Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Trade Relations

John Brady

Question:

1. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if, given the registering of a European citizens' initiative by the European Commission calling for an end to trade with illegal settlements in occupied territories in Palestine and Western Sahara, the Government is prepared to examine the issue of trade with illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. [47099/21]

Given the registering of a European citizens' initiative by the European Commission calling for an end to trade with illegal settlements in occupied territories in places such as Palestine and Western Sahara, is the Government prepared to examine the issue of trade with illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories?

I thank the Deputy. I am aware of the European citizens' initiative to which he refers. Following its registration, the European Commission has six months to consider the initiative and any proposals arising from it. My officials will actively follow developments on the issue.

Ireland has previously raised at EU level the question of whether goods from occupied territories, including from settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, should be excluded from the EU market. However, it is clear that at present there is no possibility of getting substantial support, still less consensus, for such a proposal. A ban on trade with settlements at national level would not be compatible with EU law or capable of being implemented. That is the clear legal advice I have. The Government will therefore not be taking it forward.

We have instead focused our advocacy on practical measures to differentiate in EU policies between Israel and the illegal settlements. This has resulted in a number of EU measures, including guidelines on the labelling of settlement goods so consumers can identify them and make their own choices. Ireland has supported legal avenues to differentiate between settlements and Israel, for example, by joining a case before the European courts in 2019 on these labelling guidelines. As settlements are not part of Israel, the EU-Israel Association Agreement does not apply to them. This means that different tariffs apply to goods from settlements, and they are not eligible for participation in EU-Israel programmes. EU law and guidelines on this issue are an important part of the EU contribution to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemns the construction and expansion of settlements. I have directed my officials to continue to explore further such options and the potential for them to gain support from EU partners. Ireland will maintain vigilance to ensure full implementation of these laws and guidelines.

On 8 September this year, the European Commission registered a European citizens' initiative that calls for an end to trade with illegal settlements in occupied territories such as Palestine and Western Sahara. This came after the organisers of the initiative won a law suit against the Commission, which had first rejected the initiative claiming a lack of competence. That rejection was annulled by the European Court of Justice. By agreeing to register the citizens' initiative, the Commission officially acknowledges that stopping trade with illegal settlements is an EU trade measure, not a sanction.

This decision is a significant legal step. After years of evading its own responsibility, the Commission officially recognised that it has the authority and, therefore, the duty to propose the adoption of import and export prohibitions towards illegal settlements. Will the Minister reassess his previous refusal to support measures such as the occupied territories Bill, given that his opposition has been shown to be based on a false narrative?

The case the Deputy makes reinforces the position I am taking. I have always said in respect of the occupied territories Bill that this is a trade matter for the EU collectively and the European Commission to make recommendations and decisions on. That has always been our position. It is why Ireland on its own cannot make decisions in this area. If it did, would not be able to implement them without EU support.

If this is an EU trade measure and competence and the EU has the authority to do it, then it is an EU decision. I have said to the Deputy on many occasions that Ireland has supported and continues to support at EU level ensuring there is a differentiation in treatment between goods from occupied territory or illegal settlements and goods from Israel proper. That continues to be our position. I cannot go beyond that because Ireland does not have the competence to do it.

It does, because the recognition that stopping such trade is an EU trade measure confirms that individual member states can decide to stop trade with settlements at any moment under EU common rules for imports, which allow for import restrictions for reasons such as public morality and public policy. We have a moral obligation and an obligation under international law. The false narrative that it breaches EU rules or law is now shown to be baseless. The notion that we would be working in contradiction of EU law does not stand. It is up to the Minister. He can take the high moral ground and do the right thing. We passed an important motion that declared Israel has breached international law by annexing Palestinian territories. There needs to be consequences for that. This is the logical thing we can do and we can act on our own without waiting for other EU members to do so.

