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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 27 Jan 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 1

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

European Union

Seán Haughey

Question:

6. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the strategic compass proposal brought forward by the European Commission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3709/22]

The European Commission has brought forward proposals for the so-called strategic compass for security and co-operation in Europe. The decisions in this regard are due to be taken at the March European Council meeting. What is the Irish approach to the strategic compass as negotiations on it continue?

The strategic compass is an exercise intended to provide enhanced political and strategic direction for the European Union’s security and defence policy for the next five to ten years. Once agreed by member states, this policy document will serve not only to outline the EU’s approach to the Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, but also to reflect the increasingly complex security landscape faced by the EU, and believe me, it is complex. Ireland has always engaged constructively in the development of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, guided by our traditional policy of military neutrality and our contribution to crisis management and peacekeeping. For this reason, we are playing an active role in work to develop the strategic compass.

I have had the opportunity to discuss the strategic compass with EU foreign and defence ministers on a number of occasions, most recently at our informal meeting in Brest on 13 January. Following further engagement between all 27 member states over the coming months, it is expected the final document will be endorsed at the European Council in March. As it currently stands, the draft document as presented to member states by High Representative Borrell opens with an analysis of the strategic environment and the challenges facing the EU, before outlining proposals in the areas of crisis management, resilience, capability development and the EU's work with key partners.

Ireland welcomes the strategic compass as a means of setting out our shared strategic vision for CSDP and of enhancing the EU's role as a security provider and in contributing to international peace and security. In our view, the strategic compass also offers an important opportunity for the EU to project the core values that underpin our approach to CSDP, including our commitment to effective multilateralism and the rules-based international order. In this regard, the exercise offers an excellent opportunity to strengthen the EU's co-operation with the United Nations, including in the areas of peacekeeping and crisis management.

The strategic compass has been described as a pathway for European security and defence capabilities with the aim of developing a sovereign European strategy, resulting in smarter co-operation. It has the strong backing of the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who stated, when France assumed the Presidency of the European Union, "we must move from a Europe of cooperation within our borders to a Europe that is powerful in the world, fully sovereign, free in its choices and master of its destiny". We know security and defence no longer just involve military conflict and that hybrid warfare is now a real issue. The cyberattack on the HSE brought this matter clearly home to us in Ireland. What is the Minister's understanding of the strategic compass? What role will Ireland play in it, given our tradition of peacekeeping around the world? Will we bring our unique traditions to those negotiations?

Yes. With the strategic compass, member states are working to build a common assessment of the threats and challenges posed to the European Union. In addition, the compass will help the EU to become a stronger security provider at a global level as well as a more responsible and reliable partner that can respond to external crises, work closely with the United Nations and other partners, and protect the Union and its citizens. The challenge is to try to bring everybody's concerns and ambitions together in one document that all 27 countries of the European Union can support. They bring different perspectives to this discussion. We bring the perspective of a country that is militarily neutral and wants to focus on peacekeeping and peace support and on co-operation and partnership with the United Nations. There are other neutral countries in the European Union that are not members of NATO which also bring perspectives, such as Austria, Malta, Finland and Sweden. We have been very much active in this discussion and debate. I hope that, by the end of March, we will be able to settle on a strategic compass that makes sense for all countries.

One aim of the strategic compass is to be able to act decisively when the need arises. The evacuation from Kabul Airport last year highlighted the need for this in a real way. We know there are proposals for a 5,000-strong rapid reaction force, greater investment in defence, and that Ireland has concerns about so-called Article 44 issues. Will the Minister give an assurance that Ireland's approach to the strategic compass will be based on the need to contribute to international peace and security and stress again the importance of EU and United Nations co-operation and multilateralism generally? In addition, does he agree the strategic compass should ensure the EU is able to deal with new types of threats, including cyberattacks and hybrid threats?

I can confirm all of those things. We have brought to this debate a desire to see collective co-ordination across the European Union to ensure the EU can intervene in crisis situations in a way that is seamless and interoperable and that countries are not pulled into conflicts in a way they are not comfortable with. This is about trying to improve the EU's collective capacity to be able to respond to threats to the EU, but also to be able to make strategic interventions at appropriate and correct times to promote and support peacekeeping and stability, often in post-conflict situations, both in our neighbourhood and other parts of the world. It is also about building our capacity to be able to respond to new threats, such as the cyber threat, which the Deputy raised and will feature strongly in the Commission on the Defence Forces report, which we will see in the next few weeks. We are in a good space.

