Today we have reached the final stage of the Seanad's consideration of the establishment of a foreign affairs committee. The committee we are about to establish has a very broad mandate. It covers the entire area of our European and international relations, examination of EC secondary legislation, co-operation with developing countries, the financing of the Department of Foreign Affairs and of programmes funded by it and legislation sponsored by the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
I know this House has been to the forefront in pointing to the need for a foreign affairs committee and in advancing proposals for the terms of reference of such a committee. It is, therefore, appropriate that the foreign affairs committee should be a joint one of both Houses of the Oireachtas, which can benefit from the particular perspective that this House can bring to bear on foreign policy issues.
My appointment as Minister of State came at a time of dramatic changes in the international environment in which Ireland must operate. The implications of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe are still working their way through the international system. The new world order that is now being shaped offers both opportunities and dangers for Ireland and for the principles that have traditionally informed our foreign policy.
The Tánaiste and I look forward to the advice that the foreign affairs committee can offer on how this country should respond to the challenges that now face us. It is important that the issues involved are fully explored against the background of our national concerns and aspirations, and that the broadest possible consensus is reached on the future path of our foreign policy.
Our future relationship with Europe is one vital area that the Committee will no doubt wish to investigate in depth. Our accession to the European Community in 1973 involved a fundamental decision by the Irish people to join with the original six member states in a community which aspired towards European Union. The Community has developed considerably since then, the milestones of this development being the Single European Act and the Treaty on European Union. The Irish people, by very large majorities, endorsed the progress towards European Union marked by these instruments.
The difficulties that have been encountered in certain member states in the ratification process of the Maastricht Treaty illustrate the tensions that arise as national sovereignty is pooled in a common Europe. The recent difficulties in the European Monetary System, culminating for this country in the downward realignment of the punt within the EMS, are a further illustration of the challenges involved in the specific area of Economic and Monetary Union. The problems which the Community has been experiencing in responding adequately to the situation in former Yugoslavia illustrate the challenges involved in developing the common foreign and security policy envisaged under the Maastricht Treaty.
The committee might usefully consider what this country can expect from, and contribute to, the European Union which is to be developed under the Maastricht Treaty. There are many issues that arise for Ireland in the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty. For example, will the union be able to adhere to the timetable for Economic and Monetary Union envisaged under the Maastricht Treaty? Whatever about the precise timetable, Ireland's position on the principle of going ahead and on our full participation from the outset to the final stage are clear.
There was much talk some months ago — at the height of the currency turmoil in Europe — about a "two-speed" approach to European Monetary Union, with a central core going ahead without the others. The countries usually considered capable of becoming part of any core group included Germany, France, the Benelux countries and Ireland, although we were not always included in the list. In Ireland's case, our assessed eligibility was based on our fulfilment of the entry criteria contained in the Maastricht Treaty: low inflation and budget deficit, restricted annual government borrowing, as well as our very favourable balance of payments position on our high economic growth relative to our Community partners.
It has now been clearly signalled that an European Monetary Union fast track is not on the cards. What we do have before us is the Maastricht Treaty, which makes it plain that not all member states need join the final stage at the same time. Indeed, Britain and Denmark have explicitly opted out of the arrangements. Whatever happens, it is Ireland's firm intention — an intention backed up by appropriate economic policies and performance — to be part of the first group.
Some other member states may be proud of being geographically closer to the centre of the EC, but let me say that, in terms of political commitment and public support, we in Ireland are a core country. Our commitment to the ERM and to European Monetary Union is strong and unwavering. We want to see co-operation within the ERM strengthened as we prepare for European Monetary Union. No one should make the mistake of identifying a small inner circle connecting Bonn, Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels. The inner circle, if such there must be, cannot be merely geographical. On all economic and political grounds, it must include Ireland.
Other issues that arise for Ireland in our relationship with the EC include: will resources from the Cohesion and Structural Funds be adequate to ensure that Ireland makes satisfactory progress in narrowing the gap between our level of economic prosperity and that of other member states? What are the principles that should underlie our approach to the development of the European Union's common foreign and security policy? What are the issues for Ireland in the accession of new members? Should we favour early accession of the countries of Eastern Europe? What should our view be of the balance to be eventually aimed for between the power of the institutions of the future Union and the power of member states?
The new committee will provide an important link to the European Parliament, as well as to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Irish MEPs will have the right to attend and participate in meetings of the committee. Other MEPs may attend by invitation.
I hope the committee will address, at an early stage, the relationship between the Houses of the Oireachtas and the European Parliament. The importance of this relationship was specifically recognised in the Declaration on the role of national parliaments in the European Union approved at Maastricht. The committee may wish to reflect on how best to give effect to the suggestion in the Declaration that contacts between the European Parliament and national parliaments should be stepped up. The Declaration mentioned in particular the granting of appropriate reciprocal facilities and regular meetings between members of parliament interested in the same issues.
In the new world order that is emerging, the role of the United Nations is of major importance. The end of the cold-war rivalries has given a new impetus to the work of the United Nations which stems from greater international recognition of its potential. Ireland's longstanding commitment to the purposes and principles of the UN remains firm. Global action is needed to preserve international peace, maintain the rule of international law, promote respect for fundamental human rights, protect the environment and combat hunger and disease in the world. The United Nations provides an irreplaceable framework for the common efforts of mankind in these and other areas.
