Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Israeli Settlements

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

52. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the plans announced by the Israeli Ministry of Construction and Housing to move settlers into the illegally occupied Golan Heights; his further views on whether continued flouting of international law should be condemned more robustly by the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17593/19]

Seán Crowe

Question:

60. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if his attention has been drawn to the comments of the Israeli Prime Minister that if he wins re-election he will annex illegal Israeli colonial settlements in the occupied West Bank; if he will condemn these comments; and the response he will take if Israel moves towards annexing illegal Israeli colonial settlements in Palestine. [17558/19]

Niall Collins

Question:

69. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the recent developments at EU and or international level to try and halt the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17586/19]

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

94. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the diplomatic response of Ireland to the policy of Israeli Prime Minister to promise to break international law and annex occupied Palestinian land; the way in which he will respond to a far right Israeli Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17598/19]

Eamon Ryan

Question:

95. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the position of Ireland on the recent announcement from the Israeli Prime Minister regarding plans to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank. [17626/19]

Can the EU be more robust in its condemnation of what is flouting of international law?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 52, 60, 69, 94 and 95 together. The relentless process of settlement expansion and related activities in the West Bank, including forced removal of Palestinians from their homes, is critically damaging the viability of a future Palestinian state, and thus the prospects for a peace agreement and an end to the conflict. I have consistently made this view very clear here in the Oireachtas, at EU and international level and directly to the Israeli authorities during my visits to the region.

Settlements are illegal under international law, undermine the very basis of the two-state solution and erode the credibility of Israel’s commitment to a peaceful solution to the conflict. The pursuit of the settlement project also inevitably involves a range of injustices to Palestinians, such as evictions, demolition of homes and seizure of land and a wide range of security and other measures discriminating against Palestinians in their daily lives for the benefit of settlers. For all these reasons Ireland has focussed on settlements as a major driver of the continuing conflict.

These same concerns arise in relation to settlement building on the Golan Heights. I am aware of reports of a new Israeli Government plan to transfer more settlers into the Golan Heights. Should these reports be confirmed, it would be extremely worrying. Such transfer of population into an occupied territory was explicitly outlawed in international law after the events of the Second World War. Annexation of territory by force is also illegal under international law, including the UN Charter. Any attempt to legitimise this illegal annexation ignores the wishes of the inhabitants of the area and would be a flagrant violation of the principles of international law.

In a statement on 8 April I condemned the latest reported decisions by the Israeli authorities to advance plans for further settlement construction and related activities in the West Bank. Also last week, there was a clear and principled EU statement, referring to these decisions on construction in settlements and on the legal status of an illegal outpost.  The statement reiterated that:

The European Union's position on Israeli settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territory is clear and remains unchanged: all settlement activity is illegal under international law. It erodes the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace.

The Middle East peace process is at a critical impasse and the actions taken by both sides in the conflict can have serious repercussions. Continued expansion of settlements in these areas is not compatible with a good faith effort to reach a peace agreement and this is undermining many Palestinians' faith in a political path.

Reckless election promises in Israel in recent weeks, including some reportedly threatening to annex lands in the West Bank, can only add to these concerns. Unhelpful election rhetoric is not unique to Israel, and Ireland and the EU will judge the new government, which is still to be formed, on what it actually does rather than on what may have been said in the heat of the campaign. However, that does not mean such words are of no consequence since they send dangerous messages to militant settlers and contribute to a climate of fear and insecurity among many Palestinian communities.

It has long been proposed that a future peace agreement may involve some agreed mutual border adjustments, if the parties so wish it. Such changes can only be by mutual agreement. Any unilateral statement of annexation by Israel of occupied territory would be illegal under international law, would have no legitimacy and would not be recognised or accepted by Ireland or the international community more generally.

The European Union has taken a number of actions relating to settlements. These include the levying of higher tariffs on goods from settlements compared with goods from within Israel's recognised borders, prohibiting the use of EU research funding in institutions located in settlements, and rules to prevent misleading labelling of goods from settlements as being from Israel. Ireland has been to the fore in securing many of these actions.

With the prospects for peace continuing to deteriorate on the ground, EU Foreign Ministers have discussed the peace process on numerous occasions over the last year. Most recently, as Members will be aware, I held a meeting in February on the current state of the Middle East Peace Process with a small group of EU and Arab Foreign Ministers and the Secretary General of the Arab League. At this meeting we considered how the EU, together with the international community, can productively engage and better use all the levers at our disposal to influence the parties to the conflict.

