Air Transport Preclearance Agreement: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the terms of the Agreement Amending the Agreement between the Government of Ireland and the Government of the United States of America on Air Transport Preclearance, done at Washington on 12th March, 2019, a copy of which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 3rd April, 2019.

I thank the House for the opportunity to debate this very important motion on the terms of an agreement between the Government of Ireland and the Government of the United States of America on air transport preclearance. I am here on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross. This latest agreement was approved by Government on 9 January 2019, signed on behalf of Ireland in Washington on 12 March 2019 by the Irish Ambassador to the United States, Mr. Dan Mulhall, and laid before the Oireachtas on 3 April last.

Deputies will appreciate how valuable the preclearance service is for Ireland. It allows people to move more easily between Ireland and the USA, enhancing the long and unique relationship between the two countries with 1.9 million passengers availing of the service in 2018. Dublin and Shannon are currently the only preclearance locations in Europe and two of only three locations outside Canada and the Caribbean. The other facility is in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Preclearance at Dublin Airport supports the development of the airport as a secondary hub in line with the objectives of the national aviation policy. Shannon Airport’s unique position as the only preclearance facility for general aviation in Europe is key to the development of niche business opportunities for the airport.

First and foremost, preclearance offers a unique service for passengers in providing them with essentially a domestic to domestic service. Airlines flying to the USA using Dublin and Shannon airports are permitted to fly to less congested and less expensive domestic terminals at US gateway airports. This gives them flexibility and provides a more extensive network of seamless onward connections. Second, the commercial and economic benefits of preclearance to Ireland are clear. Preclearance is a key, contributing factor to the growth of US-connecting traffic at Dublin and Shannon airports. While the importance of US companies to the economy is well established, it is also important to remember that the US is Ireland’s second largest export market, with almost 800 Irish companies operating there. Given the scale of this trading relationship the current ease of doing business, including the scale of connectivity and the availability of preclearance, is a significant trade and business facilitator.

From a tourism perspective, 28% of the 9 million visitors to Ireland last year were from North America and they accounted for 11% of our business visitors. Spending by North American tourists grew faster than from other markets in recent years helped by a strong dollar, increasing by 14% to reach €1.7 billion last year. More broadly, the expansion of Ireland’s international air linkages is a goal of Ireland’s overarching trade, tourism and investment strategy and this expansion is facilitated by the provision of US preclearance facilities at Irish airports.

Preclearance has been a huge success but due to the growth of passenger throughput there have been recurring concerns for a number of years about the capacity at the facilities with growing queues. Additional capacity and resources are now required to allow growth to continue and to ensure that all airlines seeking to have flights precleared at Dublin and Shannon could do so in a timely manner. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has been engaging with US officials since 2015 on the need to enhance and expand services and introduce flexibility to the preclearance service in Ireland. Separately, the US has for a number of years been working to expand the preclearance programme to other locations.

One of the preconditions set out for new preclearance facilities is that they can only be progressed if agreements are put in place to reimburse the US for staffing costs as well as providing the facilities. Domestically in US airports, a reimbursement framework has also been rolled out. Negotiations on amending the agreement began in April 2017 and involved the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Justice and Equality and Foreign Affairs and Trade, An Garda Síochána and the Office of the Attorney General. Under the terms of the amended agreement, a baseline level of services will be borne by US Customs and Border Protection, CBP, with the costs associated with additional services being substantially paid for by the two airport authorities, under the terms of a commercial memorandum of understanding.

The agreement also provides for merchandise compliance agreements for goods being sold in the preclearance area and aboard precleared flights. A number of other operational issues including closer communication and co-operation between An Garda Síochána and CBP, and the layout of and new signage to be placed in the preclearance area were also agreed and are set out in an accompanying memorandum.

It is the view of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport that the deal reached is the best that can be achieved for airports and airlines both of which have indicated their willingness for some time to pay towards the cost of additional or enhanced services at preclearance. This will provide certainty around the resourcing by CBP of the preclearance facilities.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. It is not often I get up on this side of the House to acknowledge and welcome an action taken by Government but this is certainly one of them. The expansion of the preclearance facilities at Shannon and Dublin airports is very welcome given the importance of these facilities and the central role they play in supporting the Irish economy and attracting flight links between Ireland and the United States of America. This was why more than a decade ago Fianna Fáil was instrumental in ensuring that Ireland was the first, and remains the only country in Europe, with airports that offer this service for transatlantic flights.

Dublin and Shannon airports are the only preclearance locations in Europe with 1.7 million passengers availing of the service in 2017.