Diplomatic Representation

Emer Higgins

Question:

8. Deputy Emer Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the steps taken in 2021 to enhance Ireland’s network of embassies, which included the opening of an embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine. [3638/22]

Will the Minister give details of the increasing network of Irish embassies and consulates opened throughout 2021, with particular reference to the embassy in Ukraine?

I officially opened Ireland's embassy in Kyiv on 23 August last year.

The opening of the embassy marked a new phase in our relationship with Ukraine, through which we can deepen and widen our bilateral co-operation. The embassy also provides consular assistance to Irish citizens and works closely with other EU member states in further developing the EU-Ukraine relationship.

The decision to open an embassy in Kyiv was taken as part of the Government's Global Ireland 2025 initiative. It is one of 14 missions that have been opened since the Global Ireland programme was launched in June 2018 and one of four opened in 2021, the others being Manchester, Rabat and Manila. Global Ireland aims to see Ireland’s global footprint and influence double in the period to 2025, including through an expanded and strengthened diplomatic presence. In addition, the Government decided in 2021 to open a further five new missions in Toronto, Lyon, Miami, Dakar and Tehran, which will bring to 19 the number of new missions opened as a key deliverable of the Global Ireland programme. Mission expansion has been complemented by the strengthening of existing and strategically important missions, including Brussels, London, Paris, Berlin, New York UN, Tokyo and Beijing, including the assignment of additional staff from several Departments.

All missions, including the embassy in Kyiv, are located in regions where there are opportunities for Ireland to advance our national, political and economic priorities. Missions work as part of Team Ireland in co-operation with State agencies, including Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bia, Tourism Ireland, the IDA, and other Departments, to strengthen Ireland's international reputation and drive the development of trade, tourism, investment, science, technology and innovation, culture and education.

The expansion of the mission network is following the Ireland House model, where all Departments and agencies, where possible, work together in one building. In addition, building on the advances in digital diplomacy made during the pandemic, work on an integrated digital Ireland House continues as a the key platform to deliver on the Global Ireland ambition.

I thank the Minister. I have a few general questions on the approach to embassies and consuls but I want to ask some supplementary questions specifically on the new embassy in Kyiv. In light of current global events, that embassy is of particular interest to the House. Will the Minister outline the extent of the Irish diaspora in Kyiv? I appreciate that in recent days the Minister asked all Irish citizens to register with the embassy and to outline where they are based across the country. Will the Minister also expand on the economic potential this embassy presents? What are our key exports to and imports from Ukraine? What is the basis for our economic relationship and what risk assessment has been done on that relationship, based on current very worrying events in the region? Finally, what is the strength of the Irish diplomatic mission in Kyiv?

As I said earlier, as part of the Government's global strategy an embassy began operating in Kyiv last summer on 7 June. It was officially opened by me in August. The embassy's remit is to deepen bilateral relations with Ukraine, provide consular assistance to Irish citizens and work closely with other EU member states in further developing EU-Ukraine relations.

Ukraine is a strategically and economically important European country and a key partner for the EU under the eastern partnership. The opening of the embassy will allow Ireland to take advantage of the opportunities arising from Ukraine's closer economic integration with the EU under the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, DCFTA, agreement. Ukraine is on a firm growth trajectory, and a key objective for the embassy will be to contribute to increasing our bilateral trade and economic links with Ukraine. Trade with Ukraine has been growing rapidly in recent years. In 2020, exports of services to Ukraine amounted to €647 million, with imports amounting to €29 million. Exports of goods amounted to €71 million and imports amounted to €92.8 million. The Global Ireland strategy is very much driving what we are doing here in a new, strategic part of Europe.

