Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Human Rights

John Brady

Question:

1. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his plans to review the existing human rights and business plan 2017-2020. [38304/20]

As many families across the country and thousands of young children are preparing to watch "The Late Late Toy Show" tomorrow, the big question on their minds is whether Covid restrictions will be lifted sufficiently to allow Santa Claus visit at Christmas. A representative from the North Pole has been in touch with me also to ask whether clearance will be given for Santa Claus to enter our airspace. This is an important question. It is not the one that I tabled, but it is playing on the minds of hundreds of thousands of children across the country.

I also ask the Minister what plans the Government has to review the existing business and human rights plan, which applied from 2017 to 2020.

We have been working on the Santa Claus issue for a number of weeks. It is important to point out to all children in the country that we regard the travels of Santa Claus as essential travel for essential purposes, so he is exempt from the need to self-quarantine for 14 days and should be able to come in and out of Irish airspace and homes without having to restrict his movements. However, children should not stay up at night because he needs to socially distance. People need to keep at least 2 m away at all stages to ensure they keep him and children safe. He is exempt and he is coming. He has confirmed that and appreciates the fact that Ireland has ensured that in a very different Christmas in 2020 the visit of Santa Claus will remain consistent.

On the less important issues, in November 2017, my Department launched the inaugural national plan on business and human rights, to begin the process of implementing the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. The plan is a whole-of-Government initiative. It aims to promote responsible business practices at home and overseas by all Irish business enterprises, in line with Ireland’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights globally. The plan is directed at Government and State agencies, Irish companies operating at home and overseas and multinational enterprises operating in Ireland. The Department has established an independently chaired business and human rights implementation group to oversee implementation of the national plan. The group was convened in December 2018 and given a three-year mandate, expiring in December 2021. Its first meeting took place in January 2019. Membership consists of representatives from civil society, academia, the business community and Government Departments and agencies.

The programme for Government commits to a review of the implementation of the national plan. My officials are currently examining the options for giving effect to this commitment, having regard to the structural changes to my Department upon the formation of the new Government. Although the implementation group is mandated to meet twice per year, it will convene four meetings in 2020. It should also be noted that the UN working group on business and human rights is currently reviewing implementation of the UN guiding principles in UN member states, with a view to charting a course for the next decade of action.

I thank the Minister for the reassurance he has given to thousands of children. Realistically, they knew in their hearts that nothing would stop Santa Claus, but that reassurance is very much appreciated.

Returning to business and human rights, there is a commitment in the programme for Government to review the existing plan, which is very important. The review will also look at the mandatory due diligence. I believe it has gone beyond the point of having a look at that. It is the accepted norm in many progressive countries that mandatory due diligence is an essential component of any plan. What will the Government do in respect of mandatory due diligence? Will the Minister also consider introducing legislation in that regard?

I have been asked questions on this issue a number of times previously and I have said we have an open mind on it. This is more than a conversation across the EU as it is something on which the European Commission is also giving leadership. While corporate governance in a domestic context falls outside the remit of my Department, the European Commissioner for Justice has announced he will bring forward a new initiative next year in the area of sustainable corporate governance. A public consultation is now under way in which the EU is asking stakeholders how it can best help businesses embed environmental and social interests, including human rights, in their business strategies. I welcome this initiative and Ireland will be co-operating fully with it.

The Minister says Ireland will co-operate fully with it, but concern has been expressed about Ireland's position even in terms of the UN treaty on business and human rights. The Government has failed to offer public support as an individual nation. Ireland has an opportunity to lead on this front and we cannot afford to wait on the EU to make up its mind on the position relating to the treaty. Ireland can and must act of its own accord. I encourage the Minister to speak to the EU on the treaty and pledge full support to that treaty.

Ireland remains open to looking at options for progress on a legally binding treaty. The sixth session of the open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises took place from 26 to 30 October last. The European Union delivered a statement and separately raised specific concerns relating to the draft text on behalf of Ireland and other member states. The EU statement welcomed some of the changes to the latest draft of the legally binding instrument, highlighted further necessary changes and outlined the many measures under way in the EU and across member states to give greater protection to human rights in the context of business activities.