This new agreement will allow Dublin and Shannon Airports to provide additional staff to conduct preclearance services, as well as invest in the physical infrastructure needed to expand these services. A baseline level of services will be borne by the US Customs and Border Protection, with the costs associated with additional services being substantially paid for by the two airport authorities. The amounts to be paid and the arrangements for any variability in these amounts will be set out in the memorandum of understanding between the US Customs and Border Protection and each airport. This expansion is not expected to place any cost on the Exchequer. The US preclearance service has been a vital asset to Irish travellers as it reducers travelling times and increases the convenience with which Irish travellers can reach the United States. As the only European location offering preclearance services, Ireland has been a very attractive destination for airlines seeking additional EU-US flight routes, as evidenced by the fact that 1.9 million passengers accessed US bound flights from Shannon and Dublin Airports in the last year or so. As I said, Ireland is the only country in Europe with two airports offering this service. This has the potential to increase the attractiveness of Dublin in particular as an international hub for transatlantic flights and to generate employment and further growth at Dublin and Shannon Airports.

I understand that this agreement will come into force later this month or early next month. It is wholeheartedly welcomed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. The US preclearance facilities at Dublin and Shannon Airports provide an important service for thousands of people travelling from Ireland every year. Ireland was one of the first countries to offer this service and it has proven to be a significant advantage to the State in terms of attracting airlines and new routes to our two biggest airports. The knock-on economic effects of having tens of thousands of passengers on these routes are obvious.

The US is seeking to expand precleared passenger numbers by 30%. It is important that Ireland's services are operating as efficiently as possible ahead of this planned expansion. If the US is expanding the service, this may have a detrimental effect on the number of airlines who choose Dublin and Shannon Airports in the future. We need to be mindful of this going forward. Passengers have been reporting queues and delays at the service. Hopefully, these issues can be addressed by increased resources at the airports. Approximately 1.9 million passengers availed of this service in 2018, which shows the popularity of the service and how important it is to passengers travelling from Shannon and Dublin Airports to the United States. Shannon Airport in particular is reliant on preclearance. People in the region believe that preclearance has played a key role in the success of the airport, in particular during the crash years.

I take this opportunity to call on the airport authorities to ensure that any costs additional to those that the US authorities have agreed to cover will not be passed on to passengers. I understand how important and useful this service is for passengers: that is not in dispute. However, under the Trump Presidency we face a series of new challenges around preclearance. The American President has imposed a travel ban on people from certain, predominantly, Muslim countries, preventing people from those countries from entering the US. We in Sinn Féin find this policy abhorrent. It is fair to say that most Irish people disagree with policies of this type. It is a scapegoating of people travelling from certain countries and we are supportive of recent efforts in the US to overturn this ban. This policy is now being implemented on Irish soil. I understand that Democratic Congress Members have tabled legislation to overturn this ban and I will be supportive of this.

We are told on the one hand that the revised arrangements outlined in the motion will not result in any direct cost to the Exchequer and on the other hand, via the second sentence of the briefing note, that they will result in a cost to the Exchequer. We are here discussing these arrangements in the first instance because public moneys is expended on the DAA and Shannon Airport and if they are being expended on this service it means they will not be spent in other areas. It is clear these arrangements involve the spend of public money.

The DAA aggressively sells Dublin Airport as a transfer hub, particularly for US flights. While the airport authorities, the Government, and most of the Opposition, believe that this is an unmitigated good proposal, I would like to see it examined further. I am not saying it is a bad move. Rather, I am saying that we need a serious examination of the agreement before we commit the State's resources to an extension of it. No more than the next person, I am very happy to visit to America. I like doing so and I very much welcome that when I do so, I can avail of the preclearance facility at Dublin Airport. It is of benefit in that regard. However, there is need for a cost-benefit analysis of the service in the context of climate change emissions and our obligations under the Aircraft Noise (Dublin Airport) Regulation Bill 2018, which is progressing through the Houses, to ensure that residents nearby are mitigated against the impact of aircraft noise. I would also like that cost benefit analysis to examine the likely increased fines in respect of climate change and noise insulation owing to increased flights versus the benefits of extending this facility. Unrelenting air travel is not sustainable in the modern world.

I would also like the Minister to examine other areas. This is not all about money. The agreement between Ireland and the United States on preclearance requires the Garda to provide an appropriate and sufficient law enforcement presence to ensure the security and safety of preclearance officers, travellers and airport staff. These are Garda resources that are being redirected to this area, which, presumably, if they were not there, could be directed elsewhere. We all know of shortages in Garda resources in so many other areas. There have been many stories, verified, of passengers selected for detention and interrogation by US Government agents in the preclearance area and held in a detention room to the extent that they missed their flights to the US. In many instances, this activity was not legal because US border guards are not empowered to imprison persons at Dublin Airport for any length of time. They can only temporarily detain them and must then hand them over to An Garda Síochána. I know of many instances where that did not happen and passengers were upset and traumatised by what had occurred. There are sanctions laid out in the 2009 Act for US preclearance officers who behave badly or cross the line but I am not aware of that provision having ever been invoked in regard to cases of arbitrary detention. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, will outline if anybody has ever been sanctioned for misbehaviour at Dublin Airport in that regard.

