Foreign Affairs Council: Discussion

At today's meeting we will meet with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, to discuss matters that have arisen at the Foreign Affairs Council and other matters relevant to foreign affairs and trade.

I welcome the Minister and officials and thank them for the briefing they have provided for this meeting.

The format is that we will hear the Minister's opening statement before going into a question and answer session with the members of the committee.

Before we begin I remind members, witnesses and those in the Gallery to ensure that their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference even in silent mode with the recording equipment in the committee room. I also remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I call on the Tánaiste to make his opening statement.

I thank the Chairman and committee members for the opportunity to be here. I look forward to the questions and discussion that will follow when I outline the Government's position on a range of issues. I also welcome the ambassadors and the other members of the diplomatic corps who have taken the time to be here today.

I thank the joint committee for the invitation to address it on developments at the EU Foreign Affairs Council. I had been due to appear on 1 March but the meeting was cancelled due to adverse weather. I am glad to say the weather is not a problem this week. I am pleased to have an opportunity to discuss developments at the Council, which met most recently met on Monday last. My Department has provided a detailed information note to the committee on the wide range of issues the Foreign Affairs Council has considered in recent few months. In the interests of maximising the time available for discussion, I propose to address only the major themes of the Council's discussions in my opening remarks.

I will first discuss Middle East issues. I thank Deputy Niall Collins for writing a comprehensive letter to me in recent days setting out his concerns on the situation in Gaza and the broader Middle East process. My Department and I will supply him with a detailed written reply.

Naturally, in what has been a period of upheaval and tragedy, the Middle East peace process has been one of the most frequent topics on the Foreign Affairs Council's agenda and was discussed in September 2017, and again at the meetings of the Council in December 2017 and January and February of this year. The December meeting was held just after the US announcement on moving its embassy to Jerusalem and we discussed the unambiguous negative impact this would have, as we made clear at the time. There was also an informal breakfast with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, which allowed for a useful and frank conversation. The level of EU unity in support of a two-state solution was notable. I used the opportunity to speak about the damage that the continued construction of settlements on Palestinian land is doing to prospects for peace and a new peace initiative.

At the January Council meeting, we discussed how best we could support the Palestinian leadership in its efforts to keep the hopes of the population focused on a political track. We restated our support for the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA. I highlighted the need to support the Palestinian leadership and expressed deep concerns about the untenable situation in Gaza. On numerous occasions, I have appealed to the United States to review its decision on UNRWA funding. We had an informal lunch with President Abbas at which we reiterated the European Union's strong support for a two-state solution in a constructive discussion. We had a further discussion on the Middle East peace process at the February Council meeting. We also had an exchange with some of the key Arab foreign ministers on this issue, focusing on the prospects for a US peace initiative.

I requested that Gaza be added to the agenda for the Foreign Affairs Council meeting last Monday, following the shocking events there in recent weeks. Even before recent events in Gaza, this has been a difficult and dispiriting period, with ongoing settlement construction, demolitions and restrictions on economic development making the path forward ever more difficult. Decisions such as the announcement last week of further settlement construction and a court judgment on the Bedouin community of Khan al-Amar are extremely worrying and threaten to directly erode the physical space that is needed to establish a Palestinian state in the future.

I have also strongly condemned rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, which undermine the Palestinian cause and are counterproductive in terms of alleviating humanitarian suffering in Gaza. That situation is worsening and efforts to restore Palestinian Authority governance in Gaza seem to have stalled for now. The US announcement on moving its embassy to Jerusalem was a disappointing and premature development and has, undoubtedly, complicated US efforts to bring forward a successful peace initiative. Ireland has been to the fore in pressing for constructive EU action on this issue and we have kept it high on our agenda. I have visited the region twice to meet all of the key players and I will visit again next week, something which has informed my contributions to EU discussions.

The situation in Libya was on the agenda for the Council meeting in July 2017 and, again, in January 2018 when the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Libya, Mr. Ghassan Salamé, joined our discussions. Ministers share a deep concern about the appalling abuses that have been reported against migrants in Libya. They agreed on the importance of supporting the work done by UN agencies to improve conditions for migrants, and of working with countries of origin to address migration generally. I am glad some progress has been made in that area. The restoration of stable government in Libya, where the rule of law can be implemented across the territory of the country, is essential to bringing a permanent end to these abuses. It was useful for us to discuss with the UN special representative his plans to bring the parties together and prepare for elections.

The influence of Iran on the region is worrying and negative, especially the support the country has provided to the regime of President Assad. Nevertheless, Ireland believes the Iran nuclear deal shows how multilateral political action can help to de-escalate some of the world's worst security challenges. Ireland firmly supports non-proliferation and we believe the entire Middle East should be a zone that is free of weapons of mass destruction. The situation in Iran was discussed at the Council meetings of October 2017, March and April 2018 and earlier this week. The EU has been united in its support for the Iran nuclear agreement and we were deeply disappointed that the US has decided to withdrawn from the agreement. The EU continues to be committed to the deal as long as Iran fulfils its obligations under the agreement. I call on the other parties, likewise, to remain committed to an agreement to which we all signed up.

There are a number of complex and interlinked conflicts in the Middle East region. It was useful, therefore, to have a broader discussion in December on recent developments across the Middle East. This discussion allowed us to touch on the linkages between the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, Lebanon and the Gulf crisis. Our discussions stressed the primacy of the UN's Geneva process on Syria and the need for accountability; the need for unity and dialogue in Iraq; support for stability and the upcoming elections in Lebanon; and the need for continued support in Jordan. On Iran, there was agreement that the EU should continue to engage on and through the nuclear deal, but also that we address Iran's regional activities and ballistic missiles programme, which is worrying. My intervention focused on Syria and Yemen. I called for the EU to make a political contribution in support of a negotiated solution in Yemen and to intensify our efforts to make progress in that regard. I also raised, in a focused way, the need to get humanitarian access and assistance to civilians in Yemen in the context of a war-torn country.

There was a more detailed discussion on Syria at the February, March and April meetings of the Council. The position is Syria is increasingly desperate and there have been appalling attacks on civilians, as we will all have seen regularly on media broadcasts. Outside involvement is fuelling and sustaining this conflict. Ministers agreed on the need for a strong push to restart the UN's Geneva process. There is also a concern that the reignition of fighting in a number of areas may take the pressure off ISIS, which had lost most of its territory in the past year but has not disappeared.

The Council meeting of April discussed the western Balkans in preparation for the summit that took place last week on 17 May. Ireland is a firm supporter of the European perspective of the western Balkans. I was pleased the support Ministers expressed for the current focus on the region was reflected in a successful summit in Sofia, Bulgaria. We agree on the need to encourage the western Balkans to continue to vigorously pursue reforms and that the European Union needs to give practical assistance. The stability of the region is important to the security of the EU and we need to be sure our message is communicated effectively.

