at a time of huge cutbacks in public and social spending.

I am conscious that the Council will be meeting against the backdrop of the failure of Europe and the world to stop the bloodshed and the slaughter of innocents in Aleppo. When the Taoiseach speaks at the Council meeting, he has to send a message that conflict cannot be disconnected from migration. It is clear that the two issues are linked. If a particular part of the world or a particular country is being bombed, people will flee from that area to safer areas where no bombing is going on. In this case, people believe safety is to be found in Europe. There is increasing anger among citizens about the failure to do anything to tackle adequately the challenges associated with the migration problem or to step up to the plate to resolve conflicts like that in Syria.

Sinn Féin firmly opposes the new attempts to introduce a common consolidated corporate tax base because these plans are not the solution. The EU status quo cannot continue. The European institutions need a serious wake-up call. They must take on board the growing disillusionment among voters. Sinn Féin has constantly highlighted the glaring democratic deficit at the heart of the EU. As we know, recent polls have shown that trust in the EU is continuing to fall. At this week's EU Council meeting, the Taoiseach should demand real reform and not just a tinkering around the edges. We need to build a progressive, prosperous and social Europe that respects sovereignty.

Yesterday was Ibrahim Halawa’s 21st birthday. He spent it in jail. He should have been celebrating this important day with his family and friends, but instead he learned that his trial has been adjourned yet again. This was the 17th postponement of his mass trial to date. Ibrahim Halawa has spent 40 months, or 1,214 days, in prison as Egypt continues to disregard its obligations under Egyptian and international human rights law. His trial has been rescheduled for 17 January 2017. The Taoiseach needs to call President el-Sisi and state that the Irish Government is seeking Ibrahim Halawa's release under Law 140. Rather than writing another letter, the Taoiseach should pick up the phone to speak directly to President el-Sisi. Article 155 of the Egyptian constitution allows President el-Sisi, with the approval of the Egyptian cabinet, to issue pardons to prisoners. President el-Sisi has used Article 155 four times in 2016, resulting in 859 prisoners being released. The most recent pardon focused on 82 young prisoners. The Taoiseach needs to explore this option because what is happening to this young man is unacceptable. I ask the Taoiseach to raise Ibrahim Halawa’s case formally at this week's European Council meeting if the opportunity arises. I expect him to do so informally as well. The plight of this young man needs to be put on the record. We are calling for the release of this citizen of Ireland and Europe. This is an example of something useful that can come out of the meeting.

I will conclude by stating my concerns about the continued assassinations and intimidation of human rights defenders and community activists in Colombia. While we all welcome the new peace agreement in Colombia, it must be backed up with protections for civil society and political activists. Seventy human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia so far in 2016. This marks an increase on last year's figure. Thirty-one of these murders have happened since the entry into force of bilateral ceasefires on 29 August last. Ireland and the EU have pledged to support the peace process in Colombia. One of the priority issues must be to provide robust protection for all of these activists. I ask the Taoiseach to raise what is happening in Colombia at this week's meeting.

I hope the Taoiseach will take on board a small number of proposals in advance of this week's European Council meeting. The first couple of proposals relate to Brexit. I was delighted that so many people wanted to attend my party's Brexit forum in Dublin last night. The number of people who wanted to attend was far in excess of the number of seats available in the room. This shows clearly that there is huge public interest in this topic. When we discussed Brexit during Question Time in this House on 9 November last, I asked the Taoiseach to provide a weekly update to Opposition parties on the Government's unfolding preparations.

The Taoiseach confirmed he was happy to do so on that day and, obviously, I was happy to wait a couple of weeks for people to figure out the best way of doing this. I do not think there could or should be a weekly debate about it, given not every week will see movement. Even an e-mail update to Members would suffice and would underscore the urgency we attach to this issue. It would be a small way of making sure that everyone is properly involved in Ireland’s preparations for what is probably the most momentous task we have ahead of us in the coming months and years. I would like the Taoiseach to reconfirm his commitment to this idea and, perhaps beginning in January, that we would start that weekly update.

Will an e-mail do?

An e-mail would be fine and there might be occasions when there would be sufficient happening to merit an hour's debate.

I will keep the leaders updated as well.

I appreciate that. Much of the focus of the Brexit debate to date justifiably has been on the impact on the Border, but I am of the view that it is also time for us to look very carefully at the economic planning required. The CEO of Enterprise Ireland spoke at the event last night and she rightly pointed out that she needs a plan for the worst possible Brexit. While we do not want to contemplate that this might be the reality, we must plan for the worst and, whatever then arises, it is prepared for.