I received extensive advice from the previous Attorney General and the current one. The advice is the same. It is that this is an EU competence, not a member state competence, in regard to taking the actions the Deputy has suggested. The threshold that would need to be overcome for Ireland to act on its own is not deemed to be met. If there is to be a sanction or trade measure introduced on goods from illegal settlements, the EU needs to collectively decide to do that. I do not believe there is even close to a majority or consensus to do that-----

Is there new legal advice on this issue?

That is why we should focus on what is possible and is already there, which is clear differentiation on labelling. That should be implemented across member states.

Trade Relations

Gino Kenny

Question:

2. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the expansion by IDA Ireland into Israel; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47159/21]

My question relates to a decision earlier on this year by IDA Ireland to expand into Israel. That is a retrograde step. I would like to hear the Minister's comment on that decision.

IDA Ireland is an autonomous statutory agency, which operates in accordance with the Industrial Development Acts, 1986 to 2019, and under the aegis of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, who is best placed to comment on the agency’s activities and decisions and is responsible for trade. The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has answered a number of parliamentary questions on this matter.

Ireland distinguishes between the territory of the state of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967 in all of its engagements with Israel, including on trade and economic issues. This position is common across all Departments and policy coherence is ensured through co-ordination at official level.

Ireland is committed to the implementation of EU law, which makes a meaningful distinction between Israel and settlements in occupied territory. This distinction has important practical effects. Since settlements are not part of Israel, the EU-Israel Association Agreement does not apply to them. This means that different tariffs apply to goods from settlements, and settlements are not eligible for participation in EU-Israel programmes.

EU law and guidelines clearly differentiate between settlements on the one hand and Israel on the other. As such, they are an important part of the EU contribution to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemns the construction and expansion of settlements and calls on all States to distinguish in their relevant dealings between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.

The Department of Foreign Affairs ensures that there is information available for the public and companies regarding Ireland's policy on settlements via the Department's website. A whole-of-government approach is applied to the policy of differentiation and my Department also supports other Government Departments by providing guidance and clarification on the policy of differentiation.

Over the summer, a well-known ice cream maker called Ben & Jerry’s, which is an American company, announced that it would no longer sell ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories, which are East Jerusalem and the Palestinian West Bank. This was greeted with much disdain in certain parts of the world but with great congratulations from others that a company would take a stand against apartheid Israel. Yet, IDA Ireland says it want to develop its global footprint and more economic links with Israel. That is completely contrary to what the Minister says here every week. On the one hand, he condemns Israel and, on the other, another vehicle of this State congratulates Israel for its crimes. Which is it: condemn or congratulate?

I am sorry, but we make a distinction between Israel and the occupied territories. I do not believe that settlements are legal and I have said many times on the record that settlements and their expansion in occupied territories is illegal under international law. I raise that issue probably more than any other EU Minister on an international stage, whether it is in EU Foreign Affairs Council meetings, at the UN, on other international forums, here, and I raise it bilaterally and directly also with the Israeli Government, including the new Israeli Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, with whom I have spoken about this issue.

My position on this is very clear. That does not mean that Ireland should not have a relationship with Israel. I believe we should and if State agencies have a relationship with the state of Israel that is normal in terms of bilateral relations between two states. That is a different issue to the issue of us raising bluntly and directly with the Israeli Government, and with others, the illegality of settlements and the responsibility that Israel has in the context of occupied territory.

Táimid ag bogadh ar aghaidh go dtí an chéad cheist eile leis an Teachta Brady. My apologies Deputy Kenny, please continue.

I do not think that the Minister gets it. He comes in here on a weekly basis and says that he is against the annexation of Palestinian lands but at the same time he treats Israel as a normal state. Would he have said the same about apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, for example? No, he would not. That is the contradiction that we as Deputies in the Opposition constantly point out to him. Israel cannot be treated as a normal state as it is not one. It is an apartheid state and that is inherent in its brutality against the Palestinian people.