Ireland and the EU stand by the internationally agreed parameters for a negotiated peace agreement and continue to urge the Israeli Government to uphold its international legal obligations, including under the Fourth Geneva Convention, on the treatment of a civilian population.

The EU is saying the right things, however statement after statement goes completely unnoticed by the Israeli authorities. Look at what has happened to date. Already, there are 34 illegal settlements in the Golan Heights and 167 illegal settlement businesses. That has meant the displacement of 340 Syrian villages and over 130,000 Syrian civilians already. That is what has happened to date. If this plan goes through, by 2048, 250,000 people will have been transferred into the Golan Heights, which will also see the construction of two new cities. We know that this violates all international law including the Fourth Geneva Convention, which relates to the protection of civilians in time of war and unambiguously outlaws population transfers into occupied territory.

The altering of the status of occupied Golan Heights has been condemned on numerous occasions, including by the Security Council, yet the situation continues. If this is a ploy by Prime Minister Netanyahu as part of his election campaign, it has brought tremendous stress, tension and uncertainty to residents in the Golan Heights who already face severe challenges.

I have been clear on recent comments by the United States on the Golan Heights. We have been consistent and clear about the corrosive impact of expanding settlements in terms of the expanding size of some existing settlements and new settlement activity, both in the West Bank and on the Golan Heights. It fundamentally undermines the capacity to function in the context of the two-state solution for a future Palestinian state. That is stating the obvious.

In truth, the EU has found it difficult to make decisions on the Middle East peace process in many ways. However, it has been unanimous in its collective criticism of settlement activity, and I believe that will continue. The High Representative, Ms Mogherini, has been very strong on this issue. She has repeatedly issued collective EU statements on the European Union's concerns regarding settlement activity. We have taken action. I outlined three actions we have taken on labelling, tariffs and ensuring that consumers understand what they are buying.

The Tánaiste will have further opportunities to contribute.

We have supported all of those.

My question is on the annexation of illegal Israeli colonial settlements in the West Bank. The comments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the recent election were inflammatory but not surprising. They have swept him to power. The balance of power in the Knesset is now held by smaller right-wing parties and religious parties that have previously sat in coalition with Likud. They will potentially allow Netanyahu to form the next government. These extremists want to formalise the illegal occupation of Palestine, harden Israel's apartheid regime and expand its territory. We cannot brush this aside as being purely an election ploy. Netanyahu has repeatedly spoken out against the two-state solution and Palestinian sovereignty. Not only that, he has also facilitated the increase in the number of illegal colonial settlements. People are asking what will Ireland do and what action will we take. We must end Israel's impunity. It is time for Ireland to stand up and recognise the state of Palestine. We cannot wait any longer. Will the Tánaiste reconsider his refusal to abide by the motion unanimously passed by this House calling for such recognition?

Deputy Crowe knows only too well what the Government's position is on the recognition of Palestine. We have a clear programme for Government commitment that we want to recognise the state of Palestine, but in the context of an agreed solution. The Deputy asked what Ireland is doing. The answer is that we are doing a lot at the UN and EU levels. I have been to Israel and Palestine on three occasions in my first 12 months as a foreign Minister and have met all of the key principals in political leadership on both sides. We will continue to do so. I look forward to travelling to Israel and to Palestine again in the coming months, meeting the new government and outlining the Irish perspective on what we regard as the way forward for a peace process. We are expecting a US intervention in terms of a new peace plan in the coming months, if not weeks. I have spoken at length to the key architects of that peace plan on the US side and we have made very clear what the Irish position is. We want this to work and to be successful but it has to be fair to both sides. Ireland will continue to be vocal on the international stage on these issues.

I call Deputy Eugene Murphy on behalf of Deputy Niall Collins.

I will make a few brief comments rather than repeat the points made by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, all of which Deputy Niall Collins and I agree with. As Deputy Crowe said, the language of Prime Minister Netanyahu in the recent general election was shocking. One has to ask if he was playing politics or if this is a more serious agenda by his followers. Prime Minister Netanyahu won the election by the skin of his teeth alongside a coalition of right-wing parties which will support his policies. The injustice experienced by the Palestinian people will obviously continue.

I understand and hear what the Tánaiste is saying. He has spoken strongly and I know where his heart is on this issue. Will he give an assurance that he will further progress the European Union's objections to what is being done to the Palestinian people and the settlements being forced on them? The EU will nearly need to redouble its efforts in this matter.

The answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". I have been consistent on settlements, whether I am speaking to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Dr. Saeb Erekat, a European Commissioner or other Ministers for foreign affairs. It is important that we say the same things in this House as we would say in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Ramallah. We challenge people but also try to work with them to find a way forward. Ultimately, we have to be part of an international effort to broker a peace agreement that Israelis and Palestinians can live with. We have to be blunt, honest and consistent in our messaging and critical at times, where that is justified. However, we should not be seen as one-sided. It is not being one-sided to call out inconsistencies with international law when it comes to the illegality of settlements and their expansion. Unfortunately, some people view my comments as being one-sided when they are not. They are consistent with the views of the international community and the European Union as a collective, even on an issue that can be divisive, particularly within the EU.

The Tánaiste will be aware of the grave situation in Tripoli. General Haftar's forces are on the outskirts of the capital and engaged in an assault on the city where the UN-backed-----

Are we still discussing Palestine?

Deputy Ryan tabled Question No. 95, which is part of the group.

My apologies. I thought the Leas-Cheann Comhairle had moved to the next question.

If the Deputy has a supplementary question, he is entitled to ask it.

I will leave it.

The word "corrosive", which the Tánaiste used, was correct because that is the effect of the settlements. The point is that if the settlements continue, there will not be any lands left from which the Palestinians could create a state. The Golan Heights had been untouched by conflict for many years. It had been part of an Israeli peace plan under which Israel was prepared to transfer the area to Syria as part of a comprehensive peace deal. The position is now very different, however. There are 27,000 Syrians, mainly Druze, still living on the Golan Heights and they are under extreme pressure. We met a group of residents from the Golan Heights some time ago and we heard at first hand what life is like for them. The Tánaiste mentioned the US peace plan, on which another question has been tabled. When President Trump states that it is time for the US to fully recognise Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, how could that possibly complement a US peace plan? That is a highly inflammatory statement. Sovereignty is so important to Irish people who know the lengths to which we had to go to assert our sovereignty. The violation of international law is continuing.

While the Tánaiste has worked extremely hard on this issue, with all due respect, I do not believe his approach is working. He asked us to give him time but the problem is that the Palestinians do not have time. The approach of Europe and certainly the United States is not working or helping to build a peace settlement.

Things are becoming measurably worse for Palestinians every day. The Prime Minister of Israel has stated that he will annex swathes of Palestinian sovereign territory. The US has moved its embassy to Jerusalem and declared that city capital of Israel. It has now also declared that Israel has sovereignty over Syria's Golan Heights.

I appeal to the Tánaiste to listen to the democratic voice of this House and the demands of Irish people. We want to see the formal recognition of the state of Palestine and a ban on goods from Israeli settlements entering Ireland.

I agree with the Deputy that the approach has not worked but we have to make a judgment as to what is likely to produce positive results. Trying to introduce a Bill that we know to be illegal and unenforceable might make some-----

That is the Tánaiste's opinion.

It is the opinion of the Attorney General.

There are different legal opinions available.

The day we set aside the Attorney General's opinion in this House will be a sad day for democracy. Any party that has been in government would know that. Having said that, I understand the frustration which gave rise to the Bill. I have said that on many occasions in this House and in the Seanad. We cannot propose to introduce legislation or policies that are unenforceable or illegal in order to make a point. That is not what we should be doing.

We have debated the recognition of Palestine and it remains under consideration but we are trying to ensure that Ireland has an influence over what a new peace plan which is likely to come forward in the coming weeks will look like. We want to ensure that we can continue to talk to, challenge and work with both Governments. Ireland wants to be part of a solution rather than simply taking a position that may sound good but that will not actually result in any change. That is a constant judgment. I share the frustration of many in this House but it is not realistic to suggest that, by recognising Palestine next week, the problem will be solved.

Foreign Conflicts

Seán Crowe

Question:

53. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if his attention has been drawn to recent anti-Government protests in Sudan (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17562/19]

I tabled this question before Omar al-Bashir was removed as President of Sudan. I was moved by seeing the huge crowds of citizens that had gathered to protest his continued autocratic rule and demand civilian government. Things have moved quickly in the past week and we can all state our support for the end of military rule in Sudan and that a democratic civilian Government needs to be put in place. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's comments on this.

