Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

EU Funding

John Brady

Question:

1. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the decision by the European Union to grant €100 million in funding to Cyprus for the construction of the Euro-Asia interconnector given that this project will make Europe complicit in the Israeli annexation of occupied Palestinian territories; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56492/21]

What is the Minister's view on the decision by the EU to grant €100 million in funding for a project, the Euro-Asia interconnector project, which will essentially make Europe complicit in the Israeli annexation of occupied Palestinian territories? What is the rationale for it and why we are being complicit in the annexation of Palestinian territories?

As part of its climate and transition agenda, the EU is engaged in improving resilience and energy security across the EU, including in Ireland, through investment in interconnection.

Cyprus currently has no interconnection for energy and, as such, it is entirely reliant on precarious domestic supply. Interconnection is, therefore, vital to energy security in Cyprus.

There are two European interconnection projects currently involving Cyprus. One is the Euro-Asia interconnector, which will run from Israel through Cyprus to Greece, and the other is the Euro-Africa interconnector, running from Egypt through Cyprus to Greece. Both are currently in the surveying stage. The Euro-Asia interconnector is regarded as a project of common interest to the EU, which has received grants under the Connecting Europe facility.

This project will end the energy isolation of Cyprus and connect it to the European continental electricity network. It will also contribute to the integration of renewable electricity.

The involvement of Israel in this electricity interconnection project does not have any direct implications for the occupied Palestinian territory since Israel does not use any resources from the occupied Palestinian territory for electricity generation.

The Deputy will be aware of Ireland and the EU’s position on the Middle East peace process; we are committed to a negotiated two-state solution. In line with UN Security Council Resolution 2334, Ireland and the EU distinguish, in other relevant dealings, between the territory of the state of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.

The EU commitment to this project serves the purpose of essentially entrenching the EU in the complicity of Israel's campaign of annexation of Palestinian territories. The Minister will be aware that the Palestinian Authority recently deposited its exclusive economic zone, EEZ, with the UN, overlapping with major gas fields Israel is currently exploiting.

He will also be well aware that the Dáil has previously set out its position on the matter of Israel's illegal annexation policy. It is illegal.

Israel has also started exploration in disputed waters off Lebanon as well. What the Minister said is factually incorrect. They are actively plundering Palestinian resources. The EU is complicit, as is Ireland, which goes against our stated position in respect of the illegal actions of Israel.

I do not accept that. What we are doing here is trying to ensure that a member state, that is, Cyprus, is not isolated in terms of electricity interconnection. This project has been assessed by the Commission. The Commission, as Ireland does, makes a distinction in policy between the EU and Israel between occupied Palestinian territory and Israel proper.

This is about an interconnection project that connects an EU member state from an energy security perspective. That makes sense, from an EU collective perspective, because it links in Greece as well. That is the rationale and thinking behind it.

Just as the EU is partly funding our own interconnection with France, this is also a project about providing energy security to a country, Cyprus, that currently does not have it.

It is all well and good to ensure that a member state has energy supply and is not isolated but this project has sufficiently been compromised to force the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, UNICEF, to distance itself from it.

The Minister did not touch on the fact that the Palestinian Authority has recently deposited its EEZ with the UN and he might touch on that in this response. The Palestinians clearly stated that this is within their EEZ. It is one matter coming in here, standing up and making declarations that Israel has breached international law but our actions, on the other hand, more importantly, show that we are complicit in the plunder, not only of Palestinian land but also their natural resources.

We need to take a stand. What the Minister stated here is meaningless and I ask him again to touch on the specific areas that I made reference to.

I make statements all the time on Israel's responsibility in occupied Palestinian territory. I have been fairly consistent on that, both at home and internationally.

This project has been assessed by the European Commission. It is about interconnection of an EU member state with Greece, and Israel.

I am aware that the Palestinian Authority has laid legal claim to natural resources off the coast of Gaza. That is true and that is something that will need to be resolved over time. However, this is an issue around interconnection and energy security. This is primarily about the energy security of an EU member state, Cyprus.