We know that Brexit might provide opportunities for us and this too must be considered. We also know, however, that some sectors will be particularly vulnerable, in particular where 70%, 80%, 90% or, in one or two cases, 100% of the sectoral export is to the UK. Sectors such as agrifood and tourism are obviously vulnerable. Much of our work will rightly be focused on helping protect employment in these sectors but, in a hard Brexit scenario, we know we will not be able to protect these sectors fully. We need to be planning now for the expansion of tools such as the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund to help people diversify either in terms of the products they are producing or at least the markets they are targeting. The criteria for that fund were expanded during the crisis and I believe they could be expanded once more to support those who face a loss of employment in the event of a hard Brexit. The Taoiseach might confirm whether he agrees with this approach and whether he will be raising it at a European level.

More broadly, for all of its flaws, and those in this House could recount many such flaws, the support of the Irish people for the European project remains strong, in my view. However, that should not be taken as agreement with those who argue for more Europe as the solution to the current malaise. Those of us who champion the European Union must also be at the forefront of reforming it. A Europe that drifts further from meeting the expectations of our people cannot hold, as we have seen again and again in election contests and referenda across the Union. I have argued for some time that we need to make greater investment in our societies in order that what we deliver as politicians can begin to match the legitimate expectations of our people. We need to make investments which can be felt by people across Europe, investments that make a noticeable difference to the quality of the lives of our people, such as investments in hospitals and nursing homes, in roads and trains, in schools and sports centres, and in so much more. All of these are, in truth, investments in our people.

In my judgment, these policies will help us to meet the challenge of rising populism. Too often over recent years the belief that only populist politicians have answers to public fears has gone unchallenged. We must meet this challenge to democracy by providing people with real and workable solutions. We are too constrained from achieving that objective by some of the strictures of the Stability and Growth Pact and the fiscal rules. In the main, this is because the rules require of our states that we measure fiscal performance but there is no requirement to measure social performance. Why do we have a set of rules that measures our debt-to-GDP ratio but we do not have a requirement to monitor basic poverty levels routinely? Why do we focus on fiscal medium-term objectives but not on the health of our environment or of our people? As we speak, the rules that govern the European Union are forcing governments, including our own, into inactivity. We are constrained from spending money, even money that we ourselves have, at a time when people across this Continent are crying out for government action.

My party is beginning two pieces of work in this area. Domestically, we have drafted a genuine progress indicators Bill, which we will publish early in the new year and which I hope will have the support of all sides of this House. It will require, as a matter of law, that we publish a national set of indicators each year which would be much broader than simply the size of our economy. By looking in the round at social progress and at the state of our environment, as well as the health of our economy, we can better measure whether Government is serving us well. This is because social progress is what matters to our people. I believe this is an important initiative.

Even with the best will in the world, however, I accept that Ireland could not achieve real social progress on its own. The European rules that currently prevent additional capital expenditure need to change. Ten days ago I raised this issue with the leaders of social democratic parties across Europe at a Party of European Socialists, PES, leaders meeting. We agreed at that meeting to a sensible process which it is hoped will lead to real change. At my suggestion, a group of social democratic economists and fiscal experts will meet early in 2017 to draft a set of proposals to modify the Stability and Growth Pact, including the fiscal rules. These changes will not undermine fiscal discipline but should add an urgency to investment in our societies and place the monitoring of our social good on an equal footing with the monitoring of the strength of our economies. To prevent Brexit contagion from spreading across our Continent, this is the sort of action we need to take. I would encourage the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance to begin a similar process with their Christian Democratic colleagues, and Deputy Martin might do likewise with the liberals in the EU.

On Syria, we are continuing to watch as a human tragedy unfolds before us. A deal, struck too late, that would have allowed the besieged people of Aleppo to escape seems to have been ignored. Throughout yesterday, the bombardment of that benighted city continued. UNICEF reported that “many children, possibly more than 100, unaccompanied or separated from their families, are trapped in a building, under heavy attack in east Aleppo”. It is hard to disagree with the UN spokesperson who described a “complete meltdown of humanity” in the city. The appalling situation in Syria has continued to shock us but, in truth, our shock matters little. As a Union of nations, we have failed the people of Syria. We have failed to adhere to any notion that we have a responsibility to protect them. Faced with a Syrian dictator backed by Russia and Iran, the West has been reduced to pleading that the carnage might stop.

