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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 Feb 2012

Vol. 213 No. 3

Foreign Affairs: Statements

I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, to the House. I congratulate him on his appointment and wish him well in his tenure in office.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for inviting me to the House for this discussion. I am delighted to have the opportunity to address Seanad Éireann on foreign affairs issues. I have a slight time constraint in that I must leave by approximately 5 p.m. If we have not completed the discussion by then, I will be more than happy to return to the Chamber for that purpose.

Economic recovery remains the top priority for the Government, and the State's place in Europe and the wider world is key to that recovery. Ireland is an open trading economy, exporting 80% of everything we produce and depending on inward investment from overseas to generate jobs. We rely on borrowing from international institutions and are heavily influenced by international market sentiment. It is essential, therefore, that Ireland's reputation abroad be restored and remain positive and strong.

My Department's diplomatic services and experience are called on again and again to promote Ireland's case with the European Union, other international bodies and with individual states. The role Ireland plays in European and international affairs is critical to the success of our dialogue with European and other partners. More than many other countries, Ireland depends on a strong international presence. Promoting Irish trade and our other economic interests abroad is a key contribution that I, as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and my Department can make to this objective.

The Export Trade Council, which I established, is driving the Government's activity in this area. In two weeks' time we will comprehensively review the progress made in the first year of the Government's trade, tourism and investment strategy. The council will also review how our local market teams in each of the priority markets have implemented their 2011 action plans and will consider the teams' plans for the coming year. The Government is placing a significant focus on China this year, with several reciprocal visits under preparation.

Trade missions are an invaluable tool for Irish companies seeking to consolidate and grow overseas business. Enterprise Ireland has a programme of missions in 2012 which I and my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for trade and development, Deputy Joe Costello, look forward to supporting. The unique platform offered by the annual St. Patrick's Day festivities will be effectively utilised to showcase Irish goods and services as well as the country's attractions as an investment location and tourist destination. A carefully targeted programme of ministerial visits overseas will shortly be announced.

As well as these direct promotional activities, I will avail of all appropriate opportunities to advance Ireland's economic interests that may arise in my own foreign travel schedule, whether linked to my role as chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, or other bilateral engagements.

While our focus is necessarily on domestic economic revival, our commitment to tackling the challenge of promoting peace, security and human rights in the world is undiminished. Globally, regionally and in the neighbourhood of the EU, Ireland has always made its contribution, both in our bilateral relations and in multilateral fora. We continue this tradition in 2012 with our chairmanship of the OSCE. With 56 member states covering a population of more than 1 billion, the OSCE is not only the world's largest intergovernmental regional security organisation but also its most regionally diverse. The organisation has a network of 17 missions in the Balkans, eastern Europe and central Asia. In my capacity as chair-in-office I addressed the OSCE's permanent council in Vienna on 12 January. I underlined that Ireland would adopt a pragmatic and fair-minded approach to ensure balance and coherence in the work of the organisation. I will address the United Nations Security Council next week on the priorities of the Irish chairmanship.

In regard to the human dimension of the OSCE, we have an ambitious agenda. We intend to prioritise the issue of Internet freedom, in particular as it applies to new digital media. As in other parts of the world, the threat to freedom of expression online is ever present in the OSCE region and appears to be growing. During our chairmanship, we will organise events focused on freedom of association and assembly, freedom of religion and belief, combatting trafficking in human beings and racism and intolerance in sport. As chair-in-office, I am working closely with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which carries out important work in relation to election monitoring. I acknowledge the work being done today by Senator Jim Walsh, a member of our delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly. I had a good meeting with the president and secretary general of the assembly during their visit to Dublin yesterday and I look forward to continued co-operation throughout the year.

In the politico-military dimension, we hope to ensure continued progress on the updating of confidence and security building measures and enhancement of the OSCE's conflict prevention capacity. We will take forward work which will enable the OSCE to deepen its involvement in all phases of the conflict cycle and to strengthen its capacity to tackle conflict, from prevention to resolution. Within the economic and environmental dimension, our core theme will be the promotion of security and stability through good governance. We firmly believe that weak and ineffective governance undermines economic development and exposes states to greater security risks. As chairman, I will work with others to promote lasting settlements to a number of conflicts in the OSCE area. As is usual practice, I have appointed two special representatives to assist me in this regard. Ambassador Padraig Murphy, a former senior diplomat, is my special representative for the South Caucasus, dealing in particular with Georgia and the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He will also have a secondary role on Nagorno-Karabakh. Ambassador Erwan Fouere is my special representative for the Transdniestrian settlement process, dealing with the efforts to resolve a longstanding conflict in Moldova with the breakaway region of Transdniestria.

In taking up these challenges, we will draw on our own experience of successful conflict resolution. On 27 April, I will host a conference which will focus on Northern Ireland as a case study, aiming to explore aspects which might be applicable to conflict situations in the OSCE area. I believe we can encourage those engaged in negotiations elsewhere to persevere in their efforts by showing that it has been possible to create and build peace in Northern Ireland and by explaining how this was achieved.

The key event of the year will be the OSCE ministerial meeting which is scheduled to take place from 6-7 December in Dublin. This event involves participation by all 56 member states and 12 partner states at Foreign Minister level. It will be the largest gathering of Foreign Ministers ever to take place in Ireland. As chair-in-office, I will work hard to pursue the principles and aims of the OSCE. It is an honour for Ireland to have this unique opportunity to make a tangible contribution to the promotion of European peace and security. We will also reap significant benefits from the chairmanship, including a significantly raised EU and international profile. It gives us an opportunity for close and sustained engagement with major international players, such as the US, Russia, France and Germany.

Ireland's commitment to peace and security extends much further than our immediate neighbourhood. In recent days I visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories and I met President Abbas and Foreign Minister Malki in Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor and Foreign Minister Liberman in Jerusalem. My visit afforded me the opportunity to be briefed on and see for myself how the occupation impacts on the ordinary Palestinian population. I had lengthy and constructive discussions with all the leaders I met on both sides, to whom I made clear Ireland and the EU's continuing strong interest and commitment to doing everything possible to support current peace efforts.

In my discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I particularly emphasised the importance of Israel taking decisive action in relation to ending the blockade of Gaza and the urgency of Israeli restraint in relation to further settlement expansion. A primary concern for Ireland in our approach to the situation in the Middle East is the need to defend the fundamental human rights and freedoms of the local population. Ireland's commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights has been, and will continue to be, a central component of our foreign policy. It forms the background to the campaign now under way to secure election to the Human Rights Council, the United Nations' principal human rights forum. Ireland is a strong supporter of the United Nations as a community of nations working together to advance the values enshrined in the United Nations Charter. We champion the vital role which the United Nations plays in safeguarding and advancing human rights. The contribution which Ireland can make to this work will be considerably strengthened if we become a member of the Human Rights Council. To this end, we are seeking membership from 2013 to 2015 in elections which will be held later this year. Our candidature for the Human Rights Council is fully in keeping with the commitment in the programme for Government to restore Ireland's standing as a respected and influential member of the international community. Our clear message is that economic woes have not diminished our tradition of protecting vulnerable people. We are strongly committed to keeping the fight against global poverty and hunger at the heart of Ireland's foreign policy. We do so not only because it is the right thing to do, reflecting the values and sense of solidarity of the Irish people with those who face extreme poverty and hunger elsewhere, but because it is in our own interest, as an outward-looking nation whose future depends on the strength of our political, economic and cultural partnerships worldwide.