The Deputy is trying to turn it into an Israeli issue and I respect his right to do that. This is a project that has been approved by the European Commission and Ireland should not oppose it.

Humanitarian Access

Brendan Howlin

Question:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the action taken to address the humanitarian crisis developing on the Belarus-Poland and Belarus-Lithuania borders in particular to bring relief to the thousands of migrants stuck in makeshift camps on the borders of the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56502/21]

Will the Minister set out the action he and his EU colleagues have taken to date, and, more importantly, will take, to address the growing humanitarian crisis on the border of the EU and Belarus where, as everybody will be aware, thousands of men, women and children are trapped in dreadful conditions?

Ireland condemns the regime of Alexander Lukashenko for its exploitation of migrants for political purposes.

At the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday, EU foreign ministers discussed the escalation in the crisis along the EU's borders with Belarus. We agreed to broaden the listings criteria for sanctions on the Belarusian regime.

This broader listing will target individuals and entities organising or contributing to activities by the Lukashenko regime that facilitate illegal crossing of the EU's external borders.

Ireland also supports EU outreach to countries of origin to stem the flow of migrants to Belarus, by communicating the considerable risks and dangers associated with facilitating irregular migration.

I am hopeful that in the coming weeks the EU's continuing engagement will result in a diminishing flow of migrants to Belarus, which is an organised flow by the Belarusian regime.

While the current humanitarian crisis has been orchestrated by the Belarusian regime, it is important that member states respect and uphold the right to international protection in line with obligations under the Geneva Conventions. Ireland has expressed its support for the deployment of experts from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, to the border region. I also believe that international organisations, aid workers and independent monitors and journalists should be allowed to access both sides of the border.

Ireland has repeatedly demonstrated our solidarity with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, and with those trapped at the border. Just three weeks ago, the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, visited the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, accompanied by members of the Lithuanian Government. As part of that visit, he viewed some migrant camps that have been established by the Lithuanian Government, met with the Lithuanian border guards and also with the Lithuanian Red Cross, which, this year, has received a contribution of €100,000 from Irish Aid to help provide relief to the migrants.

What is happening here is orchestrated. Migrants in a vulnerable position are being deliberately shipped and bused to the borders of the EU in an extremely cynical and dangerous way. People have lost their lives. The response from the EU has to be twofold.

I thank the Minister for his reply. It is well and good to denounce the dreadful Lukashenko regime in Belarus. He is clearly a tyrant with no democratic legitimacy, but the problem is for the thousands of people who are now, as one migrant described, a football being kicked between Lukashenko and the border protectors of the EU.

The Minister is right to increase the pressure and sanctions against the Belarus regime and Lukashenko, in particular. I understand the outreach to countries of origin to diminish the flow, including ensuring that airlines are not used. However, for the thousands of people who are right now caught in that sandwich, who are facing hunger and the lack of any protection in a north European winter, what specifically is the policy of the EU towards them now?

We should not describe what is happening now as a situation where migrants are being pushed between Belarus and European borders. The EU is not pushing anybody nor are member states. They are trying to protect their borders from uncontrolled migration. There were 18,000 migrants on the border with Poland at the start of the week. It looks as though some may have been shipped elsewhere now. We do not know where. Human rights organisations are not being allowed to access migrants on the Belarusian side of the border.

I accept that the EU, of course, has a responsibility to ensure the welfare of migrants is protected but the migrants are not on the EU side of the border fence; they are on the Belarusian side and they are being brought there and organised by people in a Belarusian military uniform. We have seen the videos of that. My view, as I have said at the Foreign Affairs Council, is that we should involve UN organisations, and insist on access to meet, interview and support migrants on the Belarusian side of the border so that we can give them the supports that they need.

It is perfectly understandable. The EU did not bring those people there. However it is disingenuous for the Minister to say that they are on the Belarusian side. They are standing looking at coils of barbed wire, yards away from the European Union. The Union cannot say that they are not ours and we have no responsibility there.

The European Union is not saying that.