Has IDA Ireland created an office in Israel? Where is the office? Which economic links has the organisation made with Israeli companies? Hopefully, the Minister can answer those questions because if IDA Ireland has created economic links that go beyond the margins of what the Minister says here every week, then it is a complete contradiction not only of him but of the Government.

It is not a contradiction at all.

My position on Israel and on our relationship is important and this also an important agent to deliver change in its policy towards Palestinians, which I have been very critical of and I continue to be.

I am not responsible for IDA Ireland and the line Minister has answered questions on this and will continue to answer questions if they are raised. My position is clear, however. Ireland should have a bilateral relationship with Israel but Ireland should also be consistent with international law and with UN Security Council resolutions in calling out illegality when it happens. That is what we and mature states do-----

Why does the Minister have a bilateral interest in an apartheid system?

They talk to each and when there are differences, they discuss them. Ireland continues to be one of the most outspoken countries in the world in the context of the relationship between Israel and Palestine-----

The Minister is over time.

----- and the need to move towards a negotiated peaceful with solution and that is what we will continue to do.

Foreign Birth Registration

John Brady

Question:

3. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs when the foreign birth registration application service will start processing applications again. [47085/21]

I ask the Minister to give details on the foreign birth registrations, the significant backlog of applications and when is it intended to start processing this very significant backlog again that has built up over the past year and a half or so?

I am glad that the Deputy has asked this question because it is good to put this issue on the record. My Department is responsible for citizenship by descent through the Foreign Births Register under the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, as amended.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the processing time for foreign birth registrations, FBR, applications stood at 18 months due to an unprecedented surge in applications as a result of Brexit and the necessarily rigorous processing that applies to citizenship applications. At present, there are just over 31,000 applications in the foreign births registration system.

During the pandemic, passport service staff were reassigned to the HSE for essential contact tracing, to the Department of Social Protection for the processing of essential PUP payments and to support the Department of Health with quarantine issues. This resulted in a pause in overall FBR processing while Passport Office staff continued to provide an emergency service for foreign birth registration in cases of exceptional urgency.

More than 4,500 emergency FBR applications have been processed in 2021. The FBR service continues to consider urgent requests to expedite an application on a case-by-case basis, in cases such as expectant parents, or stateless persons.

In cases of exceptional urgency, FBR applicants may continue to contact the passport service directly by telephone or webchat on the Department’s website, www.dfa.ie

The passport service is actively planning to resume processing FBR applications as soon as possible. My Department is committed to allocating further resources to assist with the high volume of applications, with a focus on reducing turnaround times to pre-Covid-19 levels by the end of 2021. In the medium term, changes to the FBR process to increase efficiencies and improve the customer experience will be delivered under the next phase of my Department's passport reform programme.

In simple terms, Deputy, we have had to prioritise through the Covid-19 pandemic as to where are we focused our staff effort and, of course, we are dealing with emergency cases, and will continue to do that. We have processed nearly 5,000 of those this year but this has to be seen through the lens of the emergency that we been living through over the past 18 months.

I thank the Minister and I appreciate that he had to prioritise where staff work, what is processed and what is not.

Unfortunately, there is a massive backlog of more than 31,000 applications still to be dealt with. It is concerning that the Minister has not been able to give a date for the resumption of the processing of those applications. Essentially, he has given the same response I have received from him to parliamentary questions I have tabled in recent months. It is essentially the same response I received from him in June and in July and there is still no date for the processing of these applications to resume.

I understand that staff had to be pulled to work in other areas, such as the processing of the PUP, but now that there are no longer significant numbers of people dependent on such payments, surely staff should be back working on the processing of these applications. The failure to process them is having serious repercussions for people who need these registrations completed as quickly as possible.