The US ambassador yesterday said:

Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?

The continuing bombardment of Aleppo today may be our answer.

I call Deputy Bríd Smith, who is sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy.

It is like Trump paying Mexico to build borders and prison camps on Mexico's southern border. We are right to condemn Trump and criticise his racist policies. However, fortress Europe continues to do exactly that right now for refugees escaping horror.

I wish to cover a couple of areas in my five minutes to contribute. When it comes to Syria, language fails to describe what is happening there. I do not think we have the language that could convey the depth of the suffering, devastation and anguish of Syrian people. In a way, it is a war that has nothing to do with the ordinary people of Syria. The way in which it has developed has left ordinary people behind. Many years ago, I too had the opportunity to visit Damascus, which is a very rich, cultural and diverse city. When we think about the history of Syria, it is considered the cradle of civilisation. Again, there is a richness of culture and diversity. When we see what has happened in Syria, it is as though it has been taken over by politics and a power play between a number of forces backing one side or another, whether it is Shi'ite, Sunni or some other force.

There are many powers, such Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, the United States and countries in Europe, that are involved in this civil war. It has come a very long way from that initial very peaceful protest in the name of democracy. It is obvious that there has been no interest in a political solution. A military solution was on the agenda to see who could bomb who out quicker. We think particularly of the trauma endured by children. All the countries involved sit at the United Nations. It raises very serious questions around the efficiency and effectiveness of the UN. Europe is also at the UN. However, it is as though we have now come to accept the unacceptable. I believe that Europe's voice at the UN must be stronger in its relationships with those countries with whom it has business and diplomatic relations. At the very least, there must be a strong voice for the protection of civilians and combatants, for the respecting of the rules of war, for safe passage, and for free and safe access to all areas for UN staff.

I acknowledge our Government's opening political dialogue with Cuba. If we have not done so already, Ireland is about to sign the EU-Cuba political dialogue and co-operation agreement. I believe it is positive for both Ireland and Cuba. We have a special relationship with Cuba, its society and its economy. Hopefully, we will have more positive trade relations between the EU and Cuba, including Ireland. EU support is vital in order that the progress made by President Obama and President Raúl Castro, with a major role played by Pope Francis, is not undermined or undone. I believe that the EU's voice was not strong enough on the banking issues of Cuba.

On the issue of tax, I return to the exchanges from Leaders' Questions today and the Taoiseach's agreement that there would be a space for voices advocating for tax justice at the high-level EU meeting, rather than just the representatives of the status quo. We had a very good Brexit conference and I would like to see something similar. We are all concerned about Ireland's reputation and the good name we had in terms of our untied aid. We are trusted in the developing world. So much of that stems from the work of our missionaries over 100 years. Ireland is a country that countries in Africa and other places want to do business with and, therefore, we have a responsibility to be a leader on tax justice here and at EU level. There is a policy process going on at the moment in Brussels to introduce public country by country reporting. I understand we are not opposed to it in principle, but we are not vocal and strong enough in support of it. We need to be more proactive.

I share the concerns of the speaker of the parliament of Catalonia, Ms Carme Forcadell, who was summoned to court this Friday for allegedly disobeying and perverting the course of justice by allowing the pro-independence roadmap to be put to a vote last July. This is a serious undermining of democracy. At EU level, I ask that Ireland express concerns over the prosecution of Ms Forcadell.

The EU and EU countries that have diplomatic relations with countries that are not respectful of human rights or in which there are human rights abuses should use all avenues in their power to address these issues. I refer in particular to the murder on 12 November last of an environmental and human rights defender, Mr. Jeremy Barrios Lima, in Guatemala City. He had worked with Trócaire's partner organisation, CALAS. It is a very dangerous environment in these countries to be a human rights defender and to look after and try to protect the indigenous people and their right to land. Some of these land grabs are being carried out by corporations and multi-nationals who have bases in Europe. Europe could be a stronger voice in promoting human rights.

I am not sure how many attempts have been made by different elected Members over the years to enshrine neutrality in the Constitution. The Sinn Féin Bill on 24 November was the most recent. Prior to that, a Bill was tabled by Deputy Mick Wallace on 18 December 2014. That Bill was defeated at Second Stage at a time when a RED C poll showed that 78% of the population agreed that Ireland should have a strong policy of neutrality. Both attempts, and all other attempts before that, have failed, primarily because the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties, or indeed the Labour Party when its vote counted, did not support any of these Bills.

