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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 8 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 3

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

On this International Women's Day, we will take Leaders' Questions under Standing Order 36, with Deputy Mary Lou McDonald first.

Beannachtaí na féile. A very happy International Women's Day to you and to all.

The price of energy and fuel has literally soared over the past year and, of course, prices have risen even more rapidly following the criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine, which, as we know, has resulted in an unprecedented disruption in the global energy market. The cost of petrol at the pumps has increased by 70 cent per litre since January last year. We are now at a point where many people can no longer afford to put fuel in a car to get to work. This is particularly difficult for people who live in remote and rural areas or places where there is no access to frequent public transport.

In that same timeframe, since January last year, the price of home heating oil has doubled and households are now being charged more than €700 for a half fill of oil. Families now struggle to keep their homes warm and I know many people are layering with clothes instead. Some are just heating one room or not heating their home at all. Other people, particularly seniors, are staying in bed to stay warm. These fuel cost hikes are not sustainable for any worker, family or small business. As the Taoiseach knows, people are already hammered by extortionate rents, unaffordable house prices and ever-rising insurance and childcare costs. The cost of living was out of control anyway.

In fairness, the Government now recognises that what was announced in February does not go far enough to alleviate these pressures, but yet it seems it is not ready to take action this week to reduce the cost of fuel. I put it to the Taoiseach that people cannot wait any longer for relief because they must put fuel in their cars today. They must pay for home heating oil today. Indeed, many wonder if they can afford to do that or if they will have to decide which bill goes unpaid at the end of the week. It is wrong that people must make these kinds of choices and it is not a way to live a decent life.

Tá praghas ar bhreosla ag ardú arís agus ní féidir le hoibrithe, le teaghlaigh agus le gnólachtaí beaga coinneáil suas leis. Caithfidh an Rialtas dleacht máil ar pheitril agus ar dhíosal a ghearradh agus é a bhaint óna leithéide. Tabharfaidh sé seo sos atá ag teastáil go géar ó dhaoine.

I will set out for the Taoiseach what we believe needs to happen. The Government must cut the price of petrol and diesel through an immediate reduction in excise duty. At the pumps we can get prices down by 25 cent per litre immediately by cutting excise duty. Similarly, the spiralling cost of home heating oil could be cushioned with the immediate and total removal of excise duty. The Dáil will not sit next week so these measures must be introduced now as a matter of urgency, and it can be done. A financial resolution to immediately reduce excise duty on petrol and diesel and to remove excise duty from home heating oil could be passed today. This is the method used to increase or decrease excise duties in the budget, and as we know those changes are typically made overnight.

I ask that the Government does this now so that people can see an instant price reduction at the pumps and in their home heating oil bills by midnight.

I put it to the Taoiseach that he takes this course of action. It would make a huge difference to workers, families, businesses, hauliers and many providing school transport. They are literally at their wits' end. I am asking that a Financial Resolution be brought to the House tonight or tomorrow night. Sinn Féin will accommodate late sittings or whatever is required but we need to act on this matter now.


Hear, hear.

I thank Deputy McDonald for raising this very important issue.

I wish everybody a happy International Women's Day. We are all agreed that our thoughts are with the women of Ukraine who more than anybody have demonstrated extraordinary resilience in the face of the most enormous of challenges and the most impossible of choices as they bring their children to safety, leaving their husbands and partners apart. We salute the women of the Ukrainian Parliament for resolutely defending democracy, staying in Kyiv, defending the democracy and territorial integrity of Ukraine. If I could, I want to salute the bravery of journalism in the middle of this war, particularly women journalists. On the front page of The New York Times we will have seen that horrific photograph of a family murdered by Russian forces, captured by Lynsey Addario, a person who has spent her career documenting war crimes and who has documented one here.

