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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 Jun 2022

Vol. 1024 No. 2

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Northern Ireland

John Brady

Question:

93. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on the Government's response to the decision by the British Government to introduce unilateral legislation that will undermine the Northern Irish protocol; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32921/22]

I ask the Minister to provide an update regarding the Government's response to the decision by the British Government to move unilaterally to introduce legislation that effectively tries to tear up the Irish protocol and jeopardises the Good Friday Agreement.

The Government has been very clear in its response to the British Government's decision to introduce legislation which, if enacted, would disapply core elements of the protocol on Northern Ireland and breach international law. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and I, along with all other Ministers, have expressed our deep disappointment and concern at the British approach. Far from fixing anything, the UK Government's legislation would create a whole new set of uncertainties and damage relationships within Northern Ireland, across our islands, between our Governments, and between the UK and the EU and its member states.

The British Government's actions undermine the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. Partnership, vision and compromise delivered the Good Friday Agreement. Partnership, vision and compromise are necessary now to get beyond these current difficulties. The British Government's approach is also contrary to the views of the majority of people and businesses in Northern Ireland. They want predictability and stability. They want the UK to work with the EU to jointly agree solutions in respect of their genuine concerns.

Furthermore, at a time when we should all be supporting and respecting international law, it is disheartening to see the UK's international reputation and its standing as a strong voice on the rule of law being undermined deliberately. I made these views known directly to the British Government, including the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, when I spoke to her last on 13 June. I have engaged extensively on this issue with my EU counterparts and with Commission Vice-President Šefčovič. It is clear that the EU's commitment to Northern Ireland is undiminished and member states are united in their strong opposition to the UK's unilateral action. The EU remains ready and willing to talk to the UK about finding joint solutions so people and businesses in Northern Ireland can benefit from the unique opportunities that the protocol presents. I urge the British Government to step back from this unilateral approach and engage in good faith discussions with the EU.

It has to be said that the British Government has deliberately set out to break international law. It is one of only two European countries prepared to deliberately flout international law, the other, of course, being Russia. Its decision to act unilaterally to engage in reckless and shameful acts on the Irish protocol is an assault on the Good Friday Agreement, and these are attacks which are largely driven by the nefarious internal politics of the Tory party. Boris Johnson's approach to the protocol is driven by the need to fend off potential leadership challenges within his own political party. To do so, he has entered into an unholy pact with the most right-wing and reactionary elements within his party and the DUP. We in this House have to remain very focused and united in our condemnation and our agreement that this is right. We must defend the Irish protocol and also the Good Friday Agreement. We need to remain focused and united in our approach.

I want to use this opportunity to try to speak directly to the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. I want to say to them that we in the Irish Government and, I can assure them, in the EU also, within the European Commission, want to respond to their legitimate concerns in regard to how the protocol is implemented and the need to make a clear distinction between goods that are staying within the United Kingdom, travelling from Great Britain into Northern Ireland and being purchased and consumed there. I believe there is a landing zone here, if there was to be good faith on both sides in terms of approaching a negotiation with a view to finding a common landing ground which would involve compromise on both sides, compromise that I believe the EU has already shown and is willing to continue to show.

The problem now is that we have legislation published which asks of the EU things that the British Government knows the EU cannot accept, and effectively sets aside the protocol and disapplies it deliberately. That cannot be the basis of negotiation. What is needed now is for the British Government to make a decision to step back and to actually try to rebuild some trust with Ireland and with the EU. In my view, it is possible to solve a significant amount of the issues that have been raised, predominantly by the Unionist community and business leaders in Northern Ireland, in terms of how we approach this issue in the future.

I thank the Minister and I totally agree with what he has said. Indeed, it has to be said that Unionist leaders are out of sync, they are out of touch, with ordinary people in the North and what they view needs to happen and must happen. Yesterday, as the Minister will be aware, a coalition of 170 groups from across civil society in the North described Boris Johnson's plans to replace the Human Rights Act, which is supported by 84% of the population of the North, as a violation of the Good Friday Agreement. It is yet another example of the British Government reneging on its commitment to the peace process. It is another instance of a Tory agenda designed to continually erode the rights of citizens in the North. We in this House must remain unified, along with our European colleagues and with the support of the United States, in offering the strongest possible opposition to all of these illegal actions by the British Government, which endanger the peace process, threaten our economic well-being and continually erode the rights of citizens in the North.

