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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 27 Jan 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 1

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

EU Funding

John Brady


1. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the measures that Ireland is prepared to take to reverse the decision by the European Union to halt funding to Palestinian NGOs that are currently being targeted by the Israeli Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3888/22]

Following the designation of six Palestinian NGOs last October by Israel, based on no intelligence or data, as terrorist entities, it has now emerged that the European Commission had suspended prior to that designation funding some of these six NGOs. What actions is the Minister taking in terms of having that funding restored? What actions is he taking to try to counter some of the false narratives being put forward by the Israeli authorities about these NGOs?

This issue has been raised repeatedly in the House since it emerged and I have repeatedly expressed my concern about the designation of six Palestinian NGOs, including organisations in receipt of support from Irish Aid and the EU, as terrorist entities. Ireland is fully committed to funding civil society organisations and human rights defenders in Palestine as a key part of our support for the Palestinian people.

We are working closely with our EU partners on the issue and EU officials have engaged with Israeli authorities with regard to the basis for these designations. I understand the European Commission's consideration of the information provided by the Israeli authorities is ongoing. Irish officials at the permanent representation to the EU are in close contact with the Commission and Ireland’s representative office in Ramallah and embassy in Tel Aviv are actively engaged with the EU and other stakeholders, locally. Past allegations of the misuse of EU funds with regard to certain Palestinian civil society partners have not been substantiated.

I made a statement on 27 October expressing concern at these designations and directly raised this matter with Israeli officials during my visit to the region between 1 November and 5 November. Ireland supported the holding of a meeting of the UN Security Council on 8 November which addressed the NGO designations, as well as settlement announcements. Ireland also highlighted concerns at the designations and their impact at Security Council meetings on 30 November and 21 December and recalled the importance of civil society at the most recent meeting on 19 January.

Ireland funds Al-Haq, as well as Addameer, which are two of the designated organisations. We, in co-operation and consultation with other donors, maintain a high level of oversight of our civil society partners. My Department has robust controls in place to ensure that funds are used or distributed as agreed, in line with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform’s public spending code. Ireland will continue to support Palestinian civil society organisations and human rights defenders and the critical role they play in promoting international law, peace, human rights and democratic values.

I assume the Minister is well aware of Israel's intent in this regard, which is to disrupt the activities of these NGOs that have played a critical role in the monitoring, collection and dissemination of information on the apartheid policies of Israel and have been critical in gathering that intelligence for investigations such as those of the International Criminal Court, which is now looking at some of these issues.

The move by the European Commission to suspend the funding to these organisations is very concerning. Indeed, the Commission launched its own investigation to some of these claims that had been reported by Israel and found absolutely no basis whatsoever in those allegations by Israel, yet the funding has still been suspended. Will the Minister join me in calling on the Commission to reinstate that critical funding to those civil society organisations?

I have no reason to believe that funding to those civil society organisations should be cut or removed. My Department and myself are satisfied that the relationship we have with both Al-Haq and Addameer gives us reassurance that these organisations are doing good work and should be supported in doing so. My understanding from our engagement is that the Commission's consideration of the information provided by the Israeli authorities is ongoing. I have not seen that information, but we will continue to talk to the Commission to understand why it is making those decisions. Ireland is open, of course, to seeing any evidence that may be provided by the Israeli authorities, but, as of yet, I have not seen any evidence to suggest these organisations should be designated as terrorist organisations.

Time and time again, these allegations have been made by Israel. Following investigations and despite requests, including calls I have heard from the Minister in the past in this Chamber, for the Israeli authorities to hand over the information they have, if indeed they have it, the silence is deafening. This confirms my belief there is no information and these are baseless allegations designed to undermine the excellent work these organisations do in exposing and highlighting the illegal actions by Israel. The move by the European Commission to suspend this funding has had wide consequences. Other parliaments and organisations are withholding and suspending funding based on the move by the Commission, which is based on these false allegations by Israel. We need to send out a clear, strong, united message from this House that any attack on civil society organisations and human rights groups doing work to expose apartheid policies in Palestine must be opposed and the funding must be reinstated with immediate effect.