In simple terms, the question raised by the Deputy is under active consideration.

We need to know the consequences of the decision that we make. We also need to make sure that it is capable of being implemented. We also need to try to ensure consistency across the European Union for all sorts of reasons, not least membership of the Single Market.

EU Budgets

Cian O'Callaghan

Question:

2. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the actions he has taken following Poland and Hungary’s veto of the EU budget over the new rules linking funding to the rule of law; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38181/20]

In the context of the importance of the European Union recovery fund, what action is the Minister for Foreign Affairs taking following the veto by Poland and Hungary of the EU budget, and the new rules linking funding to the rule of law?

This is a very relevant question given the broader multi-annual financial framework, MFF, considerations generally, and the fact that very significant funds could be held up, which Ireland may well need to access, in particular in the context of the Brexit adjustment fund.

As the Deputy will be aware, agreement was reached in the European Parliament on 5 November for a general scheme of conditionality for the protection of the EU's budget. This follows the July European Council conclusions on the MFF-Next Generation EU package, which stated that a regime of conditionality to protect the budget and Next Generation EU will be introduced. The Presidency tabled a compromise proposal for a regulation in September, which led to difficult discussions since, while a number of member states strongly support the use of protective measures, others oppose such measures or want to limit them to very specific breaches as they affect the EU budget.

The mechanism agreed with the European Parliament would require member states allocated funding from the EU's budget, including the recovery fund, to respect the rule of law, which is an essential precondition to comply with the principles of sound financial management enshrined in Article 317 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Approval of the own-resources decision as soon as possible is critical to allow the recovery fund to support member states, through grants and loans, to deal with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and to recover from it. I regret that Hungary and Poland are not yet in a position to support the MFF agreement and own-resource decision due to their opposition to the rule of law mechanism. However, I am hopeful that a compromise solution can be found and it is my understanding that the German Presidency will continue to work towards a reasonable solution.

While member states are entitled to use their veto on such matters, this is not the spirit in which we would have hoped to see the matter approached. It is in the interests of all member states to agree the MFF-Next Generation EU package so that moneys from the recovery fund can start flowing as soon as possible in 2021 but it is also an expectation from Ireland and many other countries that the legitimately held concerns on the application of the rule of law across the European Union would be respected as well. 

I am a little concerned about the talk of a compromise position because what was already agreed with the European Parliament was, in effect, a compromise position. It is a limited provision. It is important that we stand firm on the very limited provisions agreed given the attacks on press freedom, the independence of the judiciary, civil society organisations and the LGBT community, including through the establishment of so-called LGBT-free zones in Poland. Given the gravity of the situation and the importance of insisting that democratic and human rights are upheld in all parts of the European Union, we cannot countenance breaches of the rule of law anywhere within the EU. Instead of talking about a further compromise or diminution of the provision, does the Minister not agree that we need to stand our ground? There has been slippage for ten years and it is time for the European Union to stand its ground.

I do not disagree with the Deputy's concerns but we still have to find a way forward. That is the nature of politics. It is the responsibility of whoever holds the Presidency of the European Union to try to find a way forward. Respect for the rule of law is one of the EU values enshrined in the treaties, alongside respect for human dignity, equality and human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. Ireland is a firm supporter of these EU values. Hungarian Government reforms, mainly in the justice area, give rise to concerns about fundamental principles of the operation of the rule of law, including judicial independence, media freedom, academic freedom and the protection of civil society organisations and human rights defenders. There have been a number of hearings at the General Affairs Council over the past two years involving the Commission, Hungary and other member states. We have actively participated in these hearings and we will continue to do so, highlighting the importance we attach to respect for the rule of law.

Likewise, Polish Government reforms, mainly in the justice area, give rise to concerns around fundamental principles of the operation of the rule of law, including legal certainty, the separation of powers, shielding of the judiciary from undue influence from other state powers and security of judicial tenure. There is also concern about LGBTI issues that have legitimately been raised in this House.

