Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Human Rights

Brendan Howlin

Question:

28. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will suspend the extradition agreement with Hong Kong in view of the actions taken by Australia, the UK and other nations suspending extradition agreements with Hong Kong following the enactment of the new security law by the Chinese authorities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18551/20]

Neale Richmond

Question:

32. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if consideration has been given to suspending the extradition agreement with Hong Kong following the imposition of a new national security law by Beijing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18114/20]

Richard Bruton

Question:

34. Deputy Richard Bruton asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the way in which new legislation designating political protest as a criminal offence with huge penalties was introduced and the new security apparatus has been installed in Hong Kong; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17963/20]

I have a simple and direct question for the Minister. Will he suspend the extradition agreement with Hong Kong, as a number of countries have done, in light of the imposition on Hong Kong of the new security law by the Chinese authorities?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 28, 32 and 34 together.

The Government is closely monitoring the situation in Hong Kong following the adoption of a national security law on 30 June by the Chinese National People's Congress.

I made a statement on 1 July to express my concern at the adoption of this law and reiterated Ireland's full support for fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, such as freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly. I have also discussed the issue with the Chinese ambassador, directly and in person.

Additionally, on 30 June 2020, Ireland was one of 27 states to sign up to a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council which reiterates our concerns on Hong Kong. The joint statement highlights our concerns regarding the implications of this law for the autonomy of Hong Kong and the rights and freedoms that are guaranteed in the Hong Kong Basic Law.

The EU also issued a statement on this matter on 1 July, which highlighted the EU's strong stake in the continued stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, and outlined our concerns regarding the conformity of this law with China's international commitments. Ireland fully supports this statement. The matter was also raised by the EU during the EU-China summit on 22 June and in a statement by the EU at UN Human Rights Council on 1 July.

With regard to Ireland’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong, Ireland is one of a number of EU member states that has an extradition agreement with Hong Kong. My Department is co-operating on this matter with the Department of Justice and Equality and we are currently reviewing this agreement in line with a number of our EU partners. Ireland’s agreement with Hong Kong contains a number of protections within it, including both mandatory and discretionary grounds for refusal to extradite, as well as provisions for termination by either party.

The protection and promotion of human rights is a core pillar of Ireland's foreign policy, and we will continue to monitor and assess the situation and to raise our concerns with the Chinese authorities bilaterally and in multilateral fora.

The straight answer to the Deputy's question is that we are examining this issue. I am discussing it with both the Department of Justice and Equality and other EU member states that have extradition treaties with Hong Kong, but we have not made a decision on it yet.

I welcome the Minister's clear outline of Ireland's concern at the imposition of this law on Hong Kong. However, we must give a clear manifestation of that concern. Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and, today, New Zealand have suspended their extradition agreements with Hong Kong in protest against the deeply concerning imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong. New Zealand's Foreign Minister said today that New Zealand can no longer trust that Hong Kong's criminal justice system is sufficiently independent from China. It should be borne in mind that New Zealand has very strong trade links with China. In fact, China is New Zealand's largest trading partner, involving some US$21 billion annually. New Zealand is putting this human rights issue to the fore over all other matters. I ask the Minister not to continue simply considering this matter, but to take action and suspend this agreement.

It is noteworthy that other EU member states have not yet made that decision. Sometimes the most effective way to move something forward is to act together. We are talking to other member states about the issue. I acknowledge that some countries have moved, but there is sense in EU countries talking to each other and potentially seeking to act together, as well as communicating with China on a bilateral basis about our concerns. We have a very good diplomatic relationship with China. We speak frankly about issues when China has a concern about a position we might be taking or when we have a concern about a policy it might have. I have had a very frank discussion with the Chinese ambassador on this issue. That directness is important when we have a genuine concern.

I will not make a decision here today. We have a process in train. We are talking to other EU countries which have similar concerns to Ireland's about this issue. However, we have not made a decision on that extradition arrangement yet.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He might indicate what other EU countries he is having discussions with to ensure we will move in lockstep with others. I have no difficulty with that. Regarding the Minister's discussions with the Chinese ambassador to Ireland, can he indicate the ambassador's response to the concerns the Minister set out? In a recent radio interview the ambassador described the democratic protesters in Hong Kong as terrorists. Was that the tone of his response to the Minister outlining Ireland's concerns? I appreciate that we have a long-standing and deep relationship with the People's Republic of China but, like all our relationships, it must be based on openness, frankness and the primacy of Ireland's concerns about human rights. It is important that we do not simply pay lip service to these matters but that, especially in the context of taking a seat on the UN Security Council, we are clear that this is at the forefront of our foreign policy and interactions with friends.