Our newly launched Africa strategy will enable us to further our engagement on these issues. The strategy contains proposals to build on our strong relationships on that continent, relationships that are mutually beneficial to Ireland and Africa and which foster true partnerships. Over the coming year we will roll out the implementation of this strategy, using our embassy network in Africa to maximum effect. Development co-operation still matters. It can and does make a difference. Internationally, Ireland's aid programme is regarded as one of the most focused and effective. Our priorities in 2012 are to build on that through our work with partner governments, civil society organisations and through the UN system. In particular, we will work to further strengthen our leadership role in combating hunger and malnutrition.

We need also to learn from what works best in delivering results on the ground for poor people and to set out clear priorities for our aid programme over the coming years. This is the reason we are undertaking a review of the 2006 White Paper on Irish Aid. We will publish the review later this year, following engagement in a wide consultative process. The review will give us a real and valuable opportunity to recalibrate the aid programme to take into account the lessons learned in the past five years. I look forward to working with the Oireachtas in this regard.

Ireland's commitment to multilateralism is fundamental to restoring its reputation on the global stage. It shows us to be a nation that cares, that perseveres despite economic restraints, a nation that can be trusted to hold fast to its principles and overcome challenges and a reliable country with which to do business. On that subject, the Taoiseach and I will next week attend the "Invest in Ireland" event hosted by President Clinton in New York city as a direct outcome of the Global Irish Economic Forum to encourage new US investment into Ireland. The Global Irish Economic Forum held in Dublin Castle last October was very successful and has already contributed to our economic recovery and to projecting a positive image of Ireland abroad. While in the US, the Taoiseach and I will also meet with the US Administration at senior levels and with both parties in the US Congress, to continue to press for immigration reform. Addressing the situation of the undocumented Irish and reforming our migration arrangements with the United States remain important priorities for the Government. Next week's discussions will build on contacts that we have had with President Obama, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate judiciary committee. Discussions will focus on recent welcome legislative proposals in this area, such as allocating E3 visas to Ireland and working with the Irish-American immigrant community, we will use the opportunity to encourage the bipartisan support required for the legislation to be successful.

I take the opportunity to brief the House on developments in the EU and priorities for the year ahead. As Senators will be aware, on Monday evening the European Council reached agreement on two important documents, a statement committing leaders to a programme of work aimed at ensuring jobs and growth and the text of a new treaty on stability. Both are important issues for Ireland. Both are vital to economic recovery and are very welcome. It is, of course, true that much, if not most, of what is contained within the new treaty already exists in European law, whether through the Stability and Growth Pact or through the six legislative measures to strengthen it which were adopted last year. However, setting this out in a treaty and adding a small number of important new elements, including the need for each country to have an automatic correction mechanism that kicks in if it is in danger of breaching the rules, takes our commitment to shared discipline to a new level. For a small member state like Ireland this is important and welcome.

Following this week's meeting of the Government, I have written to the Attorney General seeking her formal views on whether a referendum will be required to enable Ireland to ratify this treaty. The Attorney General will study the legal implications carefully and will advise on what steps are necessary in due course. There is no deadline. It is important that she has whatever time she needs to undertake this important work. This House may rest assured that whatever path towards ratification is required, the Oireachtas will be fully involved in the process. It is also important to place the new treaty in the right context. It is part of the jigsaw but not the full picture. We must focus on growth and jobs and must ensure that we have convincing and robust firewalls in place. In this regard, the statement of the European Council on growth last Monday was very welcome, as is confirmation that the European Council will return to the question of the adequacy of the resources under the EFSF and the ESM when it next meets in March.

I again express my thanks for this opportunity to brief the Seanad on my priorities in 2012. It is a full agenda but one that my Department and I are fully committed to discharging to the best of our ability. In so doing, I am conscious of the role played by the Oireachtas in foreign affairs and it is important to have a chance to discuss matters of such significance to Ireland and Europe in this House.

Before I call Senator Walsh, I am sure the Tánaiste and Members of the House will join me in welcoming Mr. R. Spencer Oliver, secretary general of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly. He is very welcome and we hope he has a successful trip to Ireland.

Each group leader has been allocated two minutes.

Two minutes is very tight but I will do my best.

I join in the welcome to the Tánaiste, a man for whom I have some admiration. I dealt with him in the past when he served in a previous Administration in the 1990s as a member of Democratic Left and always have found him to be a fair and committed politician. I also wish him well in the chairmanship of the OSCE. Two highly significant years obviously are approaching because next year, Ireland will hold the Presidency of the European Union. These years will be pivotal both for Ireland and for the wider global community and we have a part to play in this regard. I am delighted that the secretary general of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly is present to observe the mission and I join the Cathaoirleach in the welcome extended to him.

In this regard, after their meeting with the Tánaiste yesterday, the secretary general and President Petros Efthymiou subsequently met the Irish delegates to the Parliamentary Assembly. At that meeting, they acknowledged and welcomed the Tánaiste's priorities and the manner in which he has commenced his period of chairmanship of the OSCE. They certainly had a constructive meeting with the Tánaiste yesterday. Moreover, it is fair to state the six Irish members of the Parliamentary Assembly are very keen to play whatever constructive role they can in assisting the Tánaiste during Ireland's chairmanship this year. Perhaps the Tánaiste might examine how the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly can best assist in his various priorities and programmes and I may have one or two suggestions to make in this regard.

I also greatly welcome the Tánaiste's comments on Georgia. I visited that country last October and I am conscious of the difficulties regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia within that particular country and aware of the influence Russia has on these regions. It is to be hoped the appointment of the Tánaiste's special representative will make a contribution in this regard. Nagorno-Karabakh appears to be an issue that could be prioritised in that significant progress could be made during the year given that the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia have recently come together. However, there was something of a stand-off between them. While in the region, I was given to understand the chemistry between them was not the best from the point of view of creating or advancing the success they already had achieved in going a considerable way towards reaching agreement.

The two minutes slot could not have lapsed already.

I am afraid it has.

I beg the Cathaoirleach's indulgence just for a minute to move on to a couple of items I would like to raise. Dr. Massimo Introvigne, who I know, was the special representative but the Tánaiste has replaced him with Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness. Dr. Introvigne was particularly keen on dealing specifically with racism and xenophobia and in particular with the persecution of Christians. I would like to think this will be pursued by his successor, Mrs. Justice McGuinness. One can look to Egypt and the persecution of Coptic Christians there, as well as the number who are at risk or who have been obliged to flee that country. Moreover, in Syria, where many Iraqi refugees now find themselves.

I must ask the Senator to conclude.

Christians are being persecuted. Some have been raped and others have been murdered. In his response, the Tánaiste might comment on the Assad regime and what might replace it because it appears to me that its replacement could be highly dangerous for minorities from both the aforementioned countries.

It gives me great pleasure to welcome the Tánaiste, a fellow native of east Galway, to the House. Even though he represents a Dublin constituency, people in east Galway regard him as one of their own. He attended Garbally College, as did I, and I wish him well. He is carrying a particularly heavy workload as party leader, as Tánaiste, as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and now as the chair of the OSCE. I also welcome the secretary general of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly who is present. I compliment the Tánaiste on his excellent work to date and his success in working with the Taoiseach to repair the image of Ireland abroad. In less than 12 months, they have brought about a situation in which there has been renewed interest in investing in Ireland and in which we rightfully are back on the world stage where we have the potential to punch far above our weight.