The creation of peace-keeping and observer forces is one of the most important activities undertaken by the United Nations. New challenges are facing the United Nations in this area — for example in Cambodia, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. These challenges may call for a new approach in which peace-keeping may have to be complemented by elements of peace-enforcement. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs might usefully reflect on how this country, with its long and proud record of involvement in UN peace-keeping, should respond to these challenges.
Another positive result of the end of the Cold War has been a renewed emphasis on giving effect to international human rights norms. Ideological differences and an excessive emphasis on the doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of individual states have, in the past, been major obstacles to the human rights work of the United Nations. New opportunities now exist to ensure that respect for the basic human rights of the individual are seen as one of the key building-blocks of the new world order that is being created. In this new world order, the individual whose basic human rights are being abused by a State should be able to look with confidence to the international community for redress.
The World Conference on Human Rights, scheduled to take place in Vienna in June 1993, will provide an opportunity to strengthen further existing mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Ireland, together with its EC partners, is advocating the establishment of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a practical step in improving the enforcement of minimum universal standards.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs could usefully examine how Ireland, with its traditional emphasis on human rights, can best contribute to the development of a new international consensus on the enforcement of human rights norms. The gross human rights abuses that have been perpetrated in former Yugoslavia are a grim reminder of the urgency of the task.
Because of my particular responsibility for overseas development assistance, I am very glad that our relations with developing countries are mentioned specifically in the terms of reference of the committee. I recall the valuable work done in the past by the Joint Committee on Co-operation with Developing Countries. Its reports helped to clarify aspects of our relations with developing countries and to forge a broad consensus around the main features of our official aid programme. These features include a focus on the poorest countries in Africa, close co-operation with Irish non-governmental organisations and an emphasis on the placement of Irish volunteers and other development workers overseas.
In the light of the Government's firm commitment to increase our official development assistance effort, the Tánaiste and I have been examining closely the direction which the expanded official development assistance programme should take. We hope to publish a document on this subject in the coming months. We would especially welcome the advice of the committee in this area.
In recent months we have again been faced with the growing plight of millions of people in Africa who live in conditions of danger and deprivation because of drought, famine and disease — not to speak of man-made disasters, such as brought on the crisis in Somalia last year. Irish agencies and Irish humanitarian relief workers have traditionally played an important role in bringing relief to those in distress, as I have seen for myself in my visits to Somalia and Southern Sudan. The commitment and generosity of these Irish women and men — including a willingness to risk their lives for the good of their fellow human beings — should be a source of pride to all of us.
When I visited Southern Sudan, I saw for myself the extent of the problem that the people in these countries face and the effective assistance being provided by Irish agencies. It is impossible to convey in words the horror of the situation there. Children, and indeed adults also, are dying every day from hunger and from disease. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and are wandering from one centre to another in search of food and shelter. In some areas, up to 40 per cent of the population is said to have died.
Part of the problem, of course, arises from the recurrent difficulties of irregular rainfall, and plant and animal disease. However, I would emphasise that most of these major tragedies are man-made. Increased humanitarian assistance is essential as an immediate response but does not represent a full answer. The answer must be political. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs might usefully consider what role Ireland could play in helping to articulate the need for political progress aimed at avoiding a repeat of the type of humanitarian disaster we have seen in Somalia and are seeing emerging again in Southern Sudan.
Finally, we must remember that aid programmes are only a part of what is involved in development cooperation. For many developing countries, the policies followed by the developed world in relation to trade and debt issues are far more important than aid flows. I hope that the committee will ensure that this broader picture is kept in mind when we face policy choices, especially in the trade area, which have implications both for employment at home and for the long term needs of developing countries. We must be careful to avoid damaging the interests of developing countries. It is easy for us to respond instantly and generously to the image of a starving child on a TV screen. It is not so easy to address policy issues in the trade area which may be vital for the longer-term development of Third World countries, especially if such policies may cause short term job-losses in vulnerable industries in the developed world.
We have tried to be as open as possible in our approach to the terms of reference of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. The result is that all issues of relevance to policy-formation in the foreign affairs area will be open for discussion. As Members may be aware, there were detailed deliberations about the arrangements for discussion by the committee of political and security issues relating to Northern Ireland. At the outset, the Government was concerned that the sensitivity and need for confidentiality in debating these issues was such as to raise doubts about the appropriateness of debating them at a committee meeting. It was then suggested that these issues might be discussed in private sessions of the committee. Finally, however, following further reflection, it was accepted by the Government that political issues relating to the North could be discussed in public, with security issues only reserved for private discussion. I feel that this provides a basis for a very full and constructive role by the committee in discussing the appropriate way forward in addressing the problems of Northern Ireland.
What I have outlined is a small selection of the many issues that can usefully be addressed by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. I believe that the committee will provide a much needed focus for public discussion on foreign affairs issues. The Tánaiste and I look forward to working closely with the committee and wish it the very best in its challenging work.