The March Foreign Affairs Council had a discussion on Ukraine which covered progress on implementation of the national reform programme and the ongoing conflict in the east of the country. The High Representative updated Ministers on her visit to Ukraine a few days earlier, where she reaffirmed the EU’s unwavering support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ministers agreed that significant progress had been made on the reforms, while noting that much more still needed to be done.

On Russia, in March the UK updated Ministers on the Salisbury nerve agent attack and the Council expressed its full solidarity and support for the UK. At the April Foreign Affairs Council, member states stressed the need for EU unity on Russia and upheld the validity of the five guiding principles for the relationship, which have served the EU well. Several states urged greater support for civil society in Russia. On sanctions, there was broad agreement that the lack of progress on implementation of the Minsk agreement and Russia’s unwillingness to engage constructively in the trilateral contact group negotiations made it inevitable that the restrictive sanctions measures would remain in place.

In March Ministers discussed the situation on the Korean Peninsula with the South Korean Foreign Minister, who gave a generally optimistic assessment of developments with the DPRK. High-level talks held between the Republic of Korea and the DPRK since then, and the prospect of direct talks with the US, are an encouraging signal which can be conducive to fostering trust and de-escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula as a whole. This is positive news. Nevertheless, along with our EU partners, we remain conscious that similar initiatives in the past have not worked out, despite significant political and financial investment. We are also conscious of the DPRK’s serial breaching of UN Security Council resolutions on missile testing and nuclear detonations as well as its appalling human rights record.

Ireland continues therefore to support the EU’s policy of critical engagement with the DPRK, which was reaffirmed during our discussion in March. This combines pressure with sanctions and other measures while keeping communication and dialogue channels open. The EU is also maintaining dialogue with third countries such as China in order to ensure that restrictive measures are being implemented in an effective way. Ireland continues to provide some humanitarian assistance in the DPRK via the World Food Programme and through international NGOs operating in North Korea.

The Foreign Affairs Council has considered the follow-up to the EU-African Union summit held in Abidjan last November. If the relationship between the African Union and the EU is to be productive and constructive, we must meet more frequently and at the highest political levels, over the months and years ahead.

In addition, the Council has been considering the forthcoming negotiations with African, Caribbean and Pacific states on a successor to the current Cotonou partnership agreement which expires in 2020. The Cotonou Agreement is a comprehensive partnership for economic, social and cultural development of the three regions. The EU’s aim is for a new partnership, called post-Cotonou, which re-energises relations and which emphasises regular and high-level political engagement. The Council this week agreed to further work on the negotiating mandate. I would like to get the committee's views on this matter. My view currently is that the political infrastructure currently in place between Europe and Africa is totally unfit for purpose and we need to put an entirely new structure in place for the kind of engagement that will be needed to help the continent of Africa and Europe to deal through partnership with the multiple challenges Africa faces, including climate change, food security, energy security, water security, migration, corruption, regional conflict and so much more besides in the context of an extra 1 billion people on the continent of Africa in the next 25 years. These are massive challenges which I believe should be prioritised in terms of the future of Europe and its impact globally.

Aside from considering day-to-day foreign policy issues, the Foreign Affairs Council has also been discussing how the EU can promote a rules-based international order with multilateralism as its key principle and the UN at its core. The EU global strategy sets out a vision for foreign and security policy. It commits the Union to promoting peace, prosperity, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

The Council has been monitoring progress on the implementation of the strategy. In the area of security and defence this includes strengthening the EU’s peacekeeping capacity in support of the United Nations. We have also made progress on implementing a strategic approach to strengthening the resilience of states and societies in our neighbourhood and in developing an integrated approach to conflicts and crises. Unfortunately there is no shortage of them. A particular priority in the time ahead will be the EU’s role in strengthening multilateralism and global governance.

I know PESCO has had considerable debate in our Parliament. PESCO was formally launched at the Foreign Affairs Council on 11 December. Twenty-five member states are participating. The Irish Government approved participation on 21 November and Dáil Éireann approval was obtained on 7 December in accordance with the provisions of the Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. This enabled Ireland to participate in PESCO from the outset.

For us PESCO is a tool for member states to jointly develop the essential capabilities necessary to carry out peacekeeping tasks in missions in Lebanon, Mali and elsewhere. PESCO can only operate in that context, anchored within the global strategy and bound to all the other measures – prevention, mediation, diplomatic, development, economic – that form part of the EU’s integrated approach to situations of conflict and crisis.

Ireland’s participation will enhance the Defence Forces’ capabilities for a wide range of United Nations-mandated missions where they must be able to work with contingents from other countries. It allows the men and women of our Defence Forces to gain access to the latest equipment and training, which enhances their ability to participate safely and effectively in challenging peacekeeping missions. Twenty-five of the 28 member states are participating, including other member states such as Austria, Cyprus, Finland and Sweden which are neutral or not members of any military alliance, which, of course, is also the case for Ireland.

The deployment of the Defence Forces overseas on peacekeeping missions will continue to be governed by the triple lock which requires UN authority and approval by the Government and Dáil Éireann.

Any capabilities developed or equipment procured under PESCO belong to the member states individually and any deployments remain a decision solely for the member state concerned in accordance with its legal and constitutional requirements. In other words, this is voluntary. We buy into the projects and assignments that we want to under the structures of PESCO. Therefore there is no undermining of Irish neutrality or the issues linked to it.

Maximising the potential of the EU’s military and civilian Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, is another priority. Civilian missions have traditionally focused on the need to strengthen the police, rule of law and civilian administration in host countries. New and increasing challenges such as cyber and hybrid threats, organised crime, counterterrorism and irregular migration are now forming part of these missions’ work. These new challenges will mean changes to the way CSDP operates to ensure that it is as responsive and as effective as possible.

Good progress has already been made here. There is strong commitment that more can be done, including on preparing a new civilian capabilities development plan in the first half of this year and a civilian CSDP compact by the end of this year. My Department currently seconds a total of 12 civilian experts in eight of the ten civilian CSDP missions in Europe, the Middle East, and in Libya, Somalia and the Sahel. Eight members of An Garda Síochána are also deployed to the EU’s mission in Kosovo. It is vital that they have the tools they need to operate effectively. That is what the co-operation with other EU countries is all about.

I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to update the committee on what has been a wide-ranging agenda at the Foreign Affairs Council. I look forward to hearing the perspectives members have. If members are interested in something I have not raised, that is not to say that I do not want to comment or answer questions on it.

We picked out the issues that we thought members would be interested in. There is major interest in the Middle East and the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians which, unfortunately, in recent weeks has had tragic consequences.