Will the Minister elaborate on the work he is doing, in tandem with the Tánaiste, to develop those trading links? It is very important, in light of current events, that we continue to make the strong point that Ireland stands with Ukraine and that its sovereignty must be maintained. Ukraine is a key ally, not just of Ireland but of our partners in the EU. Should events unfold negatively in the coming days, the EU must not be slow to consider sanctions and other options. That said, it is essential to stress that Ireland continues to support negotiation and every move towards a diplomatic resolution to tensions in that region, although some would argue there are no tensions there.

The embassy in Kyiv and all of the other consulates and embassies the Minister has listed are vitally important and it is essential they are augmented in the coming years and that Ireland continues to grow this network. It is vitally important in so many areas.

Of course we cannot talk about Kyiv and Ukraine without referring to the current context, to what is happening in global politics and the concern and threat that exists. Our staff remain in Kyiv but we have contingency plans if people need to leave. We do not regard it as appropriate at this time to bring people home. We are committed to Ukraine. We support its sovereignty, its developing bilateral relationship with Ireland and, of course, its developing and positive relationship with the EU. Should Ukraine be invaded by Russia, the political and economic consequences would be enormous for the relationship between the EU and Russia and, of course, for Ukraine itself in terms of potential loss of life. This is, understandably, the subject of an enormous amount of public commentary, given the concern and tension that has built up in recent days. We will continue to advocate for a reduction in tension and a resolution through political dialogue, but through all of this, we will support Ukrainian sovereignty.

We will go back to Question No. 7 now.

Passport Services

Niamh Smyth

Question:

7. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of applications for passports from counties Cavan, Monaghan, Meath and Louth, respectively, that are currently outstanding; the planning that is being carried out to ensure there is no repeat of the delays experienced in 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3641/22]

I know the Minister dealt with this issue earlier in response to Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, but there is a need for proactivity at this stage of the year in relation to passport supply and what is likely to be a very large demand for passports and passport renewals this year. That proactivity might save an awful lot of trouble for many people down the line.

I am very aware of the pressures in relation to passports. Many people in this House have come to me directly on individual cases. We have also set up an Oireachtas support line that can help staff in Deputies' offices to deal with cases when they emerge.

This month we will have more than 100,000 passport applications to deal with, and this year we are planning for a possible 1.7 million passport applications. Just to put that into context, we have never hit 1 million applications before. Even at the height of travel before Covid, it was less than 1 million per year. Given that many families simply have not even thought about travel for the past two years and therefore may not have thought about passport renewal, we expect a dramatic increase. That is why we are investing significantly in more staff. By the end of March we will have approximately 1,000 people working in the Passport Office. That compares with approximately 465 in the middle of last summer. We also have extra footprint as well in terms of more office space.

As of Wednesday of this week, the Passport Office is operating as normal, with Covid restrictions having been removed. That will lead to a lot more opportunities for people who need urgent meetings with the Passport Office to get rapid turnaround times for passports. We are working hard in anticipation of what is already happening, which is a significant increase in the demand for passport renewals and for first-time passports. First-time applications, particularly for children, take longer to process because of security issues. We must ensure we address fraud, especially for first-time applicants. We have good systems in place in that regard but they do take a bit longer and the application process is more complicated in terms of the forms that must be provided with the online application. We are working hard to try to improve turnaround times for first-time applications as well.

First, on the expanded office space, I have made the point previously that we need a physical passport office in the west. It is unfair for me to have to get somebody to travel to Dublin late on a Friday evening to collect a passport, as I had to do again last Friday. Surely in the context of new office space, that should be considered. We need an office somewhere central in the region.

Second, I thank the people in the unit. They have been incredibly helpful but they are under huge pressure.

However, in anticipation of that demand and its management, is it not time the Department or the Passport Office would, for instance, buy advertising space on airline booking sites to remind people to check their passports? We all know there are so many people who only check their passports when they go to check in online or maybe even when they are en route to the airport.

On the turnaround time for first-time passports, I accept the need for security checks but there are cases where it is running to months. That is not acceptable either. Surely we can reach a medium where there is an agreed turnaround time and that is delivered on.

On advertising, I hope the Deputy has noticed the campaign that has been very active during January to get people to check their passports. We have ads in newspapers and on radio to encourage people to check their passports early if they are planning to travel this year so that we can try to get as many applications in as early as we can for travel, predominantly over the summer months. I am sure there will also be travel over the mid-term and Easter too. We have an advertising campaign and I will feed back the Deputy's suggestion about airline sites.