On 11 April, it was announced that a transitional military council had assumed control in Sudan and that Omar al-Bashir, who had held the office of President for three decades, was being held in a safe place.  The transitional military council has said it will govern Sudan for a two-year transitional period after which it promises presidential elections.  Sudan’s constitution has been suspended, its parliament has been dissolved, and a three-month state of emergency has been declared.

Despite al-Bashir's removal, the Sudanese Professionals Association, which is one of the main organisers of the protests, has called for a continued sit-in outside the Defence Ministry. This is to demand a return to constitutional and civilian Government.  In an attempt to placate the protestors, the initial appointment of the Minister of Defence as head of the transitional military council was withdrawn over the weekend, replaced by another senior military figure. Negotiations between protestors and the military are continuing and the situation on the ground remains dynamic.

Events continue to evolve and my officials are monitoring developments, through the Irish Embassy in Nairobi, which has responsibility for Sudan, and through our membership of the European Union.  Officials from my Department visited Sudan earlier this month on a UN organised visit, a key element of Ireland's chairing of the donor group supporting the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator.

The political changes of the past week follow five months of demonstrations, triggered initially by spiralling costs of living. These protests took on renewed emphasis earlier this month, coinciding with the 34th anniversary of a bloodless coup against a former President, Jaafar Nimeiri.

In attempts over the past months to suppress and disperse protests, Sudanese security forces have used tear gas, stun grenades and live bullets. The use of violence against demonstrators has been widely condemned.

On 11 April, European Union High Representative, Federica Mogherini, issued a statement complementing a statement by the chairperson of the African Union Commission which highlighted that a military council does not provide the answers and breached the principles of the African Union Charter.  High Representative Mogherini said that only a credible and inclusive political process can meet the aspirations of the Sudanese people and lead to the political and economic reforms Sudan needs.  That can only be achieved through a swift handover to a civilian transitional government.  In that process, she called on all concerned to exercise calm and the utmost restraint.  I fully endorse her statement.

Omar al-Bashir was an autocratic leader of Sudan for just under 30 years. He came to power in a military coup and ruled Sudan with an iron fist and a strict, conservative, Islamic legal system. His ousting came after months of protests against the Government. Protesters accused the Government of mismanaging the economy, as the Minister of State indicated, and some peaceful protests have been attacked by security services. Last week, the military in Sudan stated that it had arrested Omar al-Bashir and would oversee a two-year transitional period. However, as events continue to unfold, I do not think that position will hold. People do not want to be controlled by a military council made up of army personnel who ruled and supported Omar al-Bashir over the years. Protesters remain outside the army and military headquarters in Khartoum demanding a civilian Administration and that the military immediately and unconditionally hand over power to a civilian Government. Will the Minister of State call on the protesters to ensure that protests remain peaceful and on the army to ensure that it does not forcibly remove or attack protest groups?

We call on all involved to ensure that the protests remain peaceful and that the response to them remains proportionate. The Irish Embassy in Nairobi, which is accredited to Sudan, continues to monitor the political situation closely in co-operation with a delegation of the European Union in Khartoum. Senior officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade met with the Sudanese ambassador to Ireland earlier this year to discuss the situation in Sudan.

Ireland is also responding effectively to the ongoing humanitarian needs in Sudan with almost €29 million in direct humanitarian assistance provided through our UN, NGO and Red Cross partners since 2012. In conjunction with our EU partners, we have urged that peaceful demonstrations be permitted, that political prisoners be released and that the call for change prompts a commitment to a peaceful, credible, legitimate and inclusive process that will allow Sudan the breathing space to carry out essential reforms.

In another development, 13 people were reportedly killed in an armed attack on protestors in the troubled region of south Darfur over the weekend. Gunmen attacked the anti-Government protests at a camp for displaced people, according to local reports.

Omar al-Bashir has been indicted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur by the International Criminal Court and a warrant is out for his arrest. The military council has said it will not extradite Omar al-Bashir to face accusations in the International Criminal Court although he could well be put on trial in Sudan. What is the Government's view on that and will it be pushing for his extradition to face these charges in the International Criminal Court in The Hague?

The Government's position is that it should, and will, continue to monitor the situation closely, particularly in conjunction with our EU partners and the United Nations. Any actions that would be considered inflammatory in the context of an unstable political situation in Sudan should be avoided at all costs.

Passport Applications Data

Martin Heydon

Question:

54. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the position regarding the increased take-up of the online passport service; his plans to extend the online service for more applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17588/19]

I am seeking an outline of the increased level of take-up in respect of the online passport service. We are heading into the Easter holidays and people will be taking summer holidays shortly after, so this is a time of increased pressure for passport services.