I thank the Minister for his detailed opening statement. At the outset, I would like to recognise the efforts the Tánaiste is making regarding the Middle East, most recently, at the Foreign Affairs Council. He is due to travel there again shortly.

In relation to the Israel-Palestine situation, the Tánaiste outlined in detail the numbers of engagements, both formal and informal, he has had, but can he expand on any concrete steps that will be taken to hold Israel accountable for violations of international law?

We will take the issues together.

I met recently representatives of Médecins Sans Frontières who spoke of the horrendous conditions of the detention centres in Libya. Everyone here will be aware that they no longer receive funding from Irish Aid following the EU-Turkey migration deal. Are there any Irish Aid funds going towards these detention centres? If so, could we have a bit of detail on it? What level of oversight is there of such funding, given the level of migration and the issues which are experienced there?

In relation to Syria, the Tánaiste outlined in his opening statement that, "Ministers agreed on the need for a strong push to re-start the UN's Geneva process." He might expand on that and tell us what exactly Ministers have in mind by the need to re-start the process. In relation to the NGOs and Irish Aid in general and the goal to reach 0.7% of GNI funding, how is the roadmap for that developing?

I will start with the final question. It is no secret that I think Ireland needs to put a convincing roadmap in place to get us to where we promised we would be, which is to commit 0.7% of our gross national income to development aid funding. To put that into context, we are currently spending €700 million a year on development aid. If we were to get to 0.7% by 2030, which is a target we would like to certainly focus on, we would have to get to spending €2.5 billion by then. That is the kind of scale of increased expenditure that one is talking about. It is not easy to factor that into budgets because it means very significant increases annually, even if one is to do it over a ten-year period or more. We are currently talking to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of the Taoiseach about that.

I have strong views on this issue. We are currently spending below 0.3%, not because we have reduced funding in this area - in fact, we increased our development aid funding in the previous budget by €25 million - but because our economy is growing at such a pace that to simply stand still and not reduce the percentage of GNI that relates to overseas development aid, ODA, one would have to spend between €50 million and €70 million extra. This is a difficult challenge for us. If our economy was standing still it would be much easier to do this but we have an economy that is growing at the fastest pace in Europe for the fourth year in a row. When a country is in deep recession, when we have to make hard choices to support our own people and to provide basic services and supports for them, that is one matter but when we have an economic growth story such as we have right now, in my view, we have an obligation to the poorest of the poor.

We have a good track record in how we spend money on overseas aid programmes. We will launch a White Paper process to review that and to modernise it. In the coming weeks, we will also launch our global footprint plan between now and 2025. One will see much discussion and activity around the role of overseas aid, in terms of Ireland's contribution globally, particularly in the developing world and on the continent of Africa. One will also see commitments, which we will need Opposition parties to support us on, to prioritise increased expenditure at budget time to make a roadmap to 0.7% real because it is easy to promise these goals for 2030 or beyond but not make the financial choices and decisions in advance of the budget for next year. This will require hard choices. Obviously, the more support we get from this committee and from other political parties, the easier it is for us to do that. I am absolutely committed to a credible route to 0.7% and the significant expenditure increases that will be required to get us there.

In terms of Libya, as a former Minister for Defence, I am quite familiar with this issue. As Deputy Niall Collins will be aware, we have had naval ships on and off in the Mediterranean, largely picking up refugees who have come from Libya to the shores around Tripoli. It is a desperately tragic story. The conditions in many of the camps on the shoreline are horrific. There are many stories of sexual abuse and rape of women. There are many horrific stories of people trafficking, basically, people being put into boats that are not at all seaworthy and that everybody knows will not make it 15 miles, never mind across the Mediterranean. This is a tragic situation that the European Union has focused on, and is spending a lot of money and a lot of political capital on trying to help to resolve. In April of last year, the EU approved a €90 million programme to step up protection for migrants and to reinforce migration measures in Libya. The €90 million is in addition to €120 million already announced for migration related support for Libya.

Ireland's contribution is essentially through an EU contribution, which we obviously contribute to. We do not have a bilateral ODA support programme in Libya. The main reason for that is because we do not have any presence in Libya. Normally, when we have priority countries with aid programmes, we have a government that we can negotiate with that we get transparency from, in terms of how funding is spent and how programmes operate, etc. In Libya, it is difficult to do that. There are security and governance issues and we have done it, essentially, by supporting EU funding programmes to date.

The Deputy would have heard me call for an international investigation into the violence in Gaza in recent weeks. I refer to the 110 Palestinians that have been shot, many of them a long way from the border wall. The credible approach here is to insist on an independent inquiry on what happened. Israelis will defend their actions. Palestinians will also make very credible arguments in terms of what happened here and the tragic consequences. We have supported and sponsored a session in the human rights council. We are not a member of the human rights council but we have been supportive of a motion which has supported the setting up of an independent inquiry, which will find it difficult to do its work because I do not think Israel will co-operate. I still think it is a useful exercise. There needs to be accountability when there is this kind of violent engagement where so many people have been killed because of military interventions and the use of live ammunition largely on unarmed crowds, which is what happened.

The cross-party debate we have had in the Dáil on the issue reflects the concern in Ireland in that regard.

History will judge the global powers harshly for what has been allowed to happen and what continues to happen in Syria. There are a number of processes to try to make political progress that will make a ceasefire stick and last. In truth, I am not sure if any of them is working. The one we support strongly is the Geneva process. The ongoing violence in Syria has cost the lives of well over 400,000 people, while countless others have been injured and displaced. The numbers displaced run into millions. I have condemned the violence on numerous occasions in the Dáil and reiterate that condemnation. Together with other countries, Ireland states there is a need to give strong political support to the Geneva process in an effort to try to bring some political stability to a country that has been and continues to be torn apart by war. Since 2012, Ireland has provided more than €109 million in humanitarian assistance for those affected by the conflict, including almost €25 million last year and over €16 million so far this year. It includes the provision of support within Syria and also for countries in the region, including, in particular, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey which are host countries for large numbers of refugees. At the UN hosted pledge conference for Syria and the region that took place in Brussels on 25 April Ireland pledged a further €25 million in humanitarian assistance in 2018, thus maintaining the same level of assistance we provided last year. Given the very significant level of ongoing need, Ireland also made a commitment to provide multi-year predictable funding beyond 2018.