The Tánaiste outlined many issues during his contribution and I understand Members have an opportunity to ask some questions. During his recent visit to the Middle East, the Tánaiste spoke of Ireland playing a constructive role in the Middle East peace process. How does he envisage this working in practical terms and what are his plans in this regard? I spoke to the Tánaiste at a recent meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade with regard to the disappointment and offence caused by the closure of the embassy to the Vatican. At the time I asked the Tánaiste whether it would be possible to facilitate housing both the Italian and Vatican embassies at the magnificent Villa Spada. Given the difficult financial position in which we find ourselves, this could be a short-term solution. Has the Tánaiste given further thought to this proposal?

While the Tánaiste has outlined his key priorities for his chairmanship of the OSCE in the next 12 months, what does he hope to have achieved by the end of that period? The Tánaiste made reference to the trade element of his portfolio and this obviously will be of crucial importance if we are to repair our economy. In this context, I welcome the Ireland House concept he is putting in place in various embassies in collaboration with IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland.

I ask the Senator to conclude.

Has the Tánaiste been given additional resources to carry out this crucial function?

First and foremost, I welcome the Tánaiste to the House and commend him for all the work he has done in the spheres of foreign affairs and trade since he took over that portfolio. In particular, he has been to the forefront of restoring Ireland's international reputation. This has been proven by recent international commentary and I commend him most sincerely. I also commend him on his efforts to retain the overseas development aid budget at €639 million this year. On my recent visit to Ethiopia as part of an Oireachtas delegation, I can confirm at first hand how the money has been spent well there. Ireland justifiably can be proud of making such an indelible mark on Ethiopian society through the initiatives in which we are helping to eradicate poverty there on a daily basis. In addition, we are assisting to build the necessary infrastructure and to widen the gap between life and death in that country. Moreover, I am pleased to note the Tánaiste's commitment in this regard remains so steadfast for 2012.

This leads me to my next point, which pertains to Ireland's trade situation. The Tánaiste is aware that Ireland has always been a desirable country for foreign direct investment and the figures for 2009, 2011 and 2012 have been a source of envy for the rest of Europe. The Tánaiste has shown a particular commitment to the trade aspect of his portfolio through his introduction of the Africa strategy and his commitment to targeting the so-called BRIC countries for trade possibilities.

However, it will be one of the defining characteristics of the next economy that we fully recognise the essential role to be played by exports. If Ireland is to benefit fully from the transformational changes taking place in world markets, we must reorient the economy and the policies that shape it towards increasing exports. We must be very mindful of how Germany came out of the great recession through the force of an exports sector that now constitutes half of its economy. We must also be mindful of the fact that almost all of the top 30 performing metropolitan areas are located in Asia and South America, while the 30 poorest are all located in Europe and the United States. There is definitely a very strong message in this. It means that as nations throughout the world urbanise and accelerate their growth, we will have new markets.

It is essential that we place flesh on the bones of commitment and look to starting up a strategic investment bank in Ireland which might target export-dependent companies. We also need to establish a network of retailers in each country in South America and Asia which could be proactive in establishing trade fairs and showcasing the very best of Ireland and its products. While the various Government agencies have a part to play in this, so do our diplomatic staff. We must look at measuring the success and impact in increasing trade opportunities through an audit procedure. Will the Department examine instigating such measures?

I welcome the Minister and the secretary general of the OSCE. My comments bring a human rights lens to this exchange. This week I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Anne Anderson, Ireland's ambassador to the United Nations. She is working closely with the Minister in Ireland's efforts to be elected to the Human Rights Council, as the Minister outlined. Should we succeed, it would be a prime opportunity to contribute to strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights throughout the globe. It is the Minister's vision which has set Ireland's sights on this position, which I acknowledge. It is crucial because just as we seek to be a robust, albeit small, player at the international economic table, so too do we seek this role at the international human rights table. This can only be good for Ireland's efforts at national recovery as we attempt to make our mark socially as well as economically in the international arena.

Seeking membership of the Human Rights Council is a tough challenge, as the Minister knows, because we are competing against the USA, Germany, Sweden and Greece. Therefore, it is critical to ask why UN member states would vote for us. It is critical to lead by example. In this context, I acknowledge our human rights reputation, to which the Minister referred. I also note that Ireland's meeting with the Human Rights Council in March to formalise our agreed recommendations for the universal periodic review is particularly significant. Will the Minister confirm that at this meeting Ireland will indicate when it will ratify the UN disability convention? It is unclear why it has already taken four years to bring the convention into force.

Ireland's vision for the Human Rights Council's role is also pertinent to seeking election, an issue to which the Minister referred. I have several questions in this regard. Will the Minister outline how he thinks the Council ought to respond to the events of the Arab Spring? How can the Council be supportive of the democratic changes under way and ensure the representation and participation of women are not sidelined? This is of concern to the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Ms Wahlström.

I note the recent words of US Secretary of State, Mrs. Hillary Clinton, that issues of freedom, dignity and equality of LGBT people comprise one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time. Allied to this, President Obama recently gave a direction for US embassies throughout the world to partner their host country to support LGBT people. I am working closely with the US Embassy in this regard. Will advancing LGBT rights be a priority for Ireland if we are successful in our campaign for election to the Human Rights Council?

I ask the Minister and our distinguished guests to take my compliments to them as read because time is very short.

I note the Minister stated economic recovery remained a top priority for the Government. It is very important, but I was glad that the Minister also referred to human rights, which I would like to see these balanced. I remind the Minister that it was Mr. Dick Spring who established the human rights section in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, something of which he can be very proud. In this light I wonder whether we have abandoned Tibet totally because of the financial power of China.

With regard to the St. Patrick's Day celebrations, I say, "Well done." I supported Fianna Fáil Ministers in travelling abroad when that party was in government because the celebrations present an enormous opportunity. I will certainly stand up and support such travel, despite the traditional media onslaught when Ministers travel abroad. It is very important that they do so.

The Minister mentioned racism and intolerance in sport. I am very proud that LGBT issues were raised by Senator Katherine Zappone because it is very important that they are raised. The Minister referred to the Africa strategy, but nowhere was sexuality mentioned. I am grateful to him for his letter dated 31 January in response to what I had raised regarding the Uganda anti-homosexuality Bill, the "kill the gays" Bill, sparked by the intervention of three American fundamentalist preachers. What is happening there is appalling. I welcome and support what the Minister said.

What is the Minister's response to the draft parliamentary resolution on nuclear weapons abolition? The resolution has been passed unanimously in a number of European countries. It notes Kofi Annan's urgent call made on 28 November for action to be taken on nuclear weapons non-proliferation and disarmament; calls on all states with nuclear weapons to develop concrete plans with specific timetables to implement disarmament commitments; welcomes the call for nuclear weapons abolition signed by a series of Nobel laureates; and calls for further steps to be considered to criminalise and abolish nuclear weapons. I propose to table the draft parliamentary resolution for discussion. Perhaps my request might be considered.

On a related issue, I have been contacted by Amnesty International, an organisation for which I know the Minister shares my respect, about establishing an arms trade treaty to ensure arms will not be traded in areas in which they will clearly be used in the violation of the civil and human rights of the civilian population.