I share the Deputy's concerns. The European Union is taking a stand on the issue. President von der Leyen has been very strong on it in a number of statements. The European Commission is taking this very seriously and member states, by and large, are supporting the Commission in that. However, we have two and possibly three member states supporting the Hungarian and Polish position, as Slovenia may well also support them.

I thank the Minister. We are well over time.

We need to find a way forward that respects the values of the EU but that also allows us to go ahead with the budget.

I agree with the Minister that we need to find a way forward on this. For a decade, we have seen the undermining of democratic and human rights in parts of the European Union. At the same time, we have seen billions of euro in European Union funding flowing into these countries. The measures proposed currently are very limited. I do not believe they go far enough. They are as much of a compromise as we could possibly countenance. In terms of a way forward, if the veto continues to be used to block the budget, will Ireland support the other 25 European Union countries going ahead with the transition fund and the EU budget rather than allowing a few countries that are not willing to sign up to a very basic set of rules in terms of the rule of law to block progress?

Ireland has welcomed the agreement reached on the rule of law conditionality mechanism, which has been an important issue for Ireland and for the wider MFF negotiations. We support the current text as the best possible compromise available. The agreement has a broader scope than the Presidency proposal and we have welcomed it as an improvement on the original text from 2018. Ireland has consistently supported the position of like-minded member states on the importance of introducing strong and effective rule of law conditionality through this type of mechanism. The agreement means there will be consequences for member states for breaches of the rule of law. It signals that rule of law issues are important for the EU.

That said, as I indicated at the outset, we must find a way forward on this. There are a number of issues that risk significant divisions within the European Union and this is one of them. Migration and migration law is another. One of the challenges for the European Union is to find a way of ensuring that we take seriously the values of the Union, which hold us together, and that there are consequences for countries that move away from that value system, at the same time as finding a way of moving the budget process forward because many countries, including Ireland, rely on the budget mechanism to function. I hope the German Presidency will be able to find a way forward that is acceptable to everybody.

Middle East

John Brady

Question:

3. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if the Government will be seeking compensation from the state of Israel for the destruction of infrastructure paid for by the Irish taxpayer by Israeli forces. [38305/20]

Has the Irish Government sought compensation from Israel for its ongoing, systematic destruction of Palestinian homes and other infrastructure such as schools? I know other European countries have asked for compensation from Israel? Has the Government considered this? Has it carried out an assessment of how much Palestinian infrastructure that was provided by Irish taxpayers' money has been destroyed by the Israeli strategy of demolition?

We have discussed this matter of demolitions and settlements before at Question Time. The demolition by Israeli authorities of private property is of grave concern. Demolition and confiscation of humanitarian assets, including education infrastructure, is contrary to Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention. The only conclusion we can draw from the systematic nature of these policies, especially in areas where illegal Israeli settlements have already been constructed, is that they are aimed at forcing Palestinians off their land.

Ireland regularly conveys its views on these actions to the Israeli authorities, both directly and through the EU. I have also raised the issue on my visits to the region on numerous occasions. I issued a statement on recent demolitions on 6 November in which I underlined that destruction of private property such as this is clearly prohibited under international humanitarian law. Ireland, the EU and the wider humanitarian community are supporting impacted communities.

My primary concern is the hardship and injustice that demolitions and confiscations cause for Palestinian families. It is of additional concern when those structures confiscated or demolished are donor-funded. It is important that the question of recompense for humanitarian relief funded by our taxpayers should be pursued. Ireland pursues this matter issue consistently through the West Bank Protection Consortium, which plays a leading role in supporting threatened communities from forcible transfer, co-ordinating the provision of essential services to them, including material and humanitarian assistance and legal aid. It is the practice of the consortium to raise the issue of compensation directly with the Israeli authorities and to date, the consortium has sought compensation of over €625,000 in respect of confiscated or demolished assets. In other words, we believe that we can be more impactful and effective if we work with other countries in a consortium like this, which involves some other EU countries as well, and we help to fund activities such as legal action taken on the back of these cases of demolition and confiscation.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I appreciate what he said. I also appreciate some of his recent statements on the illegal demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank. He indicated that he has raised these matters with Israel and also through the EU, but his intervention is having absolutely zero impact. Belgium made a decision to seek compensation and it has been refused. If nothing else, it is important to draw attention to this aspect. It is another strategy to pursue.