One of the things I will be doing next week when I am in Jordan is visiting refugee camps. Countries such as Jordan and Libya are doing extraordinary things in trying to incorporate hundreds of thousands of refugees. When European countries talk about trying to manage migrants and refugees, the numbers of thousands are often in single digits. We should spare a thought for countries such as Lebanon where half of the population are refugees. Jordan and Turkey are dealing with enormous numbers of refugees. We have an obligation to assist in any way we can with monetary and policy support. Next Tuesday I am due to leave very early to travel to Jordan. Jordan and Egypt are important strategic countries in the context of the Middle East peace process. I have been to Egypt in recent months. The last time I travelled to Israel and Palestine, I travelled to Egypt first. This time I am visiting Amman in Jordan. We will open an embassy in Jordan before the end of the year which, again, is reinforcing the interest Ireland has in the broader Middle East peace process. We recognise the role Jordan plays as a stabilising country in the broader region. We will then visit Tel Aviv and Ramallah for political meetings in Israel and Palestine. We will then travel to Cyprus, a country which potentially has a strategic role to play in the neighbourhood as an EU member state but also as a country with a coastline that geographically is very close to Gaza and Israel.

I will happily come back to report on the political engagements I will have during the visit. We have engagement at very senior political level with all of the countries mentioned. If I meet the Israeli Prime Minister, it will be the fourth time I will have met him in nine months. We are due to meet the Palestinian Foreign Minister, Mr. Riyad al-Mliki, and the Palestinian chief negotiator, Mr. Saeb Erekat, in Ramallah. Likewise, I am due to meet my counterparts in Cyprus and Jordan. That is the reason I have asked Opposition parties to give us some time and space to try to make diplomacy and politics work in the Middle East, rather than make a radical change of direction in an effort to show solidarity or express frustration at the lack of progress in the past 12 months.

My party, Sinn Féin, is critical of the lack of action by the Government, particularly in responding to events in Gaza. The Dáil collectively made its position very clear that it wanted to see some response. That was the view expressed by most speakers from all parties. There is an onus on us to respond to what is happening in Gaza which clearly is wrong. We were horrified that on 14 May in Gaza the Israeli army murdered at least 59 Palestinians and injured more than 2,700 others. The Israelis have since killed a further 121 Palestinians in Gaza, while 12,000 have been injured. These are significant numbers. There was an expectation arising from the meeting the Tánaiste attended that there would be some agreement but clearly there was not. I am interested in hearing the Minister's views in that regard. Will there ever be agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Council of Foreign Ministers that the Minister attends? There is a lot of guilt because of the treatment of the Jewish people during the Second World War. For that reason, I do not think we will ever get agreement, but there is an onus on countries such as Ireland to stand up and do something.

Yesterday there was an escalation of the conflict, with the Israeli army responding to the use of projectiles, as mentioned by the Minister. I thought it was interesting that the Israeli ambassador went on television when the conflict was ongoing in Gaza and spoke about Israel defending its borders. Does the Minister know where the Israel's borders start and end? I do not think the Palestinians know. I do not think a lot of countries in the region know. The Syrians do not know. Israel occupies part of Syria. Perhaps that is an issue that might be raised at the meeting.

I know that there was an attempt to breach the naval blockade of Gaza. The boat was carrying patients who needed medical care, students and people who were looking for jobs in universities, but it was intercepted and many were injured on it. Bullets were fired by the Israeli army. We need to make a strong statement on what is happening. I do not think Israel is listening to anybody, with the exception of President Trump when he confirmed that the United States would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I agree with the Minister's view that US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was disastrous and a negative step, but something needs to happen. Ireland could recognise the state of Palestine. Senator Frances Black has brought forward a Bill, but will the Government allow it to be debated on Second Stage to be scrutinised further? There is also the question of banning goods from the illegal settlements.

The Minister mentioned Khan al-Ahmar, a Palestinian Bedouin village in the occupied West Bank. Do people know that if the illegal demolition goes ahead, it will pave the way for illegal colonial settlement and construction of the EI corridor?

Was that possibility discussed at the meeting? It further undermines the possibility of a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem. Was it discussed? The Tánaiste's notes mention the forcible demolition and transfer of people, which is a war crime. The Tánaiste mentioned Iran. What he said about the interest of Iran in the region was interesting. He mentioned supporting the murderous regime of President Assad. I agree it is a murderous regime. The Tánaiste talks about North Korea. Is that a murderous regime? I imagine it is but we do not use that language. It is interesting the Tánaiste has used that language in this context. The US President unilaterally withdrew the US from the historic Iran nuclear deal. It is reckless. Is there any evidence-----

What was reckless?

The USA pulling away from the historic Iran nuclear deal.

I thank the Deputy. I missed what he said.

There is a narrative that the Iranians have broken the agreement. Is there any evidence of that in the three years after it was signed? There is a belief the Iranians have lived up to the commitments in the deal yet sanctions have never been lifted. Is there any conclusive or convincing evidence to show that Iran has violated the deal? It seems to be working. There is a divergence with regard to Europe. At the meeting, did the Tánaiste distance Ireland from, and speak out against, President Trump's actions? I would like to hear what the Irish position is.

With regard to the Democratic Republic of Congo, we do not have enough time to go through it. It has experienced multiple humanitarian crises. Does the Tánaiste believe that new, transparent and accountable elections must be held this year as planned? There is worrying news of a new outbreak of Ebola in the country. Is Ireland doing anything to assist local or international responses? In addition to supporting the immediate lifesaving needs - a lot of countries pulled out after the Ebola crisis - the country needs attention and support.

The Tánaiste mentioned Syria and the number of people who have died. I said before that as a result of Ireland's unique position in the world there might be a role for us to play in Syria. Does the Tánaiste share that view? What can we do? How can we get discussions going? How are we supporting international efforts on this. A lasting ceasefire is needed. Was there any discussion about the Turks moving into parts of Syria? Was there any criticism?

What did the Deputy say?

Was there any criticism of the Turkish army moving into parts of Syria? Does the Tánaiste see it as an escalation of the conflict in the area? I did not see it mentioned in the response.

With regard to Turkey, another parliamentary election is due to take place on 24 June. Was this discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council? Turkey is sliding into authoritarianism. We know that 12 MPs of one left-wing party, the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, are in prison. Their candidate for the election has been in prison since November 2016 on spurious and politically motivated charges. Was it discussed? Is there a view on it?

I did not get an opportunity to raise the issue of the hooded men today. The Tánaiste is aware of the case. The last time I raised it with him he said he was still studying the findings. Will the Irish Government respond? How will it respond? Will it appeal the decision? What is the next step? We all realise the men involved are getting older. Some of them have died. Anyone who reads some of the narrative concerning what was done to those men will know it was defined at the time as inhuman and degrading treatment. Anyone who looks at it today would say it was torture. I think that is the view of the Irish Government. It seemed to be the view of the judge from Ireland with regard to the outcome of the decision. I am interested in the Tánaiste's view on it and what the Irish Government will do. We have until 20 June for a decision to be made. There is huge expectation by the men and their families that the Irish Government will continue to support their case.

The last item is important. It is not a matter for this meeting so the Tánaiste may refer to it at the conclusion of his comments.