Well, that is the point that the Minister made. He said they are not being pushed between two.

No, the Deputy said that they were being treated like a football, kicked back and forth.

I quoted one of the Iraqi migrants. He said that he felt like a football. His opinion is more valid than the Minister's or mine in how he feels in that condition. Of course the Lukashenko regime has to be challenged on every level. However, I have seen pictures of the Polish authorities denying access to its border to do a humanitarian assessment. What specifically is the intention of the EU in respect of these people? Is it to allow them some form of processing as migrants or is it simply the expectation that they will all be sent back to Iraq from whence they came?

It is very difficult to get a handle on the numbers as they change all the time. The Belarusian side is effectively trying to weaponise incredibly vulnerable people, promising them entry to the EU, bringing them from countries such as Syria and Iraq and bussing them to the border. Then those unfortunate migrants find that they are trapped. That is what is happening. We need to first, try to stop it, otherwise we will have 18,000 more next week. Let us imagine if we had 18,000 people waiting to come into Ireland with no plan or management entity to deal with them.

What is the intention about the people who are there?

The EU's responsibility is to try to balance the solidarity that we have with member states that are under huge pressure with its international obligations to the welfare of migrants. What that means is trying to get access for international organisations, which can assist and support migrants. That is why we have supported the Lithuanian Red Cross financially to try to provide welfare supports to migrants in vulnerable situations and will continue to do that. However, as long as people are being cynically bussed across the border for political reasons, it is difficult to do that.

Foreign Birth Registration

John Brady

Question:

3. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs when the foreign birth registration system will be reopened; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56751/21]

What is the position on foreign birth registrations? Thankfully, the process reopened on Monday last. There are more than 31,000 applications in the system. How does the Minister plan to deal with the massive backlog that has built up over the past two years?

I thank the Deputy for giving me an opportunity to outline that foreign birth registration is open again. It has always been open for emergency cases but it has reopened again for mainstream applications. I am pleased to inform him that as of Monday, 15 November, the processing of foreign birth registration, FBR, has resumed and will be gradually scaled up in line with the recruitment of additional resources. Foreign birth registration applications are citizenship applications and, as in all jurisdictions, involves a complex and lengthy process.

My Department is fully committed to allocating additional resources over the coming period to assist with the processing of the high volume of new applications anticipated and the 32,000 applications currently on hand. This will be a major challenge, but one that we are committed to achieving. The FBR teams have worked since the pandemic began to consider all urgent requests to expedite applications on a case-by-case basis, for example applications from expectant parents, or stateless persons. More than 5,000 emergency applications have been processed in 2021.

My Department is determined to ensure that the Passport Service is sufficiently resourced to respond to current and anticipated unprecedented demand for passports and FBRs next year. My Department is actively working with the Public Appointments Service to recruit and assign additional permanent and temporary staff in the coming weeks. By the end of January 2022, I am advised that this recruitment drive will bring total staff numbers to 920, which is the highest staffing level ever and effectively double the number of staff in the Passport Service. The starting point was half that.

I want to express appreciation for the work of the FBR teams in assisting in the provision of urgent passport and contact tracing services during the pandemic. So far this year, they have operated both an urgent FBR service and assisted in the delivery of more than 500,000 passports as part of our expanded essential passport service operation.

I welcome again that FBR has reopened. Along with others, I have repeatedly asked for the process to reopen given the frustration experienced by many people who want to become Irish citizens.

It is their right to do that given they meet the correct criteria. There is massive frustration. Prior to the lockdown the waiting time was approximately 18 months. The Minister has not outlined how exactly he is going to deal with that. We are now being told it could take up to two years to process those applications. There are 30,000 of them within the system. Many of the people who put in their applications prior to the service being curtailed have not had any correspondence or communication from the office. Must they wait another two years on top of the two years that have been lost? The Minister might outline how exactly that is going to be dealt with.