That brings us to the fact that one of the impacts of the Ukrainian war will undoubtedly be, as Deputy McDonald said, inflation on fuel and energy prices. Prior to the war we already had significant increases in fuel prices. The Government took steps in the budget of about €1 billion and, most recently, €0.5 billion, to deal with that phase of what was then described as a pandemic-derived cycle of inflation. There is no question but that the war on Ukraine is going to increase further and has increased the escalation of fuel prices at the petrol pump, household costs and so on. The Government is acutely aware of this issue. We do not argue that the impacts on people are not sustainable at the rate these increases are occurring. Russia's systemic role in energy supply will have significant impact on prices with implications for inflation and production costs. Pass-through price effects are going to be felt in other areas. We can see it in fertilisers, fuel and transport costs and food. Food is another key issue of concern for Government given that Russia and Ukraine between them export so much grain to the West. We have to take measures to try to offset what is likely to be an interruption in terms of those exports for one reason or another as a consequence of the war in Ukraine.

The Deputy is correct. We know that the barrel of oil on international markets has soared from about $96 a barrel on 23 February to $126 or $130 today and rising. There is speculation that it could hit $150 or $200 this year. Natural gas has increased exponentially in price also. I can say to the Deputy that there is an EU Commission paper on this. A toolbox is emerging and hopefully within the next day or two it will be published and will be considered. The Government is giving this very active consideration. We do understand the scheduling in terms of the Legislature and so on. I appreciate the Deputy's offer of facilitation of whatever outcome of the Government's active consideration of this issue will mean. I do not want to get into specifics right now.

Nobody is disputing the international context for these soaring prices. I hope nobody is disputing, either, that householders, families, workers, hauliers and those providing school transport are now at their wits' end.

Their crisis is now. It is in the immediacy of now. It is a question of how they get to work, get about and heat their home, today, tomorrow and next week. I am well aware that the European Commission is bringing forward proposals and we certainly look forward to seeing them, but we would regard them as being by way of additionality to what the Government in Dublin needs to do now.

I have made a very concrete ask of the Taoiseach. I ask again that a financial resolution be brought before the Dáil this week, either tonight or tomorrow night, that will have the effect of reducing excise on petrol and diesel and a 25 cent per litre reduction at the petrol pumps immediately for consumers, and that this resolution would equally have the effect of removing excise entirely on home heating oil to take some of the sting out of that soaring cost. I am asking the Taoiseach to do this now. Speed is of the essence because people are suffering and struggling now.

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the Government has been very actively considering the country's response to the unfolding crisis and the consequences of that crisis. That is across a whole range of areas, some of which I outlined in terms of our humanitarian response. Suffice it to say that the impact of the war will be very serious and significant for all nations across the European Continent and it will be a long haul in terms of our response to it. What we would normally do in normal times will no longer be the approach we need to take as a society. We will have to look outside the norm and outside the box in dealing with this crisis. That applies to the specific issue the Deputy raised as well as other issues. As I have said in reply to her, the Government is keeping this under very active consideration and will be responding once that process of consideration is concluded.

All our thoughts are with the women of Ukraine on International Women's Day and, indeed, with all the people of Ukraine. They are being indiscriminately killed throughout that country right now. On a street in Irpin, a family with two children fleeing war, with everything they had in their suitcases, were killed by Russian shelling as they tried to get to safety. In Sumy last night, Russian air strikes killed 18 people, including two children. On Sunday, the world witnessed the death of Kirill Yatsko, an 18-month-old boy fatally injured by shelling in Mariupol. President Zelenskyy confirmed this morning that a child had died from dehydration in the same city, where water and all other supplies have been cut off by the Russians.

We must not turn our eyes away from what Russia is perpetrating on the Ukrainian people. The UN has confirmed that the number of refugees fleeing the Russian war against Ukraine has already exceeded 2 million. We are all aware that this is a humanitarian crisis on a level that has not been seen in Europe since the Second World War. The Irish people have responded with urgency and generosity and are full of practical ideas on how to address the crisis. It must be said that the Taoiseach went some way to capturing the mood of the nation last Friday night on "The Late Late Show". However, capturing the mood of the nation and actually delivering in this House and for the refugees coming from Ukraine are going to be two different things. Estimates of 100,000 refugees coming to Ireland have been put forward. It will be a task for the country, the Government and all of us in this House to ensure we deliver on all areas, including housing, health and education, for everyone who comes to our shores. Can the Taoiseach confirm whether the UK Government or the Home Office have raised any concerns with him or the Government about our policy on accepting refugees?