We work with the Chinese ambassador on many things. For example, when Ireland needed to source PPE recently, the ambassador was extraordinarily helpful. He helped to facilitate the arrangements that allowed us to deal with a very serious public health issue. We also deal with the ambassador with regard to important consular cases all the time.

I raised with him in a frank way the issue the Deputies raise. He has a very different perspective. The Chinese Government's view, which one would expect him to reflect, regards this as a law that criminalises acts of secession, subversion of state power, terrorist activity and collusion with foreign or external forces to endanger national security. That is the way the Chinese Government sees this issue. We see it differently and are expressing concern very directly about a "one country, two systems" approach which has been applied to Hong Kong and which, in our view, needs to be protected. That was the nature of the conversation but, as one would expect an ambassador to do, the Chinese ambassador outlined in a very direct and helpful way the Chinese perspective on this issue and the Chinese Government's view on it. He provided me with some written information in that regard as a briefing. We have nevertheless expressed concern. My statements on this have been very clear, and we are speaking to EU colleagues about the issue.

I absolutely agree with every single point Deputy Howlin made and I welcome the Minister's commitments and comments heretofore on this extremely worrying situation. Like the Minister, I agree that it is far more effective when EU countries work together. As we have heard in debates on other elements of these questions today, Ireland is a European and global leader, so perhaps when it comes to this issue we need to lead within the European Union. Quite simply, how do we know that a person extradited from Ireland to Hong Kong under the 2007 agreement will face trial there and that he or she will not all of a sudden end up in China? Can we trust that agreement and that system? Can we make sure we do not have another terrible situation such as we have with Robert O'Halloran, a case on which I know the Minister has worked so hard and with which he is very familiar?

I know there is very genuine concern in the House across all parties about this issue, and people have raised concerns about Hong Kong with me directly outside of the House as well. We are taking the matter very seriously. The statement I made after this law was introduced was probably stronger than any other that I can recall that was made across the EU. The UK has made very strong statements on the matter, but as a result of the statement I made, there was further contact with the Chinese Embassy. We have been very direct and open about our concerns. They are real. As a result, we are looking at this extradition agreement for the reasons Deputy Richmond has just outlined. I still think, however, that open dialogue, that is, direct and respectful conversation, even if forceful at times, is important to the diplomatic relationship we need to maintain with a country such as China. We will therefore continue that dialogue but we will also look to make an informed decision on this extradition agreement and talk to other EU countries in a similar position to ours.

I welcome the Minister's comments. I am one of 904 signatories, parliamentarians from 43 different countries, to a letter drafted by the former Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, laying out our very serious concerns about the new security law in Hong Kong. That is a great starting point for this Government to look at what needs to be done. As the Minister knows, Ireland has a very particular relationship with Hong Kong. We all have friends who have lived there, many who were born there, others who have done business there and come back. We were in school with many people who grew up in Hong Kong. We have an expressed interest in this situation and we need to make sure that people in this country can be protected from what I can describe only as extremely draconian measures introduced by the Beijing Government in Hong Kong. I continue to encourage the Minister not only to maintain that open dialogue but also to work with European partners to discuss this and perhaps look at the examples of New Zealand, Australia and, perhaps not to as great an extent, the United Kingdom.

What matters is the outcome. I do not see that the position taken by the UK, for example, has changed the policy position in Beijing. We will assess and are assessing, as I said earlier, the extradition treaty Ireland and a number of other EU countries have. It is equally important, however, to use our position in international fora such as the UN and the EU and to send open, honest and direct messages of concern to the Chinese Government on this issue. That is the appropriate course of action for Ireland, and I hope it can be the most impactful. That is what we will continue to do.

I do not wish to repeat everything that has been said, but what strikes me, apart from the content of this law, which is worrying in itself, is that it is in conflict with the basic law which was the underpinning of the "one country, two systems" principle; that it was drafted in secret, with no opportunity for the people of Hong Kong to be consulted; that it has created categories of crime which are clearly designed simply to bottle up protest rather than genuinely address issues of national security; and that its enforcement will be carried out by an agency led by someone from outside of Hong Kong. It strikes me that these are extremely draconian approaches to adopt. Apart from the issue of extradition, which the Minister is exploring, how does he believe international fora can underline and sustain our concerns about the way in which this has been introduced and the continuing threat it poses to the people in Hong Kong?

