Adjournment Matters. - US Immigration Pre-Clearance Negotiations.

Thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for giving me permission to raise this issue on the Adjournment. I was alerted and somewhat concerned by a report in The Irish Times last Monday which stated that there was a danger to the customs pre-clearance, naturalisation and immigration facility at Shannon. It was stated that this threat arose due to an application by the Government to the United States authorities to extend the customs pre-clearance facility to Dublin Airport. It went on to say that rather than welcoming the proposal of the Irish Government, the US authorities were considering the whole issue of maintaining pre-clearance in Shannon and in Ireland and that there was a cost factor involved which may prompt them to make a negative decision.

I was concerned to read this report and many people in the area contacted me regarding the veracity or otherwise of it. The Minister will agree that the customs pre-clearance at Shannon has worked successfully for almost a decade. Indeed, the then Minister for Transport, Deputy J. Mitchell, the Department of Transport officials and the Aer Rianta management at Shannon had the foresight and the savvy to recognise that if this facility were introduced to Ireland it could be used to Ireland's advantage.

The facility was successfully located at Shannon and the figures that have operated to date have justified that service. In this respect there have been various discussions over the past one or two years to the effect that any diminution in the facility would not justify maintaining it. I am apprehensive that if the facility were to be divided, following its proposed introduction to Dublin, neither airport would benefit in the long run in so far as the US authorities might decide that the figures would not justify having the facility in both airports.

There is great concern in Shannon. The region has been threatened and has suffered sufficiently already, having its sole transatlantic status removed from it. To minimise the status of Shannon any further would be a serious course of action. This service should and could be used to far greater advantage in Shannon. For example, it should be used to operate Shannon as a hub for other airlines from different parts of Europe and should be promoted as part of the attractions of having Shannon as a hub airport.

I hope the Minister will be in a position to assure this House this evening and the people of County Clare and Shannon that this service is not under threat, that the pre-immigration, naturalisation and pre-clearance facility in Shannon will be maintained, not only in the short term but also in the long term. It was an excellent facility, implemented by people of foresight almost a decade ago. To hinder or minimise it would be a serious development.

Hopefully, I will not have to condemn in this House at any future date a situation which might develop because of the action the Government has taken. In this instance the action has emanated from the Government requesting the US Government to extend the facility to Dublin. In taking this course of action the Government is minimising and reducing the status of Shannon, because it is taking from Shannon Airport something that was unique to the airport, to Ireland and the rest of Europe.

I ask the Minister to give a firm assurance to the House this evening that what we have in Shannon will be maintained and that nothing will be done to further threaten, minimise or undermine this. Shannon is based in the west of Ireland and is the focus of regional development in the surrounding area. We have put up with sufficient threats and nonsense from the Government regarding Shannon Airport. Any further action which threatens Shannon would be unacceptable. I ask the Minister to give an assurance to this House that this will not happen and that, whatever else, the pre-clearance facility in Shannon will be guaranteed and that priority will be given to maintaining it at Shannon, whatever about extending it elsewhere.

The pre-inspection facility operated at Shannon Airport by the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service is governed by the terms of an agreement concluded in 1986 between the Governments of Ireland and of the USA. This agreement provides that it will continue in force indefinitely unless it is terminated by either Government on giving 12 months' notice to the other. The agreement also provides that either Government may at any time request consultations concerning the interpretation, application or amendment of the agreement, and also that pre-inspection may be conducted at additional locations in Ireland with the agreement of both Governments.

The Government regards the pre-inspection facility at Shannon as of great importance. There has been positive reaction to the facility since it was set up in June 1988 and market research has shown that it is highly valued by passengers.

Before renegotiation of the Ireland/US air traffic rights agreement last year, I asked my Assistant Secretary to arrange discussions with the Immigration and Naturalisation Service staff and inform them that it is Government policy that the pre-inspection service should continue to be based in Shannon and service Dublin Airport as required. At these discussions the INS staff were supportive of the retention of the service in Shannon and its extension to Dublin. The Government's decision on the new transatlantic traffic arrangements was influenced by these favourable signals.

Subsequent to this a joint report by the Offices of the Inspectors General, Audit Division, US Department of Justice and the Office of Audits of the Department of State recommended closure of all US pre-inspection stations abroad. This joint audit report found that although passenger facilitation is the main objective of pre-inspection, individual passengers arriving at US airports gained only a maximum of six minutes as a result of pre-inspection. The report concluded that with advances in technology, less labour intensive alternatives should be considered to facilitate the movement of passengers through US entry airports. In summary, the joint audit report's finding was that the present pre-inspection arrangements did not provide value for money for the US Government.

Immediately on becoming aware of this report I arranged for strong high level representations to be made to secure retention of the pre-inspection facility at Shannon and its extension to Dublin. Ireland's Ambassador in Washington has made approaches in a number of quarters, stressing the benefits of pre-inspection for passengers and airlines and expressing the Government's deep concern about the possible ending of pre-inspection at Shannon and its non-extension to Dublin.

I assure the House that the Government is firmly committed to maintenance of the Shannon facility and its extension to Dublin and is doing everything in its power to bring this about. I am hopeful that the high level approaches to the US authorities in which our Ambassador in Washington is engaged will have a positive outcome and that we will be able to commence formal consultations shortly with the US, as provided for in the 1986 agreement.

May I ask the Minister why he considered it wise to proceed with a request for an extension to Dublin in view of the fact that he was aware of the negative suggestion contained in the joint audit report? Would the Minister not agree that at that stage it would have been more appropriate for him to make a firm, constructive bid regarding the retention of the facility in Shannon and to fight to ensure that it would be maintained?

The Senator's question is based on a false premise. There was no question of closing any of the pre-inspection facilities when application was made for the extension to Dublin. The fact that an application has been made for an extension to Dublin is irrelevant to the US position as outlined in the joint audit report. The formal proposal by the joint audit report of the US Department of Justice and the US Department of State at that stage, subsequent to the new transatlantic arrangements being put in place, was that all pre-inspection facilities should close. This proposal was made because of advances in technology and the undertaking of a cost review of the pre-inspection facilities, among other facilities that are held overseas.

Since the Government became aware of this, which was subsequent to any application made for an extension to Dublin, it has proceeded on the basis outlined in my reply to the Senator and I am hopeful of a positive outcome. The application for an extension to Dublin has no relevance to the independent conclusion arrived at by the joint report which was carried out independently of applications for extension to Dublin or any other airport where pre-inspection facilities apply for US entry airports at present. It is a different issue. It is wrong to suggest the application for an extension has brought about this situation. It is a decision which has been made by the US and it is a policy and a cost review matter. We value the pre-inspection facilities in Shannon, we are working for their retention and we hope there will be a positive outcome as a result of the excellent work done by the ambassador in Washington, who has proved to be influential in these matters. There is a requirement under the 1986 agreement that consultations must take place before any change in status. We are satisfied those consultation will now begin.

Obviously, negotiations have not commenced. Is the Minister in a position to indicate when they will commence and conclude?

They will start shortly. It is a matter of mutual convenience to the parties concerned. The US is aware of the importance we attach to this issue and I expect negotiations will take place in a matter of days or weeks. Given the goodwill engendered by representations made by the ambassador, I hope there will be a positive outcome.

The Seanad adjourned at 10.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 3 March 1994.