While we cannot condone the lorry driver who crashed into the gates of the Russian Embassy, we can all understand what drove that action. The Government has so far decided not to expel the Russian ambassador but we must recognise that the embassy is now a tool of the Russian war effort. There are 31 staff known to be working there, which is reportedly one third more than the number working in the embassy in the UK, where there are 22 staff. There are only ten staff in the Russian embassy in Poland, 12 in Germany and 19 in France. Why are there are so many Russian embassy staff here when we do not have strong trade or cultural links with that country?

Our Magnitsky Bill is being held up by Government red tape. Can the Taoiseach confirm what Russian assets, if any, have been seized by the Government in the past couple of weeks?

Has the UK raised any concerns with Ireland over how many refugees we are planning to take? Why has Ireland so many Russian diplomats? Will the Taoiseach now expel those who are surplus to maintaining basic diplomatic channels? What Russian assets, if any, have been seized by the Irish State?

First, I thank the Deputy for raising this key issue and his comments on a number of issues that spring from it. I mentioned earlier the bravery of journalists. Without journalists in battle, we would not have any picture at all of the atrocities and war crimes that are being committed by an evil regime that has clearly targeted women and children. I mentioned Lynsey Addario's photograph that captured the family that was mowed down as they were leaving a war zone. We have to continue to shine a light on such atrocities.

On the response of the Government and people of Ireland, we are very clear: we work with the EU. In working with the Union, one of the first things we did was offer visa-free accommodation and facilitation. That is the first time ever this arrangement has been used by the EU, which illustrates the gravity of the situation. Essentially, Ukrainians can flee a war zone and come to Ireland, where they can avail of all the rights of residency, access to healthcare, education, accommodation and other things. What that means for us domestically - this morning the Government discussed this - is that in the context of a crisis such as the one we are now experiencing, the duration of which we are unsure, we will have to take steps to circumvent normal approaches to provide accommodation at the scale required and match it with access to childcare and education, in particular. It will be an enormous challenge at a scale we have never dealt with before. The pledge register that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, has initiated has received an incredible response from across the country.

The Government is meeting weekly. The Secretary General is chairing meetings of all Secretaries General to make sure every Department works in a co-ordinated way on this crisis. The key will be to move as fast as we can to deal with the numbers coming in daily. We estimate that more than 2,200 have now arrived in Ireland. All will have access to social protection, social welfare incomes and so forth, which is important. That work is under way. Therefore, a lot has been done in a very short space of time. We have allocated €20 million in humanitarian supports to go through established agencies in the UN, including UNICEF, and the Irish Red Cross to deal with the crisis on the ground close to the borders by way of providing vital supplies. We stand ready in respect of any additional arrangements we need to put in place at that level and any response in the form of having experienced or expert personnel go to various locations to assist our colleagues within the EU.

On the embassy issue, we cannot condone what happened yesterday. It was a complete contravention of the Vienna Convention and in our view it was wrong. Embassies all over the world in different locations must be allowed to operate in safety. We will work in unison with our EU colleagues on all issues to do with sanctions and measures to be taken in response to the Russian aggression.

We absolutely cannot condone it but believe it is a reflection of the anger many people are feeling. Has the Taoiseach asked the Russians why they need so many people working in their embassy in Ireland given our lack of cultural and economic links? What level of contact has there been with the UK on the taking in of refugees?

Let me refer to what is needed practically. I was contacted this morning by a man who owns one of six houses in Enfield, County Meath whose owners are willing to give them over for this effort. Where can someone go? The pledge site is not exactly ready for offers at this level yet, but these are very real, practical offers.

Racheal Diyaolu from Carlow was studying medicine in Sumy State University. She spent the last week hiding in a bunker at a hostel as Russian shelling intensified. Through the help of two volunteer drivers, she has managed to make it to the border.

It is to be hoped she can make it over the border and home to safety. What is going to happen to her medical studies? She is studying to become a doctor. These are the practical responses that we need to take as a State for our citizens and for the refugees coming here. It is not just about housing. It is going to be about education, childcare and everything else. What can we do for the likes of Racheal and everyone else coming here?