Why do Deputies keep trying? The answer is that these efforts on our part reflect the opinion of the majority of people. They reflect a long and proud tradition of neutrality going back to Wolfe Tone and to the 1916 Rising and Proclamation. If that is what the people want and that is our tradition, then why does each Government continue to vote against any change that would enshrine this concept in our Constitution? Clearly, neutrality is not a concept the Government wishes to see enshrined because leaving the status quo in place provides it and every other Government with much more elasticity with which to define Ireland's neutrality, depending on the needs of the circumstances and on who one's friends are at a given time.

This elasticity allows each Government to do many things, and I will only mention some of them. Since 2002, it has allowed Shannon Airport, a civilian airport, to be used by more than 2.5 million US troops to go to and from war zones in Iraq, Yemen and Syria. On average, 500 troops per day pass through this civilian airport. They are only the numbers we know about. That figure does not include military aircraft operated directly by the US military. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will not divulge this information. As a result, we are relying on concerned individuals and groups such as Shannonwatch. It is extraordinary that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade tells us that these military aircraft are not involved in military operations when it will not divulge any information about them. On average, military aircraft land in Shannon twice a day. Last month, Shannonwatch photographed six military aircraft in one day. Last year, 600 exemptions were given to military aircraft to land at Shannon and 700 exemptions were given for aircraft to carry weaponry by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport itself paid €2.5 million last year to the Irish Aviation Authority, which was a reimbursement of costs incurred by the authority for aeronautical communications, etc. What are these troops doing, I wonder, if they are not on military operations?

The elasticity concept of neutrality also allowed Ireland to join a European Defence Agency in 2004 and to make contributions to a European defence fund. The elasticity allows submarines to dock in waters. In the past month, a foreign submarine, allegedly one from NATO, docked in Horgan's Quay in Cork. There were armed personnel on Horgan's Quay in Cork. What permissions were granted by whom and for what? The elasticity allows exports of dual-use components. I could go on but the message is clear on what is happening with this concept of elasticity. The irony and scandal is that all of these decisions made in our name allowed us no input whatsoever. That is in complete contrast to Article 10 of the much-lauded Lisbon treaty, which states that every citizen shall have the right to participate in the democratic life of the union and that decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen.

With regard to this upcoming meeting, I do not have much hope, but I do hope that the Minister of State might hear what we are saying and what we represent. We are being beseeched by the people of Ireland to stand up as an independent country with an independent foreign policy to be promoters of peace in the world. The irony is that the policy that we have followed along with Europe has led to a much less safe world. Some 65 million people worldwide are displaced by war and 24 people per minute are forced to flee their homes as a direct result of military conflicts.

One out of every 113 people globally is now either a refugee, asylum seeker or internally displaced person, and of these, 51% are children.

This is not what the people of Ireland are asking for. As I have said, they are beseeching us to stand up and be a voice for peace in the world. We have joined a Europe that is going increasingly in a military direction. The European Parliament on 22 November last backed plans to create a defence unit, but not once have we had an input into any of these decisions.

I welcome the opportunity to speak today. One of the most immediate issues facing the European Union is the result of the recent Italian referendum, coming as it does on the back of the Brexit referendum result. We seem to be stumbling and fumbling along, unsure of ourselves. We have seen heavy-handed attempts by EU leaders, powerful people, to threaten our nearest neighbours. They have questioned what the British have done and urged them to revisit the issue. Only now is the seriousness of the situation gradually sinking in but the potential damage that Brexit may do to us has not fully sunk in yet. It has created a climate of uncertainty and added to the sense that the European project itself could be spinning out of control. The referendum was presented to the Italian people as an effort to reform the workings of Government but the people saw it differently. They interpreted the proposition before them as an attempt to increase government power at the expense of the regions and the rights of the ordinary citizen. Like it or not, that is the way people feel about Europe now. They feel that they are being excluded and left on the margins. There is a huge disconnect with the powers that be. We saw that for ourselves with the financial crisis. What did we get from the EU? Nothing but disdain and being told what we should and should not do. The EU allowed the money to be shovelled in here but took no responsibility for the actions of the European banks.