That is the key question. We can do things that allow us to position ourselves with other countries that have similar concerns. Ultimately, however, the question is how the relationship with China and the international community results in a sustained level of concern and pressure to ensure that the legitimate concerns of the international community are understood in Beijing and result in an appropriate change. That is how we should approach this in the context of UN engagement, EU engagement and our bilateral discussions with the Chinese Government. From my perspective, that is what we have been doing - at UN level, a human rights level and an EU level. Obviously, we have had conversations with the British Government as well about its concerns. First and foremost, however, our conversation has to be direct and honest with the Chinese Government through its embassy in Dublin, which is what has been taking place.

How is it intended that the EU will monitor the application of this law within Hong Kong in order that not just its introduction but also its continuing application can be a cause of pressure to ensure that the potential abuses that are evident in the way it is being introduced do not come to pass?

I do not see a situation in which the Chinese Government will invite monitors from the EU to monitor officially the implementation of legislation that the Chinese Government regards as a domestic matter. That said, in everything that happens in Hong Kong, I think the EU will monitor very closely how demonstrators, who are legitimately expressing concerns through protest, are treated. That will certainly inform how the EU will over time respond to the implementation of legislation about which many of us have expressed significant concern.

Brexit Preparations

James Browne

Question:

29. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the position on discussions with his UK counterpart on the issue of border checks on trucks originating here and arriving in the UK from Rosslare Europort but which plan to travel onwards to another country within the European Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16783/20]

What is the position on discussions with the Minister's UK counterpart on the issue of border checks on trucks originating here and arriving in the UK from Rosslare Europort but which plan to travel onwards to another country within the European Union? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

Ensuring the UK land bridge remains an effective route to market for Irish and other EU traders has been a key priority for the Government for some time in the context of Brexit. The UK's accession to the common transit convention is a key and positive step. It is important to recognise that because the UK Government has decided to be part of that convention in an effort to be helpful. This allows EU goods to transit through the UK without undergoing full customs export and import formalities on entry and exit. In partnership with other EU land bridge countries and the European Commission, we recently addressed some sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, challenges affecting Irish-EU goods transiting the UK back into the EU. We will continue to work with these partners on land bridge issues.

I have had numerous discussions with my counterparts in the UK and across the EU. All understand the importance we attach to maintaining the land bridge as an effective route to market. The UK Government published its border operating manual recently. Officials from a number of Departments held a voice chat with their British counterparts to better understand their approach to applying controls on goods moving between the EU and Great Britain, including transit. There remains a risk of substantial delays on parts of the land bridge route between the UK and France, for example, Dover-Calais, the Eurotunnel and possibly Holyhead. While we can work to address these at the EU end, there is little we can do to mitigate the impact on Irish traders arising from queues in the UK. In other words, what we have done is effectively secured a commitment from countries such as France, Belgium and the Netherlands that when goods arrive from the UK on Irish trucks, these trucks will enter the green lane and will not be treated the same as UK trucks arriving because the Irish trucks will be coming from another part of the Single Market and re-entering the Single Market. The challenge for us will be in the UK. If there are significant traffic queues to get on ships in Dover, for example, I do not envisage a situation where Irish trucks will be allowed to skip the queue. That is where the blockage is likely to be.

I thank the Minister for his comments. I know he has worked hard on this issue. There is now strong agreement with fellow EU countries on ensuring our goods, once they arrive on the Continent, can continue onwards quickly. The concern is what will happen in the UK, which is, to a large degree, out of the State's hands. In particular, any delays involving perishable goods would have serious consequences. Perishable items such as meat or fish that need to be transported to the Paris markets, for example, are no good if there is a delay getting them there. One truck driver told me that nobody buys turkeys on St. Stephen's Day so if perishable products do not get to market on time, they are no good.

I stress the potential of Rosslare Europort, which is ideally located. It is the quickest sea route from Ireland to the Continent and it must be priority given the security it offers for getting our goods to the Continent on time.