The official turnaround time for first-time passports is 40 working days. We are going to try to bring that down significantly. However, many of the first-time applications that get stuck in the system are not always stuck because of delays on the Department's side. We are often waiting for forms, whether identity forms or security-based forms. We are working on that.

On the advertising campaign, the lotto campaign says it could be you, but when it comes to passports, it never is you until it actually happens. People probably laugh about this until they have done it themselves. I am sure it has happened to all of us. If, when you book and you are putting in your card details, there was a prompt that said "Is your passport in date?", that would do it. We need turnaround times people can see that are actually real. Again, I ask the Minister to consider a passport centre in the west. It is unfair we have to do those journeys. The advertising campaign is welcome but it is particularly pushing the online service. Let us get back to pushing the post office side of it again.

I congratulate the Department on renewals for existing passport holders. The office is very efficient. Would it be possible to arrange a direct relationship for newborn infants to shorten the time families have to wait? If the register of births certifies that somebody is a newborn infant, that should be enough and it should be able to fast-track the 40 days the Minister is talking about. It is unfair on parents who have a newborn infant to face delays they cannot accept.

I refer to delays in passports in Carlow and Kilkenny. There are concerns, as others have said. When someone applies for a passport, one wrong tick can mean the application goes right back to the start. I know the staff are working very hard but I would ask that a system be put in place so that a small issue that can be addressed is addressed.

There have been loads of delays in my own area, including people who were unable to attend funerals and one family where two people could travel and one could not. I know that is being addressed. I seek clarity on the 1,000 new staff the Minister mentioned. How are they being recruited and what is happening? The last time we were here the Minister said 80 additional staff had been recruited. I want to know more. I welcome the recruitment of 1,000 staff; I am delighted. Can we have an update? I know the Passport Office is doing its best.

Deputies have come in with so many questions. The Minister still has only one minute to respond.

If I can just correct the record, we are not taking on 1,000 new staff. What I said was that by the end of March we hope to have about 900 staff in the Passport Office. We currently have about 770. The context of that is we had about 467 in the middle of last summer, so the staff numbers are almost doubling.

On first-time passports, I emphasise we have to make sure the integrity of the system is protected and we have robust processes in place to protect the integrity of the system against fraud, potential child abduction or any of the things we are expected to protect it against. We have very good anti-fraud systems in the passport system. However, as a result of that and the systems that are in place, we do need extra paperwork in terms of documentation from applicants who are applying online or offline for children.

We are way over time.

Despite of all of that, we still think we can get turnaround times down significantly. From 40 days, I would like to bring it to closer to 20 working days if we can.

Thank you, Minister.

We are working on that. The communications between the applicant and the Department are essential.

Thank you. I am moving on to the next question. Before I do, there are at least five speakers so I ask for co-operation from all sides.

Brexit Issues

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

9. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will provide an update on the work in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. [57216/21]

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

13. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on the engagement he has had with European Union officials and directly with UK officials regarding the Northern Ireland protocol, which is helping to avoid barriers on the island of Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3627/22]

Seán Haughey

Question:

42. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of negotiations between the UK and the European Union in relation to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol; his views on whether these negotiations should be concluded as soon as possible given that assembly elections will take place in Northern Ireland in May 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3710/22]

Christopher O'Sullivan

Question:

53. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on the situation in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3762/22]

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

57. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of the discussions between the European Union and the UK on the Northern Ireland protocol; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3700/22]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

73. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will provide an update on his engagements in relation to the Irish protocol. [58663/21]

All across the House accept Brexit is a disaster. The Irish protocol was a necessary mitigation. Every apparent one step forward is two steps back. We are dealing with cul-de-sac unionism and any threats it makes. The Minister has already spoken about the unhelpful commentary from Boris Johnson, even if some of that may be diversionary. We have heard from Maroš Šefčovič that discussions with Liz Truss may be more cordial but they may not be going where they need to. There are also issues around getting state aid and the European Court of Justice, ECJ, back on the agenda.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9, 13, 42, 53, 57 and 73 together.