I could get it out of the way quickly at the start. I have met the families as the Deputy probably knows. We need to make a decision before 20 June and we will as a Government but we are still waiting on a final piece of advice from the Attorney General's office because this is not a standard or normal appeals process. Anyone who follows this case will know it is a referral process as opposed to an appeals one. It has never happened before. We need to get some legal guidance and that is what we are getting. We will make a decision in the next few weeks. I will be away next week and will miss the Cabinet meeting so it will probably be the following Tuesday.

There were a lot of questions there and I will try to go through them. On Gaza, the Deputy said we need to do something. I agree and that is why I have spent more time on the Middle East peace process than on any other issue outside of Brexit and other EU issues and Northern Ireland. I do not think any other Minister in the European Union has been there three times in nine months. Perhaps there is. We are trying to do as much as we can. What I did not want to do was respond in an emotional way by doing something we would regret a few weeks later because it would limit our capacity to build on the kind of relationships that I and my team have worked hard to try to build in Washington, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Cairo and hopefully in Amman and to try to help to make progress on the broader challenges we face which for the moment is to try to de-escalate the violence taking place and the tragedy on the back of that, particularly for Palestinians.

When one listens to what most parties said last week, with the exception of Sinn Féin and a few others who were calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and a range of other things, most parties expressed outrage but also said we need to think about how Ireland can contribute in a constructive and positive way and in a way that can help Palestinians who are incredibly vulnerable, particularly in Gaza. They are living in impossible conditions. I was in Gaza in January. It has a highly educated, young population. There are 1.8 million people living in a tiny space. Many of the young people are in and out of Internet cafes and on their phones, just like we are here. They know exactly what is going on but they are unable to make any progress in their own lives or their own country, as they see it. That has led to a pressure-cooker effect that has built frustration and antagonism. That is what drives young teenagers into radical responses which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. That plays into the hands of dark forces that are trying to encourage some people into violent responses and so on. We want the opposite. We want to be talking in a positive sense about what is possible in Gaza and what is possible for a state of Palestine in the future in the context of a two-state solution through politics as opposed to through other ways of lashing out. Lots of people, not only me, have predicted what has happened.

Without political initiatives, some progress and new thinking, living conditions in Gaza have continued to deteriorate. I am talking about basic things such as power and water, not to mention employment opportunities - a lack of which makes life impossible. The build-up of protest has been a response to frustration. We need to be honest. There were some devious elements in the protest, which encouraged violence but, by and large, the protests were driven by utter frustration. Most people wanted to make a political point through protest rather than be part of a violent uprising.

We want to continue to pursue what we have been pursuing for the past ten months, which is engagement, persuasion, argument and blunt and direct discussions to challenge the existing policy direction, whether that is in Washington or in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Tel Aviv. If it turns out to be a futile exercise and it becomes clear that no one is listening or cares what Ireland thinks, we may need to look at changing our policy approach. The European Union has unity on a number of things such as insisting on any new initiative being based on a two-state solution, which is shared across all 28 member states. There is a common view in respect of the criticism of the expansion of settlements and an acceptance that this is illegal and there is also a view that the humanitarian crisis, which is continuing to build in Gaza, needs a much more comprehensive response than it has received to date. The EU is willing to put a lot of finance behind new initiatives such as a desalinisation plant and new energy projects and we have committed €10 million to a new solar energy project, which we negotiated with both Israelis and Palestinians. It will be a large solar panel project to power a desperately needed water purification plant.

The Deputy suggested that we were not doing anything. We are not seeking headlines which may look good for two or three days but which do nothing to improve the lives of Palestinians. We are lobbying for, and trying to instigate, a new peace initiative that is acceptable to Palestinians and Israelis, with parity of esteem on both sides around the negotiating table and a credible roadmap to a two-state solution. In the meantime, we are focused on the humanitarian situation and the misery in the West Bank, especially in Gaza. This year we will spend €12 million or €13 million on humanitarian support programmes with Palestinians and we will continue to support UNRWA. We will add an extra €10 million with the energy project in Gaza and we are looking to do more. I have made this issue a big priority for the Irish Government. I accept that Irish interventions have not resulted in any political progress yet but we do not help what we are trying to do by taking actions that may be popular for 48 hours or a week while undermining what we have been trying to do for the past year.

If any member has new thinking on this, or wants to speak to me privately about it, I am all ears. We have met many experts on the Middle East peace process and I always try to educate myself on how we can progress our objectives. My only objective here is to respect and support Palestinians and Israelis in the context of a fair outcome to a peace negotiation which, unfortunately, looks to be a long way away right now. We will continue to build alliances, particularly with some of the neighbouring Arab countries. Egypt has a strategic role to play in terms of Palestinian reconciliation, which is a hugely important part of the aspiration to have a Palestinian state controlled and managed by one governance bloc, that is, the Palestinian Authority. It is difficulty to do many of the things we want to do in Gaza while Hamas continues to control it. Egypt has been trying, largely on its own, to bring Fatah and Hamas together in a reconciliation process, which is hugely important work in which Ireland wants to assist. I am happy to take some political risk to help and support the process if it is thought useful in light of Ireland's experience of reconciliation processes and the integration into politics and peaceful dialogue of people who were formerly committed to violence.

I feel very strongly about Israel and Palestine. The easy thing would be to do what many NGOs advocate, which they are right to do because this raises the profile of issues. If we did this, however, the Government would be seen in the same way as an NGO. I am a politician and a Government Minister and I need to interact with other politicians and Ministers in order to find political ways forward, rather than engage in actions that are just about protest or solidarity.

I have been vocal on Iran and I strongly disagree with the US decision. I think they have made a mistake. The US sees the Iran nuclear deal in a very different way from the way we see it and it is important to understand their reasoning. We see the nuclear deal as a nuclear deal, isolated from other issues. Congress in Washington sees the Iran nuclear deal as part of a broader approach towards Iran. They say they cannot agree to the continuation of the deal while Iran continues to have a ballistic missiles programme, to sponsor Hezbollah in Syria and to contribute to other conflicts in the region. This must stop and the US has taken an absolutist approach by imposing sanctions but I believe this approach is not likely to be successful and will be destabilising.

The EU's approach is that, given that it took years to put a deal together to prevent nuclear armament in Iran, we need to make sure the deal remains intact. All the indications from the inspectors who go into Iran on a regular basis, in an onerous inspections system, are that the commitments Iran made in the joint comprehensive plan of action, JCPOA, nuclear deal are being fulfilled. I do not think that even Washington disputes this. We have similar concerns to the US over Iran's influence on other issues but we believe they are separate issues which should be dealt with separately.