Rosslare Europort is a priority. As the Deputy knows, the Government has, since 2018, made significant investment in the infrastructure and systems at Rosslare Europort. Substantial work is complete on a number of projects, including new inspection bays, HGV parking spaces and live animal inspection facilities. Further facilities will come on line before the end of the year. A big warehouse facility is due to be finished before the end of the year. Shipping companies have been looking at potential direct routes from Dublin and Rosslare to the Single Market and to various ports on the EU mainland, if one wants to call it that. However, without doubt the fastest way to get fresh and chilled goods to market quickly, if the land bridge can be used efficiently and without significant blockages in queueing systems, is to drive across the UK and use shorter ferry routes. We want to try to ensure the land bridge can be used efficiently in the future but we expect some teething problems. That has been predicted for some time and I have no evidence to suggest that the issues will be easily ironed out. Both options will be looked at by traders but we want to have a smooth land bridge across the UK in the post-Brexit period.

Obviously, the land bridge is the quickest and most secure route if it can be kept open. I believe a sea bridge between Rosslare and Cherbourg or Roscoff needs to be developed and secured. Has the Minister had discussions with his French counterparts or the French ambassador about securing additional routes or creating a sea bridge between Rosslare and France to ensure there is an alternative route to get our goods to France? Even creating a sea bridge would create leverage on the UK Government to keep the land bridge open as we would not be totally dependent on the UK land bridge.

I acknowledge there have been significant developments around Rosslare Europort in recent times. The port was neglected for a long time but the development of the M11 towards Rosslare Europort as an access road, the submission by Iarnród Éireann of planning applications to develop the port and the establishment of border inspection posts mean the port is moving in the right direction. However, it needs continued focus. The opportunity to develop the port should be taken.

To try to be helpful, I will publish an update of the Government Brexit readiness and contingency action plan in September. We are working on that at the moment. The plan will outline the work taking place across Government and the steps businesses and citizens should take to prepare for the end of the transition period. This will be supported by the roll-out of a focused communications programme, also in the autumn, which will deal with land bridge issues and a range of other Brexit issues.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, brought a memorandum on Brexit to Cabinet this week, which gave us an update on Rosslare Europort, Dublin Port and Dublin Airport. He will bring another memo to Government in the weeks ahead, specifically in relation to the ports and the upgrades required by the end of the year. This issue is being the subject of much conversation in government. We are in ongoing discussions with ferry companies. They have essentially requested the Government not to intervene in the ferry market, even though we would do so if necessary to maintain supply chains. There is enough capacity, should it be needed, to switch from using the UK land bridge to direct ferry routes in the event of significant barriers to trade arising on the land bridge, but we hope to avoid that.

Deputy Browne's fellow county man, Deputy Howlin, wishes to ask a brief question.

It is hard to get to ask a supplementary question when one is up in the gods.

I cannot see the Deputy but it is nice to be up there, all the same.

I compliment Deputy Browne on tabling this question, on which I want to make a brief supplementary contribution. If there are difficulties in the UK land bridge, and the Minister acknowledges there will at least be short-term difficulties, there will be long queues to board ships in Dover and other places. We need to have more direct connectivity from the island of Ireland to continental Europe. I am not surprised that some ferry companies have indicated they do not want Government intervention because some of them operate on close to a monopoly basis. We must not depend exclusively on Dublin because if there is a difficulty with access to Dublin Port, there will be huge difficulty with getting goods off and on this island. Has the Minister had discussions in government or with the Minister for Finance in relation to Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, support for new ferry links directly from Rosslare to alternative ports on continental Europe?

I thank the Deputy and ask the Minister to be brief because other Deputies are losing out on time.

I will be brief. As the Deputy will know, having asked questions on this issue before, there has been significant consultation between my Department and the Department with responsibility for transport, which has had an ongoing dialogue with ferry companies.

There is intense competition among ferry companies on the routes between Britain and Ireland. In addition, there has been significant increased capacity in terms of direct ferry routes between Ireland and the rest of the EU. That capacity has already been coming on stream and ferry companies have invested heavily in it. It was in this context that the companies did not want subsidised routes, given the amount of investment they have made in new ships and so on. That being said, we need to continue to focus on this issue, particularly given the uncertainty in regard to Brexit, because supply chains and access are something we must have contingency around should we need it. We will continue to talk to the ferry companies in this regard.

Human Rights

Catherine Connolly

Question:

30. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the treatment of Baha'i citizens and members of other religious minorities by the Iranian authorities; the assessment made of reports that members of the Baha'i minority in Iran are being prevented from obtaining identity cards; the steps he is taking in relation to the matter at an international level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18542/20]

My question is very specific. I am seeking the Minister's view in regard to the treatment of Baha'i citizens and members of other religious minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I particularly wish to know about the assessment made by the Minister or his Department of the reports that members of the Baha'i minority are being prevented from obtaining identity cards, and the steps taken in that regard at international level.

