Other Questions

Good Friday Agreement

Brendan Smith

Question:

30. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the outcome of discussions to date with the British Foreign Secretary and with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in respect of the need for a post-Article 50 agreement between Britain and the European Union to provide for a human rights Act, which is a central element of the Good Friday Agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18253/17]

Brendan Smith

Question:

53. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the outcome of discussions with the British Foreign Secretary and with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in respect of access to the Court of Justice of the European Union and other guarantees of fundamental rights that underpin the Good Friday Agreement in any post-Article 50 agreement between Britain and the European Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18254/17]

Seán Haughey

Question:

64. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the actions he has taken and is taking to ensure citizens in Northern Ireland will maintain their rights under the European Court of Human Rights and Good Friday Agreement. [16721/17]

It is absolutely essential that the British Government honours all its commitments on human rights, as provided for under the Good Friday Agreement. The outcome of Brexit must in no way diminish those commitments. The Minister, together with the Taoiseach and other members of the Government, have clearly stated that they have received some commitments. Can he outline what commitments have been sought and what clear answers have been given by the British Government?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 30, 53 and 64 together.

As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government is determined that all aspects of the agreement are fully respected through the process of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and thereafter. Our priority is to ensure the Good Friday Agreement and the overall integrity of the settlement are not in any way disturbed by the UK’s exit from the European Union. All provisions of the agreement must be respected, including those relating to human rights.

The protection of human rights in Northern Ireland law, including through the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights, is one of the key principles underpinning the Good Friday Agreement. It is important to be clear that the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR, is separate and distinct to the European Union. The UK’s decision to leave the EU has no impact on its obligations under the ECHR. Even after the UK leaves the EU, there remains a continuing obligation on the British Government to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Ireland law, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. In this regard, I welcome the clarification in the UK Government’s White Paper on withdrawal from the EU where it states specifically that it has no plans to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the context of British Government proposals, not connected with Brexit, to repeal the UK Human Rights Act and to introduce a domestic bill of rights, the Government has consistently emphasised to the British Government the importance of fully meeting its human rights obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. In this regard, I would note that while a domestic bill of rights can complement incorporation of the convention, it does not replace it. The British Government has indicated it is not currently pursuing a repeal of its Human Rights Act. The Government will continue to monitor the situation closely.

On 13 February, I convened a sectoral dialogue on human rights under the Good Friday Agreement to hear the views of civil society, North and South, on the possible implications of Brexit for this pivotal chapter of the agreement. This was a valuable exchange and a number of key themes emerged, including the importance of upholding the Good Friday Agreement chapter on rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity, as an integral part of the agreement as a whole; the value of a bill of rights for Northern Ireland as referred to in the Good Friday Agreement, in mitigating some of the potential impacts of Brexit for Northern Ireland; and the value of a charter of rights for the island of Ireland as referred to in the Good Friday Agreement. This would also support the provision in the agreement on equivalence of rights on the island. Each of these themes demonstrates that human rights are central to the peace process and must be protected and sustained, regardless of the UK’s future relationship with the European Union.

On 14 February, I held a bilateral meeting in Dublin with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire. I reminded him of the unique circumstances that pertain to Northern Ireland, given the political and constitutional settlement of the Good Friday Agreement. In this regard, I noted to the Secretary of State the range of issues raised in the aforementioned sectoral dialogue on the human rights provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. I emphasised to the Secretary of State the duty on both Governments to ensure the integrity of the agreement in this and all other aspects, whatever the UK’s future relationship with the European Union might be.

Human rights are central to the peace process and must be fully protected and sustained, regardless of the UK’s status in the EU. The Government will continue to work closely with the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that the protection of human rights remains at the heart of civic life, politics and ongoing societal change in Northern Ireland. This includes the continued incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights in Northern Ireland law, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement.

I thank the Minister for his positive response and his own personal commitment to safeguarding those provisions in the Good Friday Agreement. I am glad he referred to paragraph 10 of the Good Friday Agreement's section on rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity. The specific provision provides for a joint committee of representatives of the two human rights commissions, North and South, as a forum for consideration of human rights issues on the island of Ireland. The joint committee will consider, among other matters, the possibility of establishing a charter open to signature by all democratic political parties, reflecting and endorsing agreed measures for the protection of fundamental rights for everyone living on the island.