My officials have met with Commission officials in Brussels with regard to the designations and the EU decision to suspend funding. Since this debate began on the back of the announcement that was made by Israeli authorities, of course, we have been open to looking at any evidence that may be provided. However, as of yet, I have seen no evidence to suggest that the organisation we fund or, indeed, the others that have been named should be designated as terrorist organisations. That is my view. Of course, we have to be open to hearing or seeing evidence, if it can be provided, but until we see that evidence and are convinced by it, we will continue to advocate for the funding of these organisations.

Ireland has consistently been a strong voice for human rights defenders and for civil society groups across the world, and we continue to be, including in Palestine. Of course, we have to be open to seeing evidence, if it is there, of wrongdoing but, as I say, I have seen no such evidence. We will continue to interact with the European Commission on this issue.

Foreign Conflicts

Gino Kenny


2. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has discussed the ongoing war and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen with his counterparts across Europe; if consideration has been given to imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4170/22]

My question centres on the ongoing cataclysmic humanitarian situation in Yemen. Has the Minister spoken to his counterparts in the EU and have they considered sanctions against the Saudi Government relating to the ongoing humanitarian crisis?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue.

Yemen is the world's worst humanitarian crisis, driven by seven years of conflict, economic collapse and the breakdown of public institutions and services that has left more than 24 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

Ireland and the EU fully support the efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Mr. Hans Grundberg, whom I have met and spoken to, to bring about a political resolution to the conflict in Yemen. EU member states are in agreement that there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen and all parties should agree to an immediate ceasefire.

In addition to significant diplomatic efforts, the EU has provided nearly €1 billion to Yemen since 2015 in development, crisis response and humanitarian assistance. At a national level, Ireland has contributed in excess of €32 million in humanitarian funding to Yemen since 2015.

As a member of the Security Council, Ireland has engaged extensively in support of the UN's efforts to end the conflict in Yemen. I have held discussions with the UN special envoy for Yemen as well as Major General Michael Beary, who was recently appointed as head of the UN mission to support the Hudaydah Agreement.

I have also engaged extensively with the countries of the region, including the foreign ministers of Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, stressing the need to work urgently towards a resolution of the conflict. In fact, yesterday I spoke to my counterpart in the UAE on this issue.

Sanctions are an important foreign policy tool for the promotion and maintenance of international peace and security. To be effective and impactful, sanctions generally need to be agreed by a large number of countries. For Ireland, this typically means aligning with sanctions regimes agreed at the EU or UN level. There is not currently a consensus among either the EU or the UN Security Council members on the introduction of sanctions against Saudi Arabia.

Ireland will continue to support all efforts to end the terrible conflict in Yemen, including in the context of our position on the UN Security Council and as an EU member state.

This is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. This has left tens of thousands of people dead, including 10,000 children either killed or maimed. Some of the pictures that have consequently come out of Yemen are almost incomprehensible. It is grotesque to watch how a country such as Saudi Arabia, which is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, basically inflict absolute terror on Yemen, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, and that juxtaposition of having one of the wealthiest countries in the world bomb Yemen into the Stone Age. The world looks on because the bombs that are destroying Yemen are American made and American funded. There has to be sanctions. There has to be justice and some sort of accountability regarding Saudi Arabia.

I do not believe that a resolution to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen will be solved by sanctions per se. I think it will be solved by political engagement across the region and at UN level.

Regarding Ireland's position on arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Ireland does not supply military equipment to any of the parties to the conflict in Yemen. Arms exports are a national competence in the EU but all EU member states are subject to the common position on arms exports. Each arms export licence must be assessed against eight criteria, including that the recipient country must respect international humanitarian law, and it is for each state to make this assessment as a national competence.

Having been involved in many discussions with different parties in the region in trying to find a way forward on this issue, including Iran, which I visited last year, I believe that this issue will be resolved through politics and diplomacy rather than sanctions.