This is a common theme running through much of the so-called debate on Europe at the moment. There is so much mistrust regarding the true agendas of national governments and the direction that Europe is taking that it has changed the political landscape across the Union. We are not immune to this in Ireland and how could we be? We must learn from Brexit. We must learn to find ways to listen to the people and not to dismiss their concerns as mere populism. We can all say that and we have seen that across the globe. If one takes a different view, if one is not on the big merry-go-round of European and US trips, that does not mean one is being a populist and just having a go. Having said that, we must find a way of striking a balance between listening to the people and making difficult but necessary decisions. That is a very delicate and difficult balance to strike but we must try to do so. When people trust their governments, this is more easily achieved. The Italian referendum, the Brexit result and the election of President-elect Donald Trump have shown us that when people do not trust their governments, even good ideas are defeated. When the people lose faith in their governments, then the governments cannot bring the people with them.

The Irish Government is going over and back to European summits. What will the Taoiseach be doing about Ibrahim Halawa who marked his 21st birthday in awful conditions in prison in Egypt? What recognition are we getting from the EU for the work we are doing through our missionaries, NGOs and pioneering people? What recognition are we getting for the tremendous but harrowing work being done by our Navy? I saw a documentary on the work of our Navy in the Mediterranean on Monday night last. The risks being taken by our personnel are spectacular. The documentary highlighted the difficulties they experience when trying to rescue migrants at sea. They must try to keep them calm and assure them that they are there to help, such is the level of fear. The migrants are so desperate that they have left their country on boats that do not even have enough fuel to bring them 50 km, not to mention a four-hour trip. The documentary highlighted the false hope and the abuse of trust by those who put them on those makeshift boats.

I visited a refugee camp myself in Lebanon and know that people will take any risks to get away rather than stay in a situation of hateful persecution. What we are seeing in Syria, with the continual bombardment of Aleppo, is beyond words. No words could even begin to describe the horror of that situation, but Europe has stood idly by. What have we said as an independent country? What attempts have we made to bring this issue to the fore and to ensure respect for the so-called normal rules of war? What is going on in Aleppo is savage.

There has been very little debate on these issues in this House. I have tried to raise the issue of the Middle East and the wipeout of Christianity and other minority Muslim sects from the region. Anyone who does not conform is just being wiped out. I note that Fianna Fáil has tabled a motion on the Yazidis. While I acknowledge that the Yazidis are being persecuted, so too are Christians. I cannot understand Fianna Fáil's unwillingness to include Christians in its motion. Why the cherry-picking? No human being deserves to be treated in such an obnoxious fashion. The Middle East will be destabilised for generations to come. It is horrific to see what is going on in Aleppo and to consider the arms trade, the way the USA is supporting Saudi Arabia and the Russians are continuing with their bombardment. It is the most awful civil war. I know that ISIS must be tackled but surely not this way, with the slaughter of innocents, of children, house by house and on the streets of Aleppo. The people of Aleppo could not leave. They had no chance because to try to leave would have posed an even greater risk.

I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, to the Chamber. I know that she and the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, visited refugee camps in Greece in recent days. Seeing is believing. I was only in a refugee camp once, in Lebanon, but I will never forget the fear and terror in the eyes of children. I will never forget the stories they told. Most were there with nobody only a grandparent, their siblings and parents having been slaughtered or dragged into the conflict.

We are standing idly by. As a so-called neutral country, we are not even having proper discourse and debate on these issues. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross is the man with responsibility for the munitions passing through Shannon Airport. We need to be questioning much more what is going through that civilian airport. We do not ask enough questions but simply sign letters. I know that the current Minister does not just do that and I compliment him on that. I have spoken to him about issues like this and I know he takes them seriously. The Cabinet needs to take them more seriously too. We need to know the destinations of all the US military planes and what is on board them. I know that Shannon Airport is in the constituency of the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Pat Breen, and we all want to see the airport doing well, but not at any cost.

I look forward to hearing from the Ministers for Children and Youth Affairs and Justice and Equality about the situation in the refugee camps. We must thank the NGOs, the peacekeepers and the reporters who risk their lives to report the true horror of what is going on. They are being failed by us when we do not act on that horror, when we do not bat an eyelid at the persecution that is going on.

I referred earlier to the wiping out of Christians and other sects.