Unfortunately, some people are caught at short notice. I wish to put on the record that the new online system is a great improvement on the alternative process. I ask the Tánaiste to outline the plans to extend the online service to more applications than is currently the case.

I thank the Deputy for allowing me to put on the record the success of the new online passport renewal service launched in March 2017. Since its launch, more than 440,000 online applications have been received. For applications received so far this year, over 70% of eligible applicants have utilised the online renewal service rather than a paper application, which is very welcome from our perspective. The online service brings significant benefits to citizens, including faster turnaround times averaging ten working days plus postage, a user-friendly application process, greater customer satisfaction and fees reduced by €5 across all online applications.

The second phase of the online passport renewal service was rolled out in November 2018 when the online service was expanded to accommodate renewal applications for child applicants and additional cohorts of family applicants. With this expansion, more than half of all passport applicants are now eligible to renew online.

The online passport renewal service is part of the ongoing passport reform process. This programme is delivering major upgrades to the passport service technology platforms and business processes as well as making significant customer service improvements to the Passport Service. It is envisaged that as part of this reform the online application process will be rolled out to first-time applicants by 2021.

A strong take-up of online services will greatly improve the capacity of the Passport Service to manage increasing application volumes. Efficiencies gained mean that staff resources can be redeployed towards the processing of more complex applications, protecting the integrity of the Irish passport and enhancing the customer service we offer to citizens.

I thank the Tánaiste for his response, which is in line with my experience in the constituency that moving to the online system has been of assistance. Approximately how many children's passport renewals have been processed since the second phase allowing such applications to be made online was rolled out last November? How much more complex is it to process a first-time application than a renewal? The Tánaiste indicated that service will be available online in 2021. I acknowledge that we must maintain the integrity of the passport system, but the Tánaiste is indicating that half of current applications are being processed online and the processing of first-time applications online would be another major step forward.

A total of 446,383 online applications were received between 30 March 2017, when the service was launched, and 31 March 2019. The total number of applications of all types received in the same period was slightly more than 1.7 million. A total of almost 148,000 online applications have been received since the expansion of the online service on 28 November. The total number of applicants received in that period was 240,000. We are now seeing comfortably more than half of renewals happening online, which makes a significant difference in terms of efficiency.

When I was the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, my Department was trying to shift Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, applications online. Many people said it could not be done as applicants would not have the broadband links to be able to make the applications and so on. All such applications are now made online and that is where we want to go with passports. However, we must do so in a phased way to ensure that people are comfortable doing it and there are information campaigns to reassure people and give clear instruction on how to apply. In the meantime, we have an efficient postal process, but I encourage people to consider the online system because it helps everybody.

Have extra staff resources been freed up which could be redeployed to more complex cases in order to progress them more quickly? Many complex cases may be for business purposes and involve an urgent need. If we are getting through such cases more quickly, that is positive.

What is the level of uptake of passport cards? Has it increased? Is the online service proving quicker than passport express? Obviously, it is cheaper, and if it is also quicker that should be highlighted to encourage people to avail of it.

In some ways, under the current system the term "passport express" is almost a misnomer because the online application process, which has a ten-day turnaround time, although people often receive their passport after three or four days, is far quicker. We set a target of ten days plus postage but it is often far quicker than that. The postage process takes 15 days, or 50% longer, although it is quite an efficient turnaround time. The online system is the most safest, fastest and most efficient passport application process and we very much encourage people to use the online resource. It is relatively easy to use. Although the older system involving filling out forms and sending them off in the post is still relatively efficient, it is not nearly as efficient as applying online. We have received much positive feedback this year on the online system for children and adults. We wish to continue this step-by-step shift to online application. It is hoped that all passport applications will be made online by the end of 2021 or 2022.

Religious Persecution

Thomas Byrne

Question:

55. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the diplomatic steps Ireland is taking to highlight and end the persecution of Christians worldwide. [17616/19]

One of the founding principles of the State, the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights is freedom of religion and freedom to practise religion. As the Tánaiste will know, the persecution of Christians and other minorities seems to be rearing its head again. I note that the British Government has ordered an independent review of the matter to see what it can do about it. What is the Government response on this issue?

Under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right, which is replicated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, includes the freedom to change one’s religion or belief and the freedom, either alone or in community with others, to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance in public or private.