The Deputy is correct to keep raising this issue. As of this week, we have opened the Passport Office for people to get appointments for emergency passports for the first time in many months. People can apply for appointments online now to get a rapid turnaround of a passport and so on. It is only in recent weeks that we have had full staffing levels back in the Passport Office. I have visited the office. The staff are doing incredible work, given the pressure they are under in processing emergency passports and passports through the general system. It is true that we now have our staff back from the other Departments in which they were located for all the right reasons in terms of helping other Departments. I expect that in the next few weeks we will have far more clarity on the timeline for dealing with FBRs. I will make sure the Deputy is informed as soon as those decisions are made.

It is not satisfactory for the Minister to say that in several weeks he will have more clarity on a timeline. That is simply not acceptable. There is a massive backlog of 31,000 applications to be processed. Before the pandemic, there was, understandably, a turnaround time of between 12 and 18 months. The website of the Department has not been updated. It still states that is the processing time but people are now being told it will take more than two years.

I refer to the implications this has for people. I know of cases involving people trying to register who are stuck in war zones and are unable to register the birth of a child. That has significant implications relating to citizenship and accessing other critical identification such as passports. There are probably questions to be asked in respect of the legality of the failure to process these registrations.

We need a specific timeframe. The onus is on the Minister. He has responsibility for this matter and he owes the House-----

The onus is on the Deputy to keep within the time limits.

-----and the 31,000 applicants a specific timeframe for when those applications will be processed and how the backlog will be dealt with.

As I stated, when there are urgent cases that need to be addressed, we deal with them. There is a process to deal with them and we have dealt with 4,500 of them so far this year. If there are cases involving people in war zones or children who are stateless because they do not have a passport, there is a mechanism to deal with those cases. Let us be clear regarding what is available to people if there are urgent cases that need to be resolved. We will resolve such cases.

As regards the many non-urgent FBR applications that, of course, also need to be dealt with, we will deal with the 31,000 outstanding cases. The reality is that before the Brexit vote we were dealing with 5,000 to 6,000 applications per year. That increased dramatically to a high of 32,000 in 2019. There was a massive increase during Brexit and that has contributed to the issues during Covid. We will deal with the emergency cases and we will get FBRs delivered efficiently again. I will be able to update the Deputy on that in the next couple of weeks.

Passport Services

Michael Lowry

Question:

4. Deputy Michael Lowry asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the measures that have been implemented to support and assist the management and staff of the Passport Office in dealing with the backlog of applications; the plans that can be introduced to avoid recurring delays, given that inordinate delays result in inconvenience and stress to waiting applicants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46866/21]

What measures have been implemented to support and assist the management and staff of the Passport Office in dealing with the backlog of applications? What plans can be introduced to avoid recurring delays, given that the enormous delays in recent times have resulted in inconvenience and stress for many applicants?

The Deputy will be aware that the operations of the Passport Office were severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, as were many other government services. Emergency passport services were maintained during the pandemic. That required staff to be on site to process and issue passports. As a result of well-implemented safety protocols, 67,000 passport books and cards were issued between January and May of this year.

Since the beginning of the year, the passport service has issued almost 450,000 passports and passport cards. More than 4,500 FBR applications have been processed in cases of exceptional urgency. The customer service hub team has had contacts with more than 80,000 customers via webchat and phone.

The passport service is currently experiencing high demand for first-time passports. Of the 130,000 applications currently on hand, 60% are first-time applications. To protect the integrity of the passport system, such applications require careful processing to validate the identity of the applicant and his or her entitlement to Irish citizenship for the first time. Additionally, in the case of children, consent of all guardians must be validated.

In line with our continued scaling up of services, the Passport Office on Mount Street resumed its urgent appointment service for renewal of passports on Monday, 27 September 2021. This service is available to people who unexpectedly require their passport to be renewed at short notice and opt for this fee-based service to do so. Currently, 99% of the passport service staff involved in customer service and the production of passports are working on site. When I visited the Passport Office recently, I saw at first-hand the high quality of service our passport staff provide to Irish citizens.