I apologise to the Deputy, but I do not think I have given the two-year figure. It is new to me. Foreign birth registration applications are citizenship applications and, as in all jurisdictions, involve a complex and lengthy process. The passport service has a statutory responsibility to protect the integrity of this special citizenship process. Accordingly, it must assure very careful analysis takes place across its system to verify both the identity of the applicant and his or her entitlement to be an Irish citizen. Experienced staff of the passport service provide systematic, detailed and rigorous checks of all FBR applications.

What has effectively happened here is we redeployed staff to essential services during the pandemic. We continued to deliver an FBR system for urgent cases that needed to have decisions quickly. We are now putting those staff back into assessing the mainstream FBR system and we are effectively doubling the staffing of the Passport Office to get on top of that. That is essentially what is happening now.

I thank the Minister for that. I too acknowledge the work of the Passport Office and thank the staff who process the foreign birth registrations but there is significant frustration. Over the past number of months I have repeatedly asked him when the process was going to recommence.

Yes, but he has not given the rationale for why it has taken that long to reopen when the rest of society has reopened over the past number of months. Why has it taken it that long to reopen that essential service? It was reported on Monday from the Minister's office that it was going to take two years to process these applications. I welcome the commitment to increase staffing in the Passport Office to 920. That must be welcomed. However, he has not outlined how many of them are going to work on the FBR process specifically. He might touch on that.

To clarify, the essential service was never stopped. Foreign birth registration for essential cases was always maintained. Of course there is frustration for the 32,000 cases on hand and parents, primarily, will want Irish passports for their children who are entitled to them. However, we had to make a judgment to prioritise how we used staff for essential services during the pandemic and we did that. We now have a more normal system back up and running since Monday. We are going to need more human resources to get on top of the number of cases on hand and we are recruiting as we speak. We are effectively going to double the numbers in the Passport Office between now and the start of February. We will get on top of the cases on hand as well as the significant number of applications we expect next year. We think we could have between 1.3 million and 1.7 million passport applications next year, which is going to be a significant demand on the system.

Overseas Development Aid

Gary Gannon

Question:

4. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will reaffirm the commitment to reaching a spend of 0.7% of GNI on official development assistance by 2030; the status of a roadmap to achieve this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56772/21]

I ask the Minister to reaffirm our commitment to reaching 0.7% of GNI on our official development assistance by 2030. Is there a road map to achieve this? I ask he make a statement on the matter.

I thank the Deputy. I am very glad to have an opportunity to clarify this because this question has not been asked for a while. I affirm the Government's commitment to meeting the target of 0.7% of GNI to be allocated to overseas development aid, ODA, by 2030.

In budget 2022, €1.044 billion was allocated to ODA. This is the highest-ever amount allocated by any Government. I expect that this figure will correspond to 0.32% of GNI for 2022 given the strong economic recovery we are experiencing. The need to continue to increase Ireland's allocation to ODA in GNI percentage terms must be balanced against the need to responsibly manage the large cash increases required. The increase in ODA allocated from 2021 to 2022, for example, was €176 million extra, or 20.3% of overall ODA. This is a large increase in real terms in one year.

My Department is currently reviewing and building systems that will enable our development programme to grow further, including as a proportion of GNI, in a sustainable and responsible way. This includes working in co-ordination with the many other Departments and bodies spending official development assistance. My Department also continues to work with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and other Departments through the interdepartmental committee on international development, on how a growing ODA allocation can be managed most effectively across government. This, along with other work to further build systems and staff capacity, will inform when and whether it would be possible and appropriate to provide a roadmap to 0.7% for 2030.

We are committed to this but we tried to put a roadmap in place a number of years ago and it looked completely out of date within a year because of the pressures the economy came under. We are trying to build capacity to ensure we can spend a lot of extra money every year before we agree to an actual financial roadmap to 2030.