I am glad to have an opportunity to address this issue. The human rights situation in Iran remains a matter of serious concern and this particular issue forms an important part of our engagement and dialogue with Iran. Discriminatory practices in respect of access to employment, education and other basic services continue to affect Baha'i and other minority groups in Iran. Baha'i business owners face obstacles in starting and operating businesses. Baha'i students face challenges in gaining access to education, with consistent reports of applicants to universities being rejected on the basis of their faith.

The UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Iran has reported that members of minorities continue to be subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention for engaging in peaceful advocacy for their rights. Ireland continues to call strongly for an end to the persecution of members of the Baha'i faith in Iran.  Ireland has consistently raised the discriminatory treatment of the Baha'is in multilateral fora. Most recently, at the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, Ireland raised concerns regarding the continued discrimination against members of ethnic and religious minorities, making specific reference to the Baha'i community. Furthermore, in February, officials from my Department met representatives of the Baha'i International Community. This provided an opportunity to get an update on the situation of the Baha'i people in Iran and Yemen, particularly in the context of the then upcoming Human Rights Council in March. Ireland also called on Iran to take all necessary steps to protect the rights of the Baha'i during the universal periodic review of that country's human rights record in November 2019.

Bilaterally, our concerns about human rights are conveyed to the Iranian Embassy on all appropriate occasions. As part of political consultations with Iran which took place in Tehran in February, senior officials from my Department again directly communicated our concerns regarding the human rights situation in Iran. Ireland, along with the EU, will continue to encourage progress in respect of religious minorities in Iran and to make clear our concerns to the Iranian authorities.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The reports of the UN special rapporteur on this issue are damning. The rapporteur has consistently raised concerns regarding the human rights situation of ethnic and religious minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran and specifically in regard to Baha'i citizens. The Baha'i people are considered to be the largest non-Muslim and unrecognised minority in Iran, numbering an estimated 350,000, and they have suffered the most egregious forms of oppression, persecution and victimisation. I make these comments as somebody who always says that we should turn the mirror on ourselves before we ever criticise another country.

I worded my question very specifically to ask what analysis has been done by the Minister or his Department in regard to the particular issue of identity cards, given that they are the gateway to access to many services. What specifically has he done in response to reports that members of the Baha'i community cannot access identity cards?

I will come back to the Deputy in writing in regard to the specifics of the identity card issue. We have taken our lead from the special rapporteur in terms of reporting. I outlined in my reply the various ways in which we raise our concerns at the reports we are reading and hearing with the Iranian authorities and in multilateral fora, including the Human Rights Council and elsewhere. We need to continue to do that. I know and have met members of the Baha'i community who raised this issue directly with me and my Department. We have an obligation to continue to raise the concerns that are legitimately expressed and backed up by independent reports such as those undertaken by the special rapporteur. I will come back to the Deputy on her specific question because I do not have a note on it.

I thank the Minister for his direct response. The reason I mention this specific issue is that there are very strong reports that Baha'is in Iran cannot get identity cards and it is then impossible for them to access Government services, obtain a credit card, driver's licence or passport or buy property. This is in addition to all the other discriminatory practices they face in regard to education, the non-recognition of their marriages, which is making things very difficult when it comes to the protection of women and so on. I note the indication by the UN special rapporteur in his 2019 report, which is welcome, that Iran "no longer executes Baha'is solely on the basis of their religion". However, he goes on to say, "The constant threat of raids, arrests and detention or imprisonment [remain] the main features of [the country's] persecution of Baha'is."

I reiterate my point that people in glasshouses should not throw stones. If there is evidence of what we are hearing - it seems to be backed up by the UN rapporteur - then we certainly need to take more specific action. We were able to do so in respect of alleged nuclear capacity. I do not know whether that capacity existed, but we availed of the threat and imposition of economic sanctions in that case. The same should be considered in this instance, where the issues speak strongly to the DNA memory of our own bodies in this country.

I accept the Deputy's point and agree that Ireland has a particular obligation in such matters. We constantly talk about human rights being at the centre of our foreign policy. We need to back that up and to have the uncomfortable conversations with embassies and ministers. We have already had some of those conversations in regard to the situation of the Baha'i and other ethnic minorities in Iran and we will continue to do so. It is important that we maintain a diplomatic relationship and dialogue with other countries, particularly countries that are in the international spotlight, as Iran regularly is. This is an issue we will continue to raise.