The Minister visited Saudi Arabia last summer. Did he speak to his counterpart in regards to not only the human rights violation in Saudi Arabia, but also the situation in Yemen?

Has the Minister spoken to his counterparts in the EU about action against Saudi Arabia? What is going on in Yemen is war crimes, not according to me but according to NGOs and civic bodies, on the basis of the ongoing bombing of civilian areas. If there was ever a need for unity on violence against Yemen, it is in this situation.

Obviously, people are angered by what is going on in Yemen. On 26 March, people from Saudi Arabia and Yemen who live here are holding a day of action against the ongoing war crimes against Yemen.

I am in no doubt as to the horrors of war in Yemen and the humanitarian consequences of ongoing conflict there. When I visited Tehran last year, primarily focused on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA, discussions, I also had a discussion on Yemen and the influence that Iran has on the Houthis in that conflict and certainly made clear our desire for Iran to use its influence on Houthis in the context of that conflict.

I also visited Saudi Arabia and had a long discussion regarding its involvement in the conflict in Yemen as well as, of course, speaking to the previous UN special envoy, Mr. Martin Griffiths. I have met the current EU special envoy as well.

Ireland will remain engaged on this, speaking to all sides. We are also conscious of the recent terrorist attack that happened in UAE as well, linked to conflict in Yemen. This is a regional issue that needs international intervention. Ireland will continue to try to make a constructive contribution towards bringing about a ceasefire.

Human Rights

John Brady


3. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of the review of the national action plan on business and human rights; the details of Ireland’s position in efforts by the United Nations to develop a treaty on business and human rights; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3889/22]

I want to ask the Minister the status of the review of the national action plan on business and human rights. I also want to ask him our position on a UN treaty on the same issue and whether he would be prepared to bring forward binding legislation to ensure that companies are mandatorily obliged to ensure human rights are protected in all of their dealings.

I thank the Deputy. I am glad to have an opportunity to update the House on this issue.

Ireland's National Plan on Business and Human Rights 2017-2020 was launched towards the end of 2017. Ireland was the 19th country in the world to publish such a plan in response to the endorsement of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by the Human Rights Council in 2011.

The implementation of this whole-of-government plan was overseen by an implementation group comprised of representatives of Government, civil society and business. Both the plan itself and the programme for Government committed to a review of implementation. This review was undertaken by my Department in consultation with stakeholders during 2021. A draft report was considered at the special session of the multi-stakeholder implementation group on 31 May. This forum included participation by a member of the UN working group on business and human rights, a business and human rights expert from the Danish Institute for Human Rights, and officials from three EU member state Ministries.

The Government noted the finalised review at its meeting on 3 December 2021. It is published on my Department's website: (2017- 2020).

On the proposed UN treaty on business and human rights, as I have previously stated, Ireland is open to examining options for progress on a legally binding instrument. As the Deputy will be aware, the EU holds many of the competences in this policy area. Accordingly, Ireland is engaged in the treaty process through the Union. At the October negotiation session, the EU offered to work with the drafters to find a path forward. Ireland supports this constructive approach. I expect a further draft of the proposed instrument to be developed over the next six months or more.

Finally, I remind the House that the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024 contains a suite of commitments on business and human rights. Together with other EU member states, Ireland is supporting and shaping the implementation of these commitments.

I welcome the updated national action plan. I am sure the Minister will agree Irish companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, workers' rights and environmental standards wherever they operate. Unfortunately, however, this is currently done on a voluntary basis and that is simply not acceptable. If we are serious about respecting human rights, that should be mandatory. There are many delays in respect of the UN treaty, which is unhelpful. We are going into the seventh round of talks and there is considerable foot-dragging in that regard. We can follow other countries such as France, which in 2017 brought forward legislation, or Germany or Norway, which also brought forward binding legislation to ensure businesses would respect human rights. That is a track we must follow.