A considerable range of topics has been covered. I join Senators in welcoming the secretary general of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE. I had the privilege of formally meeting him yesterday morning, with the president of the Parliamentary Assembly and Mr. Soares from Portugal. Not only will I work with the Parliamentary Assembly during 2012 in my capacity as chairman of the OSCE, but I also intend to work and maintain close contact with the six Members of the Oireachtas in the Parliamentary Assembly.

Senator Jim Walsh raised the issue of the appointment of Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness as a personal representative dealing with intolerance and discrimination. She is one of three personal representatives I appointed at the beginning of the year addressing the issue of discrimination and intolerance in its various forms. She will focus on racism, xenophobia and discrimination, including against Christians. That is her brief and I am sure she will look at the situation in Egypt.

I take the opportunity to condemn the appalling events which took place at a football game in Egypt yesterday evening. I am sure Senators join me in that regard. They were truly shocking and I will issue a formal statement on behalf of the Government on them.

Senator Jim Walsh also mentioned the Assad regime in Syria. We have taken a very strong position in calling on President Assad to introduce reforms and stand aside if he does not do so. We support the very strong position taken by the European Union, including the imposition of sanctions. As Senators know, attempts are being made at United Nations level to get a Security Council resolution on Syria. I have spoken to Mr. Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, about the situation and hope it will be possible to agree to a resolution.

My concern is that the Sunnis could be worse.

Senator Michael Mullins mentioned the Middle East peace process. We support the efforts which have been made through the Quartet that arose in September following the UN General Assembly where a statement and a timetable were agreed by the Quartet. We have been encouraging both sides to participate in talks and that was the focus of many of my discussions with the leaders whom I met at the weekend, in particular, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. There are considerable difficulties and there are issues relating to mutual distrust. On the one hand, there are Israeli concerns in respect of security and, on the other, on the Palestinian side a sense that one can engage in talks forever but if settlements continue and the blockade of Gaza continues unabated, it has an undermining effect on the Palestinian leadership.

I am hopeful of some relaxation of the blockade regime in Gaza and that there will be some confidence building measures agreed by the Israeli side which will be to the benefit of the Palestinian people. I am working in close co-operation with Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

In regard to the Vatican embassy, I have addressed this issue, as Senator Mullins said at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade. The issue of whether the Villa Spada can be used as a common home for both embassies is not a matter of choice for us. The position is that the Holy See will not agree to a single embassy being used to house both missions nor will it agree to have a single ambassador serve both Italy and the Vatican. If that position is relaxed on the part of the Holy See, certainly we can look at the issue.

The question of additional resources for the trade functions was raised by Senators Mullins and Higgins. We do not have additional resources. We are living in times when we have to work within the resources available. My Department with other Departments has had its budget significantly cut in recent years. The cut in the budget of my Department is close to 30% and there are significant reductions in the number of personnel. We are trying to make the best effective use of the resources and personnel available and to refocus on trade and, similarly, to work more closely with the agencies. Our general representation abroad is not just the Irish Embassy. There is also Enterprise Ireland, IDA, Tourism Ireland, Bord Bia and sometimes representatives of other Departments in respect of different functions. We are endeavouring to get a more co-ordinated approach to that level of representation, led by the ambassador in each country and co-ordinated centrally in Dublin through the Export Trade Council.

I thank Senator Higgins for her comments in respect of the development aid programme. There has been a relatively modest reduction in the development aid budget for 2012 from €659 million to €639 million between the bilateral aid that is provided and the contribution we make to multilateral aid. It is a programme of which Ireland can be immensely proud. Even in difficult times, as we are now experiencing, we are making our contribution to relieving suffering, hunger and malnutrition among the poorest people, for example, in the Horn of Africa where there are 750,000 people who are starving, and in many poverty stricken parts of the world. Ireland can be enormously proud of the leadership it is giving, particularly in tackling hunger. This does not go unnoticed. Yesterday I got a complimentary remark from none other than Bill Gates who made the point that he was impressed, as are many people, that even in difficult times Ireland is maintaining its commitment to development aid and is standing by the poorest in the world. It is the right thing to do but it gives us a huge authority as a country when we speak with other countries and international institutions about other issues. When we speak to the ECB and the EU on matters that impact on us such as whether the debt arrangements can be re-engineered in some way and whether we can get a particular facility, the fact that we make a contribution and have a relationship with other countries and international institutions is advantageous as this is not a one-way street. One cannot just turn up when looking for something, one has to make a contribution. We make the contribution in the aid area and in human rights. We are seen as an honest broker that has a colonial past, its difficulties and conflicts and has an experience to bring to issues. That is the way in which we are carrying forward our foreign policy. That is the way my chair-in-office of the OSCE will work this year. The reason we are seeking membership of the Human Rights Council is to make that contribution in order that we can enhance our position.

Senator Higgins mentioned our diplomatic staff. I made the point to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade that we have a very small number — 347 — of diplomats who serve internationally. We have 73 missions abroad which include our international missions. Other countries of similar size have many more, for example, Denmark has more than 800. We get enormous value from the committed and dedicated team of diplomats serving us. However, I am anxious to ensure they are not spread too thinly. We have to focus on the areas where they see most value.

Senator Zappone referred to the Human Rights Council. If it was football it would be called the group of death. It includes Ireland, the US, Germany, Sweden and Greece and is a very competitive field. As with any election, we seek the support of other countries and we are doing reasonably well on that front. The Senator mentioned the disability conventions. I am not sure where that convention is at in terms of its ratification but I will consult with the Departments concerned and write directly to her on it.

In regard to the points made by Senator Norris, Ireland is committed to complete and verifiable nuclear non-proliferation. We are working hard at international level to further this issue. We played a key role in the NPT review conference in 2010. We are sympathetic to the thrust of the resolution he mentioned. We are committed to getting an arms trade treaty. That will be a major priority for us this year on which negotiations are getting under way shortly. If I have left anything out, perhaps somebody could remind me.

There was the matter of continuing the diplomatic representation in Africa on the subject of anti-gay legislation.

Yes, in Africa particularly because it is very dangerous there for people. I had the opportunity of meeting David Kato six months before he was murdered, at a frontliners meeting in Dublin Castle.

We are continuing our diplomatic representation in Africa. Late last year we launched an Africa strategy which is aimed at bringing together our diplomatic work in Africa, the aid work, and also bringing into focus the opportunities for trade with Africa. I do not want our aid programme to appear to be entirely mercenary. The reality is that the openings Ireland has got through its aid activity give us advantages when it comes to trading. If one considers the levels of economic growth in some African countries, including countries where we have had a big aid programme, there is great potential for Ireland in the years ahead to be able to convert the good will and the contacts we have established through the aid programme into trading and economic opportunities.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Tánaiste. We support his continuing strong stance on Palestinian statehood and the two-state approach. I would like to hear his views on the continuing illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories with which the Israeli Government seems hell bent on proceeding.

With regard to the EU fiscal consolidation treaty, will the Tánaiste clarify whether the Government sought any type of debt write-down? On 24 January the Taoiseach said:

We will pay our way. We have never looked for a debt write-down ...

Yesterday evening the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, said the Government had fought hard for a debt write-down. Who is telling the truth?