My Department is working closely with the Public Appointments Service to recruit temporary clerical officers to support expanded passport service operations in the coming months. We expect and are planning for a dramatic increase in the number of passports we will need to deliver next year. The previous high involved approximately 1 million passports in a year. We expect that figure could be 50% higher next year because of the lag period as a consequence of Covid.

Now that society is gradually returning to some normality, including in respect of international travel, it is vital that the backlog is cleared as quickly as possible. It is important that supports and systems are put in place to avoid a repeat of long delays, particularly in the run-up to Christmas, when thousands of people are expected to travel home, probably for the first time in two years, to be reunited with family and friends. Now is the time to plan ahead and make the necessary resources available to the Passport Office.

I welcome the fact that the urgent appointment service for the renewal of passports recommenced last Monday. Although it is good news for the public, it is to be hoped it will also bring some relief to the staff of the Passport Office as it will allow for a more structured working day. How will the urgent appointments service operate? What criteria must be met for an application to be deemed urgent? How many urgent passport applications will be catered for daily? What will the waiting period be for receipt of such passports?

The passport service is currently working closely with the human resources division of the Department and the Public Appointments Service on an ongoing basis to recruit additional staff to meet the current and forecast demands for passports. Additional staff have been assigned to the Passport Office sites on Mount Street and in Tallaght, with plans to assign additional staffing to the Passport Office locations in Balbriggan and Cork in the coming weeks. The Public Appointments Service has assigned temporary clerical officers who will be available to take up duty quickly once security and pre-employment processes are completed. Additional officers will be recruited in the coming weeks, in line with the full relaxation of social distancing measures.

The urgent appointments service is available to people who need to renew their passports urgently.

To avail of the urgent appointments service for passport renewal, applicants must first book an appointment to attend the public office in Mount Street, Dublin 2. This is a limited service and slots are allocated by appointment on a first come, first served basis. Applicants can book an appointment through the Department of Foreign Affairs website, www.dfa.ie/passports.

I welcome the fact that priority is being given to clearing up the backlog. A great deal of frustration has built up over a period of time due to people's inability to make contact or get information on the progress of their applications. The Passport Office was under extreme pressure and it has done a fantastic job in the circumstances that have prevailed, but customer service must be improved. It needs a human touch. I heard reports from people who simply could not contact the office or get information on the progress of their applications. Delays are excusable, but lack of information and lack of contact with the applicants is inexcusable and should be addressed. Generally, progress has been made on passports and I welcome the Minister's statement today. However, people are entitled to expect a quality, reliable service within a reasonable timescale. I hope this can be achieved with the measures the Minister is taking at present and with the increase in staff.

The Deputy is correct that people are right to expect a quality service within a reasonable timescale and to expect to be able to get updates and information when they need them. There is a great deal of information online. There is also, effectively, a call centre which is working to update people on passports. I mentioned earlier that over 80,000 people have been in contact with the passport service this year. My job is to ensure that we resource those services. We are planning for a significant increase in demand for passports next year as many people will not have updated or checked their passports because they have not been able to travel for the last 18 months or so. As a result, we expect that there will be a significant and dramatic increase in the need for passport renewals next year. We are planning for that in terms of extra staff and improved systems.

International Agreements

Joan Collins

Question:

5. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the escalations developing in the Pacific between the US, the UK, Australia and China; and if he will seek an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the increased militarisation in the area. [47328/21]

I am seeking the Minister's views on the developing escalation in the Pacific between the US, the UK, Australia and China. Will he seek an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the increased militarisation in the area? As he will see from my question, I am raising the recent development of a new military alliance between the US, UK and Australia. This agreement means a transfer of technology from the US and UK to allow Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines and will also involve an increase in the number of US military personnel in Australia.

Ireland follows developments in the Pacific closely, including the recent trilateral security deal known as AUKUS. I am also aware of comments made by other regional actors about the deal. The AUKUS announcement identified that the first major initiative will be to develop a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia. It will be important to ensure that no proliferation risk or unhelpful precedents arise from the agreement. I welcome the statement by the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mr. Grossi, that the agency will engage with the three countries concerned in line with its statutory mandate and in accordance with their respective safeguards agreements with the agency.