As the Deputy will be aware, the European Commission is developing a legislative initiative on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence. The detail of this sustainable corporate governance proposal is expected in the near future. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is following this file closely in both Brussels and Dublin and, while my Department has no direct role in the transposition of any directive of this nature, we stand ready to assist colleagues in that Department in any way we can. We are trying to work within an EU system that is in development to ensure what the Deputy is seeking, namely, to make adherence to human rights standards and sustainability standards mandatory as part of corporate governance. That is something we can develop collectively as the EU. The European Commission is giving good leadership on that issue and we certainly support that.

I agree, although I do not think we should be bound by that. We can strengthen whatever comes from the EU and that work needs to start now. For far too long, human rights have been impacted negatively by Irish companies such as the ESB, which imported coal for decades from the Cerrajón mine in Colombia to create electricity in this State while indigenous people's rights were trampled on. Similarly, Airbnb operates in occupied Palestinian territories, and because there is no mandatory binding legislation here, they were allowed to do that.

The facts speak volumes; a voluntary treaty or system simply does not work. If we are serious about human rights, this needs to be done on a mandatory basis. I welcome some of the work going on within the EU but it should not tie us down. We can supersede that and go further, in the same way as Germany, Norway and France.

As I said earlier, the EU holds the competences for many of the issues covered by the proposed legally binding instrument, which is being developed in an open-ended intergovernmental working group on transitional corporations and human rights. We have made clear in Brussels and Geneva that Ireland favours constructive engagement in the treaty negotiations. During the most recent negotiation session in Geneva, the EU offered to assist the chairperson and rapporteur of the working group to explore ideas for a consensus-based, legally binding instrument. As the EU made clear in the negotiations in Geneva, if any proposed treaty is to be effective, it will need to attract wide, cross-regional support. This is essential for the proposed legally binding instrument to ensure it will be effectively implemented in a way that protects victims of business-related human rights violations and creates a more global level playing field. We are in the middle of that discussion and I hope it can produce positive results.

Northern Ireland

Matt Shanahan


4. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on whether the economy in Northern Ireland has been the best performing since the inception of Brexit given its ability to benefit from unhindered access to three markets (details supplied); his further views on whether the economic benefits of the present trade deal to the economy of Northern Ireland have been communicated effectively to persons in Northern Ireland; the specific steps that have been taken by his Department to promote this message to the Northern Irish audience; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3850/22]

The Northern Ireland economy was the best performing in the UK last year because of the benefit of the market there having access to both EU and UK customers. What specific steps are the Minister and his Department taking to promote and communicate this message to the Northern community?

I thank the Deputy for the question. It concerns a topic that should get much more focus than it does. Many questions focus on problems with the implementation of the protocol, and there are some, but of course there is also great benefit for Northern Ireland in getting uninterrupted access into both the rest of the UK internal market and the huge EU Single Market. That is an extraordinary economic advantage for Northern Ireland, the benefits of which we are starting to see.

The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland was agreed by the EU and the British Government. The result of more than four years of difficult negotiation with compromises on all sides, it is designed to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement, including avoiding a hard land border, to protect vital all-island supply chains and to ensure the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland’s place in it.

The protocol offers real benefits to Northern Ireland. Goods produced in Northern Ireland have access to both the EU’s Single Market of more than 450 million people, the world’s largest and most powerful trading bloc, as well as the rest of the UK internal market of some 65 million people. Nowhere else in the world can make this offer to local and international business. It is an opportunity that can benefit all communities.

The first year of the protocol’s operation has seen historically high levels of investment interest in Northern Ireland and a series of jobs announcements and investment decisions clearly linked to Northern Ireland’s dual market access. However, stability, certainty, and predictability are needed to fully realise these opportunities. The Government continues to engage closely with the business community, political leaders, and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland. The Government and I, along with European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, have consistently highlighted the economic opportunities associated with the protocol as part of this engagement. Recent polling shows a growing recognition throughout Northern Ireland that the protocol presents genuine economic opportunities.

In October 2021, the European Commission presented a comprehensive and generous package of proposals to minimise disruption caused by Brexit for the people of Northern Ireland.

I thank the Minister. He will have another opportunity to conclude his prepared remarks.