That was a positive measure in the Good Friday Agreement and we can now see how important it was to have it there. What consideration is being given at present to putting in place such a structure to ensure that we will have this safeguard measure on an all-island basis?

I assure the House and the Deputy that the Government is a firm supporter of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, but the Good Friday Agreement predates that charter and does not expressly provide for it. That said, the charter provides an important and effective common reference on rights across the island of Ireland, as it does across the EU as a whole.

I wish to refer again to the White Paper on legislating for the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. The British Government expressly indicated that the provisions of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in Northern Ireland will not be applied as part of British law after the UK leaves the EU. This may require that a consideration may be given to alternative means of ensuring the coherence of rights frameworks across the island of Ireland. This was a key theme of the sectoral dialogue in Maynooth and I am pleased that the Deputy's party was represented at that conference. The value of a charter of rights for the island of Ireland, as referred to in the Good Friday Agreement, would also support the provision in the agreement on the matter of equivalence of rights across the island.

My priority at all times is to ensure that all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement are respected, not only here but also in the context of the UK-EU negotiations. It is an issue that forms part of the current talks in Northern Ireland that will hopefully result in a successful restoration of the power-sharing Executive and its institutions. We will continue to be proactive in working to mitigate all aspects of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU across the island of Ireland.

We are all well aware that since 1998, the Westminster Parliament has made no progress in preparing a bill of rights for the North. I presume that a bill of rights would be essential if we were to have the all-Ireland charter that is necessary post Brexit. Is the Minister concerned that in the new arrangements and architecture that will arise, there will be an interregnum whereby these safeguarding and human rights measures will not be in place? We must ensure there is no such interregnum or lacuna.

Obviously, a difficult situation would emerge if the new structures were not in place at the time Brexit actually happens.

The Deputy makes a very important point. I assure him, and the House, that human rights provisions comprise a very important pillar of the Good Friday Agreement. It is essential, therefore, that human rights protections and frameworks in the Good Friday Agreement are not, in any way, adversely impacted upon or disturbed by any changes that might take place due to the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. In that regard I need to stress that the UK has confirmed that it has no plans to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, which is at the core of the human rights pillar of the Good Friday Agreement. Essentially, while the legal obligations provided for under the Agreement in respect of human rights remain unchanged, the UK's departure from the Union changes the context in which those obligations operate. There will need to be an element of work undertaken to ensure that nothing adversely affects the human rights guarantees in the Good Friday Agreement and that the confidence and trust of all sides of the community in Northern Ireland is not in any way adversely impacted upon.

I assure the Deputy that we will continue to raise this issue. I have raised it across a number of ministerial meetings that I had with both the current Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, and his predecessors and on occasion with other ministers. My colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, has also raised this issue. As far as I am concerned it is absolutely essential that the human rights protections as expressed in the Good Friday Agreement be fully honoured, maintained and sustained into the future.

The next Member present who has tabled a question is Deputy Broughan.

Question No. 31 replied to with Written Answers.

Passport Applications

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

32. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the supports he is providing to the Passport Office to assist in the speedy processing of the increasing numbers of passport applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18002/17]

The Minister recently told me that the Passport Office processed almost 750,000 applications for renewals and new passports in 2016 and that he expected a rise of approximately 9% this year. Of course there was the Brexit spike, to which the Minister has referred in some replies. His own Department has been very efficient and kind in response to queries I have raised, and I am sure, in response to other Deputies as well. There is growing concern that, as the website of the Passport Office states, processing times are a guideline only and not a guarantee. We have case after case of families being very distressed as their time for departure for a holiday fast approaches and no passport is delivered.