Stability in the Pacific is important for Ireland from many perspectives, including global trade flows. Ireland is committed to promoting a multilateral, rules-based approach to engagement in the region, anchored in international law. The European Union adopted Council conclusions for co-operation across a broad range of areas in the Indo-Pacific at the Foreign Affairs Council in April, and a joint communication detailing potential regional engagement was issued in September. Ireland contributed to this multifaceted strategy and we welcome it as an opportunity to contribute to the region’s stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development. The strategy, and the EU’s renewed commitment to the region, is inclusive of all partners wishing to co-operate with the EU.

Throughout our term as an elected member of the Security Council, Ireland has been working with all countries and all members to ensure that the council acts effectively. The permanent members of the Security Council have a critical influence in addressing threats to global security, good governance and human rights, and Ireland works with them and with the elected members with a view to achieving positive outcomes from council discussions. Over the next 15 months of Ireland’s Security Council membership, we will continue to work openly and constructively with all partners as a solution-oriented member of the council.

This AUKUS agreement represents an increase in the military build-up in the area which will undoubtedly meet with a response from China. Despite claims to the contrary by the US and China, this is an escalation towards a new cold war, reminiscent of that between the US and the former Soviet Union. As Ireland now holds the presidency of the Security Council, will the Minister and the Government commit, as a matter of urgency, to seeking a meeting of the Security Council to discuss these issues? I note that the multilateral, rules-based approach was discussed in April. I believe this situation should be discussed in this Chamber. In the newspapers at the weekend, a journalist called Vincent Boland said:

The final message from AUKUS, however, is the most dismaying because it reminds us that the world is engaged in a new arms race. China, the US and Britain are already armed to the teeth and Australia will join them soon. One would think they were preparing for war. As history demonstrates, the more nations prepare for war, the more likely they are to get one.

In truth, I do not believe we could succeed, even if we tried, in getting a specific emergency Security Council meeting on this issue. I do not believe the permanent member states would accept that and one must get consensus before one can get an emergency meeting on anything. It is important to be upfront about that.

This is an issue Ireland raised at the start of this week when it chaired a meeting to recognise the 25th anniversary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. One of the key calling cards for Ireland in the UN is in the area of disarmament and non-proliferation. We continue to speak out in that area and we have raised concerns about the direction of travel with regard to this security pact. We will continue to speak out to ensure that this does not become, as the Deputy fears, the start of a new arms race.

I accept the Minister's point that the member states of the UN Security Council have to agree, but we have to start applying pressure. Where are the alliances Ireland is making with other countries to apply pressure to discuss this? China now has a territorial claim on approximately 90% of the South China Sea. This is contested by other countries in the region. There is an international ruling which states that at least 50% of it is international waters. China is building islands on rocks and reefs which are, in fact, military bases. A serious escalation is developing and the world has to look and see how it can address it, build alliances to try to cut across what is happening and intervene and try to bring a resolution to what is developing over the next period of time. We should discuss it in the Dáil as well.

I welcome the question on this and I would be happy to have a more detailed discussion, if that is what Members would like. Ireland has actively contributed to the development of the EU's new Indo-Pacific strategy, which was announced on the same day that this pact was announced. That is a source of real frustration for the EU because we did not even know that this pact was going to be announced in the first place. One EU member state, France, has been impacted significantly by this in respect of what it had thought was a contract and agreement with Australia to provide up to a dozen submarines over 30 years. The agreement was worth $40 billion or $50 billion, and they were not nuclear-powered submarines. The EU's new Indo-Pacific strategy seeks to reinforce the EU's role as a co-operative partner in the region.

Ireland shares the EU's concern at developments which increasingly threaten the stability and security of that region.