I echo the points made by Deputy Munster. Surrendering some of our airport and our soil to the United States comes with a risk, one highlighted when President Donald Trump tried to implement his Muslim ban on travellers from the seven Muslim majority countries entering the United States. At that time, the Government made no move to immediately suspend preclearance services or to protect the Irish Garda and customs and officials involved in preclearance who might have been pushed, therefore, into illegal activity. There was no instruction to them to down tools, which is not surprising. It is part of a broader context of subservience to the United States in terms of our saying "Yes" its illegal war in Iraq and facilitating rendition. In that context, I thank the efforts of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in highlighting the role of the Irish Government in that regard. The reaction to the Muslim ban was to kick it into a review in the hope it would go away, which shows a similar lack of backbone. This puts us at risk through preclearance in that we will be forced again into complicity in contravention of international law of the European Court of Human Rights and so on. I am not saying we should not have preclearance. Rather, I am saying we have an obligation to evaluate the benefits and costs of this agreement to our State. It is not simply a one-way track such that everything is wonderful and we are so lucky to get this facility. I do not think the costs have been fully taken into account.

I would like to share time with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am happy to speak on this motion, which seeks to amend the Ireland-United States preclearance agreement. I agree with much of what has been said by Deputy Clare Daly. We should not carry on with an attitude of "I'm all right, Jack". We need to scrutinise. We need to be ever more scrutinising of what is happening with our so-called international partners in the area of preclearance. Preclearance in our airports has existed in some form or other since 1986. As we know, it was updated in 2008. I acknowledge that talks aimed at updating the 2008 version of the preclearance agreement have been ongoing since 2017.

This motion represents a great deal of work and co-ordination between the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Customs and Border Protection, the US Department of State, our Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and other agencies. My understanding is that from the perspective of the US Customs and Border Protection, this is part of a strategic plan to address continually evolving security threats. We are aware of many of those threats. We have sometimes seen drastic reactions to evolving threats. We have seen what has happened in the Middle East and everything else. We cannot take it on at face value.

I think the Ceann Comhairle knows that I will be as láthair when an eminent speaker comes to this House tomorrow to address the Chamber. I made it quite clear at a meeting of the Business Committee that I will not be in attendance. While I acknowledge the work that is being done to provide support in many areas, I think we are setting a very dangerous precedent by allowing the US Customs and Border Protection to address continually evolving security threats by working with foreign law enforcement and commercial carriers to prevent the boarding of potentially high-risk travellers. It is a very delicate balance to do this while also providing unique facilitation benefits. It has to be assessed carefully and sensitively.

I note that the amended motion allows for the reimbursement by airport authorities of the cost of additional and enhanced preclearance services in Irish airports. The additional costs will have to be paid by those who benefit from the enhanced services. We could be having a costly dinner. We have to be realistic about the charges we can pass on. I would like some assurances that such costs will be measured and appropriate and will not be punitive. As I have noted, the primary purpose of this measure is to increase protection and security, which must be foremost in all our minds at all times.

This motion represents a welcome continuity in preclearance arrangements. That definitely has to be welcomed. As I said, all of these things come with price tags and caveats. Freedom is a hard-fought issue. Security has to be enhanced. Preclearance has been beneficial to our travelling public, both in and out of here and beyond here.

I welcome the enhancement of the preclearance service for passengers in Dublin Airport and especially in Shannon Airport. It is important to provide this facility for all passengers. Between 1.7 million and 1.9 million people use this facility when they take transatlantic flights across to the United States.

I would like to mention something that is a bugbear of mine. I suppose it does not relate to the actual motion. Maybe it relates slightly to it. We hear a lot of talk about a third terminal at Dublin Airport. At the same time, Shannon Airport has been downgraded. There is less activity at Shannon Airport than there was in years gone by. I wonder whether it is in the Minister of State's remit to try to help that situation. The people of County Kerry who use Shannon Airport frequently would like to see an enhancement of the airport rather than another terminal in Dublin, where there is so much resistance to noise. I believe motions dealing with that aspect of the matter are being advanced currently. We have never heard of any uproar or concern with regard to noise anywhere around Ennis or Shannon. Maybe the Minister of State will try to take some more of the business down to Shannon Airport, rather than putting all the pressure on Dublin Airport.

I would have expected Deputy Healy-Rae to be looking for a terminal in Farranfore, never mind Shannon.

We have that. We are developing it.

The Deputy is happy enough with what he has.

Kilgarvan would be an ideal spot for a new international airport.

The Minister of State could do the official opening.