I thank the Minister for his answer. There is a great deal of merit in what we are already doing with ODA. Next year's figure of 0.32% of our GNI is very welcome. We know how well that money is going to spent and how far it will go. However, I return to the end of his reply where he referred to the appropriateness of providing a roadmap. It is 51 years since wealthy countries committed 0.7% of GNI to ODA and in the years since that commitment we have, I think, fallen €24 trillion behind that in global terms. Thus, in the absence of a roadmap, some of these commitments are just statements. I do not doubt for a second the commitment but we need a roadmap. That roadmap could say that if the global economy is on this level, here is how we will get there and if things subside a little more, then here is how we will get there in that eventuality. However, we need to lay out a pathway to these commitments. We leave ourselves a little at risk of talking about tokenistic commitments in the absence of a clear route to get there. That is what Dóchas and many other NGOs have been asking for.

That is not an unreasonable ask. What we are doing is not tokenistic. An additional €174 million, which is a 20% increase in ODA in one year, is a pretty significant allocation. The nature of that allocation has changed somewhat. Other Departments are taking up a higher percentage, for example, than they would have in the past. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, anticipates spending close to €120 million more on asylum and refugee costs in Ireland. That is part of our overall ODA contribution because the costs for asylum seekers and refugees in their first 12 months in the country is considered ODA funding. As such, we are working across Departments. We have also agreed in the programme for Government to double climate finance by 2025 up to approximately €225 million. That is also an increasing percentage of the overall ODA.

I fully accept that but while our contributions are increasing so too is the need, and drastically. The three "Cs" of Covid-19, climate change and conflict all make the need for and urgency of significant increases in ODA by us and other wealthy nations all the more vitally important. It is welcome we have reaffirmed our commitment and have done consistently. However, we need to demonstrate how we will get there.

The not unreasonable call from organisations such as Dóchas, which they have been making for decades now, to provide pathways and lay them out clearly is one we should be open to. It does not take much to say how we will meet these commitments under certain eventualities. It is important to have a target of 0.7% by 2030, but so is laying out how we will get there.

I understand that request. I will tell the Deputy of my experience. After we made the commitment, I was the Minister who repeated it because it had notionally been a Government objective for many years. I recall when the then Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Liz O'Donnell, also made that commitment and fought at budget time to make sure there was progress towards it and so on. We would not have had €174 million extra in the budget just passed were it not for our commitment to 0.7% by 2030. I would not have had the political credibility to be able to do that. That has been the basis of what we have been trying to do over the past number of years. Even when we had Brexit budgets and Covid budgets that were significantly impacted by external factors, we still managed to quite significantly increase our ODA budget each year over the past number of years because of that commitment, which has been strongly welcomed by Dóchas. When we made this commitment, I was talking about between €120 million and €140 million extra each year between now and 2030 to get to where we need to be. This year it was higher than that and last year it was less. It will not be a linear line but, certainly, the objective needs to remain.

Foreign Conflicts

John Brady

Question:

5. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the efforts that are being made at EU level and the United Nations Security Council to bring an end to the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia particularly given the risk of famine; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56752/21]

What efforts are being taken at EU and Security Council levels to bring an end to the conflict in Ethiopia, especially in the Tigray region? What measures are being taken to ensure that humanitarian access is being delivered, unimpeded, to the estimated 400,000 people in the region who are facing crisis and famine conditions?

I am gravely concerned by the worsening situation in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia, including the recent escalation in military operations and declarations of a state of emergency, which are magnifying the ongoing humanitarian crisis. These developments are deeply worrying for the people of Ethiopia and raise questions regarding the stability of the Horn of Africa region as a whole.

Through our bilateral engagements, as well as in the EU and at the UN Security Council, Ireland continues to advocate for urgent and unimpeded humanitarian access, a negotiated ceasefire and political dialogue aimed at resolving the conflict. Accountability for violations of international law committed by all parties, including as described in the recent Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission joint report, is essential.

There has been a shocking rise in hate speech, arbitrary arrests and detentions, including of UN staff, and other acts likely to fuel further tension. Human rights, democracy and fundamental freedoms are universal and inalienable values that states must uphold. No individual should be deprived of their liberty without legal authority or without necessary procedural protections. Reason for detention must be provided promptly to those affected, in addition to access to legal counsel and the right to have the lawfulness of the detention reviewed by a court. If not, those detained should be released.