Throughout the course of last year, the European Commission undertook extensive outreach to political leaders, businesses, civil society and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland. This process culminated on 13 October 2021 with the presentation of a comprehensive package of proposals aimed at providing a credible and durable solution to the genuine issues on the ground in Northern Ireland. The package makes proposals around issues of customs checks and sanitary and phytosanitary issues designed to facilitate the flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It also sets out proposals around strengthening Northern Irish involvement in the governance of the protocol.

On 17 December 2021, the Commission followed up its October package with new legislative proposals that ensure the continued long-term supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and that further support supply lines in Ireland, Cyprus and Malta. These proposals are under discussion in the Council and the European Parliament.

The Commission package is a generous one. It respects the fine balance at the heart of the protocol: protecting the Good Friday Agreement, avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, while at the same time protecting EU consumers and the integrity of the EU’s Single Market. The proposals form the basis of the Commission’s discussions with the UK Government, an approach that has the strong support of all member states, confirmed again this week.

The Taoiseach and I, along with other Ministers, regularly discuss the protocol in contacts with UK counterparts, our EU partners, stakeholders across Northern Ireland and key figures in the US Administration and Congress. I had a video call with the UK Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, on 13 October on a range of issues, including Brexit and the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland. Following her taking responsibility for Brexit policy issues in December 2021, we spoke by phone on 21 December and met in person in London on 6 January for about four hours. During these engagements, I emphasised that Ireland and the EU remain fully committed to providing certainty and stability for people and business in Northern Ireland. I noted the protocol is the joint EU–UK solution to mitigate against the disruption Brexit causes for citizens and businesses on the island of Ireland and it can work if we allow it to.

I also speak regularly to Maroš Šefčovič. Most recently, we met in Brussels earlier this week on 24 January, shortly after his latest meeting with UK Foreign Secretary. I reiterated to him Ireland’s strong support for his approach.

The positive tone from the Foreign Secretary, Ms Truss, is welcome, as is her stated determination to find a solution.

The decision to have a meeting of the joint committee next month along with a continuation of intensified technical talks is a positive development. However, following the package of measures put forward by the European Commission, we need to see the UK Government demonstrate meaningfully its willingness to come to a deal on the key issues.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. We all thought there might have been change when Liz Truss came into the role. I had an opportunity in Strasbourg to talk to Maroš Šefčovič about this. In fairness, I did not intend ever to talk about what he said but it is all in the public domain. I refer to the suggestion of more cordial relations. The fact is Liz Truss has put the ECJ, state aid and some of the issues people thought were sorted back on the agenda. We do not know what the outworkings are going to be in relation to where Boris Johnson finds himself at this time. The leadership of the Tories and where Liz Truss stands relative to that could be impacted. We all hope for the best. In fairness to Maroš Šefčovič, he said he stays at the table and that is the important thing. We need to ensure solidarity is maintained because this is about ensuring there is no return to any hardening of any border in Ireland.

In view of the fact of the difficult and frustrating talks there have been between Maroš Šefčovič and Liz Truss, as reported by Vice-President Šefčovič himself, the perfect storm in the UK Parliament and Government, and the DUP banging its Orange drum once again as we approach elections in the North, will the Minister report on the engagement he has had with European and UK officials regarding the Northern Ireland protocol that is helping avoid barriers on the island of Ireland?

The Minister mentioned he met British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, on 6 January. Did he notice a change in tone or attitude by the UK side on these negotiations? Would he agree these negotiations must be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible given the proximity of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May and the political issue the protocol has become?

The UK is now also dealing with the situation in Ukraine. I assume that is a very big issue for the UK, as indeed it is for everybody else. Does the Minister think the UK has an incentive to get this issue off the table because there are much bigger issues to be dealt with worldwide from its point of view?

As time goes on it becomes apparent the problems associated with the protocol are more to do with politics than policy. I refer to the politics internally between the UK and the EU on the one hand and then separately, the politics in Northern Ireland. It is to be hoped Brexit is a becoming less of a political issue in the UK, especially in Great Britain. If that is so, much of the tension will go out of the talks about the protocol. However, in respect of Northern Ireland, it obviously remains a very strong political issue represented by different views on different, polarised sides of that society. Will the Minister consider trying to reach out to the business community in Northern Ireland? When we look at what the protocol is doing for Northern Ireland on an objective and practical basis, we see it is improving its business capacity. It gives it a great opportunity to access the EU market and the UK market. I therefore ask that the Minister speak to business people there.