It is important to call out what is happening in an open and blunt way. The approach towards political stability and maintaining that in Northern Ireland post the Good Friday agreement, for nearly 25 years now, has been based on partnership and trust between the British and Irish Governments, when it was needed, to provide a platform and a foundation to help the parties agree to compromise positions on awkward issues and find a way forward. That partnership is absent right now and has been for quite some time. We have seen that in terms of legacy legislation, we have seen it in the context of the Human Rights Act and we are seeing it in respect of the protocol linked to Brexit.

It is taking us in the wrong direction in terms of relationships on this island, between these islands and between the UK and the EU. I hope the British Government will reconsider that approach because it is taking us to a place where, certainly, we do not want to go. It is going to make matters worse rather than solve problems on this island, I am afraid.

Diplomatic Representation

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

94. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of times he has met with the Irish ambassador to Britain since he took office. [33477/22]

The Minister will agree that the position of Irish ambassador to Britain is very important, especially at this time of crisis in our relationship with Britain. I was surprised to hear of the Minister's decision to appoint the Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach, Martin Fraser, to the position of Irish ambassador to Britain.

As Deputies know, there is an investigation into the leaking of a confidential document by the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, to his friend - the head of a rival general practitioners' organisation - relating to certain negotiations. If Martin Fraser was in the position of ambassador, he could not be subpoenaed or give evidence in a court case because he would be outside the jurisdiction. It would also be a significant scandal for the country if a sitting ambassador was to give evidence into a criminal court case relating to a former Taoiseach.

There is no criminal court case. I do not know what Deputy Tóibín is talking about.

There is a case before the DPP.

There is no criminal court case.

I used the word "if".

This line of questioning is not only inappropriate, it is also in bad taste. I have worked closely with Adrian O'Neill, our current ambassador to London, since he took up his post in September 2017. This has been an especially busy period in British-Irish relations, which has seen the UK leave the EU and enter into a new post-Brexit relationship with the latter and Ireland. In this period, the ambassador, Mr. O'Neill supported the 17 in-person visits I have made to Great Britain. During these visits, the ambassador generally accompanies me for meetings with British Government representatives as well as with other political, Irish community, commercial or cultural contacts. He often meets me separately, or together with other embassy staff in the course of programmes. On a regular basis the ambassador also participates in calls and virtual meetings with high-level British contacts. Such forms of engagement were particularly important in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the second half of 2020, the Ambassador facilitated and participated in a number of calls with British Ministers and a virtual visit by the metropolitan mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City regions. I also hold weekly video calls with the Mr. O'Neill and other senior officials from across my Department to discuss the outworkings of Brexit. I also meet occasionally with the ambassador at the Department of Foreign Affairs headquarters and at major British-Irish events in Ireland, including those that take place during official high-level inward visits from Britain.

The role of our diplomatic network in Great Britain is especially important at this time as we work to advance Irish interests in a period of change and challenge, and seek to continue to strengthen British-Irish relations in the post-Brexit era. I will use this opportunity to thank Mr. O'Neill for an extraordinary job through a very turbulent and difficult period in terms of British-Irish relations as opposed to using it, as the Deputy has tried to do at the start of his contribution, to cast aspersions.

I call Deputy Tóibín, but he should bí cúramach.

Beidh mé cúramach. I just want to clarify what I said. The Garda has sent the Tánaiste's file to the DPP, and there may be a case. That is clear and factual. My concern about this is that I have submitted a great many questions to the Minister in regard to the appointment. My worry about the appointment is that it may be the case that the individual may need to give evidence in the future. This appointment has echoes similar to the Katherine Zappone affair. Many questions have been left unanswered. I asked if the Cabinet was notified about this particular appointment by 12 noon on Friday, 23 July of 2021. Martin Fraser had a responsibility to notify the Cabinet about his appointment. I understand, however, that the Cabinet was not fully aware of that information in the same way as it was not aware of the Katherine Zappone appointment at that time. I looked to find out was this post advertised. How many people applied for the job? Were curricula vitae submitted?

While the Deputy is trying to use this floor to damage people's reputations, I will say that we are lucky to have someone of the calibre and experience of Martin Fraser to take over as ambassador in London. His appointment was approved by Cabinet in the appropriate way along with the appointments of other ambassadors that day. We need experienced people who already have connections and relationships within the British system. We have serious issues to resolve with the British Government in the months and, potentially, in years ahead. To have experienced people who know how British-Irish relations work, who have a good understanding of Northern Ireland, who know how the Irish Government works across multiple Departments, not just within the Department of Foreign Affairs, is a great asset for us. I look forward to working with Martin Fraser as ambassador in the months ahead. In the interim, I continue to work with Mr. Adrian O'Neill, the current ambassador, who continues to do an extraordinary job.