There have been very significant increases in passport applications in recent years. A total of almost 750,000 applications was received in 2016. This was an increase of more than 9% over 2015. Between 1 January and 31 March this year, over 250,000 applications were received, which represented an increase of 26% over the same period last year. There are a number of factors behind these increases. The decision by the UK to leave the European Union has undoubtedly had an impact but so too has an expanding population and an increase in outbound travel in recent years. The passport service's stated aim is to process passport renewal applications within 15 working days of receipt, provided that the documentation is in order. Applicants are advised that the turnaround time will vary depending on factors such as seasonal demand. Turnaround times for each category of applicant are updated every week on the passport service website. Despite the high volumes, the target turnaround time of 15 working days was met in almost 90% of cases last year and it is just over the target - by one day - in recent weeks. First-time applications are subject to longer turnaround times due to the extra verifications involved to protect the integrity of this important document. The current turnaround time for first-time applications is 24 working days. In all cases, as a matter of best practice, applicants are advised to allow at least six weeks for the processing of a passport and to use the passport express service only if they have no immediate travel plans.

The exceptional level of demand is likely to be sustained into the summer months and we have worked hard to put in place a number of measures, including additional staffing resources, to mitigate the impact. A total of 230 temporary clerical officers has been assigned to the Passport Office to assist with the processing of passport applications and to respond to customer queries. The great majority of these officers are already in place.

I launched a new online passport application service for adults renewing their passports on 30 March last. This new service will greatly assist in managing increased volumes of applications in the months and years ahead and in meeting target turnaround times. It allows citizens to renew their passport books and cards online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from wherever they are in the world. The service removes the requirement to have a form witnessed and is a fast, secure and convenient way to renew a passport.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The target turnaround time is ten working days plus postage time. I urge all Deputies to encourage all eligible applicants to use this channel.

I also ask Deputies to continue to help promote good practice in communications with constituents. As I mentioned, as a matter of best practice and to avoid unnecessary stress, applicants should allow six weeks for a passport application. Applicants should always check the validity of their passport before booking travel. If travel is already booked, it is very important that applicants carefully consult the passport service website and use the correct channel. The website has a free renewal reminder service for passport holders and I also strongly encourage people to avail of this service which is available through my Department’s website.

I fully appreciate the pressures the current exceptionally high levels of demand are putting on travel plans. I assure the Deputy that I will continue to closely monitor the situation to ensure the effective deployment of staff and other resources in order that the impact on turnaround times for applicants and on customer service is minimised.

When I review the files from my own office of people who I have represented, time after time one sees that while a passport should have been issued on a particular date according to the tracker on the website, somebody's departure date is coming up within a few days and there is still no sign of the passport. As I have said, I am grateful for the fact that the Department has been able to help out in such cases.

On additional resources, are all 230 staff members now in place? The Minister said that some of them are still being recruited. The Minister has said that there is going to be a passport reform programme - which includes the online application which was launched just a few days ago - but it includes a ten-working day turnaround when even the 15-working day turnaround does not seem to be working. There are also complaints from constituents saying that access to the Passport Office itself also needs reform. Our constituents often turn to us as Deputies because they are simply unable to reach the office by telephone or e-mail. The lack of contact obviously adds to the stress. I note that in the UK it seems to take just about three weeks to get a passport in a country of 65 million people. In Germany it takes four to six weeks. We need further reforms.

The introduction of the new online service is part of the ongoing programme of reform in the Passport Office. I acknowledge what the Deputy has said in respect of those working there. I too wish to acknowledge the efficiency and dedication of everybody associated with, and working in, the Passport Office. There are challenges, however, because we are dealing with unprecedented numbers.

I appeal to Deputies to continue to help promote good practice in their communications with constituents in order to avoid unnecessary stress. My advice continues to be that applicants should allow six weeks for a passport application. Applicants should also check the validity of their passport before booking travel. If travel is already booked, it is very important that applicants carefully consult the passport service website and use the correct channel. The website has a free renewal reminder service for passport holders and I strongly encourage people to avail of this service, which is available through our own website. I fully appreciate the pressure that the current exceptionally high levels of demand are putting on people's travel plans. I assure Deputy Broughan and other Deputies that I will continue to closely monitor the situation to ensure the effective deployment of staff and other resources in order to ensure that we give the best possible service to our citizens in the matter of their applications.

Many of us have put a notice to the effect of what the Minister has said on our websites, Facebook pages and so on.