Currently, the discussion is focused on how the EU - along with the countries that signed up for it - protect the nuclear deal in the absence of US support. As members know, once US sanctions are implemented, the secondary sanctions effect will have an impact on the ability of businesses not only in Iran but also those at home with businesses investing in Iran. That is why we have seen companies like Airbus, Maersk, Total and other big European entities making decisions about pulling out or potentially pulling out of Iran because of the secondary effect of sanctions. The countries where the companies originate are still committed to the deal but because they have a footprint in the US or a licensing issue that could be compromised, they are not willing to take the risk. It is why the matter has become so complicated and difficult. It is not just a case that everybody else, with the exception of the US, is remaining true to the deal. The impact of US sanctions is very difficult to avoid, particularly in Europe, given the interconnectedness between the US and EU economies. It is the same with China.

I have been very vocal on the matter and we are very much supporting the EU line led by Ms Federica Mogherini, who was personally involved with getting this deal across the line a few years ago and is as a result very committed to it. So too are France, Germany and the UK. Interestingly, despite Britain being a very strong military ally of the US, it has been very clear and vocal on the matter, as has the European Union as a whole. That said, we cannot force our companies to do anything that does not make commercial sense for them. There are consequences here that will be difficult to cope with.

Presidential and legislative elections are due to take place on 23 December 2018 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC. However, there is still some doubt over whether they will take place, and if they do, whether they will be free and fair. Ireland is also a strong supporter of the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund, CERF, and is currently the eighth-largest donor to the fund since its inception. Already in 2018, the CERF has disbursed over €60 million to the DRC. We are contributing quite a bit of money for development supports and through the European Union we are trying to support free and fair elections. It remains to be seen as to whether they will develop in a way we would like to see.

The was a question on Ireland's role in Syria. We must be realistic about what we can do. We are a small country and I said before that I decided to prioritise two big policy areas outside the obvious issues of Brexit, Northern Ireland and EU and US relations. The first is the Middle East peace process and the second is Africa. We spend most of our €700 million of development aid in Africa. That is not to say we are not really interested in what is happening in Syria but if we are to expend political capital as a country the size of Ireland, we must pick and choose where we can try to make a difference, politically, through negotiated outcomes or solutions.

The Geneva process for Syria is UN-led and we support it. It is not a country-based process per se, and there are some efforts going into parallel processes, particularly driven by Russia. This is not the direction anyone in the UN wants to go. That is why I mention the Geneva process over and over again. Ultimately, the conflict will have to be resolved by the great powers, to use an outdated term. It is the US and Russia that will need to agree to try to use their influence and persuasion to bring about a lasting ceasefire. There are other big players involved but those two happen to be on different sides of the conflict. In the meantime, countries like Ireland and many others need to contribute significantly in a financial way, which we are doing, to support refugees and, in time, the rebuilding of Syria. We must also advocate politically for sense to prevail in the context of what happens in the Geneva process and elsewhere in bilateral discussion and dialogue.

Elections are due in Turkey on 24 June and we have called on Turkey to ensure June's elections are free and fair, with all parties and candidates given the opportunity to campaign equally and without limitations on freedom of expression. Turkey has so far failed to address the recommendations of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in its reports on the general election of November 2015 and the constitutional referendum of April 2017. A state of emergency is ongoing in the country. Ireland shares the EU concerns and believes it is necessary to support a climate of free and fair elections; that is not currently in place in Turkey. I would like to visit Turkey with some of these issues in mind and I have not had the chance to do that yet, apart from flying through Istanbul on my way to Africa. There is a real concern across the European Union about the shift towards a more authoritarian approach to governance there, as the Deputy mentioned. It is a worry. I am sorry about the long answers, particularly on the Middle East matters.

I thank the Minister for being here. We had the Irish element of World Vision in last week and they spoke in particular about South Sudan, another major area of catastrophe. Approximately 2 million people have been displaced internally and 2 million people have also fled to Uganda. These people feel it is the forgotten war and the displacement of people is on a massive scale. Where do we stand with regard to South Sudan?

My bailiwick is the visa issue. We have been inundated with refusals of visas, particularly J1s and, more important, E2s this year. Senators Mark Daly, Conway and I met staff from the embassy and it was a very strong discussion that happened approximately two months ago. Many Deputies and Senators were irate at the time because there were so many refusals. We want to cool it down a bit and we met those officials as a result. There is no doubt in my mind that there has been a change in policy. The amount of refusals this year is a multiple of last year's total. With the economy doing so well, Irish companies are investing in the United States and trying to bring out top executives on E2 visas. It is the same visa on which I went to the US 20 years ago. They are being refused now, which is very worrying for companies that have already invested millions of euro.

In a recent case, an Irish builder who got his visa three years and who has 32 houses being built in Boston came home to renew his visa with his wife and two children. The renewal was refused. It is serious. Senator Mark Daly backed me up but we were told there has been no change in policy. That is not what I am seeing on the ground. The other question is the reciprocity deal and we are dealing with administration, so is there progress on that? I know the Tánaiste was involved with that.

I will have to ask the Tánaiste to reply to the questions when we return from the vote in the Chamber.

Sitting suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.35 p.m.

We are now resuming in public session.

Could the Minister please respond to Senator Lawless's questions?

The South Sudan crisis is one of the most severe large scale humanitarian crises in the world today. The Senator is right to say it is largely an invisible crisis because it does not get anything like the same coverage as many of other humanitarian crises. Widespread violence from the bitter civil war which broke out in December 2013 has forced more than 4 million people to flee their homes. Conflict and violence have caused massive displacement, with 2 million displaced within the country and over 2 million South Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries, including Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya. I was in Ethiopia and Kenya a few months ago. Sixty per cent of these refugees are children, 7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance; hunger and malnutrition are widespread and 5.7 million people are in urgent need of food assistance. The UN's 2018 humanitarian response plan for South Sudan requires US$1.7 billion to reach 6 million people with lifesaving assistance. Ireland has provided consistent humanitarian assistance to South Sudan with direct support of over €54 million provided from 2012 to date. In 2017 Ireland provided almost €12 million and we will provide strong support again this year.

Ireland is a strong supporter of the central emergency response fund, CERF, and is the eighth largest donor. CERF dispersed over US$15.5 million to South Sudan and will continue this. So far this year €3.5 million has been provided to our partners on the ground who are reaching the most vulnerable and those most in need of humanitarian assistance. It is anticipated that funding of at least €5 million by Ireland will be provided to South Sudan by the end of this year.

It is yet another humanitarian response and one we are part of. A number of Irish NGOs are also involved there. I am happy to be corrected, but I think a former Deputy and Minister of State, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, is involved in a practical way with one of the NGOs working on the ground on water access and the sinking of wells.

I was asked about visas for the USA. Officials have met with officials from the US Embassy and been assured there has been no policy change. They are happy to request further meetings to follow up on issues the Senator raises today. I will happily try to make that happen because while the official position is the official position, if we have anecdotal evidence to suggest things are changing in practice, we must raise that.