To make it clear, I am not looking to damage anybody's reputation.

That is exactly what you are doing.

The Deputy should not be disingenuous.

I submitted these questions to the Minister in written format first and they were not answered. I have a responsibility as an Opposition Deputy to look for oversight in respect of appointments of this nature. One of the questions I asked that was not answered - and that has still not been answered today - is: when did the Cabinet become aware of that decision and when did the Minister become aware of it? I also asked questions about who was interviewed for the position, the dates on which the interviews took place and whether the Government had received a curriculum vitae from Martin Fraser. I asked what Martin Fraser's diplomatic background was. Did he sit diplomatic examinations? Does he have another European language other than Irish or English, as is usually the case for the diplomatic corps? These are questions that an Opposition Deputy would be expected to ask in order to understand whether the process relating to a particular appointment is fair, just and open.

I would expect an Opposition Member of the Deputy's experience to take some time to understand how ambassadors are appointed, how they are recommended and the process whereby recommendations come to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, predominantly from the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and then have to go to Government for approval in the normal way. That is what happened here. As I said, there is an assessment as to suitability for certain roles. The way in which Ireland appoints ambassadors is predominantly by means of an internal process within the Civil Service. Within the Department of Foreign Affairs, most of the time people move between different posts on the basis of their skill sets, experience, suitability and the relationships we have with the relevant countries at particular times.

We are now appointing perhaps the most experienced civil servant in Ireland in recent years to perhaps the most important position in terms of international relations and diplomacy. He is more than qualified for that job.

Just to notify Deputy Tóibín that there are ways under Standing Orders to write to the Ceann Comhairle if he is unhappy with the answers he got here this morning. We will move on to the next question.

Passport Services

John Brady

Question:

95. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on the efforts that have been made to address the delays in the issuing of passports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32922/22]

There is a crisis in the issuing of passports. Like many Deputies, I am contacted on a daily basis by dozens of people, on most days between 40 and 50 people, trying to get clarity and basic information about their passports, most of which have exceeded their estimated issue date. There is a serious crisis for many people who are missing out on holidays, losing out on many thousands of euro due to the failure of passports to be issued on time. Will the Minister provide an update on this serious issue?

The Passport Office continues to outperform its previously busiest year, 2019, by more than 20%. More than 623,000 passports have been issued to date in 2022. This is 105,000 more passports than were issued at this point of the last most busy year which was 2019. The processing time for first-time applications is now 25 working days, down from 40 working days in March. In the space of three months, processing time for first-time applications has been reduced by almost 40%. This is a substantial reduction in processing time, particularly in light of the significant increase in the number of applications we have seen this year.

My Department has been proactively planning for this increase in demand for many months and has made an unprecedented investment in staffing and resources to meet the demand. A major recruitment drive has been under way since last year. The Passport Office recently ran its own recruitment competition for temporary clerical officers. The Department has also been working with the HSE to provide opportunities to contact tracing staff to transfer to the Passport Office to man the telephones. This recruitment effort will bring staffing numbers at the Passport Office to more than 900. It was 460 this time last year.

Over the past number of weeks, the passport service has worked with An Garda Síochána to develop a system for verifying Garda witnesses on passport applications in cases where the Garda signature cannot be verified. This new system assists in reducing the number of applications that are delayed due to a failure to verify witness details. The urgent appointment service continues to operate successfully in Cork, Dublin and London. Additional staff have been added to the public-facing areas to deal with pressure during the summer months.

Intensive training of new staff and upskilling of existing staff has been under way for several months to increase the resources that can process complex applications, such as first-time child applications. Passport service staff are working overtime, with a focus on prioritising first-time applications. This strategy has seen real benefits with the processing time, as I have pointed out, reduced by about 40%. There is a huge level of demand but we are responding to it.

I have talked privately with Deputy Brady about a number of cases where we have tried to offer assistance.

There is a crisis. There has been a huge increase in demand but that was not unexpected. To hear that we are still trying to recruit staff to deal with this crisis is concerning. It shows a lack of proper planning. The fact that we are still training and recruiting staff is unacceptable.