On the question of the numbers at the Russian embassy, I have not asked about the numbers there. Be under no illusions. We have about six in Moscow, including three diplomats. Any actions mean reciprocal actions on the other side. We judge it necessary to retain diplomatic channels right now in terms of protecting and having channels to help Irish citizens in particular situations. The Deputy has just mentioned the young student, Racheal Diyaolu, who is endeavouring to flee from Ukraine. Channels must be kept open as a matter of pragmatism, as a way of protecting citizens and in terms of raising issues about which we are concerned. That is notwithstanding the appalling provocation from earlier statements from the embassy that there was never going to be an invasion or a war, and we saw how false and untrue those statements were.

In relation to the UK, my understanding is there have been discussions between the Home Secretary and the Minister of Justice, Deputy McEntee. We have pointed out to the UK that we are part of a European Union-wide response in waiving visa requirements. It is a humanitarian response. That will continue to be our position in respect of prioritising the humanitarian response above and beyond anything else.

The world is rightly horrified at the unfolding disaster that is being unleashed on the people of Ukraine with Putin's bloody, inexcusable and murderous invasion of that country. Ireland's voice needs to be absolutely clear in condemning utterly that murderous invasion. We need, as I think it is clear the people of this country want, to extend every form of humanitarian assistance and support to those suffering under the bombs, bullets and shells of the Russian military, and to those who are fleeing their homes to escape this bloody conflict. We must provide refuge and be as generous as we possibly can in providing refuge for those fleeing from the Ukrainian crisis.

I must say, however, that it is extremely worrying to me that it seems that there is a clamour of media commentators and, more seriously, the Taoiseach and leading Ministers, who seem to be trying to exploit this Ukrainian tragedy and crisis to argue that we need to move Ireland away from its traditional position of military neutrality and closer to NATO and the project of European militarisation. We heard it from the Tánaiste last week and we have heard it from the Taoiseach. The latest example of this came from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, who was speaking in New York to the US Council on Foreign Relations, a body packed with hundreds of senior government officials, arguing that we need to consider greater co-operation with NATO and increased arms expenditure.

I find it absolutely extraordinary that in the face of the dire consequences of warmongering and militarism on the part of Putin, there is a thought that somehow more militarism, more arms expenditure and allying more closely with a military alliance that has also conducted and supported murderous wars elsewhere in the world is somehow a legitimate response. If we are opposed to Putin's brutal and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine, and we must be, we should not respond to that by joining an alliance dominated by powers that, for example, are supporting the Saudi dictatorship, which is conducting an equally murderous war in Yemen that has killed more than 300,000 people over the past four years and has now, according to the UN, brought 14 million people to the brink of starvation, or by continuing to ignore what Amnesty International is calling the crimes against humanity that Israel commits against Palestinians, supported and armed by the United States and the western powers.

In the face of this tragedy, is it not time to recommit to Ireland's position of military neutrality, which does not mean ignoring this crisis, but being a voice for sanity against the madness of warmongering and militarism?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I agree that Russia stands condemned in the international court of opinion for its appalling atrocities against the civilian population of Ukraine and for its unjustifiable and unprovoked war on Ukraine, its territorial integrity and its sovereignty. Everybody else tried everything to stop Russia going to war. Leading NATO countries the Deputy decries on an ongoing basis and accuses of being militarist in their orientation did everything they could to say to President Putin he did not need to go to war, that any security concerns he had could be transparently dealt with in terms of either missile deployment or troops deployment on the Continent of Europe, and that if he had issues with deployments in eastern Europe, he should talk and we should have a forum for discussion. That needs to be acknowledged and the Deputy needs to acknowledge it too, because I can recall two or three weeks ago he was describing NATO as the warmongerer in the situation when it has been far from it. There has been only one warmongerer here and that has been Russia.

In terms of what the Deputy might describe as the clamour of media commentators around the issue of neutrality, that is called democracy. We might not like views, but that is democracy. We cannot decry the clamour of commentators. We should actually embrace the clamour of commentary because that represents diversity of opinion and viewpoints and the rights of people to reflect. This crisis does cause a need for further reflection on the overall security architecture within Europe and within the wider world.