The Tánaiste is welcome to the House and I thank him for coming here. What progress has been made on assessing the recognition of the National Transitional Council in Libya. I raised this question with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on the Adjournment and subsequently wrote a letter to the Tánaiste's office on 29 November. I am aware, and I do not know if the two are related, that the ambassador, Mr. Patrick Hennessy, was in Libya on 12 December assessing the situation and he was to make a report. There is a massive opportunity for trade with Libya, as Senator Higgins mentioned. Enterprise Ireland would say it cannot help Irish businesses because we do not recognise the council, yet those in many businesses have contacted me to point out that they need such assistance. The British Ambassador, the Right Honourable Mr. Dominic Acquith, held a trade reception in Libya with the Minister on Friday 20 Jauary 2012 and the United Arab Emirates is in a race to get into Libya. We do not join the party and we do not go into the room when it is clean, rather we help to clean up the mess. I would like an answer to my question on that matter.

I also welcome the Tánaiste to the House. The Labour Party's approach has been one of simultaneously progressing human rights at home and in other countries. The Tánaiste has initiated a new phase. We are willing to take leadership positions in international bodies and to seek election to the UN Human Rights Council. One of the consequences of putting ourselves forward is that our record on human rights at home will receive greater scrutiny. Ireland's first universal periodic review has been very favourable in terms of our own performance.

On my specific area of interest which is housing and homelessness, as I am sure most Members are aware, that whole area of people in distressed situations has been a source of great distress at home and we have seen the direct conflicts of a right to property without a counter-balancing right to a home in our Constitution. I ask the Tánaiste in the context of the debate that will happen around the constitutional convention if he would favour Ireland including a right to a home as a counter-balance to a right to property within our Constitution. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence.

I wish the Tánaiste, in his chairmanship of the OSCE every success and in his efforts in securing Ireland a place on the UN Human Rights Council. It indicates a new looking approach to looking outside our own borders.

We could all say a great deal but I will limit myself to one specific point. I welcome the Tánaiste's commitment to Internet freedom through his work as chair of the OSCE. It is on this note that I draw his attention to the recent arrest of a 31 year old Indonesian civil servant, whose name I will supply to the Tánaiste separately, for having questioned the existence of God on his Facebook profile page. He has been charged under Indonesian law prohibiting blasphemy and faces five years imprisonment if found guilty. The reason I raise this case with the Tánaiste is that Indonesia is one of a number of Islamic states that has cited Irish blasphemy legislation in support and defence of its own. Irish blasphemy law was cited as an authority in support of Indonesia's constitutional court decision to uphold its law prohibiting blasphemy in 2010. While I fully support the repeal of this law, I do not believe the intention of the blasphemy legislation introduced by Mr. Dermot Ahern in 2009 was to infringe upon the rights to freedom of expression, religion, belief and conscience in Ireland. Nor do I think it is a desirable consequence that our law is being used to support such infringements, including against Christian religions in Islamic countries anywhere else in the world. I consider this as much a foreign affairs concern as a domestic concern. I welcome that this law is up for review in the programme for Government.

In welcoming the extension of the Tánaiste's Department to cover trade — we will wonder why we did not do that years ago — I question if there is enough economic expertise in the Department to assist the Tánaiste. The traditional division was that administrative officers did economics and went to other Departments and third secretaries tended to be in the area of arts and culture. I welcome the end of the split between them but I hope that the Tánaiste has the necessary economic expertise.

Another aspect about which I am concerned is that we have become increasing monolingual and language departments in the universities are being shut. As the Minister in charge with extending trade particularly towards BRIC countries, will the Tánaiste ask the Minister for Education and Skills to end this linguistic isolation to assist the Tánaiste in increasing Ireland's profile worldwide.

Having asked those two questions, I compliment the Tánaiste. Our relationship with the United Kingdom has never been better. That goes back to the Maryville secretariat which was a fairly inhospitable place for people to be in Belfast in the dark years but matters have developed from that to the First Minister attending Gaelic football matches, and long may that progress continue. The Queen's visit was also a great a success. Also, our status in the United States is widely envied. Many other countries would wish to have something like St. Patrick's Day. That again is a tribute to the efforts over many years of our staff in Washington. I would like the Minister to take those plaudits back to his staff.

My questions relate to our economic expertise for this role and our linguistic expertise in a society which is turning its back on many other languages, foreign languages as we used to call them.

Given that the US Secretary of Defence, Mr. Leon Panetta, has stated categorically that Iran is not building nuclear weapons or developing a nuclear programme, why did Ireland support the EU's move to ratchet up tensions by imposing sanctions on Iran via the oil boycott? In The Irish Times of 24 January the Tánaiste is attributed as having said:

Here we're dealing with an undisputed fact that Iran is militarising its nuclear set-up. There is no argument about the threat that that poses ...

Is that quote accurate and, if it is, on what grounds did the Tánaiste make that statement? What role is Ireland playing at EU level and bilaterally to encourage dialogue and prevent the rhetoric of warmongering? On a broader level does he believe that Israel has nuclear weapons and, if so, if those weapons pose a threat to their neighbours in the region?

I will deal first with the questions raised by Senator Darragh O'Brien. Yes, Ireland supports statehood for Palestine. We have made it very clear at the UN General Assembly that if the question of Palestinian membership of the United Nations arises, depending on the way in which resolutions are worded, Ireland will support it.

I raised the issue of the settlements in my discussions at the weekend. I made the point that these settlements are outside the 1967 borders. One of the big concerns is the possibility that settlements will continue. There is a particular area outside Jerusalem, the E1 area as it known. It is a serviced site and there is already a police station on it. It is clear that the services have been put in for settlement and it appears the effect of that settlement will be to sever the northern part from the southern part of the West Bank. That would be hugely significant and I made a very strong case to the Prime Minister Mr. Netanyahu that this should not proceed.

On the EU treaty, the discussions in which the Government is engaged with the troika, the ECB and the European Commission in particular, in respect of re-engineering our debt arrangements and the arrangements which were put in place for bank recapitalisation is a separate exercise from the treaty that was agreed last Monday. We have been very keen to keep the two processes separate. Progress is being made in those discussions. As the Minister for Finance said, our objective is to see if we can get the more flexible arrangements which now apply in the EFSF and the ESM made available to us, which would be more to our benefit than the arrangements put in place at the time these things were agreed. Technical discussions have been taking place with the troika, particularly with the ECB and the Commission, and we expect that they will be concluded by the end of February. Separately, a diplomatic effort is under way in which we are talking with other member states with the objective of winning political support for a resolution of that when we eventually arrive at it.

With regard to the National Transitional Council in Libya, during the United Nations General Assembly in September the United Nations recognised the National Transitional Council as the legitimate authority or government in Libya. I was at the meeting which agreed that position. The position is therefore that we recognise the National Transitional Council as the legitimate authority in Libya. As its name suggests, it is a transitional arrangement because Libya is moving towards holding elections and the transition to democracy. The United Nations will lead that exercise, as was agreed in New York.

The ambassador, Mr. Patrick Hennessy, was in Libya recently. I met him briefly in the course of the past week and he briefed me on his assessment of the situation in Libya. Certainly, we are anxious to support businesses here that wish to do business in Libya. It is worth mentioning that two Irish residents are Ministers in the new transitional government and, before they returned to Libya to take up their posts, I met and talked with them in Iveagh House. I made it clear to them that, given their Irish connection, we were willing to help them in any way we could.

Could the Minister deliver that message to Enterprise Ireland?

We can, if there is any confusion about it.

The Minister could let it know that it could work away with these businesses.

The Minister to continue, without interruption.

I am sorry. I had to get that in.