It must be said that the staff working in the Passport Office are excellent. There is no criticism whatsoever of the staff. They are working exceptionally hard but there are major challenges for first-time and child passport applications. I am contacted daily by 40 to 50 people who are wondering where their passport is and who cannot get through to anyone in the Passport Office by phone or web chat. In many cases, their applications have exceeded the estimated issue date by weeks. It is totally unacceptable that people whose applications have been with Passport Office for eight to ten weeks are contacted by trackers only days before the estimated issue date to be told that there is a problem. That is a serious issue and is one of the major failings within the system. It creates an additional workload for staff and puts extra pressure on applicants and staff.

I am not saying that there are not cases every week and every day where interventions are needed in order to make sure that the public gets the service it expects. What I am saying is that over the past number of weeks we have issued an average of around 6,000 passports per day, which is in the region of 30% more than we have ever done. When I say that we are recruiting staff, we lose staff and gain staff like every large operation does, so we have to have ongoing recruitment. We have double the number of staff now than we had this time last year. That is a reflection of the planning that has happened.

We have seen a dramatic improvement in the call line for the public which has been under extraordinary pressure. We have taken on a lot of extra staff, some of whom have come from the HSE's contact tracing operations. Yesterday, the average waiting time for the public call line was six minutes. I asked the question of my Department and that is what I was told. That is a dramatic improvement on where we were a few weeks ago. We have an Oireachtas line that was set up specifically to help Members of the Oireachtas to deal with passport queries. We have reacted. Is the system perfect? No, it is not but we are dealing with huge numbers. By and large, the vast majority of passports are now delivered on time. Approximately half of adult renewals are delivered within 48 hours.

I acknowledge that the turnaround time for most passport renewal applications is extraordinary. I welcome that and praise the staff of the Passport Office for it. However, there are serious challenges. I would seriously question the assertion that people are only waiting six minutes to talk to someone in the Passport Office.

That is the average wait time.

I spoke to a number of people this week who found it impossible to get through, despite many attempts. There is a serious problem with people submitting applications but after eight to ten weeks, and only a couple of days before the estimated issue date, they are contacted by a checker in the Passport Office and told there is an issue. The issue may relate to photographs or to documentation but that adds an additional workload for staff and increases the anxiety of applicants. People have booked their holidays in good faith. When issues are flagged, that can add an additional two or three weeks to the processing time. That needs to be addressed immediately.

When applicants have to send in extra information, which sometimes happens, that does delay the process. In those cases, we try to have a turnaround time of 15 working days after that. The clock does not go back to the start. We try to have a faster turnaround time. This is all about trying to deliver a better service to the public. We also have to get better at communicating with the public so that fewer errors are made on applications. It is our job to do that. I am not blaming the public; I am trying to get a better system in place in terms of communication. We are doing that at the moment with online videos and so on, to try to make sure that people clearly understand what they need to do.

It is important to put a number of things on the record. First, 80% of applications received by the Passport Office are for renewals for both adults and children and 99% of these are issued within the standard turnaround time. Almost half of all adults who renew their passport online will receive a new passport in the post within two working days. I ask Deputy Brady to point to any other country in the world that is delivering that kind of turnaround time. Admittedly, there can be problems with individual cases and we are continuing to try to respond to those but in general, we are delivering an extraordinary service.

We all appreciate the efforts that staff in the Passport Office are making.

Passport Services

Seán Canney

Question:

96. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if, with the surge in the number of applications for passports and the delays in getting those applications processed, he will consider opening a passport office in the west of Ireland to serve the needs of the population there; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33475/22]

I compliment the staff of the Passport Office and of the Minister's office, but I would argue that it is high time we located a public-facing passport service office in the west of Ireland in order to serve the people of that region. There is a communications issue. People have difficulties with speaking to someone in the Passport Office, with submitting documents and with finding out what is going on with their applications when they are under pressure. I ask the Minister to consider opening an office in the west of Ireland to serve the needs of people there.

Passport applications from all citizens across the island of Ireland or abroad are distributed for processing at the three Passport Office locations on the basis of the type of application rather than the place of residence of the applicant. More than 90% of all passport applications, including first-time applications, are now being made through Passport Online.

The passport service is committed to continuing to offer a range of application channels, including an off-line service for citizens who are not eligible or do not wish to use the Passport Online service. Passport Online is the priority channel for applications, as there are many efficiencies built into the system for both the applicant and the passport service. Passport Online consistently offers processing times up to four times faster than paper-based passport renewal applications. A paper-based, mail-in service is available to citizens at more than 1,000 post office locations across the island. The availability of both Passport Online and the postal application channel means that very few applicants are required to travel a significant distance in order to apply for passports. Passport service figures show that less than 1% of all applicants use the in-person urgent appointment service available at the Passport Office in Dublin and Cork. Given the high percentage of applicants using Passport Online, I am confident that the range of service options available meets the current needs of passport applicants. Furthermore, recent service improvements allow the passport service to provide this essential citizen service in an efficient and effective manner.