On the reciprocal arrangement, as the Senator refers to it, I am slow to go into detail. For the record, I note that we are working hard to find ways to help the undocumented Irish in the USA. We must think about how we can be smart politically in terms of doing this and build support on Capitol Hill to facilitate a change and recognition of the Irish people who have been in the USA for a long time and who want to regularise their positions. While we have made some progress in that area, I am very slow to raise expectations to try to create a momentum on which we cannot then follow through. Migration is a very sensitive issue on Capitol Hill and any change is difficult to bring about. Deputy John Deasy from Waterford has done a great deal of work in this area, particularly in talking to Democrat and Republican Congressmen. We have had some pretty high level meetings in Washington on this issue and it was a topic of conversation for the Taoiseach and the President on St. Patrick’s Day. There is a real effort to make progress but I do not want to raise expectations unduly given the legislative challenge involved in what we are trying to do.

I thank the Minister for outlining the issues regarding the undocumented and on visas. There is growing frustration among businesspeople going out on the ESTA system but who are being stopped and turned back. As such, further engagement on that would be helpful.

Deputy Crowe referred to the hooded men. There is a real obligation on us in that regard. I understand that it is not an appeal and that no case has progressed further than ours successfully. However, this is not just about the hooded men. This is also about the way in which the ruling has been used by democracies to justify enhanced interrogation techniques which everyone considers to be torture. As such, we need that ruling to be overturned, not just for those 14 men but for people who are in prison at the moment and could be subjected to the same methods legitimately on foot of that ruling.

The Minister dealt with the Middle East peace process. It is cause for despair in many ways. A lot of the problem is that the necessary ingredients are not there. Olson said that to negotiate peace one needs four key elements, one of which is a hurting stalemate in which both sides are inflicting maximum amounts of pain on each other. That is obviously not the case here. Although the Palestinians are being subjected to what is in many ways dehumanising treatment, the Israelis do not seem to wish to facilitate any further negotiations in the peace process. The other three elements are a credible facilitator, which is not there at the moment, the absence of a belligerent third party present, and leadership. All four elements are required for a successful peace process such as we had in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, they are not in place in the Middle East. It is also the case that there are many other competing situations which need to be dealt with, meaning it can attract only a limited amount of actual engagement.

The Minister mentioned at lunchtime today in a speech on Brexit the unhelpfulness of discussion of a Border poll. I agree with him 100% on that. Discussion of a Border poll is very unhelpful in the context of Brexit, the lesson of which is that one does not have a referendum and only then tell everyone what the future looks like. That has been the mistake in Westminster where, in fact, they still do not know what the future looks like in terms of what they want Brexit to be. On 15 May last, Prime Minister Theresa May said she did not believe unionists would win a Border poll and Lady Sylvia Hermon has said she believed there would be a Border poll in her lifetime. In fact, a unionist is taking the Minister's Department to court on 13 July on foot of the Government’s policy on achieving Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution.

We are stretching things in terms of the reporting of the Foreign Affairs Council last Monday, albeit this is a very important subject.

Having been in Belfast a number of times and having met unionists, my understanding is that they are concerned. The talk of it is concerning and the lack of clarity from our side and from all others is of more concern. Those unionist concerns need to be addressed. I reiterate the point that talk of a Border poll in the context of Brexit is not helpful, but the lesson of Brexit is that one does not have a referendum and then tell everyone what the future looks like. We need to do the reverse of what happened with Brexit.

Deputy Collins wants to raise a particular issue. The Minister is under a time constraint.

While it is not strictly in order, I ask the Minister for an update on the passport situation.

I will have to get very firm with the committee on this latitude. There is a certain elasticity to it.

I thank Deputy Collins for bringing that up because the Minister's office has been very helpful.

I record that we know the Passport Office is under huge pressure and we acknowledge the work of the Minister and the staff of the Department in trying to meet the huge extraneous demand Brexit has placed on it.

I call the Tánaiste on the relevant issues.

I thank Senator Daly for his comments on the Middle East peace process. I will continue to ask for support, in particular from the Fianna Fáil Party, to ensure we continue to have a consistent and credible approach to the Middle East and do not do something in the short term which makes Ireland's position less relevant in terms of trying to be part of compromise solutions. I thank Fianna Fáil for that support to date. Sometimes, what is popular here in the short term is not necessarily the smartest thing to do. There may come a time for us to change our policy approach, but now is not that time. That does not mean we should not have intensive political engagement or that we should not be absolutely critical when that is warranted. I hope I have been speaking in a way Irish people are comfortable with in the context of the interest and concern for Palestinians in particular in recent weeks.

I have made it very clear that is unhelpful for people to call for Border polls in the immediate aftermath of a referendum on abortion in Ireland. It is adding to what is an already polarised environment in Northern Ireland on foot of Brexit and its pressures. I have stated repeatedly and I say it again now: constitutional change on this island is not part of the Brexit discussion and it should not be. We are looking for a practical solution to the very complicated and difficult challenges posed by Brexit. We have to try to find a way forward which unionists and nationalists and Ireland and Britain can live with. That is true to the December deal and the agreement in March. We are trying to make progress on that in June so time is short.

According to the latest Queen's University Belfast poll, 85% of people in Northern Ireland want to be part of a shared customs union and shared single market with the European Union. That applies to unionists and nationalists because they are looking for practical ways to protect and maintain the status quo. I am aware of unionist and nationalist fears, each equally genuine. Nationalists want to avoid the re-emergence of a physical border separating them from their own country and unionists fear that new barriers may emerge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK ,as they see it in an effort to resolve the Irish and island of Ireland issues linked to Brexit. We have many challenges to overcome without introducing calls for a Border poll into the political dialogue which makes the process more difficult given the current environment.

With regard to passports, I thank the committee for its patience on this issue. Last week, 30,000 people called the passport telephone line, which is a huge demand. People are working night and day to deal with passports because turnaround times and so on are of the essence. We are adding staff, taking them from other parts of the Department to have people on the call lines and increase our response capacity to emails and so on. We have tried to be as helpful as we can for emergency cases that come through Deputies' offices but I encourage them to only forward emergency cases because our systems are under some pressure. This is the peak time of year. In six weeks or less, we will be off the peak and will have all the staff and resources that are there today with much less pressure on turnaround times. The turnaround time for processing a passport application depends on the channel through which the application is submitted. The highest proportion of applications is submitted through Passport Express, the postal channel. Passport Express renewal applications are being processed within the target turnaround time of 15 working days. The turnaround times for some categories of application are falling outside the target turnaround times for Passport Express first-time applicants while applications for lost or stolen passports to be replaced are taking longer than the 20-day turnaround time we had but it is generally happening in approximately 30 days. There are practical reasons for that which I do not need to go into.