On the particular matter of identity cards, I will come back to the Deputy. I should have had an answer for her today because she included it in her question. I will make sure she gets one quickly.

Climate Change Policy

Richard Bruton

Question:

31. Deputy Richard Bruton asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will report on his preparations for the climate conference which has been postponed until 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17964/20]

This year's planned UN conference on climate change has had to be postponed until next year. This gives an opportunity, in the light of the European green deal, for Ireland to plan a more coherent approach to that conference , particularly in the context of the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in leveraging change across the international community. I would like to hear how Ireland is approaching this challenge.

As the Deputy is aware, the new Department with responsibility for climate action, communication networks and transport will lead on the Government's participation in the UN's framework for action on climate change. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is actively engaged in this process through its participation in the Irish national delegation. Members of the delegation, including officials from my Department, meet on a regular basis to co-ordinate and share information and ensure Ireland's interests are advanced within the process.

It had been intended to hold the UN's 26th climate change conference, commonly known as COP26, in November this year.

However, due to the pandemic it has been postponed for a year until November 2021. Despite the postponement, Ireland continues to engage through the European Union in ongoing preparations for the conference. Many of Ireland's delegation are active in a number of working groups and are preparing positions in advance of the conference. In the run-up to it, I anticipate that this co-ordination will increasingly focus on agreeing EU negotiation positions and identifying opportunities for collaboration with other countries on specific initiatives.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade plays a strong role within the EU on adaptation to climate change, specifically as it relates to some of the poorest countries in the world, which are the most vulnerable to effects of climate change. The Department is also involved in ensuring the global climate effort is equally responsive to the needs of women and men. My officials and I will continue to work closely with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his officials to maximise Ireland's contribution to the success of the conference and the global response to climate change.

Everyone recognises that Covid-19 is an appalling tragedy for many countries, particularly the least developed ones, but it also offers an opportunity to embed real structural change as we move forward and try to resolve it. There is a risk that low oil prices and the urgency of immediate priorities might result in the wrong decisions being taken. It would be worthwhile for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to work with colleagues in Europe to flag that moneys will be made available for structural shifts to embed long-term and low-carbon solutions in countries which we seek to aid. This is a very good opportunity to set out that stall now and I encourage the Minister of State to get his officials to take such an approach.

I agree that something can be done on that issue in co-operation with our fellow European countries. Contributing to climate finance is very important. In 2018, Ireland provided €80 million in international climate finance, which mostly focused on adaptation for poor countries. The majority of that money was counted within the official Department assistance and was almost entirely in grant form. The final figure for 2019 is still being collated and will be made available soon. I take the Deputy's point and it is a very important one.

I wish to back up what my colleague has said. Since the Covid crisis, our development budget is being restructured in many ways. We are looking to re-prioritise how we spend a significant amount of money. Ireland spends about €840 million on development assistance each year. We are looking at how we can effectively reshape that programme in the context of Covid-19 and we are open to talking to other countries about how they are doing the same, by using this extraordinary disruption and tragedy as a way of potentially reshaping economic activity and getting people back to work in the same way we are doing here.

I am conscious of the time. I am trying to get to as many Deputies in as I can.

I congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on her elevation to the post. I have started to read the book she recommended to me.

The EU green deal is an exciting moment for Europe and it offers the opportunity for Europe to change something for the good globally. It is important that we use this opportunity to make sure other countries, which are in a less strong position to take on those challenges, are supported. The earlier we signal the direction of aid, the better for the adoption of an approach that will be sustainable in the long run.

Question No. 32 answered with Question No. 28.

Ministerial Meetings

Brendan Howlin

Question:

33. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has had discussions in relation to Brexit with the leader of the opposition in the UK Parliament, Sir Keir Starmer, or other opposition party leaders to set out the position of Ireland and the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18554/20]

I too congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on her election. I know she will grace her office with distinction.

Has the Minister had discussions with the leader of the opposition in the British Parliament, Keir Starmer, about Brexit? Has he spoken with any other opposition leaders about it, given that we need allies with an understanding of Ireland's and the European Union's position?