At the moment, the priority is the turnaround time and getting passports to people on time. I am not ruling out extending our footprint to other parts of the island of Ireland, either Northern Ireland, the west or the north west. I recognise that it is a long drive to from somewhere like Donegal or Sligo to either Dublin or Cork to get an urgent appointment. To be honest, we are trying to move the whole system online in order that no matter where people apply from, they can get an efficient service. That needs to be the focus for now.

The Minister said he is not ruling out increasing the footprint across the country, but let us take the example of somebody living in Clifden who needs an emergency passport.

He or she travels through the county and arrives in Ballinasloe, halfway to Dublin but not having left the county. If a child needs an emergency passport, both parents have to take time off work to get it. Their options are to go to Dublin or to Cork. People are asking me why we cannot have a passport office in the west of Ireland to serve areas from Limerick to Donegal. We are not looking for something major. It is about having that service locally, which would help people who are under severe pressure when problems arise.

For the past month, phone calls to the Passport Office have been going unanswered. I accept that the situation in that regard is improving but there is frustration. The people phoning the Passport Office need to speak to a member of its staff. Many of my constituents have travelled to Dublin just to go into the Passport Office to try to find out what is going on.

I take the Deputy's point. We are trying to move the entire system online so that people can interact with the Passport Office from their homes, either through the webchat function or by contacting an efficiently run call centre that answers their calls. That call centre has been under extraordinary pressure in recent months. We have had to add significantly to its size, and that is happening. We have done that efficiently. Rather than going through a long recruitment process, which takes time, we have instead linked in with the HSE to get large numbers of contact tracers to come onto the passport call line system. That is the most efficient way of doing it within the Civil Service and the public sector. That only started this week. The public will see a significant improvement in service this week. Even if one goes to the Cork office, the passports are not printed there, so the urgent appointments system in Cork gives a four-day turnaround rather than a one-day turnaround. We cannot have passport offices all over the country. We need to have an efficient system, but we will keep an open mind on whether it is appropriate to add to the footprint. For now, we are focusing on turnaround times.

I accept that. I reiterate my admiration for the staff of the Passport Office and those of the Minister's office. The phone line for Oireachtas Members is fantastic, but it is creating 160 little passport offices around the country. People are contacting several Deputies on particular issues to try to get traction. We are there to help. The Minister has said he will explore the matter. I understand he is trying to move the service online. He stated that people can communicate with the Passport Office from their homes but many in my area do not have the Internet connection to do so. There are many people who are still working offline. There is a need for a passport office in the west. I welcome that the Minister said he will explore it and I look forward to working with him to try to deliver it for the west of Ireland.

We are changing our software system. It will not be concluded until next year but, when we do that, we will have more options, such as potentially working with networks such as the An Post network or social welfare offices, for example. That would broaden the service geographically in terms of where people can apply for passports and so on. The fact is that passports are printed in Dublin. When I was Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, people told me that if we moved the whole farm payments online, many farmers would be unable to deal with that because they do not have broadband connections and all the rest of it. For many years now, all farmers have successfully been applying for their payments online. It is the only way in which one can do so. We need to get to a point where everybody applying for a passport does so online, but we have to make sure there are facilities available for those who do not have connections in their homes to be able to do that in the locality and so on. The online system is so much more efficient. It is much easier for me to intervene or for the Oireachtas call centre to do so in important cases if there is an online file on which one can intervene. Paper-based applications are much more complex to deal with because they involve physical piles of paper through which one has to search for a certain application. That is difficult when one is dealing with thousands of applications every day. This is a system that is evolving and changing. It has experienced extraordinary demand this year and, by and large, we have dealt with that, with some obvious exceptions where things have gone wrong. It is improving by the week. To give people a bit of good news, the demand for passports will be down by approximately one third in June, which will give the system a chance to catch its breath.

Maritime Jurisdiction

Michael Collins

Question:

97. Deputy Michael Collins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if negotiations will begin immediately with the French Government to cease its military exercise in order to protect fishermen, fishing vessels and the environment, given that Irish fishermen have again been warned of risks to their safety considering the nature of these exercises which will take place off the southern coast of Ireland outside of territorial waters but within the Irish exclusive economic zone. [33485/22]

Last week, the French navy made contact with the Irish Government to state it was carrying out a military exercise off the south coast. This is the second time in a few months that the Government of another country has contacted our country to state it would be carrying out military exercises within Irish territorial waters. Has this French military exercise been put off permanently or for a few days? Has it just been moved a few feet outside our territorial waters?