I am agreement with the Minister and many others in that I think the Northern Ireland protocol agreement is delivering a significant economic benefit to the North, although I am not sure whether that message is getting through in a political sense. Unfortunately, as we know, political and cultural differences exist there, and that is the reason for that. The engagement of Liz Truss and Maroš Šefčovič has certainly helped in the present discussions, leading to the relaxation of some of the agricultural issues at the Border, which has significantly helped Northern Ireland farmers, in stark contrast to what is happening to farming and agriculture in the wider UK. There is much to be said for where things are, but the Department has a pre-eminent position in respect of driving a message. Some in Northern Ireland politics do not wish it to be heard but we need to do a better job of getting that across.

It is important to put on the Dáil record examples of what is happening.

I will give a number of examples. Last year, Invest Northern Ireland reported that it was dealing with 50 firms interested in setting up in Northern Ireland, and Manufacturing Northern Ireland has noted a similar uptake in investment interest. For example, the Almac group, the global pharmaceutical organisation headquartered in Craigavon, announced the creation of 1,000 new jobs in Northern Ireland. Almac has consistently highlighted its unique, unfettered and flexible access to the UK, Europe and beyond under the protocol, referring to this as “the Almac advantage”. Ardagh Metal Packaging announced plans to build a new state-of-the-art €200 million beverage can plant in Belfast to service the growing needs of customers in Ireland, the UK and Europe. Deli Lites, a Warrenpoint-based food producer, has reportedly won a number of accounts previously serviced by Great Britain competitors and, in October, announced 45 new jobs in its Milltown industrial estate factory as part of a Stg£4.3 million investment. There are real things happening, linked to the protocol and because of the opportunities it provides.

I used to do some work with the enterprise board and INTERREG was a significant programme in terms of trying to develop cross-Border trade. It is interesting, if we look at the Northern economy, that there is a significant number of people up there who are employed by the state and productivity would not reflect the numbers we have down here, although it is improving. The case is that there is great opportunity and potential in the Northern Irish economy under the present trade agreement. That suggests a question as to where Northern Irish politics is going and where those supporting the Brexiteers are going. The issues that Mr. Johnson is having now, I would contend, are probably adding further fears on the possible future triggering of Article 16. I know we are doing everything possible but we need to keep selling the economic message. The shared island message is also very important for people in the North so they know they have a significant future tied to the Republic of Ireland.

Some of the comments by the Prime Minister yesterday were, I think, unhelpful in that regard. The Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, and Maroš Šefcovic are building a good relationship as the two key negotiators on behalf of the UK and the EU in terms of trying to settle some of the outstanding issues on how we implement, with the maximum flexibility possible, the protocol into the future. We certainly will be working with both sides, and I speak to Maroš Šefcovic on a weekly basis. We want to try to find a way forward that can bring the certainty and stability that is needed in Northern Ireland so this extraordinary advantage that the protocol does actually provide can be fully utilised, instead of the protocol remaining a polarising issue in politics in Northern Ireland in the lead-up to elections. We all have an obligation to try to move forward these issues. I think the EU is playing its part in that in terms of offering real flexibility and I hope the UK will be able to respond positively to that in the weeks ahead.

Passport Services

Danny Healy-Rae


5. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if his attention has been drawn to a series of issues (details supplied) in relation to delays in the issuing of first-time and renewal passports; and if the parent consent form will be simplified. [4164/22]

I ask whether the attention of the Minister has been drawn to a series of issues in regard to the delays in the issuing of first-time and renewal passports, and if the parent consent form needs to be simplified. One of the biggest issues is that over 40% of children's passports are sent back as not being complete applications.

I thank the Deputy. I suspect there will be a lot of talk around passports in the weeks ahead as more and more people choose to travel again, and many, of course, have not even thought about travel for the last number of years. We expect a significant increase in passport applications. There are questions coming up that will allow me to address what we are doing in response, which is a dramatic increase in staff numbers in the Passport Office.

Passport Service operations were severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic throughout 2020 and 2021, as were many Government services. Despite necessary public health restrictions, the Passport Service maintained operations, with staff working onsite throughout the pandemic.