I could indeed. I am sure there would be competition for that gig.

I thank the many Deputies who contributed to the discussion. As I said earlier, US preclearance is a valuable asset for Ireland. It has been an enormous success in facilitating easier travel between Ireland and the US and incentivising airlines to operate more and more services on transatlantic routes. In 2018, approximately 1.9 million passengers availed of this facility at Dublin Airport and Shannon Airport, which represents growth of almost 140% since 2011. The terms in the amended agreement are crucial to ensure the continued success and growth of US preclearance services in Ireland.

I would like to highlight a significant aspect of the growth in tourism we have enjoyed since 2011. I think we had eight North American gateway cities in that year, whereas we have 25 such cities currently. This increase has been facilitated through a number of initiatives. I have no doubt that the scrapping of the airport tax has been influential in this regard. The brilliant work of Tourism Ireland and the availability of this preclearance facility in Dublin Airport and Shannon Airport have both contributed significantly too. Along with representatives of Tourism Ireland, I am heading to Boston tomorrow to head up a trade mission in the north-east US, which is a critical part of our North American market. We will be using preclearance in the morning, which is very convenient for everybody travelling on that route.

I will respond to some of the issues that have been raised by Deputies, beginning with the issue of cost. As I mentioned in my opening statement, under the terms of the amended agreement, "a baseline level of services will be borne by US Customs and Border Protection, CBP, with the costs associated with additional services being substantially paid for by the two airport authorities". No direct cost to the Exchequer will arise. The amounts to be paid, and the arrangements for any variability in these amounts, will be set out in commercial memorandums of understanding between the CBP and each airport which will be subject to approval by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. The amount charged to each airline arising from these costs will be a commercial matter for the airports to decide. Airlines, in turn, will continue to decide how much passengers pay to avail of the preclearance service. The extra cost for Dublin Airport, if spread across the 1.7 million passengers who used preclearance facilities in 2017, will not equate to a substantial extra charge per passenger. The incremental growth in passengers availing of preclearance is expected to offset further the incremental cost associated with the provision of extra CBP officers.

While Shannon Airport does not require additional officers, it needs some flexibility with regard to rostering and overtime arrangements to allow the airport to increase its general aviation business, particularly where the service is required outside the standard rostered hours for preclearance of commercial flights. For the additional hours requested, it is understood that the CBP would levy a charge against the airport for the service, and the airport would in turn pass on this cost to the airline.

I would like to speak about the rights afforded to passengers who avail of US preclearance services. As I am sure Deputies will understand, the US has the authority to determine the right of any individual to enter its territory. Each decisions on who may enter the US is entirely a matter for US officials. Eligibility is determined by reference to US immigration rules. Preclearance is not compulsory. Passengers who wish to avail of preclearance do so voluntarily and on condition that they recognise and consent to the right of the US to grant or refuse preclearance in accordance with its immigration rules. Passengers retain the right to withdraw from the preclearance process. Border controls at US airports are also carried out by the CBP, which is the same organisation that processes passengers for preclearance in Ireland.

The same procedures and criteria for entry therefore apply whether a passenger preclears or postclears. Airlines choose to apply to have their services precleared at Dublin Airport or Shannon Airport on the basis that they may then offer the service as an added bonus for their customers. As Dublin and Shannon Airports are the only airports in Europe with preclearance facilities, passengers can also choose to fly to the USA from other American airports and post-clear for entry on arrival in a USA airport.

With regard to US preclearance and the rights available to refugees or persons wishing to seek asylum, Ireland abides by its international obligations regardless of any decision by US authorities to refuse entry at a preclearance facility. A refusal at a US preclearance facility has no impact on the rights of refugees or persons wishing to seek asylum in Ireland. A person refused at preclearance and who subsequently claims asylum in Ireland is dealt with in accordance with the International Protection Act 2015. The existence of preclearance facilities, therefore, has no effect on the capacity of persons to claim asylum in Ireland, nor on the way such persons are treated.

The issue of noise at airports will be a matter for the noise regulator to decide on. Legislation to establish the noise regulator is currently being enacted.

I assure the Deputies that the US preclearance facilities that are operated at Dublin and Shannon Airports are within Irish jurisdiction, and the laws of Ireland apply at all times. US customs and border protection officers are not equipped with firearms or any other offensive weapons. They are not considered to be law-enforcement officers in Ireland. The Aviation (Preclearance) Act 2009 permits preclearance officers to detain a person in a limited number of circumstances, and any persons detained under these provisions must be delivered forthwith into the custody of An Garda Síochána. I assure Deputy Clare Daly that I will try to obtain from the Department a response to her question as quickly as possible.

I urge the House to approve the terms of the agreement amending the agreement between the Government of Ireland and the Government of the United States of America on air transport preclearance.

Question put and agreed to.