Ireland strongly condemns all forms of persecution on the basis of religion or belief, irrespective of where they occur or who the victims are. We are committed to promoting freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the rights of persons belonging to religious minorities. This commitment to promoting freedom of religion and belief is reaffirmed in the Global Island strategy.

Ireland advocates for inclusive societies through our work with the UN Human Rights Council and, in particular, its universal periodic review of the human rights records of UN member states. We are also a member of the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, an informal cross-regional network which aims to encourage information sharing and co-operation between governments to discuss joint advocacy strategies for the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief internationally.

Ireland works within and alongside the EU to address the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities. We played a key role in the adoption of EU guidelines on freedom of religion or belief during our Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2013. The current EU action plan on human rights and democracy 2015-2019 includes express reference to the promotion of freedom of religion or belief. We will continue to work to ensure that freedom of religion or belief is addressed within the framework of EU external human rights policy.

I appreciate the response of the Tánaiste. Although I am primarily highlighting the persecution of Christians - mainly because it is increasing worldwide, as shown by statistics - countries which persecute Christians are likely to also persecute other minorities. It is an indication of the type of country in question. The worst country in the world for persecuting Christians is North Korea, although I am not suggesting that the Tánaiste will have much influence on it. However, in countries such as China and India in particular the persecution of Christians has been driven up a notch.

It is frightening, particularly in a country such as India, which is the world's largest democracy, that the persecution of Christians is rife. India is now, according to global statistics, among the top ten countries in the world in this regard. Similarly, we know that there are human rights issues in China. I strongly encourage the Tánaiste to raise those issues with China, where Christmas is banned and where those practising religion are not given the freedom they deserve. China, probably rightly, is engaging in forming many relationships with local authorities at present. I would appreciate it if the Tánaiste gave guidance to the County and City Management Association on human rights issues when its representatives meet Chinese officials.

I want to take two more questions after this so I ask the Tánaiste to be brief.

I recognise that the response I gave earlier was quite technical in referring to conventions, etc., but it was important to put that information on the record. We are seeing an increase in intolerance and persecution of minorities across the world. In some cases, the states involved feel that they almost have a licence to act as they do in the aftermath of the actions of other countries. We have seen an increase in the persecution of LGBT communities, for example, in a number of African countries. Yes, we have seen persecution of the Christian community in India. As I have stated, Ireland strongly condemns the targeting of religious minorities. Acts of violence and discrimination based on religion or belief committed in the name of religion or national security, whether by individual states or otherwise, must be challenged. I have asked my officials, including our embassy in New Delhi - Deputy Byrne mentioned India - to continue to monitor the situation in India in this regard and in co-operation with the EU. I also believe it would be appropriate to raise our concerns at the next meeting of the EU-India human rights dialogue.

I am glad to hear that. I was just about to say that I think many of our county managers and council officials meet Chinese officials and representatives regularly. In this context, I am concerned that human rights issues would be on the agenda and not simply glossed over in the interests of business and employment, which, of course, are important. There are serious human rights abuses happening in China. I am glad the Tánaiste is going to raise this at Council level but I also ask him to look to what his counterpart in the UK is doing and see whether there is anything Ireland can do following on from that. The Tánaiste is correct to state that the best action we can take is probably in the context of the EU, and I welcome that. Britain will not be part of the latter, which is unfortunate because we have more influence in the EU than Britain will have on its own. That is the truth. I recognise the cases of other minorities. A question we will not get to concerns the new homophobic laws in Brunei. It is important we stand up for what our beliefs are in this country and that people have an entitlement to practice whatever religious beliefs they want in absolute freedom.

Does Deputy Eugene Murphy have a short supplementary question? I want to take two more questions.

I have just a very quick question. The matter raised by Deputy Thomas Byrne is very important. It should be noted that women, not men, suffer most in terms of intimidation for their Christianity, and it is a fact that in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, there is an increasing abuse of people for their Christian beliefs. I learned recently that 350 people die every month as a result of their Christian beliefs. There is also the burning of Christian buildings all over the world, which has increased significantly in recent times. Again, beyond bringing this up with the EU - I know the Tánaiste is genuine about this as well - what can we do-----

We are going to run out of time.

-----to highlight this further?

I will give the Tánaiste one minute only because we are taking a group of questions next.