The online passport application service is a positive story. It has a turnaround time is ten working days plus postage. The majority of online passports are being processed within seven working days, which is ahead of target. That is not to say there are not problems. There has been a significant increase again this year in the number of passport applications from Northern Ireland and from Ireland generally. That is what happens when the economy and population are growing. More people are travelling and, therefore, need passports. Given the Brexit pressures, we are experiencing a significant increase in passport applications from Northern Ireland and the UK. We are at peak and our systems are under pressure. I thank the staff because they are doing a job that is in some ways far beyond the call of duty and we are trying to deal with all the emergency cases that come through Deputies' offices as well. I ask them to bear with us. We are adding staff, we will get on top of this and, as the peak passes, the passport systems will be much smoother for the remainder of the year once we get through the month of June.

I echo the comments of committee members about the courtesy and help of the officials in the Minister's office and in the passport office. The past two weeks have been difficult for all of us in dealing with constituents' queries and I want to record our appreciation of the work of the staff in the Minister's office and the passport office in dealing with large numbers.

I receive numerous queries from Northern Ireland. Everyone in Fermanagh and Tyrone tells me they have cousins in Cavan who know and support me. It is a great introduction but it creates difficulties for me. We know the pressures the office is under and appreciate the assistance.

I live close to the Border and I am in Northern Ireland at least once or twice every week doing my ordinary constituency work in Cavan-Monaghan. Over the past few weeks I have attended several football matches and other events where I have met people, some of whom I do not know, who are frustrated and angry that we do not have the institutions up and running in Northern Ireland. They realise that many day-to-day issues need to be tackled, including housing, jobs, employment, rural development and regeneration. These are the same day-to-day issues we have in our jurisdiction. They are doubly concerned about Brexit. I hope that the Minister and his counterparts in the British Government can encourage the two major parties in Northern Ireland to have meaningful talks and to get those institutions back up and running. It is shameful that the institutions have not been operating since early 2017 given the many challenging day-to-day issues and the bigger picture of Brexit. We wish the Minister well in whatever talks he has with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the political parties there because we all want to see those institutions up and working on behalf of the people.

Much of the meeting was devoted to the Gaza situation and the Middle East peace process. Recently we had Omar Barghouti of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions, the human rights movement, was here. I asked him whether the two-state solution is still feasible and viable. He said while it is not the opinion of his association, he thinks it is not viable. Perhaps it is an issue we could discuss in the future. He referred to the shrinking space for Palestinians and the intense colonisation of Palestinian land, and said life is being made impossible for Palestinians. He said:

We expect the territory to become unliveable in a year and a half. The West Bank is not unliveable yet but it is becoming extremely difficult for Palestinians to sustain any life with the encroaching settlements taking over the most fertile lands and water resources.

That type of commentary has been echoed by other contributors at this committee. The Minister's opening remarks and his response to colleagues indicated that concern. We might have a discussion on that here in the future. The Minister said at the outset that all colleagues in the EU were supportive of the two-state solution. Is there any discussion at the Council about how feasible this will be?

I would be happy to come in and spend a few hours talking about this issue, in terms of what we are trying to do. Although I spoke a lot about it today we have not had the time to get into some of the specific measures we have been trying to promote and do. I do not agree with those who are saying a two-state solution is no longer tenable. If that becomes the consensus, we have to ask ourselves some serious questions about where we are going because we will not see a one-state solution where Palestinians and Israelis are living in the same country with equal rights and opportunities any time soon. Many Israeli people would fee threatened by that. Many Palestinians will continue to advocate for, and insist on, having their own state. Politically, the only realistic outcome to a negotiated settlement is a two-state solution.

It becomes practically more and more difficult to deliver that when concrete is being poured on land that is supposed to be the basis for the negotiation of a new Palestinian state. Some settlements, particularly near east Jerusalem, are being strategically located in a way that makes the prospect that east Jerusalem will be the capital of a future Palestinian state more and more difficult to envisage. That is why Jerusalem has become a totemic issue for Palestinians. In that context, the decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem is a barrier to political progress.

I still think it is important for us to advocate for a two-state solution. I still believe it is possible. That is the UN position as well as the EU position. When I talk about unity on a number of key things across the EU, I am probably giving an overly positive description of the EU's unity on the Middle East peace process, unfortunately. Different European countries have different red lines. I do not believe we are sufficiently unified on the need for the EU to be far more intensively focused and involved in trying to make progress on the Middle East peace process. Instead, there is a sense that we are waiting for the US to intervene at a time when Palestinians have made it very clear that for a series of reasons, they cannot deal with the US on their own in the context of any new initiative. This is not easy. I do not want to suggest naively that it is.

For what it is worth, I have raised the case of a Bedouin settlement that is potentially going to be demolished, with people being forcibly relocated. The settlement in question, Khan al-Ahmar, is in the area to the east of Jerusalem. We have asked the EU High Representative to make very strong representations when she is protesting on this issue on behalf of the EU. It is difficult to match the aspirations we hear coming from Israel for a future peace deal with the actions that are being taken on the ground. Settlements are constantly encroaching on the best land in the West Bank. I refer also to the way in which Area C, which represents the majority of West Bank territory, is being managed. The issues we face in Gaza - the humanitarian issues, the violence and the influence of Hamas and more extreme forces that are trying to capitalise on the misery of many young men and women in Gaza - are more extreme. I know Irish people are very interested in this complicated political challenge. I am spending a lot of time trying to ensure Ireland makes a relevant contribution on it. That is why I am going back to the region next week. I will happily come back here to talk about these issues in more detail if that is what members want. If they want to bring in other expertise, we can respond to that.

The current circumstances in Northern Ireland are frustrating, especially considering some of the challenges that were overcome when the Good Friday Agreement was put in place. The challenges we face today in setting up an Executive, a functioning Assembly and a devolved Government in Northern Ireland do not really compare to the challenges of 20 years ago. All the parties in Northern Ireland say they want a devolved Government. I do not believe the barriers to that are insurmountable. I think the two big parties, in particular, can come together to make it happen if they wish. It is difficult for them to do that in the context of the current uncertainty around Brexit. They have two very different approaches to Brexit. It is not that long ago that the DUP and Sinn Féin sent a joint letter on Brexit that covered issues like Border infrastructure. Both Governments are aware of the challenges that would be associated with Brexit if there was a functioning Executive. We would help the parties to try to overcome some of those issues. We will continue to work. I have a good relationship with Karen Bradley. We are very conscious that Northern Ireland cannot continue in the current vein indefinitely.

On behalf of the committee, I thank the Tánaiste for the briefing he has provided here today. He has dealt with members' questions in a very comprehensive manner.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.15 p.m. until 9 a.m. on Thursday, 21 June 2018.