I notice a huge increase in demand for passports from countries like South Africa, Australia, the UAE, Canada and so on. Many thousands of applications were made in 2015 and 2016. Does the Department have any idea how many people worldwide have an Irish passport? What are the eligibility levels? I remember asking the former Deputy Gilmore, when he was Minister, the very same question and he could not give me an answer. Does the Department actually know?

There are millions of Irish passport holders worldwide. I again acknowledge the challenges for the Passport Office in dealing with unprecedented numbers of applications. Over 733,000 passports were issued last year for Irish citizens. I encourage Irish citizens to check the expiry dates on their passports and to bear in mind that many countries require incoming visitors to hold passports which are valid for at least six months. That can be a challenge. While acknowledging the challenges and pressures in this area, I assure the House that the programme of passport reform will ensure that we will have one of the finest and most efficient online passport services in the world. I am anxious to ensure that the impact on turnaround times for applicants and would-be travellers will be minimised.

Irish Prisoners Abroad

Catherine Connolly

Question:

33. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the measures he has taken to ensure the release of a person (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18302/17]

The Minister replied to a question on Ibrahim Halawa during today's Priority Questions but I have a duty to raise the issue again. In view of the facts that Mr. Halawa is in a wheelchair, that his glucose levels are dangerously low and that he is in solitary confinement, I must pressurise the Minister to tell us what steps are being taken and what more can be done to secure his release.

I assure Deputy Connolly that this consular case continues to be a top priority for the Government and that very substantial resources and time are being devoted to it. This case has seen more high-level political engagement, time investment, consultation with third parties, consular visits and court hearing observation missions than any other in which the Irish Government has been involved. This is in light of the exceptional circumstances of the case, as referred to by Deputy Connolly, and, in particular, the youth of our citizen at the time of his arrest, his ongoing detention, the fact that his trial has not been concluded and that there has been no conviction recorded.

The Government has repeatedly and consistently called on the Egyptian authorities to release our citizen and return him to his home and his family in Dublin. We have supported petitions for this man to be returned to Ireland under Egyptian Law 140. We have appealed for him to be considered for release under the youth amnesty scheme of Egyptian President el-Sisi. There has been contact with the Egyptian authorities by myself, the Taoiseach, other Government Ministers and a parliamentary delegation to ensure that every effort is made for the release and return of the Irish citizen without delay. That is my aim and that of the Government. We are working on a daily basis to secure that outcome. I repeated this position when I met my Egyptian counterpart, Foreign Minister Shoukry, a number of weeks ago. In recent days, I have raised the issue again with EU High Representative Mogherini and with the Secretary General of the Arab League, who is also a former Egyptian Foreign Minister.

The court hearings have been closely monitored. On all occasions that the case has been called in court, there has been a representative of the Government present. On the most recent occasion, there was a request for Mr. Halawa's release on health grounds and the presiding judge undertook to examine the matter. That is currently under consideration.

It is very welcome that officials are in Egypt monitoring proceedings. As the Minister knows, Ibrahim Halawa was 17 when arrested and had just completed his leaving certificate. He has spent the final two years of his teens and the first two years of adulthood in dreadful conditions. He is now on hunger strike. Things have moved to a new level and the situation has become particularly acute.

In his reply to a previous question, the Minister mentioned that an Irish doctor has been sent in. The Minister might clarify the position in that regard. I did not catch whether the doctor had gone in already or if he is to go in. What was the result of the visit?

Is it correct that the Minister has clarified that the judge is considering whether Ibrahim Halawa will be released on health grounds? Has his case started? He is 21 years of age and his case has been adjourned 21 times. Great inconsistency has been shown by the Egyptian Government in the context of the release of 203 young people whose cases are also pending.

I am sure all Deputies will join me in saying that a hunger strike will serve no purpose. It will not assist in any way. The Irish citizen's health, as indicated in reports, is a matter of utmost concern for both myself and the Government. In light of our concerns, we took the unprecedented step of making arrangements for a medical visit. While his findings are confidential, I can confirm that the Irish doctor recommended further specialist assessment. The doctor shared his assessment and recommendations with the prison authorities, who have a clear responsibility to ensure this man's welfare while he is in the Egyptian prison system.

The Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs have consistently underlined our concerns in this regard in all of our contacts with the Egyptian authorities. We have made it clear that we expect the Egyptian authorities to fulfil their responsibilities regarding the health, welfare and well-being of the Irish citizen. The Irish Embassy in Cairo continues to actively engage and follow up on these matters.

The Minister's opinion and my opinion may be valuable generally but they are immaterial in this case. This young man has gone on hunger strike. When did the Irish doctor go in? When did he write up his report? To whom has the report gone? Will he be going back in to follow up?

The medical visit took place the week before last. The report was immediately furnished and is being acted upon. I assure Deputy Connolly and the entire House that I will continue to urgently work on this case. My officials continue to work on it on a daily basis so that we maintain pressure on the Egyptian authorities to release our citizen, allow him return to his family and resume his studies in Dublin. Every effort in that regard is continuing, including the active involvement of the Taoiseach as Head of Government.

Military Aircraft

Clare Daly

Question:

34. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the role of his Department in regulating the activity of Royal Air Force, RAF, fighter jets empowered to carry out military operations in Irish sovereign airspace (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18005/17]

There is a sort of secret pact between the British and Irish authorities which allows the RAF to intervene in Irish-controlled airspace in the event of a terrorist incident involving civil aviation in our skies. This pact has been much speculated upon in this House since 2001 and in the media since 2016. When I raised it previously with the Minister, he said it was a national security matter. This morning he said that there is no agreement. That is an interesting choice of words because an agreement has to be laid before the House. The question was whether an informal arrangement, pact or similar understanding exists now or ever has existed.

The Air Navigation (Foreign Military Aircraft) Order 1952, made under the Air Navigation and Transport Act 1946, gives the Minister for Foreign Affairs primary responsibility for the regulation of activity by foreign military aircraft in Ireland. Successive Ministers for Foreign Affairs have put in place strict conditions which must be satisfied before permission to overfly the territory of the State may be granted. Thorough and robust procedures are in place in my Department with a view to ensuring that the conditions for securing permission for foreign military aircraft to overfly the State are clearly understood and properly applied. These procedures are kept under ongoing review.

Comprehensive records on requests received and decisions made are retained for the purposes of monitoring and oversight and are drawn on as needed including to provide information to this House, as appropriate.

I cannot comment on any reports concerning national security matters or responses that might be taken in the event of an attack on Ireland or a serious and immediate security threat to Ireland or its people. However, I can state that in discharging the fundamental responsibilities of the Executive as set out in the Constitution, the Government’s engagement in international security co-operation is aimed at ensuring public safety and is conducted with full respect for Irish sovereign decision-making authority and for Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality.

That reply is wholly unacceptable. This issue has been debated in the Irish media for some considerable period of time, with sources such as five alleged senior personnel in the Irish Defence Forces, personnel in the British Defence Forces or diplomatic corps confirming that such an arrangement exists and the Minister is telling us that national security prevents him from saying so in this House. I simply do not accept that. The matter was raised previously in 2001 and 2003. It was put to the then Minister for Defence, Michael Smith, who confirmed in 2003 that security services had been contacted and that in such an event in Ireland, we would clearly require the assistance of external forces. I will ask the Minister again. Is there or has there been an arrangement of any character with the RAF to intervene in regard to civilian aircraft in Irish controlled airspace?

The Deputy alleges the existence of an agreement allowing the RAF to shoot down suspect aircraft in Irish sovereign airspace. I can confirm for the benefit of the House that no agreement has been entered into by the State to grant any permission to the RAF, or indeed the military aircraft of any other state, to shoot down planes of any type under any circumstances over Ireland.