We have a closer relationship with China now than we have ever had previously. This involves more trade delegations, more interaction and more meetings that involve local government as well as national Government. I have taken the approach of being respectful but, at the same time, being upfront about human rights concerns and the approach to governance in China from a human rights perspective, as well as from a trade opportunity perspective. When one is upfront and respectful about this, it is a real conversation. I will certainly speak to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, about this matter from the point of view of guidelines. The best thing we can do is to try to lead by example. Deputies will see Ireland working with New Zealand and other states on trying to build tolerance within our own countries in order to try to ensure that we do not see Islamophobia, for example, raising its head and that there is freedom of religion and belief, not a demonisation of it.

Go raibh maith agat. I want to deal with the next group of questions.

I hope countries such as Ireland, New Zealand and others can lead by example in order that we are more credible when we make criticisms.

Foreign Conflicts

Eamon Ryan

Question:

56. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Ireland's position on the situation in Libya in the context of the recent advance of a person (details supplied) on Tripoli. [17627/19]

Mick Wallace

Question:

57. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will report on the most recent discussions at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting on 8 April 2019 on recent developments in Libya; the stance taken by representatives of Ireland at those meetings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17603/19]

Seán Crowe

Question:

66. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if his attention has been drawn to renewed fighting in Libya and the fact that the UN is reporting significant civilian casualties and that thousands are fleeing fighting around Tripoli; and the steps Ireland is taking to ensure a new ceasefire is negotiated. [17560/19]

Niall Collins

Question:

91. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if consideration has been given to the way in which the recent conflict in Libya could affect migrants who are already being kept in appalling conditions in detention centres there; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17584/19]

As stated earlier, I am very keen to hear the Government's position on events in Libya, where there is real concern about a mounting conflict on the edge of Tripoli, the capital, in a country that has already been devastated and has for many years been in turmoil, particularly in light of the clear divisions that appear to exist within the European Union position. A different position is being taken by France and Italy, both of which have a lot of interest, or seem to have interest, in the region, which may be guiding some of the positions they are taking. What was the position of the Government, or what actions does it want the European Union to take in order to try to reverse the military escalation occurring at present? Where does Ireland stand in the context of the various European positions that appear to exist?

The Tánaiste will have sufficient time.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 56, 57, 66 and 91 together.

I am deeply concerned about the ongoing fighting around the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The military attack launched by the so-called Libyan National Army, LNA, which led to this escalation, is putting civilians at risk and disrupting efforts to find a peaceful resolution to an ongoing conflict.

As of Friday, 12 April, this fighting had claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 17 civilians, and displaced almost 10,000 people. I am especially concerned for the safety of civilians in the area of conflict. I fully support the UN's call for an immediate humanitarian truce to allow access for emergency services and to facilitate civilians who wish to move away from conflict areas.

At the Foreign Affairs Council on 8 April there was an exchange of views on Libya which highlighted the EU's shared concern about the recent violence and our conviction of the urgent need for all parties to implement immediately a humanitarian truce, to refrain from further military escalation and to return to negotiations. Member states also reiterated their support for the efforts of the UN special representative Ghassan Salamé in working towards peace and stability in Libya. He has come to speak to Foreign Affairs Ministers on two occasions, if not more.

In a declaration agreed by all member states on 11 April, the EU called on all parties to cease military operations and specifically called on the LNA and all the forces that have moved into Tripoli or its vicinity to withdraw. The EU reminded the parties involved in this confrontation that they must respect international law, including international humanitarian law, and that those who violate it will be held to account. The EU's unequivocal message to the parties is that there is no military solution to this crisis, only a political one. We strongly urged all parties to resume political dialogue without delay and to continue to engage in the UN-led process for an inclusive political settlement.

EU diplomats regularly discuss the situation in Libya, taking stock of any opportunities to exert a positive influence on the situation and to support political efforts. I expect that the next Foreign Affairs Council in May will have a further discussion on the situation in Libya but I very much hope that conditions will have improved on the ground before then.

The Libyan people have suffered greatly from years of conflict and political fragmentation and deserve to live in a peaceful and prosperous society. The political process, which is the only way to bring this suffering to an end and to return Libya's governance to a more stable footing, has unfortunately become a casualty of this recent violence. The UN-organised national conference, which had been scheduled for 14 to 16 April, has had to be postponed due to a deteriorating security situation. Ireland and the EU continue to believe that the national conference should be held as soon as circumstances allow in order to bring together the various political factions in Libya, with the aim of holding democratic elections. This is the only way to unify the country's institutions and to set Libya on the path to stability and economic recovery. Ireland and the EU continue to support the efforts of the UN special representative to bring this about. All Libyans and all international parties should give their full support to the UN political efforts.