First, I am speaking to businesses in Northern Ireland. We speak to them regularly, through online forums or when we have an opportunity to meet directly with businesses in Northern Ireland. Other colleagues do the same.

On my meetings with the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, I know her reasonably well from previous portfolios we would have been working on together. When I was the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, she was my counterpart in the UK. She is a very able minister. She has held many portfolios. She is someone who has a reputation for being a dealmaker and a can-do minister and she is now bringing that energy to this portfolio. We met in early January and spoke at length about the need for an agreement. I think she wants to find an agreement. Certainly, the European side does as well.

The issues around the protocol have been dragging on for far too long. They are contributing to a very polarised atmosphere in Northern Ireland, which is both unwelcome and unhelpful in the build-up to elections in May. Therefore, we all have an obligation to try to settle the outstanding issues. The point I made very clearly, to Liz Truss and publicly, is the EU is not in the space of renegotiating the protocol and writing a new one. However, it is in the space of trying to offer the maximum flexibility possible in terms of how the existing agreement, which is international law, can be implemented in a way that works for everybody. That is what Vice-President Šefčovič and his team have been trying to do with their proposals before Christmas, which were very substantial proposals in the effort to reduce checks on goods coming from GB into Northern Ireland and remaining there in sense of being purchased and consumed there. It is the belief of the EU that, by co-operation, we could reduce checks on those products from a sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, perspective by up to 80% and could halve the checks burden linked to customs. The EU has said it would like that to be the basis now for further discussion with respect to how that could be achieved.

I do not want to give an indication to the House that these issues will be easily resolved. There is still a big gap between both sides. Even though the conversations have been much more personal and warmer in many ways with Liz Truss now in charge on the British side, the issues themselves, in the sense of actual solutions on the table, are still very difficult. She certainly has not softened the UK Government's position on the key issues, even though there is much more personal engagement now in an effort to try to find a way forward.

As a final point, time is important here. We should be slow to be setting cliff-edge timelines and so on but elections are on the way. Between now and the end of February there is a key window to try to find a combination and agreement all sides could accept.

Time is very important. Deputy Ó Murchú has one minute.

Time is very important and I accept we have that window. I welcome the clarity and the reiteration this is not for renegotiation. That is the difficulty. It is to be hoped Liz Truss is there as a dealmaker and other factors will not impact on that.

I accept that sometimes with these questions we are asking the Minister to look into a crystal ball, which I assume he does not have. I also reiterate some of what Deputy O'Callaghan said about both the Minister and Maroš Šefčovič having said that, in dealing with stakeholders, business owners, farmers and other such people in the North, they see and recognise the benefits of the Irish protocol at this time but that political unionism is in a different place. We all know politics in Britain is in an utterly dysfunctional place at this time. We just need to hold the line. We need to get a deal. It is better it happens sooner but we need to ensure there is a deal and that it is the Irish protocol.

It seems to me the moderate opinion in both Britain and Ireland is outmanoeuvred by the extreme views in the Tory Party and its view on Brexit. The traditional relationship that was there all along between Britain and Ireland is seriously affected by this. That notwithstanding, given the links between the civil servants, the professional administrators in the UK and the business community, they need to show the benefits in a stronger way. I accept and acknowledge businesses in the North clearly and absolutely acknowledge the benefit they have in working directly with and exporting and importing directly to and from the EU. However, there is no acknowledgement from the unionists, certainly not from the DUP, on that issue. I am concerned the outcome of all this will be extreme views in the ballot box and the moderate middle ground in the North, which was growing and which we very much support, could well be sundered by the continuing difficulties between the UK Government and the EU.

I reiterate what Deputy Shanahan asked about earlier on and Deputy Jim O'Callaghan mentioned about the benefits of the Northern Ireland protocol.