The Taoiseach, my Cabinet colleagues and I take every opportunity to engage with our EU partners, as well as UK counterparts, as appropriate, to advance Ireland’s priorities in matters arising from the UK's withdrawal from the EU, including the EU-UK future partnership negotiations, implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

While I have not had the opportunity to meet Sir Keir Starmer over recent months because of Covid, we maintained good contact during his time as the UK Labour Party’s spokesperson on Brexit.  Mr. Starmer is well-informed on the issues Ireland faces due to challenges arising from Brexit. In particular, he has shown a strong understanding and sympathy regarding the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement in full and the gains of the peace process.

My engagement with key interlocutors on Brexit has continued in recent months, including recent contacts with EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who is a regular contact, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, ahead of the meeting of the Specialised Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland on 16 July.  This is in addition to the contacts being made by the Taoiseach, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs and other members of the Government with their counterparts across the EU and in the UK.  I have also spoken to the First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, on a number of occasions.

The point the Deputy makes is a fair one. I have not had an opportunity to meet Keir Starmer or speak to him since he became leader of the British Labour Party, apart from wishing him well in a text message. My Department is planning for that conversation to take place in the weeks ahead.

I welcome the Minister's statement. It would be very useful to have a direct discussion with Keir Starmer. I had many discussions with him when he was the Brexit spokesperson for the British Labour Party, but he will be very influential now that he is the leader of that party, particularly at a time when there seems to be a growing movement within the British Government away from its official position on the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration that was solemnly agreed at the end of last year. We need people who understand the Irish and European Union position very clearly and Keir Starmer falls into that category. The Minister has indicated that he will have a direct discussion with him as soon as Covid allows, but I encourage him to also have a telephone conversation with the leader of the British Labour Party in the interim.

Has the Minister had any discussions with other political leaders on-----

I am anxious to let one more speaker in and we are running out of time. I am sticking rigidly to the time limits.

I will try to stick to them as well. I agree with Deputy Howlin. I also had a very good relationship with Keir Starmer when he was a Brexit spokesperson. We spoke regularly about the challenges of Brexit, as I also did with members of the Conservative Party. The dynamic and the numbers within the British Parliament have changed fundamentally since then. The current Government has a significant majority and we need to focus primarily on the people who will be making decisions, with the majority to pass them, in the British Parliament to ensure Ireland's interests are fully understood. That said, Keir Starmer's role as leader of the Opposition is a hugely important one and he is a very impressive leader of the British Labour Party. It is my intention to travel to London when I can to meet a number of senior UK politicians, which I hope will include the leader of the British Labour Party.

It would be very worthwhile for the Minister to do so. While he is right about the changed arithmetic in the British Parliament, if there is a growing view within the British Government that is not supportive of the withdrawal agreement, the more understanding voices we have within the British parliamentary system to articulate an alternative perspective, the better. It would be worthwhile for the Minister to have direct discussions and clarify any points of misunderstanding with all parties in the British Parliament. I strongly encourage him to do that.

To make one thing clear, while some voices in the Conservative party may be questioning the withdrawal agreement, this is an international treaty to which the British Government has signed up. I have certainly not seen the Prime Minister or Michael Gove move away from the commitments made in that agreement. It is hugely important to state that while there may be some views that question the sense of the withdrawal agreement, after it has been signed, this is a legal agreement between the EU and the UK and it was signed only six months ago, or just over that. The focus has to be on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and not on some kind of renegotiation, which is not possible. More importantly, now, is the necessity of focusing on putting a new agreement in place that is consistent with the joint political declaration, that was also agreed at the same time as the withdrawal agreement, to ensure there is a sensible relationship that works for the UK and the EU in the future.

I will just get in one last question. I call Deputy Costello.

Middle East Peace Process

Patrick Costello

Question:

35. Deputy Patrick Costello asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the steps he will take to prevent the annexation of occupied Palestine by Israel. [18121/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

53. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the discussions he has had with his counterparts across Europe with regard to the plans of the Israeli state to annex parts of Palestine; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18568/20]

I was here earlier when we were discussing the issue of Israel-Palestine and the annexation. Following on from his comments, and in the light of the question, the Minister spoke about how we would have to negotiate, talk and convince. The reality, however, when it came to Russia and its breach of international law regarding Crimea, is that we acted. Why are we not acting here? There is a litany of breaches of international laws, which the Minister calls out and is very clear in his condemnation of those breaches. We cannot just keep negotiating, however. We need to act. The Minister would not accept negotiation as a response for a breach of domestic law, so why are we doing that for international law?