Under the dictators people had freedom to practice their religion with impunity. There was some sense of normality in the region but united coalition forces have bombed the hell out of the place and what is there now? Nothing but unadulterated bedlam, war and terror regimes. It is a far more unstable, dangerous and troubling place for future generations than has been the case for decades. I am not condoning dictatorships but people had some sense that they were able to go about their lives, cherish whatever faith they believed in and create some semblance of normality for their children, but now there is unadulterated chaos. I am disappointed we have not had any meaningful debates on that in the House. I am disappointed with Fianna Fáil also regarding its difficulty in including Christians in its forthcoming motion. I do not understand the party's difficulty in that regard.

I listened to all the Members who spoke with passion and emotion regarding Syria.

I am pleased to conclude these statements in advance of tomorrow’s meeting of the European Council. As the Taoiseach mentioned, I will focus my remarks on the external relations items of the European Council meeting. This is to consist of the consideration of the Dutch Government’s approach to ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, the situation in Syria and also the sanctions against Russia in regard to Ukraine.

The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was finalised in 2014. All EU member states, except the Netherlands, have now ratified the agreement. There was a consultative referendum in the Netherlands last April which opposed Dutch ratification.

In order to address the concerns raised during the referendum, the Dutch Government is now seeking a decision of the Heads of State or Government of the 28 EU member states meeting as the European Council, which provides legally binding assurances. These assurances include confirmation that the agreement is not the first step to EU membership and clarification of what it does or does not entail. The decision is not seeking to alter the substance of the agreement itself.

This agreement is of vital significance and it is therefore important that a solution is found to allow the Netherlands to ratify it. Failure to do so would cast doubt on the credibility of the EU as a stable partner for countries in the eastern neighbourhood. For these reasons, we would wish the EU to be as supportive as possible and we intend to approach the matter in that spirit.

Ireland, together with its EU partners, remains very concerned at the ever-worsening situation in Syria. We have been shocked and outraged at the appalling scenes of suffering in Aleppo where the excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate use of military force constitutes a clear violation of international law, as outlined in the genuine contributions by speakers this afternoon.

Our concerns have been directly conveyed in the clearest terms to the Russian authorities, given their role as a key supporter of the Assad regime. It is disheartening to note that however the conflict mutates in the near term, there is likely to be neither improvement nor meaningful resolution in the short term.

The October European Council held a broad strategic debate on the relationship with Russia in all its aspects. It was agreed that it remains a strategic goal for Ireland and the EU to have a strong stable partnership with Russia into the future. However, we must be frank about the current realities and the situation as it presents itself today.

There has clearly been a marked deterioration in relations between Russia and the EU over the past number of years. The conflict in Ukraine has come to be the central defining issue, although there are also grave concerns over Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict.

There has been no major change in policy by Russia or any indications that it is seeking to improve its relationship with the EU. That is regrettable, but it is quite simply the fact and it cannot be ignored.

EU Foreign Ministers agreed a set of principles in March to guide our relations with Russia and these remain the guiding points for our current relationship. In line with these, Ireland believes there is merit in seeking a selective engagement with Russia on foreign policy issues and specific sectoral areas of interest to the EU. However, we are clear that any resumption of dialogue should be gradual and should be used by the EU to seek a change in Russian behaviour.

As I said, the fragile security situation and the conflict in eastern Ukraine remain of paramount importance. Two years on from the signing of the first Minsk agreements, we are still calling for a stable ceasefire.

The path for a resolution of the conflict is set out in the Minsk agreements. The EU has been very clear and consistent in linking the economic sanctions imposed in 2014 to the complete implementation of the Minsk accords. The decision to impose such measures on Russia has come with negative consequences. The EU has suffered in terms of trade volumes, but that underlines the seriousness with which the EU regards Russia’s actions in destabilising eastern Ukraine.

The sanctions are intended to encourage Russia to use its influence to help ensure the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. Criteria for amending the sanctions are clear and provide the sole basis upon which future decisions and assessments are made.

We have repeatedly made clear that the EU will never recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and that has to remain an important principle in our approach.

Despite these negative elements, the EU still needs to look to its values and to act in accordance with them. For example, it is of great importance that the EU maintains its support for civil society in Russia, which continues to be vulnerable. The shrinking space for independent civil society and the ongoing harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and opponents is deeply troubling.

As I said, we desire a strong and stable relationship with Russia over the long term and that goal will once again guide our thinking at the European Council discussion this week. However, we do not expect any significant change in the EU’s approach to its relationship with Russia at the present time.