I am deeply concerned that the current violence might put already vulnerable migrants and refugees in Libya at even further risk. I welcome the work of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, to relocate a number of refugees and migrants who were in more dangerous areas into safe zones. In EU discussions of the situation in Libya last week, Irish officials highlighted the importance of guaranteeing the safety of refugees and migrants.  Ireland and the EU continue to support the work of the UN migration and refugee agencies to monitor and improve conditions for refugees and migrants in Libya, including inside detention centres, and to assist with the voluntary return of migrants to their countries of origin. We are aware that the current instability in Libya unfortunately limits further the capacity of the international community to do this important work in some areas.

In December 2018, the Council adopted conclusions on Libya noting that there can only be a political solution to the Libyan crisis that needs to come from the Libyans themselves through an inclusive political process. This continues to be the case.  Ireland and the EU will continue to monitor the situation in Libya and will support efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict and build a better future for the Libyan people.

Linked to the challenges faced by and suffering of migrants, it is very regrettable that Operation Sophia has now been dramatically scaled down. It no longer includes the presence of ships and is now effectively a surveillance mission by air. That is a mistake by the EU and it is something we need to reflect on and correct. Getting collective agreement in the EU regarding ports that can facilitate the landing of refugees will prove very difficult, however.

For the information of the House, we are dealing with Questions Nos. 56, 57, 66 and 91. Given the time constraints, I suggest we take all supplementary questions together. I call Deputy Eamon Ryan and ask him to adhere to the limit of one minute.

Part of the problem in Libya is that the EU's position is being driven by a desire to stop any movement of migrants. Out of sight is out of mind applies in respect of refugees in Libya and the countries to which they are returning. The outcome of the EU's single-minded position is that refugees often become subject to criminal gangs. Critically, the Tánaiste stated there was an unequivocal European Union position. My understanding from reading reports is that the French Government originally tried to block the statement of 11 April and succeeded in amending it to take the French viewpoint into account. What position did the Government take regarding these internal EU negotiations? It seems the French are taking one side, while the Italians and others take a different position. Where did Ireland stand on the attempt to block that declaration and why did we agree to its amendment?

I know the Tánaiste could not make the meeting in question. I wonder how he feels about the position taken by France. France has been supporting General Haftar. French weapons helped him take over Benghazi in 2017. The Tánaiste stated that the people of Libya have suffered terribly. That is the case but he should add that this suffering is directly linked to the NATO bombing of 2011, which was a total disaster and caused a major humanitarian disaster. No one has been held to account for it. France is selling almost €28 billion worth of arms to countries in the Middle East, including €4 billion worth of arms to the United Arab Emirates alone. Much of the weaponry sold to the UAE has ultimately gone to General Haftar in Libya. When we allow arms to be poured into places such as Libya we are guaranteed to get absolute chaos and anarchy. That is what we are seeing. Is the Tánaiste happy with the role that France has played in Libya?

The World Health Organization, WHO, has stated that at least 174 people have been killed and 758 injured in the battle for control of the Libyan capital. Many of us would see Libya as a failed state. Armed militias seem to control the country. The Tánaiste stated that Ireland supports the idea of an inclusive process but that seems less and less likely as events move on. We have seen that General Haftar believes there is a military solution. Part of the difficulty is that we have different states supporting the aim of a military solution. Libya is one more example of disastrous NATO military intervention alongside Iraq and Afghanistan.

My concern is that the next EU budget is set to provide €13 billion for military spending. This will be the first time that military spending will be in the EU budget. Using public money to fund arms companies and spending more on military projects will not increase Europe's security. Instead it clears the way for more arms exports to fuel conflicts around the world such as the conflict in Libya. Will the Tánaiste call on international actors, including EU members, to stop fuelling this conflict and instead use their influence to ensure there is an immediate cease fire and a political resolution found for Libya?

The outcome we all want is an end to armed conflict and a politically negotiated solution. There was much hope for the future of Libya when President Gaddafi was removed. What we now have, unfortunately, is a broken state with armed factional leaders. The Irish position in trying to move this process is to support the approach of the UN special representative rather than the approach of individual countries that may be advocating for certain courses of action. The whole point of having a UN special representative is to try and have a clear role for the international community. That is the position the EU is now collectively supporting and it is also the position the Irish Government supports.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.