I will let the Minister answer and then Deputies Costello and Boyd Barrett will each have a minute to respond. I am stretching the time as far as I can.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 35 and 53 together. As I stated earlier today, the Middle East peace process is a priority issue for me and for the Government, and I will continue to make every possible effort to engage constructively on this issue, through contacts with the parties, with relevant third states, with our EU partners, and with the UN. I have paid four working visits to the region in the past three years and look forward to doing so again when circumstances permit.

I share the strong view of this House that annexation would be a completely unacceptable step, and I have been completely clear on this in public statements and in private contacts.

Annexation of territory could have significant consequences for neighbouring countries. The League of Arab States, and many of its members, has been very clear in spelling out its firm opposition to it. A step which would so clearly undermine prospects for a two-state solution could have a negative impact on stability more broadly, and this is not in anybody’s interests. A solution involving two states for two peoples, living side by side in peace, is the only outcome for Israelis and Palestinians that we will support.

I do not see annexation as an inevitable development. It has not happened yet and that is why Ireland has not been forced to take actions in response to annexation. I firmly believe it would be against the interests of Israelis as well as Palestinians, and this is borne out by the fact that there is considerable unease about this proposal within Israel itself and within the Israeli Government. I do not believe the time for dissuasion is past, and my officials and I will continue our efforts in this regard, working closely with our EU partners who share our strong opposition to annexation.

Nor will I confine my efforts to deterring annexation. The status quo – the occupation, the construction of settlements, the destruction and demolition of Palestinian property, the limits placed on the development of Palestinians’ potential – is an abnormal and completely unacceptable situation.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I am very conscious of the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza, in particular, where the aspirations of young people are cruelly circumscribed by a blockade which has continued for far too long.

Let me reiterate my commitment to continue working to keep this issue high on the international agenda and to prioritise the Middle East peace process, amongst other issues, as we prepare to take up our seat on the UN Security Council in January 2021.

I am stretching the time to allow the two Deputies back in. The rest of the answer will be in the Official Report. We are over the time and I am sorry. The two Deputies have one minute each and I ask them to stick to that minute, please.

We can add to that list of breaches of international law the destruction and demolition of EU-funded aid structures, something which the Minister has spoken out against before. The risk is that if we say that annexation should not happen, then we start to ignore all these other things and that is a real risk. The Israeli Government, when making its choices, will look at what happened to it the last time it breached international law and it has been able to act with impunity. The best way we can prevent annexation is to uphold and give teeth to international law and to act, as we did with Russia, instead of just talking.

I ask, therefore, in the Minister's letter to the EU, along with other foreigner ministers, seeking legal actions that we can take, that we should also implement all the current responses to existing breaches of international law, and not just use them as a stick regarding annexation.

I must state that Deputy Costello is in the wrong Government if he is looking for legal action on Israel's flouting of human rights, international law or a Government that is going to fight in any serious way for justice for the oppressed Palestinian people, because the Government has stated that it will not pass Senator Black's Control of Economic Activities (Occupied Territories) Bill which would impose some sanctions.

I do not understand why the Government will not do that, or step up and insist that the EU ends the Euro-Mediterranean trade agreement which gives preferential trade status to Israel or recognise a Palestinian state. Before the Minister states it is not possible for us to take unilateral action because we are part of the EU, it is worth stating that we have learned something else from the Covid-19 crisis, and that is that states within the European Union are able to take unilateral action on travel restrictions which are not uniform across Europe. If we can do that during the emergency of Covid-19, why can Ireland not do that regarding the emergency of the annexation of Palestinian land?

We have run out of time, I am afraid. The Minister can make a quick comment.

Since the others were given time, I am going to take a little bit of time.

I gave them a minute because they were grouped together.

That is fine, but when the questions are grouped together, I should also get a little more time to respond.

I am giving the Minister a minute.

I will be quick. Deputy Costello is in a Government that cares about this issue, that has spent an extraordinary amount of time ensuring that Ireland has some influence over key decision-makers in respect of the Middle East peace process and that will continue to prioritise this issue, as we have done in the programme for Government. That is clear.

Deputy Boyd Barrett, as usual, is calling for things that are more about protest than real change. I am not in the business of making decisions as a Government Minister that are directly contrary to the legal advice the Government has, and the Deputy knows very well that is the position regarding the Control of Economic Activities (Occupied Territories) Bill.

I thank the Minister for his brevity.