I thank the Senator.

I agree with the point in respect of our candidacy for membership of the UN Human Rights Council. It is obviously important that our human rights reputation be maintained. Senator Hayden and Senator van Turnhout referred to that aspect. The worst way one can be about human rights is complacent. However, let us face it — we have a good record and reputation. The periodic review that was undertaken gave a very good assessment of our human rights situation, but it is something on which we must be constantly vigilant to ensure we provide a leadership role in that regard.

I expect that the Taoiseach will shortly make a statement on how we are proceeding with the constitutional convention. Obviously, that convention will have to consider a range of constitutional matters and the right to a home should be part of that consideration.

I note the points Senator van Turnhout made about the Indonesian citizen who was arrested. There are huge issues relating to Internet freedom. We see, for example, reports of people having to register before visiting Internet cafés in some countries, what they look at is watched and monitored and they are visited by the police if the material is subversive in the view of the authority in that country. That is one of the reasons that, as part of the OSCE exercise, we are convening an event in Dublin which will bring together not just member states of the OSCE but the industry itself. The fact that organisations such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are located in Dublin will give a local interest to that.

In response to Senator Barrett, what we are attempting to do in the area of trade promotion is to co-ordinate and bring together the entire national effort on trade promotion. We are giving a great deal of attention to the BRIC countries in various ways. As I mentioned earlier in respect of China, for example, there will be a number of exchange visits at very high level over the coming year and we expect there will be much discussion of trade issues during those. There are issues relating to language. The Minister for Education and Skills is very exercised about that and is working on it. He has some proposals in that area.

I am glad the Senator raised the issue of our relationship with the United Kingdom, not least because I did not touch on it specifically in my opening remarks. Our relationship with the United Kingdom and the issue of Northern Ireland remain a huge priority for the Government, particularly for my Department. We have an extensive level of engagement now through the North-South Ministerial Council, in the first place. I meet regularly the First Minister, Mr. Robinson, the Deputy First Minister, Mr. McGuinness, and the Secretary of State, Mr. Paterson. There is ongoing discussion. The fact that, happily, it is not newspaper headlines any more is probably a very good thing, but an amount of work is taking place all the time building on the North-South relationship and the relationship with the UK. It is significant progress that the bulk of our discussions now with the UK is in respect of matters other than Northern Ireland. It is on economic issues and the type of issues one would expect to be the normal issues that would be discussed between neighbouring states. As the Senator said, therelationship between Ireland and the UK is better now than it has been since the State was founded.

In response to Senator Reilly, the position on Iran is that Ireland supports what we call the dual track approach. As the Senator knows, the International Atomic Energy Agency has produced a report on Iran's nuclear programme in which it clearly expressed its concerns that the programme was moving towards the development of nuclear weapons. Now, the one thing we cannot have, particularly in a situation where we wish to reduce the amount of nuclear weaponry in the world, is another state developing the capacity to have a nuclear weapon. Ireland and the European Union wish to see Iran engage in serious discussions on those issues and to inform the international agency and the international community about its plans in respect of developing nuclear weaponry. Iran has been reluctant to do that, to put it mildly.

The threat to the stability of that region, peace and people's safety is very real. Therefore, the European Union Foreign Affairs Council and I participated in and supported the decision on behalf of Ireland, decided at its last meeting on last Monday week to impose sanctions on Iran, including an embargo on the importation of oil to the European Union from Iran. Those sanctions will kick in next July. There will be a lead-in period before that happens. As I said at the time, this decision is not without cost. It will have implications for the price of oil. An economic cost is associated with this. There is no doubt that there is real concern in the Middle East about Iran's intentions. That struck me forcefully during my visit to the region last weekend. I think the decision the EU has taken will be helpful. I hope it encourages Iran to come to the table to discuss its intentions with regard to its nuclear programme. I hope it will help to ensure additional states do not develop nuclear weapons. It might also encourage those states that have such weapons to get rid of them.

I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to the House. I congratulate him on assuming the role of chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe for this year. It is a great honour for him, the Government and Ireland.

On behalf of Deputy Joe O'Reilly, who is the leader of the Irish delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe — I am the deputy leader of the delegation — I invite the Tánaiste to address the April or June plenary session of the assembly in his capacity as chairman of the OSCE. As Ireland will not hold this position again for a number of years, it is important for us to avail of this opportunity by ensuring the Tánaiste attends one of the assembly's meetings this year.

I would like to speak about the Middle East. I commend the Tánaiste for his courage in visiting Gaza and other parts of the region. I commend him for the support he has given to reaching a two-state solution. The Tánaiste and I were fortunate that the Israelis did not fire on us when we visited Hebron in 2006.

Did the Senator say "fortunate" or "unfortunate"?

What a loss it would have been. I am delighted the Tánaiste has maintained the interest he built up at that time. I hope he will continue to support the establishment of a free and independent Palestinian state. He is very committed. I congratulate him on his support for Palestine's application for membership of the United Nations. He has been true to the political and ideological beliefs he expressed in Hebron in 2006. I applaud him for that and ask him to keep up the good work.

The Tánaiste is very welcome. I thank him for the overview of his role. I salute his work. I welcome the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. Cooney, who is also Ireland's ambassador to the Vatican. When the Tánaiste and I met one day for a brief exchange on the matter, we had the same view on how a satisfactory resolution might be achieved. The Tánaiste said in response to Senator Mullins that the ball is now in the Vatican's court. It is our oldest mission and a very important one. I welcome the Tánaiste's decision to review the matter. He has spoken about it elsewhere. I have heard his update on the situation. Now that the new nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, is in situ, does the Tánaiste agree there is hope and optimism that the matter can be resolved satisfactorily in the short to medium term? Does he think the Vatican will accept that as a small country in economic difficulties, Ireland should be allowed to run two missions from a single location in the way the Tánaiste and I discussed? Perhaps the residences could be separate. I ask the Tánaiste to make a brief further comment on the matter.

Like other Members, I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. I commend him for his work as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. He is enhancing Ireland's international reputation. Like other Senators, I commend the important stance the Tánaiste has taken on Gaza and on Palestinian rights. It serves to maintain and enhance this country's reputation as a protector of human rights.

I echo Senator van Turnhout in urging the Tánaiste to take a strong line in support of the Indonesian civil servant she mentioned. We need to examine our blasphemy law because it is clearly having a repressive effect in Indonesia, Pakistan and other countries. I know the matter will be reviewed as part of the constitutional convention, but the law should be repealed. Perhaps progress can be made more quickly in this regard.

In light of Ireland's changing relations with states like China and India, which used to be recipients of aid but are now more like donors to the EU, should we consider establishing a more formalised programme of student exchange with those countries? Our third level institutions are making great strides to encourage and attract Indian and Chinese students to come here. We should be sending our students over there as well. The Tánaiste will be aware that we have sent many of our students abroad under the Erasmus programme, which has helped to enhance our linguistic abilities and this country's reputation across the EU. Does he agree that we should develop a more formal programme of student exchange with China and India?