A recent statement by the Israeli foreign minister indicates that whatever we are saying is having no effect. He stated that donor states should use their taxpayers' money for the funding of legal constructions and projects in territories that are controlled by Israel, thereby ensuring that they are planned and executed in accordance with the law and in co-ordination with the relevant Israeli authorities. What we are saying is having no impact . It is time to take action and stop the illegal actions by Israel.

We are taking action. I understand the frustration in this House about the Israel-Palestine matter in general. I am glad it is raised every time I take questions. However, I assure the Deputy that we are using all the tools we think can be most persuasive in bringing about change in that relationship. We potentially have an opportunity, with a change of US President, to be able to refocus on the Middle East peace process and the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. I want Ireland to be in the middle of the discussion using the context we have raised and the relationships we have to try to ensure we can assist in a process of moving forward a peace dialogue that ensures equality of esteem for both sides. That is so we can work constructively towards the creation of a two-state solution, with two states living side by side in peace. It is why I am vocal, publicly and in this House, on these matters on a regular basis. I am happy to engage with other parties on that.

The Minister mentions the new US Government and US President, who will take office in January. Nevertheless we are seeing a ratcheting up of illegal settlements and just this week we have seen tenders approved for 1,200 illegal settlements in north Bethlehem. This week, ten families have been ejected from their homes to allow for military manoeuvres in the West Bank. It is a systematic attempt to destroy any prospects of a two-state solution.

We can consider planning, particularly in area C of the occupied territories, where only 2% of planning permission applications are granted by Israel. At the same time we have seen the systematic destruction of homes, schools and other humanitarian infrastructure. It has gone well beyond the point of issuing statements of condemnation or speaking quietly in the ear of the Israeli ambassador. Now is the time to take action.

This Sunday marks the UN day of solidarity with the Palestinian people. We need to express solidarity but Palestinians need to see definitive action. Ireland can take the lead by having a strategy of confronting the illegal actions of the Israeli state. We can start by issuing a compensation bill for the demolition of settlements.

I have given great lenience, like Santa Claus. I must act in fairness to the other Deputies asking questions.

I understand the Deputy's perspective on this. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs, my job is to use my judgment to consider how we can create a position where Ireland can be as influential as possible in the bigger picture. That is how to work with other governments around the world to create an environment where Israeli and Palestinian negotiators can sit around a table negotiating a permanent solution to a conflict that has been going on for decades. That is the issue. Of course, there is also the question of how we ensure we are both consistent and credible in our constructive criticism of the actions taken primarily by Israeli authorities. If there are other violent actions involving Palestinians, we must also be consistent on that. I have been very consistent in calling out breaches of international and humanitarian law. I will continue to do that while trying to ensure we can maximise Ireland's influence on the bigger picture as well.

Passport Data

Marian Harkin

Question:

4. Deputy Marian Harkin asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the feasibility of the State introducing a Covid-19 stamp on passports to demonstrate that travellers have received the vaccination against the virus. [38293/20]

I ask the Minister his view on the various different proposals that we might have immunity stamps on passports or, more likely, digital identities created to show that a person has been vaccinated against Covid-19 for the purposes of travel, both in Europe and with long-haul travel.

Passports are internationally recognised travel documents that attest to the identity and nationality of the bearer. The Irish passport is an invaluable identity document and its integrity is paramount to the maintenance of the level of visa-free access that Irish citizens enjoy to 93 countries worldwide today. Any changes to the format of the Irish passport must be fully compliant with International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, regulations and standards.

The ICAO is a UN specialised agency which defines in detail the required format for a passport.

My Department currently has no plans to introduce a Covid-19 stamp on passports to demonstrate that travellers have received any vaccination against the virus. All passengers arriving to Ireland from overseas, with limited exemptions, are required to complete a Covid-19 passenger locator form. The form supports a system of engagement with arriving passengers, including the targeting of key public health messages through SMS and email. The form can also be used for contact tracing. The Covid-19 passenger locator form is now an online form.