Ireland has a tradition of military non-alignment or military neutrality. We have never been politically neutral. Indeed, even in 1939, when the German representative came to the Irish Government, it was made very clear to that representative of the closeness and how Britain would always have to get consideration. De Valera himself said that. He said it rendered it inevitable for the Irish Government to show a certain consideration for Britain. Likewise, as we have evolved through our membership of the European Union, we developed in 1999 the Partnership for Peace with NATO to sustain interoperability if we were on peace missions or peace enforcement missions with NATO countries. We have been part of permanent structured co-operation, PESCO. We have been part of battle groups, none of which were ever deployed but which ensured the Irish Defence Forces were at a certain modern competence and capacity to enable them to do what we do best, which is peacekeeping. Ireland does peacekeeping well. We have the longest unbroken record in terms of peacekeeping since about 1957, when we first started our peacekeeping role in the world.

We do need a discussion on this, however, although not right now. In the middle of a terrible war we should be concentrating our resources on helping the people of Ukraine in a practical way. I think we could look at a citizens' assembly to discuss these issues in the fullness of time, where detailed prepared submissions and perspectives from a wide range of opinion could be articulated.

Time is up, please.

That should not be done now. We need to concentrate on the war effort in terms of helping people to come out of that and stopping the war. Supporting the people of Ukraine should be our immediate priority, rather than getting, if you like, diverted on a debate around military neutrality and so on. It has not stopped anything we need to do with our European colleagues in respect of helping Ukraine.

We are way over time. Before we go on, can I ask Deputies to please adhere to the time allocated.

This morning I received an email from a former member of the Defence Forces who described how at every single military checkpoint he or any Irish soldier was ever at, their safety and our credibility was protected by our neutrality. He went on to say that, lately, we have been picking our fights, and the more we do so, the more we lose our integrity. He asked me to urge this House to keep the faith with military neutrality for that reason. That is the problem.

If we oppose the madness we are seeing unfolding in Ukraine, we have to be consistent in opposing all militarism and all imperialism and not be selective. Absolutely, we must condemn Putin's brutal invasion, but are we going to condemn less what the Saudi dictatorship is doing in Yemen now, supported by the US and the UK, who are members of NATO, and are armed to the teeth by the West, or what Amnesty International describes as crimes against humanity on an ongoing basis against the Palestinian people, or say nothing about it? Does neutrality not mean standing against all warmongering and all dictators, and do we not have to hold fast to that tradition that indeed helped found this State, with the ideas of people like James Connolly and the rebels of 1916 rebelling against the madness of the First World War?

We were recently elected to the United Nations Security Council, which is about as good a benchmark for our credibility in the international world as anything I can think of. That is because we have pursued an independent foreign policy as members of the European Union, the greatest characteristic of which has probably been our nuclear non-proliferation initiatives. This began with the then Minister for External Affairs, Frank Aiken, as part of the Irish resolutions at the UN in the 1950s. He was a true architect of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Those are the kinds of issues that need to be worked through in respect of anybody’s reflections on how we might evolve our independent foreign policy within the European Union context and our solidarity with European Union nations.

To be fair to all the commentary so far, people are pointing up that the world is changing. President Putin has fundamentally changed the multilateral rules-based order by the nature of his unprovoked attack on Ukraine. It would be foolish to ignore that reality. The European Union is exposed security-wise-----

It is horrible, but so is the war in Yemen.

-----in respect of what has now happened.

I take the opportunity to wish every female in this country and across the world the best of luck on International Women’s Day. I think, in particular, of the staff I have in my own office who do a great job when I am not there and I wish them well.

On Ukraine and all that has been talked about here today, I wish to make a suggestion in the context of what we will be doing next week in celebrating St Patrick’s Day and week, when we will be showcasing Ireland globally as the small island nation that we are that has spread throughout the world. Ministers and Government representatives will travel to the far ends of the world in celebration of that, and rightly so, because it is a great thing that we can do that. It is a great occasion for people on these foreign soils to see our Ministers there celebrating our Irishness. The Taoiseach himself alluded to the peacekeeping role we have and the fact we now have a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Effectively, we have a great reputation but we are basing that on a success story of struggle for our independence. I am asking the Taoiseach, as a mark of solidarity with Ukraine, that we consider for next week raising the Ukrainian flag with the Irish flag at every embassy and, where we are greening our Irish buildings across the globe, that we also include the colours of Ukraine as a mark of respect and solidarity with these people? It would be important for people across the world to say how we in Ireland, with our great reputation, are going to share our day with the Ukrainian people, bearing in mind all the atrocities they have got undergone in the past ten days. It would be a noble gesture, a small one for us to do, but would be a giant indication right across the world of what Ireland thinks about what is happening right now.