I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. I am privileged to address the House in his presence. My comments might be a little difficult. I have recently returned from Taiwan, which is an island of democracy in a sea of dictatorship. Taiwan, which has a population of 23 million, is one of the four tigers of east Asia, the others being Singapore, South Korea and Shanghai. However, we do not export to Taiwan or import from it. One of the 12 science parks I visited has 2,500 patents and has made $30 billion in a single year. It is crying out for an export-import arrangement with Ireland. What are our plans in this regard? Do we have any plan? Are we silent on the question of exporting to and importing from Taiwan? If so, can it be attributed to the sleeping bear that is China? Such fears would be unfounded because Taiwan has many cross-strait alliances. It does not have any such thought. I would like to hear the Tánaiste's opinion on the matter. Does he intend to reopen the Irish office in Taiwan? If the office were reopened, it could be a springboard for all kinds of imports and exports to and from China. When will that happen? Why does the glorification of China ignore Taiwan? How does that fit into our idea of human rights?

The Tánaiste is very welcome. I would like to mention the case of an Irishwoman whose husband has been in jail in Sri Lanka for some years. The Tánaiste has the details of the case. The woman in question lives in Ireland with the couple's two children. We have not been able to bring attention to the matter. I urge the Tánaiste to see what he can do about it. He has the details already.

Can we take it that the Tánaiste will not support the admission of Palestine as a state until it recognises the existence of the State of Israel and allows it to exist? To the best of my knowledge, Palestine does not recognise the State of Israel or its right to exist.

I would like to congratulate the Tánaiste on becoming the chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. His status as chairman will give this country an opportunity to address certain matters. We do not have any trade with, or diplomatic presence in, central Asia. We have an opportunity to become known there. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is a household name there. I would like to think Ireland could become a household name there too. We have great opportunities to do business in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, in particular. Irish people and Irish companies are doing business there, but many Irish companies do not know those states exist. Can we take it that the Tánaiste will do his best to ensure Irish companies know that there are opportunities in central Asia?

I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. I remind him that we have invited the Taoiseach to come to the Seanad as well. There are many questions we would like to ask him. Perhaps the Tánaiste might use his influence to ensure the Taoiseach comes here.

The Tánaiste mentioned the good work that is being done on North-South and east-west relations. He will be aware that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, appeared before the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement earlier today. It has been a good and historic day. Many outstanding aspects of the Good Friday Agreement need to be implemented. There needs to be an all-Ireland Bill of Rights, an all-Ireland civic consultative forum and a truth and reconciliation process. The Tánaiste might be aware that Martin McGuinness has called for a referendum on a united Ireland to take place after the lifetime of the current Assembly, by which time there will have been two full terms. It would be important to give the people of the North an opportunity to vote on their future in a referendum. I would like to hear the Tánaiste's thoughts on those issues.

I ask the Tánaiste to bear in mind that we will have another round of questions.

I will begin by speaking about the embassy in the Vatican. I would like to set out the context for the decision to discontinue having a resident ambassador in the Vatican. As I said, our small diplomatic service is very stretched. We have to make the maximum use of it.

On a point of order, some of us cannot quite hear the Minister. I am very sorry. The headphones are not working.

I am talking about the decision in respect of the Vatican. That decision was taken in the context that we have a small diplomatic service and we have to make maximum use of its resources. We are in circumstances where representation is spread very thinly. What I would like to have been able to do would have been to combine the embassy in Italy and the embassy in the Vatican. The position up to now has been that we have had two embassies in Rome, housed in two separate buildings, with two separate sets of staff——

Three in Paris and three in the United States.

The Tánaiste to continue, without interruption.

We are talking about two embassies in Rome. It was in that context that the decision was taken to discontinue having a resident embassy in the Vatican. I wish to be very clear that our diplomatic relations with the Vatican are good. The Government has decided to appoint the Secretary General of my Department, David Cooney, to be the ambassador to the Holy See and to service that mission from Dublin. There are some indications that the Vatican may be willing to show some flexibility with regard to the co-location of embassies and offices and then we will continue to explore those possibilities. If circumstances improve, we can re-examine the position, but at the moment, the position is as it is and we do not have a resident ambassador to the Vatican. The ambassador, David Cooney, will continue to service the Vatican.

In that context there has been some media speculation regarding a possible invitation to Pope Benedict XVI to visit Ireland. The normal practice in the case of visits at this level is that an indication is given whether Pope Benedict in this case would accept an invitation. In the case of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II, the Government of the day did not simply write a letter inviting Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland. A lot of tick-tacking was carried out and the indication was that she would accept an invitation. Both the Taoiseach and I have made it clear publicly that if there is such an indication from the Vatican, the Government will issue an invitation to Pope Benedict XVI to visit Ireland. To date, the Government has not had an indication that such an invitation would be accepted. If there is an indication that he wishes to come to Ireland, the Government will issue an invitation and there is no ambiguity in that regard.

Senator Bacik asked about China. The Minister for Education and Skills is in the process of having discussions with China. He is to lead a trade delegation to China in the near future which will focus on the education sector. I expect considerable progress to be made between Ireland and China in the education area.

I recently met the Foreign Minister of India when she visited Ireland to unveil a bustof the Indian poet, Tagore, in St. Stephen's Green. We talked about the developmentof trade relations between Ireland and India, including in the education area, and this is under way.

In reply to Senator McDonnell, the office in Taiwan is an Enterprise Ireland office and comes under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton. I will bring the Senator's concerns to his attention. Ireland supports the One China policy. We are anxious to develop trade relations with China. The relationship between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China has been improving in recent times so there may be potential in that regard.

In reply to Senator Quinn, I will pursue the issue of the husband of the Irish woman who has been jailed in Sri Lanka. The Senator has supplied details of the case to my Department. That situation is being monitored constantly. The ambassador briefed the Department when he was in Dublin this week. He visits the person in prison regularly. I have been in correspondence with the Sri Lankan authorities urging that the prisoner be released or charged. I will continue to make those representations.

I call Senator Mary White.

I asked the Tánaiste a question about the Council of Europe and he did not respond.

The Tánaiste is on a tight schedule and a number of other Senators——

I am as entitled as any other Member to a response.

He may respond to the Senator afterwards.

Let us be fair about this.

My question was not answered either.

A Senator

Palestinian recognition.

I welcome the Tánaiste.

What is the point of being here if I am getting a raw deal?

I apologise for missing the Tánaiste's contribution as I was attending a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Does the Senator have a question for the Tánaiste? We have a very tight timeframe.

Yes, if I may ask the question. The Secretary of State, Owen Paterson was in attendance and I was able to inform him of the motion which was passed unanimously here this morning, that the British Government engage with the families of Justice for the Forgotten. I was the one who pushed for this motion, as the Leader will know, and I was successful in having the issue of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings put on the agenda of the first meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I told the Secretary of State that we will pursue this matter relentlessly.

I have another important issue to raise. I am a news junkie and look at every——

The Senator is running out of time.

I wish to inform the Tánaiste I have watched al-Jazeera television from the beginning and watch all the stations from China and India. I am very disappointed that the Iranian television has gone off the Murdoch satellite network. It had an excellent international news service. My question to the Tánaiste is about Iran.

I have to call another speaker. The Senator is over time.

I have just one sentence. I want to know why we so foolishly cut off one of the most influential countries in the Gulf and in Afghanistan. Iran is a major influence in the Middle East.

I call Senator Burke.

It has a population of 78 million. This is about jobs in the food and drinks industry.

The Senator is taking time from other Senators.

We should not cut off relations with Iran for the sake of a puny amount of money.

The Senator should respect the Chair.