The Minister is playing with words. I did not ask him if there was an agreement. There are specific arrangements to be made if there is an agreement. If the Minister is saying there is no such arrangement, be it involuntary, informal or whatever way the Minister wants to put it, has he commissioned an investigation into the sources who are talking to media outlets, allegedly at a high level inside the Irish Defence Forces, with a very serious level of detail in these matters? Has he commissioned an investigation into where they have got their arrangement? Has he sought a review of the answers of his predecessor, the former Minister for Defence, Michael Smith, who seemed to indicate and verify some of these matters? These are highly serious issues in a country that proclaims to be neutral and if the Minister is denying that any such issue or arrangement exists at all, how does he see Ireland defending itself, as it were, in these scenarios since we well know that the current capacity of the Defence Forces would be incapable of withstanding such a situation? These are situations which have far-reaching effects for Irish citizens and our neutrality. We have to be open and honest about it and, frankly, the Minister in his answers is choosing to dodge the question he is being asked.

My Department ensures that detailed and robust procedures are in place to ensure that all relevant parties are fully aware of the requirements relating to applications for permission for foreign military aircraft to land in this State.

That is not what I asked the Minister.

There are no circumstances under which the RAF or any other air force takes over responsibility of the Irish Air Corps. The Government's engagement in international security co-operation is conducted clearly within the parameters of powers conferred in the Executive by the Constitution. I refer the Deputy to Article 16.6.1o of the Constitution vesting the right to raise and maintain military or armed forces exclusively in the Oireachtas.

Northern Ireland

Joan Burton

Question:

35. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the discussions he had with Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Mr. James Brokenshire, about the possibility of the reintroduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland. [16734/17]

Eamon Ryan

Question:

47. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has spoken to Secretary of State Brokenshire since Mr. Brokenshire’s announcement that he would consider a return to direct rule if talks to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland fail. [17915/17]

I ask the Minister if he has had discussions with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Mr. Brokenshire, about the possibility of the reintroduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 35 and 47 together.

I am in regular and direct contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as part of the ongoing discussions to support the political parties in reaching an agreement on the formation of a new Executive in Northern Ireland. Both Governments are agreed on the imperative of continued devolved power sharing Government for Northern Ireland, which is at the core of the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Secretary of State confirmed in his statement to the House of Commons on 28 March that the British Government does not want to see a return to direct rule in Northern Ireland. I welcome this confirmation and I reiterate today in this House, as I have to the Secretary of State, that this Government does not support the suspension of the institutions and the return of direct rule in Northern Ireland. It is important to note that there is no statutory provision at Westminster for the suspension of the institutions, following its removal, which at the time was supported by the Irish Government, as part of the St. Andrews Agreement, more than ten years ago. The political process in Northern Ireland is founded on the institutions, principles, procedures and practices of the Good Friday Agreement, including the Assembly and the Executive, and it is imperative that both Governments and all the parties work in support of this framework.

In this context I am representing the Government in the intensive talks in Belfast. These talks have two objectives. First, to allow the political parties to reach an agreement on the formation of a new Executive. Second, to address the implementation of the outstanding issues from previous agreements. These discussions are structured around a shared approach put forward by both Governments following on from the talks last month where it did not prove possible for the political parties in Northern Ireland to reach agreement on the setting up of a power-sharing Executive before the statutory deadline of 27 March.

Overall, encouraging progress is being made in this renewed phase but I am under no illusions about the challenge of resolving the core issues that remain outstanding. Serious issues remain to be resolved after the Easter holidays, including those which were to the fore before the collapse of the last Executive and during the election campaign. However, with resolve and determination from all the parties involved in the process, and with the support and encouragement of the two Governments, I believe a successful outcome is possible.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

As part of my engagement with the Secretary of State and with each of the parties in the discussions in recent weeks, I have strongly emphasised the critical importance of forming a new Executive so that Northern Ireland’s interests can be effectively represented as part of the process of the EU-UK negotiations which are about to commence. I very much hope that the necessary agreement between the parties will be reached on formation of the Executive as soon as possible so that it can directly represent the interests of the people of Northern Ireland in these negotiations which are of major significance.