It is clear there can be no military solution to this crisis. I strongly support the efforts of African Union envoy, former Nigerian President Obasanjo, and key regional actors, to mediate a way forward. Ireland has been to the fore of efforts to address the conflict at the Security Council. On 5 November, we secured agreement on the first council statement in six months on the situation, which called for a cessation of hostilities and ceasefire negotiations, alongside respect of international humanitarian law, safe and unhindered humanitarian access, the re-establishment of public services and the scaling up of humanitarian assistance.

I continue to push for a strong and constructive EU response to the crisis. At the Foreign Affairs Council meeting in October, and again earlier this week, I emphasised the need to ensure humanitarian access, to halt the fighting and to incentivise dialogue, including through possible use of restrictive measures, if required. As the government blockade-----

The Minister will get an opportunity to finish. I am keeping an eye on the time.

I share the serious concerns about what is facing people in Ethiopia, especially Tigray. A litany of abuse is being inflicted on the people there, not just by Ethiopian forces but foreign forces, namely, Eritrean. It has resulted in the displacement of millions of Ethiopians and famine conditions directly impacting more than 400,000 people. We have seen the mass arrests of Tigrayan people, including the arrest this week of 16 UN employees. These detainees are being left without food or bedding and have been subjected to mistreatment by Ethiopian forces.

The Minister will be aware that the US recently imposed sanctions on the Eritrean military for its involvement in the region. What measures is the EU currently considering to impose similar sanctions, or other measures, on foreign forces directly implicated in this conflict?

I have said that I support the US decision to impose target sanctions on individuals. I raised this issue at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting when we discussed Ethiopia on Monday. The EU does not have a collective position on that yet, but is examining its options. The EU has significant influence in Ethiopia. It spends an enormous amount there, with the Ethiopian Government, and is looking at using its influence in every way it can to, first, bring about a ceasefire, a political negotiation and, perhaps most important, humanitarian access for people who need it. Famine-like conditions are now being reported in Tigray for more than 6.5 million people in northern Ethiopia who are in need of humanitarian assistance. We have provided approximately €4.5 million in humanitarian aid for refugees in Tigray and the Amhara region and for neighbouring Sudan.

Ireland will continue to advocate in this space. In fact, I was due to travel to Addis Ababa the week after next. I am not sure whether that travel will be facilitated now, but Ireland is very much in the middle of this discussion at UN and EU level.

Given our strong involvement in the Tigray region and Ethiopia over many decades, we have a key role in trying to bring about a lasting and peaceful solution in the region. What relationship does Ireland currently have with the Ethiopian authorities? In March, there was an issue regarding the Ethiopian ambassador to Ireland being recalled. It was reported in September that Ethiopia was going to close its embassy in Ireland. Has that happened? What relationship is there currently with the Ethiopian Government and its representatives in Ireland? It is quite concerning, if those reports have translated into reality on the ground. When the Ethiopian ambassador to Ireland was withdrawn in March, my view was that it was a direct result of our positive engagement, it has to be said, at Security Council level in trying to get a statement, which I appreciate was very difficult even at that stage. If the Ethiopian authorities have escalated matters to a stage where they are threatening to close, or have closed, their embassy in Ireland, that is deeply concerning.

As we have been very vocal on this issue, that has created some tension, although I had a long and constructive, if direct, meeting with Ethiopia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs in New York in September. Ireland has made it its business on the Security Council to raise concern and to shine a spotlight on this issue. We are very concerned about the future of Ethiopia. It is possible that Ethiopia, a country of 115 million people, could fracture causing enormous instability in the Horn of Africa, not least to its closest neighbours. We want stability. We do not want a fracturing of politics, regions and peoples in Ethiopia.

We want the country to stay together. We believe there is no military solution to the current conflict, so we want dialogue. We also demand humanitarian access for people who desperately need it from the international community. That has been blocked by what is effectively a blockade for many months. This is not about taking sides but about calling out breaches of international law and international humanitarian law, and doing what we were elected to the UN Security Council to do for conflicts such as this.