I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. I refer to the issue of Palestine. I was in Gaza three years ago, four weeks after the bombing by Israel. In that three years nothing has changed. I may be open to correction but I understand Israel is one of the fourth biggest exporters of arms and munitions, yet it imported €1.6 billion worth of arms and munitions over a period of four years. The countries purchasing from Israel are European. The building programme continues on Palestinian lands, yet the European Union has not imposed sanctions on Israel. Could sanctions be considered to ensure such activities can be stopped? Ten years have passed and nothing has changed.

I thank the Tánaiste for coming to the House. I commend him for his continued support for Palestine. I ask and hope that he will reiterate his condemnation in December of the human rights oppression in Syria. I commend him also for his rebuilding of Ireland's support and image in the world and for managing to avoid the use of the words "green" and "jersey". The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, is hell bent in trade terms to ensure the Chinese Government's desire to give every child a daily glass of milk will be of benefit to Ireland. In the Tánaiste's view, how stable is the EU fiscal situation?

I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. He should come here more often. Senator Walsh mentioned the plight of persecuted Christians. International evidence indicates that Christians are among the most persecuted minorities in the world, be it in Orissa in India, Sri Lanka, North Korea, China and so on. What specific steps does the Tánaiste propose to take in this regard? If successful in terms of our election to the Human Rights Council, will he prioritise raising the issue with Ms Catherine Ashton?

On the closure of the Irish Embassy to the Holy See, the Tánaiste will agree that there is a difference between having two missions collocated in one venue, which may be a runner, and having one mission to serve two different states, which I understand is not a runner. The Tánaiste referred to the ambassador, Mr. Patrick Hennessy. He might be able to advise the Tánaiste on whether his unfortunate Secretary General has a snowball's chance of engaging in the type of networking in which an ambassador on the ground could engage.

Senator McAleese asked this morning whether the decision to close our embassy to the Holy See was a political decision or if the Government had been advised to close it. I would welcome a response from the Tánaiste to that question.

It is almost 5 p.m. but there are two Senators remaining who would like to ask questions.

I will take them.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Tánaiste. The Tánaiste referred earlier to the constitutional convention. It would be remiss of us not ask the Tánaiste when here if he concurs with the Taoiseach's view of the future of the Seanad or if he believes the future of the Seanad should be discussed as part of the constitutional convention and that the decisions be made afterwards.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh's question relates to the human rights of the Seanad, with which I concur. I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. I would like to focus on his role as trade Minister and in particular his proposed visit to New York to promote investment by the US in Ireland.

Many of my colleagues were among the tens of thousands of people in College Green last year to welcome President Obama. I presume many of them hope he will be re-elected in November. In his State of the Union address last week President Obama pronounced, as he has done previously, his desire that American investment would be directed back home and that American tax laws be changed — I am paraphrasing a little — to discourage American investment overseas in an effort to bring jobs back home. American investment is crucial for Ireland. We are heavily dependent on US investment in Ireland. I ask that the Tánaiste impress on his American colleagues, in particular Mrs. Hillary Clinton, that this Obama initiative would be a disaster for Ireland.

I apologise to Senators Leyden and Cullinane but my notes in response to their questions were on the same page. No offence was intended.

I appreciate that.

I thank the Senator for the invitation to the Council of Europe, which I will consider. My programme for this year is extensive. I am fortunate that the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, will bear responsibility for part of it in conjunction with her EU work. We hope we will be able to work something out between us.

On Senator Cullinane's question, I and the Secretary of State, Mr. Paterson continuously discuss the outstanding issues arising from the Good Friday Agreement. I hope that development of North-South arrangements and institutions will continue. I am particularly anxious to see the North-South parliamentary body progressed as quickly as possible. I know that the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach have been doing a great deal of work on it.

On Senator White's question in regard to Justice for the Forgotten, I met the representative of that group. It is an issue that has been repeatedly raised at several levels with the British Government. I have raised the issue with my counterparts, including the Secretary of State, Mr. Paterson, Foreign Secretary, Mr. Hague and the Deputy Prime Minister. The Taoiseach has also raised the issue with the Prime Minister Mr. Cameron.

On Senator Burke's question on settlements, we have raised that issue with the Israeli authorities. The settlement which would cause the most damage is the one to which I referred earlier, namely, the E1 settlement, about which we have spoken directly to the Prime Minister Mr. Netanyahu.

On how safe the euro is in the context of the EU fiscal arrangements, the purpose of the treaty and arrangements discussed last Monday is to stabilise the situation relating to the euro. That is of huge importance to people here, which point has been lost sight of in the context of discussions on last Monday's summit. People operating in a political bubble are constantly speaking of referenda and the political implications of the treaty and so on. The issues of most importance to the people are safety of the euro, what is happening in the European economy and the implications of this in terms of their jobs and businesses and future investment here. The Irish Government's focus in dealing with this issue has been to put that up front and to make it clear that not only the treaty but the jobs and growth strategy are important.

On Senator Mullen's remarks on discrimination against Christians, that matter is a priority. I have appointed former Supreme Court Justice Ms Catherine McGuinness as my personal representative in the OSCE context to deal specifically with that area and she is already working on it.

Senators Mullen and White raised the closure of the Irish Embassy to the Vatican. I take responsibility for that decision. While as Minister I get advice from my departmental officials, I recommended closure of the three embassies to the Government. Senator White referred to the decision to close the embassy in Iran. The point being missed is that we have only a small diplomatic team of 347 people spread across 73 different missions. These people have to service the needs of our emigrants abroad, including in Canada, Australia and so on and of people who go on holidays to various places and find themselves in one kind of trouble or another. They also have to service our requirements across all of the capitals of the 27 European Union member states, service our participation in all of the international organisations and to lead the trade missions and co-ordinate the efforts of our agencies. We cannot spread ourselves all over the place. I took the view — I stand by my decision — that we needed to concentrate our physical and residential presence on a smaller number of missions and for that reason proposed the closure of three missions, one in East Timor, which is associated with our aid work there, the second in Iran and the third in the Vatican. I would ideally like not to have toclose any mission. I would like to be in a position to expand missions. We have only two resident missions in all of South America. Our presence abroad is small and we must make maximum use of it.

Iran is influential worldwide.

It was a bad call.

We must do so in a way that makes sense and that corresponds with our economic priorities.


The Tánaiste to continue, without interruption, please.

On the Vatican, he was being realistic unlike on the Seanad or when in Davos.

I am surprised, Senator Ó Clochartaigh, to hear that the Seanad is regarded as matter of foreign affairs.

It might be if we all have to emigrate.

There is an agreed Government position on the Seanad, as contained in the programme for Government, namely, that there is to be a referendum on the future of the Seanad.


I refer to Senator Bradford's question on President Obama and the issue about investment abroad. This issue arises in the United States at election time — it is raised by President Obama and other candidates — just as the issue of Ireland's corporate tax rate also arises during elections in some European countries. There is a very high level of investment from the United States in Ireland, which is very welcome. However, what is not often appreciated is the level of Irish investment in the United States. Almost as many people are employed in the United States in Irish companies as are Irish people in American companies. It is a two-way street and we make this point at every opportunity when we talk with the US Administration, including when the Taoiseach and I met President Obama formally at Farmleigh during his visit here. He understood and appreciated it. When in the United States next week, I again will take the opportunity to make this point to the people I meet.

That concludes the statements on this subject. I thank the Tánaiste, who has been very generous with his time.

The Tánaiste should not be a stranger to the House.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Next Tuesday, at 2.30 p.m.