As the formal talks pause briefly for Easter, I encourage everyone to maintain informal contacts and to reflect on what can be achieved if, in the weeks ahead, an Executive is established that operates effectively and sustainably. I am convinced that all parties are willing to play their part in reaching such a sustainable agreement, which will provide for a stable power-sharing Government in Northern Ireland underpinned by the principles of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Irish Government as a co-guarantor of that Agreement and the peace process will continue to play its part in facilitating these ongoing talks, working with the British Government and encouraging all parties to reach agreement on the formation of a new Executive that is demonstrably in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

I am very disappointed at the fact that Sinn Féin, in particular, appears to have called for another election. Does the Minister see any value in another election other than that there would be a certain amount of head counting? I believe that the issues which are outstanding are capable of resolution. This Friday we will attend the anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. Most commentators are saying that there appears to be relatively little energy or appetite on the part of either of the two major parties, the Democratic Unionist Party but particularly Sinn Féin, to make the institutions work, a rather fatalistic approach that it is okay to return to direct rule but that the preference is for further elections. I have no real idea other than head counting what another election might produce. Has the Minister spoken to each of the parties about that? Does he have a sense of what they believe a further election might achieve? Talking to ordinary people from the North who are not particularly political I found that they are completely confused. When we see how life has transformed in the North in terms of peace and security, historically, it seems to be an enormous mistake to run the risk of losing all the progress that has been made.

I share Deputy Burton's concern. I agree with much of what she said and I wish to assure her and other Deputies that, as part of my engagement with the Secretary of State and with each of the parties in the matter of the discussions over recent weeks, I will continue to emphasise strongly the critical importance of forming a new Executive in Northern Ireland so the interests of the people of Northern Ireland can be effectively represented.

There is an added urgency and a greater level of importance on this occasion having regard to the commencement of the negotiations on the proposed withdrawal of the UK from the EU. I very much hope that agreement between the parties will be reached on the formation of the Executive as soon as possible so that this Executive can directly represent the interests of the people of Northern Ireland in the negotiations. As the formal talks pause for Easter, I encourage everybody to maintain informal contacts over the Easter period and to reflect on what can be achieved if in the weeks ahead the Executive is to be established that operates in a sustainable and effective way.

I understand that there are very severe financial penalties regarding the public budget in Northern Ireland and that automatic discounts or penalties apply. There is a general fear, particularly among public sector workers and at local and district council level, that the budgets will come under incredibly severe pressure, which will be very destructive of public services and life in Northern Ireland.

Only yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet a cross-section of civil society leaders in Belfast. Last week, I met in excess of 15 heads of business corporations in Northern Ireland. I share the concern that has been raised by Deputy Burton but I remain convinced that all the parties are willing to play their part in reaching an agreement which will provide for a stable power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government is co-guarantor of the Agreement and the peace process and will continue to play its part. While there will be no formal engagement over the next few days, I appeal for a level of informal engagement between the parties to ensure that when the talks resume after the Easter period, there will be a willingness on the part of everyone involved to ensure the setting up of an Executive and a functioning Assembly at the earliest opportunity for many reasons, including the reasons evidenced by Deputy Burton in respect of budgets, jobs and economic development in Northern Ireland.

Military Aircraft Landings

Clare Daly

Question:

36. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his plans to review the use of Shannon Airport by the US military in view of the destabilising role played in the Middle East and elsewhere by the US, and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18006/17]

As the Minister is aware, the US has been wreaking havoc across the Middle East for decades. It has taken a new departure with Donald Trump at the helm and his decision last week to drop 50 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airbase. We know the US media responded by saying things like "I think Donald Trump became President of the United States last night". People described it as doing the right thing and the missile strikes were described as "beautiful". It is odds-on that Donald Trump will escalate such military action and, one presumes, use Shannon Airport to further his aims. Is it not time that we had a review of such an appalling blight on our supposedly neutral stance?

Successive Governments have made landing facilities available at Shannon Airport to the US for well over 50 years. These arrangements are governed by strict conditions, including that the aircraft must be unarmed, carry no arms, ammunition or explosives and not engage in intelligence gathering and that the flights concerned do not form part of military exercises or operations.

These conditions apply equally to military aircraft from all countries seeking to land in Shannon. The US, as with all other states, is required to provide my Department with confirmation in writing that the aircraft proposing to land in Shannon complies with the strict conditions set out above. Arrangements for the regulation of activity by foreign military aircraft are kept under ongoing review. In line with this, my Department ensures detailed and robust procedures are in place to ensure all relevant parties are fully aware of the requirements relating to applicants and applications for permission for foreign military aircraft to overfly or land in the State.