We have been in contact with our French counterparts on this issue and got assurances from them that there will not be any French vessels in the Irish exclusive economic zone, EEZ, during these exercises. It is important to differentiate between Irish territorial waters and the Irish EEZ, which involves international waters for which Ireland is responsible. They are different things. Ireland's territorial waters extend up to 12 nautical miles from our shore. Ireland exercises sovereignty within our territorial seas, subject to the relevant rules of international law. Military vessels of other states may not conduct exercises within territorial seas except with ministerial consent. Diplomatic clearance procedures are in place to consider requests for such permissions but such requests are rare.

In this case, it was not a request to come into Irish territorial waters. It was a notification to the Irish Aviation Authority regarding the potential for exercises off the coast of France to impact on a small portion of Ireland's EEZ. There is a big difference between those two things. We have expressed concern, as we have done previously, in respect of military exercises taking place within the EEZ. Countries are entitled to apply for that and it is not a breach of international law or anything. In the context of the EEZ, which is different from territorial waters, we are not entitled to refuse them without good reason. In this case, the relationship with France is particularly good. Obviously, we have spoken to the French authorities on the matter and I am happy that they confirmed there will not be any French vessels inside our EEZ and certainly not inside our territorial waters in the context of those exercises.

I thank the Minister for providing clarity. It is a major concern to Irish fishermen that these activities by other countries are increasing. It is a danger to the lives and incomes of fishermen. They may have to leave a particular area if there is disruption to their fishing activities. Their incomes have been struck down hard in recent years. They cannot take another hit but they are being expected to do so. Obviously, the cost of fuel is another massive issue for fishermen. It is a significant crisis. They are fighting for survival. The Russians did it a few months ago and the French coming along now. How many more countries are expected to try to surround our territorial waters and carry out their military activities? Is this a new move by other countries or is it something that has been happening for several years, unknown to the Irish people?

It is not common but it happens. What happened here was not unusual. The Irish Aviation Authority was informed of the exercises via standard procedures and the Department of Transport has issued a marine notice to this effect. As a close partner, however, the Government has remained in close contact with French authorities and will continue to do so in the coming period.

I compliment the Irish South and West Fisher Producers Organisation. Its involvement in terms of being highly vocal in raising the concerns of fishermen and environmentalists in terms of marine ecosystems in the context of military exercises in the open sea has been very welcome.

I thank the group for that. It has raised the profile of this issue in a way that has been very helpful. I assure the Deputy that we have also been busy in terms of our diplomatic channels, not just with France but with other countries as well, in recent months.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He said these occurrences are not common but, in fact, they have happened twice in the past few months. He is right in his praise for the role of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation in the first incident. It has been very vocal on behalf of the fishermen it represents and their livelihoods and safety at sea. The group has also been speaking about the dangers from such incidents for marine life, including fish, dolphins and whales, and the danger to the environment and our neutrality. We are meant to be a neutral country. It looks like these activities, or the requests to have them happen, are being stepped up within our waters.

The Minister did not answer my question about whether the French military exercise has been put off permanently or for a few days? We were informed a couple of days ago that the French were trying to go ahead with it. Is it completely off the agenda for now or is it just being moved a few feet outside our territorial waters?

The answer to the Deputy's last question is that it is a matter for France. My job is to be well informed in regard to what is happening within our EEZ and our territorial waters. It really is a matter for France in terms of its own security exercises and so on outside of that.

Military exercises or manoeuvres are traditionally recognised as being a part of the freedom of the high seas, as captured under Article 87 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS. These rights are transcribed directly into the EEZs of coastal states. Under international law, including UNCLOS, states are entitled to carry out naval exercises in another state's EEZ. It is not unusual for naval ships or vessels of other states to carry out training exercises within the Irish EEZ or to make passage through the area. This is not in any way an infringement of our international territory in terms of international law. While foreign ministers are not obliged in most cases to inform the coastal authorities of their proposed activities, the Naval Service has collated some data on encounters with foreign navies in the Irish EEZ over the past number of years.

We are watching the situation closely but nothing that has happened over the past number of months is a breach of international law. It is because of our good diplomatic relations with other countries that we sometimes can change the direction of a decision by another country.

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