As Deputies have said, an extra effort is needed. I know the Minister, the Department and various organisations are doing a lot, but we need to stress continually the benefits of the protocol for Northern Ireland business. The Democratic Unionist Party threat to pull down the Northern Ireland institutions is still there as well. We have all this factoring into the negotiations so I again stress it is important that these talks are concluded as soon as possible.

We need to look at the politics of this in which people in this House have great expertise. If the relationship between the UK Government and the EU is resolved, that will end the dispute and internal politics in Northern Ireland. The reason politics in Northern Ireland is being fuelled by the row in respect of the protocol is that messages are being given that the protocol will change. The British Government is sending out messages that we can change the agreement we entered into and the protocol has to be ditched. If Liz Truss turns around, however, says that the UK has got a new deal with the European Union and has provided some clarification in respect of the protocol but is bound by the original agreement, that will then provide no further room for the internal politics of Northern Ireland to keep going on about trying to remove the protocol. They are both dependent upon each other. That is an important message the Minister needs to bring to Foreign Secretary Truss, which is to let her know that if she, on behalf of the UK Government, says issues have been resolved, it will take the legs out of internal politics in Northern Ireland on the issue.

I agree with the comments that have been made by all sides in the House. This is an issue that needs to be resolved politically. It is helpful, by the way, that the Brexit negotiations are now back in the Foreign Office because Foreign Secretary Truss is very much aware of the broader issues. We also spoke at length about Russia-Ukraine, for example, at that meeting on 6 January. She is very conscious of the need for the EU and the UK to build a strong new relationship on global and European matters, in addition to the fact that outstanding issues and trust issues have also been impacted by protocol issues being unresolved, which impacts on the overall relationship in a way that is not helpful.

There is a bigger picture here. We need to find a way of ensuring the British Government and the EU find accommodation of each other on this issue. Ireland has to ensure that its interests are protected in that; we are doing that very actively. In addition, as I said earlier and as Deputy O'Dowd referenced, the polarising impact of this issue not being resolved is driving an electorate to perhaps have more hard line or extreme views than they otherwise might have, which is something that is also not welcome. We have an obligation to work on this to try to find solutions. Certainly, between now and the end of February, we will very actively be trying to do that.

Common Foreign and Security Policy

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if there are plans to increase European Union military spending following the recent discussions at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3929/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

35. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if proposals from NATO for increased European Union military spending was discussed at a recent meeting of European Union foreign ministers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3928/22]

The Minister is apparently very concerned about the Chief of Staff meeting with the Russian ambassador. I wonder would he be as concerned if he met with the US ambassador or the head of NATO. I say that because I am concerned that the Minister attended a conference - maybe he will confirm this - in Brest, France, this month with EU foreign ministers, where he discussed the further project of militarising Europe and integrating with NATO.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 35 together.

I recently attended an informal - what is called a Gymnich - meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brest on 13 and 14 January. On 14 January, we were joined by fellow EU defence ministers to discuss the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, and more specifically the strategic compass, which I addressed earlier when the Deputy was not in the Chamber, and on which I have given an update to the House today. The strategic compass provides for greater work in the area of capability development as well as further investment in innovative technologies. From the Irish perspective, we consider effective capabilities as key to an effective CSDP. In practical terms, the strengthening of our capabilities will help improve the EU’s ability to undertake peacekeeping and crisis management tasks as outlined in the Treaty on European Union.

Of course, different member states bring different perspectives to bear in discussions on security and defence. Ireland’s position continues to be recognised by our fellow member states and we remain clear that our active participation in CSDP does not prejudice the specific character of our security and defence policy or our obligations. Within the EU, defence and security are a national competence and this includes national spending on defence and security. This means that any decision, including any deepening of EU co-operation, any increase to national spending on defence and security or strengthening of the EU as a defence sector, will require unanimity. For us, any new proposals in this regard will also have to be in accordance with Ireland’s policy of military neutrality.