The Passport Service has put in place several measures to meet the demand anticipated this year including the following. First, there is the assignment of additional permanent and temporary officers on a continuous basis to the Passport Office. My Department has conducted a major recruitment drive in recent months and I expect that, by the end of January, staffing numbers will be at approximately 777, which is a 70% increase on June of last year. Additional staff will continue to be assigned to the Passport Office throughout February and March. The new Passport Office in Swords is now operational and can accommodate 140 staff. Second, the Passport Service is engaged in intensive training of staff to ensure they have adequate resources to process complex applications. Third, the Passport Service is continually looking at ways to improve processing times. A particular improvement that is currently being rolled out and will be of interest to the Deputy is a change to the document management process that reduces the turnaround time when additional documents need to be submitted by the applicant.

With regard to the simplification of the process, the Passport Service continually works to streamline the application process. Comprehensive information is available on all aspects of the application process on my Department’s website and the Passport Service continually reviews these instructions in order to make them more accessible. In addition, there are over 60 staff on the customer service team dedicated to answering applicants' questions by phone and webchat. This number will increase as additional staff are assigned.

I hear the reply but there are huge issues with people getting their passports on time, especially children's passports, both first-time applications and renewals. The current process still needs to be reviewed as I have been advised recently by the Minister's office that more than 40% of all children's passport applications are deemed to be incomplete. The problem is that the extra or missing information is not sought until too near the date when the application was supposed to be granted. That seems to be where the problem is. The applications should be looked at from the start, when they are submitted, and the information should be asked for then. There is something wrong. The children's application part needs to be streamlined. When we hear 40% of applications are not complete, there is something wrong.

Some 99% of online child renewal applications are issued within 15 working days, and it is important to say that.

However, on the issue raised by the Deputy, first-time applications take a lot longer and I urge parents of children who have never had a passport to apply now online if they are travelling this year.

We are, of course, looking to bring down the turnaround times for first-time applicants, as well as for renewals, and we are putting a lot of extra staff and resources into that. The Passport Service reports that approximately 40% of first-time child applications are incomplete. However, our records show that this is not due to issues with consent forms, which some people have raised a concern around. In fact, 77% of all incomplete child applications occur when parents have not submitted any documentation to the Passport Service. In these cases, parents apply online for their child's passport and can sometimes take weeks or even months to submit the required supporting documentation, such as a witness consent form, and the child's identity documents, such as their birth certificate. We will be putting more resources into this to try to improve delivery times.

The Minister is right. As we are talking here today, there is a backlog of 113,000 applications. Can the Minister imagine that? Something needs to be changed in regard to the parent consent form because that is where most of the difficulty is, and the application is being sent back due to a lack of information or because there is something wrong with that parent consent form.

That needs to be streamlined or something needs to be done to change it in such a way that it will be more effective. One poor man applied to renew his passport before Christmas. His children bought him a ticket. He had not travelled for more than ten years. That is deemed to be a new application. I cannot understand why it should be. When he had a passport before, what is the difference between nine and 11 years? I ask the Minister to address that issue too.

The Minister to respond.

Why should it be treated as a new application because it has been 11 years?

We are way over time.

It would have been just a renewal if it had been nine years.

As the Deputy would expect, the Passport Service is currently experiencing a high level of demand for first-time passports and renewals. We will probably do 100,000 this month. This year, we could end up doing 1.7 million passports. We have never reached 1 million before, even at the height of travel before Covid. That is the extent of the demand increase we are expecting. By the end of March, we will probably have 900 people working in the Passport Service, which is just under double what we had last summer. We are putting substantial resources into responding to this demand. To put it into context, out of a total of 113,000 applications currently with the Passport Service, 73,000 are for first-time applications. Some 32,000 of these are incomplete applications where the applicant has either not sent in any documentation after applying online or additional documentation has been requested. We need to make sure the application process works, that the turnaround times at the Department happen more efficiently and that people who are making applications fully understand what they need to do.