The Government decided at its meeting on 10 November that persons claiming an exemption from the request to restrict their movements on the basis of a negative PCR test up to three days before departure will be required to indicate on the passenger locator form that they have had such a test. This will require a further amendment to the passenger locator form and work is under way within the Department of Health and across Government to give effect to this decision. It may also be possible to include vaccination data when the vaccine becomes available which will provide further reassurance with regard to international travel.

I thank the Minister. I agree with his comments on Irish passports and their value when travelling. He spoke about the passenger locator form but that relies on goodwill and people following the rules. Many people follow them, and many more will, but it is not evidence-based. The aviation sector is so important to our economy, particularly our tourism sector and in that context, are there any discussions at European level on this? I know that it will have to be at that level. Are there any discussions around this issue? Maybe the information does not need to be a passport but could be in the form of a digital app or digital identification stating that a person had been vaccinated. If one listens to the head of Quantas or other airlines, it seems that this is coming down the track. There have been discussions in the UK Parliament about it. Are we preparing for this eventuality?

Yes. We would like to see more co-ordination at an EU level although there has already been quite a lot, in terms of the traffic light system which is now providing a lot more certainty. The truth is that very few people are travelling anyway. The Government guidelines are very clear that any international travel should be limited to essential travel under level 5 restrictions but we are working towards a situation where we hope that can change as we move into next year.

The passenger locator form is not something that relies on goodwill or voluntary co-operation. It is a legal requirement to fill out a passenger locator form on entering the country. It is also a legal requirement to fill it out accurately. If a person puts false information on the passenger locator form, he or she is breaking the law and the penalties for that are quite severe. Travellers who are exempt from the restrictions because they are essential workers or because they have taken a PCR test and are coming from an orange region will have to include that information on the passenger locator form and do so truthfully. Otherwise, they are breaking the law. I hope we will be able to accommodate something similar when vaccination becomes available so that people coming into Ireland who have been vaccinated can complete a passenger locator form that recognises this fact. Obviously, we will have to take public health advice on this but my expectation is that if people are vaccinated, they will be able to avoid the restrictions that currently apply to international travel, particularly those arriving from orange locations. We are working on this and the more we can do together, across the EU, the more effective it can be. However, Ireland needs to protect its citizens against the potential threat of a reseeding of the virus through international travel. We must be careful.

I agree with the Minister that we need more co-operation and co-ordination at European level. The Minister talked about the traffic light system and said that the passenger locator form is a legal requirement, which it absolutely is but the truth is that there is little follow-up. How do we know that the terms and conditions are being adhered to? How many people have travelled through Dublin Airport since we have put it in place and how many have been prosecuted for not filling it out? Some people do not, although the vast majority do.

When the vaccine becomes widely used, more people will travel and unless we want to restrict that travel, we need to find a way to make it work. I am asking the Minister to think about that and to start planning for it.

I can assure Deputy Harkin that we are thinking about it and have been thinking about it all year in the context of international travel. It would be safe to say that Ireland has been one of the most restrictive countries in the EU in terms of international travel. We have taken a lot of criticism from the airlines and there has been huge frustration at our airports because of that. We believe it is for good reason, despite the fact that Ireland, arguably, relies on air travel more than any other country in the EU, with the possible exceptions of Malta and Cyprus. We want to try to change our approach while making sure that we are continuing to be compliant with public health advice. We do not want, following enormous efforts and sacrifices from people, to reintroduce the virus again through international travel, which is a danger if it is not managed right. This is a difficult balance to get right.

We have also made the decision that we are not going to have mandatory quarantine, enforced by knocking on people's doors. Instead, we have introduced a mandatory element to the policy in the context of the passenger locator form and the legal requirement to fill that out accurately. It is not a perfect system but by and large it has worked reasonably well. It has limited international travel significantly and has kept the number of clusters linked to such travel to a very low level. That is not to say it is perfect but we will continue to try to evolve this policy in a way that facilitates international travel but in a safe way.