This country is supposed to be neutral. That is, frankly, laughable, when you consider we have allowed Shannon Airport to be used again and again by the US military to prosecute brutal, murderous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I want to know what neutrality means when the Minister goes to a conference in Brest where we discuss the French project, which is a major European powers project to increase the militarisation of the European Union, including an absolutely open call for the establishment of a European army, and where NATO calls on the EU to increase military expenditure at the same time that NATO is expanding towards Russia. Do not get me wrong, the Russians should be condemned for massing troops in Ukraine and having exercises off our waters, but NATO is doing exactly the same thing. It is ratcheting it up and the EU is discussing more military expenditure. Where is the voice of neutrality in saying we should be stepping back from this? We should not be spending more on arms. Is the Minister saying that?

While we are militarily neutral as a country, we have always supported efforts to improve the effectiveness of the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy. Indeed, successive governments have not viewed Ireland's policy of neutrality as meaning that the country should stand aside and not get involved in peacekeeping or stability in other parts of the world, rather, they have considered that neutrality enhances Ireland’s reputation internationally and enables more effective engagement in efforts to promote peace and security. That is exactly the approach we are now bringing to these discussions on the strategic compass and the future of defence and security issues. We will continue to advocate on that. We are not the only militarily neutral country, by the way, in the European Union. There are others too, such as Malta, Austria, Sweden and Finland. We bring a perspective to these debates that I think Irish people expect me to bring, which is one that is focused on peacekeeping, co-operation with the UN and peace and security around the world.

It is a very strange definition of neutral. Yesterday, the Minister expressed concern because the Chief of Staff met the Russian ambassador. To me, neutral would mean that he would express similar concern if the Chief of Staff met the US ambassador or the head of NATO or at the fact that leading powers inside the European Union are looking for and, indeed, have achieved closer integration with NATO, which is a military and nuclear alliance. It is not some sort of benign body. It is the outworking of western, US-led expansion towards Russia, which is now provoking a dangerous escalation in Ukraine. Against that background, the voice of neutrality is to say that we do not pour petrol on a fire by arming up, spending more on weapons and expanding NATO, but by doing the opposite and saying that we do not need militarisation, which is not the solution to these sorts of situations.

I do not accept the Deputy's argument that NATO is provoking a Russian military build-up on the borders of Ukraine. I do not think that is an argument that stands up to scrutiny.

There has been an ongoing military conflict on the borders of Ukraine for some time. We have seen a dramatic increase in military presence on multiple elements of the Ukrainian border, coming from the Russian side. That is creating extraordinary tension. NATO has responded to that tension and we now need to focus on trying to defuse it as best we can. That is what Ireland has tried to bring to this debate.

On the separate issue of the strategic compass, which the Deputy raised earlier, we want to have as much co-ordination as is appropriate within the European Union to ensure that the EU can focus on its own security issues but also can be an actor to support peace and security internationally and that Ireland can be involved in that.

Who is the Minister kidding? NATO is not some sort of protective entity. Its rationale, if it ever had any, disappeared at the end of the Cold War. At that time, people like James Baker, Secretary of State of the US, said that there would not be an eastward expansion. I reiterate that I believe Mr. Putin is thug. He is dangerous. He has done horrendous things in Chechnya and Kazakhstan. The western powers were far less concerned about those things. The idea that NATO is some sort of benign, innocent force in this instance is ridiculous. It is actively recruiting states in the area and it has expanded dramatically in that area. At the same time, it is urging the European Union to increase military expenditure, which the European Union is going along with, as part of a broader militarisation project and neutral Ireland is not speaking out against it when it should be. This State was born in opposition to empire building. Frankly, it is a betrayal of our tradition of opposition to imperialism and neutrality not to speak out loudly against both military political blocs and their militarist manoeuvrings.

Ireland is not a member of NATO. NATO can speak for itself on these issues, but if one speaks to colleagues in other parts of Europe that are members of NATO, they will give a very different perspective from that just given by Deputy Boyd Barrett in terms of their own protection and security into the future given their historic relationship with other countries that they still regard as a potential threat. Ireland is in the fortunate geographical position in the world where it does not feel threats externally from a conventional military attack. That has allowed us to be militarily neutral. That is the position we should sustain and maintain because it allows us to make interventions internationally that at times are helpful. We need to focus less on name calling and more on trying to use a language of defusing tension in the context of the pressure and tension that is building between Russia and Ukraine, and indeed Russia and Europe and NATO.

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