It is an opportunity and will cost nothing, other than a few bulbs here and there with an additional flag to be raised. The Taoiseach might consider that.

I thank the Deputy for raising this suggestion. We have considered this in Government and I agree with the Deputy. As a result of the appalling situation and war in Ukraine, we have evolved our tone and theme of St. Patrick’s Day next week from an overt focus on Ireland to a broader focus on the fact Ireland is an active, engaged and fully committed member of the international community that stands by democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

We will use St. Patrick's Day and that week basically to highlight our solidarity with Ukraine and the values for which the Ukrainian people are standing. That is a key issue. The theme of St. Patrick's Day was about reconnection coming out of the pandemic, with people reconnecting in person nationally and globally, and illustrating the connectedness and interdependence of the world. Again, that has been demonstrated in respect of the people of Ukraine standing up for fundamental values that we all share and want to see protected - freedom, democracy and human rights.

In all the various speaking occasions, we will highlight the situation in Ukraine and Ireland's solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Members of the Government will represent Ireland in approximately 30 countries across Europe, America and Asia, and they will use those occasions to reassert our unequivocal commitment to democracy and to the people of Ukraine. National day receptions will go ahead where possible overseas, and we are looking at ways to recognise Ukraine and its people at official receptions that will be organised. No Russian or Belarusian representatives will be invited to any official St. Patrick's Day events. Speeches at receptions and events will make appropriate reference to the situation in Ukraine as it prevails at the time they are delivered. More than 70 bespoke virtual receptions are in full production and will make appropriate reference to the situation in Ukraine as it prevails at the time they are delivered. The Global Greening programme in partnership with Tourism Ireland has been an enormous success over the years. We are re-examining that for St. Patrick's Day in terms of how we can interweave it with a Ukrainian theme as well.

We believe we can use the unique access that St. Patrick's Day gives Ireland around the world as a platform to express our solidarity with the people of Ukraine and to seek to strengthen the global coalition of support for Ukraine and its people. It is appropriate we do so, as an active, engaged and fully committed member of the international community of free and democratic nations and to reassert out solidarity with the people of Ukraine. I take on board what the Deputy has said. We are of one mind; that is the way we have been thinking about this since the war broke out. We need to act in solidarity and use the occasions to highlight what is happening.

I thank the Taoiseach for his very positive response. It is important we enhance our reputation as peacekeepers and use this opportunity in the 30 separate locations across the world mentioned by the Taoiseach. Having been at St. Patrick's Day celebrations in China and in eastern Europe, I fully understand the value of making sure we promote Ireland. However, on this particular occasion it is important we use it to support the Ukrainians in their hour of need and to ensure they are not forgotten in any part of the world.

I also suggest that the Taoiseach invite the President of Ukraine to address both Houses of the Oireachtas through Zoom at some stage. He is due to that this evening in London. It would be a way to show we are with him and his people in this hour of need. When we had our hour of need, we had allies. We must ensure we continue to make the Ukrainian people aware we are with them in whatever way we can, humanitarian or whatever else, to ensure we get them over their hour of need.

I thank the Deputy for raising those issues. We have maintained contact with the Ukrainian Government. I spoke last week to the Prime Minister, Mr. Denys Shmyhal. On behalf of everybody, I committed our continued humanitarian support and, in terms of the sanctions, our full support of a very proactive policy on sanctions to act not just as a deterrent but to try to put pressure on the Russian regime to end the war, have a complete cessation of violence and to allow dialogue to happen to create an environment for people to escape from the extraordinary terror and anxiety to which they are being subjected at present and which we see on our television screens every evening.

This year St. Patrick's day will be different. It will be different because on all our minds will be the plight of the people of Ukraine. This must govern our actions and shape how we respond. It is as simple as that.

That concludes Leaders' Questions. I take it in the context of this discussion that Members are very happy we will continue to illuminate the House in the Ukrainian colours as we have been doing from the start of this dispute.


Hear, hear.