I take it from the Minister's stock reply to which we have been listening for the past six years that the answer to the actual question is that the Minister is not prepared to carry out a review of the use of Shannon Airport by the US military. The Minister might consider that recent US air strikes have claimed the lives of 200 civilians in Iraq. Dozens were killed in separate strikes supposedly aimed at ISIS. Women and children were killed in Yemen. The US has launched more air strikes in Yemen in March 2017 than in all of last year, not to mention the Saudi crimes in that area. Ireland has facilitated all of these campaigns by allowing the US military on its route to those areas to land in Shannon Airport. Not only that, we know there has been an expansion of the areas of active hostilities, as the US calls them, in Somalia and so on. We know that drone strikes, which had reached a record under Obama at one every 4.5 days, have now reached a rate of one every 1.8 days under President Trump. We are facilitating this and the time for review is long overdue.

The Minister probably heard about the attack on the Borussia Dortmund team bus in Germany last night. God knows what the motive was. While we could not believe any US President in our memory if he told us the time of day, given that President Trump is such a reckless loose cannon, how in God's name can the Minister tell us that it is okay to let military planes through and that there are no arms or ammunition because the US says so? Would the Minister consider searching these planes so that we can assure the international community that under no circumstances are we allowing arms or ammunition through on military planes? As we said before, these planes are not travelling halfway around the world to play golf.

The Deputy will be aware that prior permission is required for all foreign military aircraft to land at Irish airports and that, if granted, permission is subject to strict conditions, which I have outlined. Indeed bilateral relations between friendly nations are founded on mutual trust. Both parties have an interest in maintaining that trust. Details provided by diplomatic missions, including confirmation that aircraft are unarmed and carry no arms, ammunition or explosives, are therefore accepted in good faith as being accurate.

Deputy Daly will be aware from previous encounters inside and outside this House that arrangements for the regulation of activity by foreign military aircraft are kept under ongoing review. In line with this, as I have stated, my Department ensures that detailed and robust procedures are in place to ensure that all relevant parties are fully aware of the requirements relating to applications for permission for foreign military aircraft to overfly this State. Ministers are answerable to this Dáil and respond to numerous parliamentary questions on landings, overflights and military aircraft in Irish airspace. Arrangements at Shannon Airport were the subject of a specific inquiry by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, of which Deputy Wallace was a member. I met the committee prior to its completion of its report. The committee also heard evidence from the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Secretary General of my Department.

I am beginning to wonder whether the Minister is going for the job of Garda Commissioner because his answers do not really match the reality. Will he tell us what he thinks all those aircraft are doing? Moving these aircraft from one corner of the globe to the other is not an inexpensive task. They are landing in Ireland roughly twice a day. What does the Minister think they are doing seeing as they are not involved in any military activity whatsoever, even though they are military aircraft? I would remind the Minister that the US website Politico carried an article last week with the headline "Like Middle East Wars? You're Gonna Love President Trump". That is what we have here. We see ships assembling around North Korea, a ratcheting up of the situation in Iran, Somalia becoming involved, the situation in Yemen and so on and Ireland sitting in the middle of it. It is long past a review. We have been asking these questions for six years and getting non-answers but the world situation is deteriorating and Ireland is in the middle of it.

I do not accept what the Deputy has said. Lest there be any doubt, let me say that I was horrified at the apparent chemical attack in Syria last week. The attack was barbaric and my thoughts continue to be with the victims and their families. I condemn, unreservedly, the attack and those responsible. The attack further underlines the need for accountability and a genuine political transition in Syria. This is an international priority for Ireland and is an issue that continues to be raised in the context of EU foreign ministers' meetings, the latest of which took place in Luxembourg last week where I attended and participated. I assure the House that Ireland does not sit in the middle of these issues.

Sin deireadh le ceisteanna chun an Aire Gnóthaí Eachtracha agus Trádála. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire agus na Teachtaí.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.