I thank the Chairman for his kind compliments to me and the Ministers of State, Deputies Tom Kitt and Dick Roche, and also to the officials of the Department who have just completed the assignment given to us during the EU Presidency. We are glad everything went so well and to the satisfaction of everyone, including this committee and its Chairman.
I welcome this opportunity to meet the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to consider Vote 28. Before I proceed, however, I would like to make a few brief comments on Vote 29, which the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, will deal with in more detail following the discussion on Vote 28.
Overseas development aid is an integral part of our foreign policy and represents one of the Government's priorities. Ireland has a proud record in the field of development co-operation. Through the years thousands of Irish missionaries and lay people have served overseas in a voluntary capacity and have made an immeasurable contribution to the well-being of the poorest of the poor in some of the world's most disadvantaged countries. Our own history of colonisation, famine and emigration has enabled us to identify with the plight of those most in need. The generosity of the Irish people in contributing to NGOs and to international relief efforts is well known. Against that backdrop, it is appropriate that we should have an advanced and distinctive programme of assistance for developing countries. Our aid programme has been in place for nearly three decades. From modest origins it has grown substantially in recent years and we expect that total overseas development aid will reach some €480 million this year.
The net Estimate in 2004 for Vote 28 amounts to €163.245 million, which is a reduction of just under 10% on the net provision for last year. The gross estimate has increased by 15% to €206.968 million. The reason for the reduction in the net allocation is that the Department of Finance agreed that from this year, passport, visa and other consular fees should be retained by the Department as appropriations-in-aid. Previously these receipts went directly to the Exchequer. It has also been agreed that part of these receipts will be used towards the cost of developing and operating a new and more secure passport production system.
As in previous years, most of the gross Estimate is taken up with the administrative budget, which amounts to €173.009 million, an increase of almost €28 million on the out-turn for 2003. This includes additional provisions to cover agreed pay increases as well to progress the development of a new automated passport production system. The Estimate also includes additional resources to cover the costs incurred by my Department with regard to the Irish Presidency of the European Union. The allocation of those resources was very important in terms of delivering the programme we pursued during that Presidency tenure.
On the programme budget side, Vote 28 covers mandatory contributions to international organisations such as the UN, in particular for UN peacekeeping duties. Also covered are programmes to fund cross-border peace and reconciliation projects and to support bilateral training for the new EU member states. I am also happy to report that I have secured an additional €1 million in 2004 for programmes to support Irish emigrants abroad. I will come back to this issue later.
I propose to commence my review of my Department's activities with some words on the European Union. The year 2004 has been a very challenging one for the Department of Foreign Affairs as we faced into Ireland's sixth Presidency of the European Union.
The EU Presidency presented us with a complex and challenging agenda. However, it is now safe to say that Ireland rose to the challenges presented to it. Our Presidency reflected well on the country and has given to the Union an enduring legacy in the shape of both the agreement on the European constitution and the successful enlargement which we all celebrated in Dublin and throughout the country on 1 May. While those were undoubtedly the highlights of the Irish Presidency, I also stress the record of achievement which has been registered across the range of the Union's policy areas.
Members will all by now have received a copy of Europeans Working Together, a report on Ireland's Presidency of the European Union. As the report shows, the Irish Presidency succeeded in the major objectives which we set for ourselves in the Presidency programme. That was done through good planning and preparation, skilful negotiation and working co-operatively at all levels with the European Parliament, the European Commission and the other member states.
Reaching agreement on the new European constitution in the IGC was clearly a highlight of the Presidency. Following the failure to reach agreement in December, we began our task with a mandate to consult, assess and report to the March meeting of the European Council. We undertook an extensive round of bilateral consultations at political and official level. As a result, we were able to report in March that, with the right political will, solutions could be found to all outstanding matters and that there continued to be a strong consensus in favour of concluding negotiations as soon as possible. We were asked to continue our consultations, to resume formal negotiations and to seek to bring the IGC to a conclusion by the June European Council.
We began an intensive period of negotiation bilaterally with individual delegations and collectively. There were many difficult issues to be addressed. Every one of the delegations had its own concerns and interests. Those had to be reconciled. Some questions were of a technical nature, while others were highly political. We worked to ensure that only a very small number of sensitive issues would remain on the table for the endgame. We broadly succeeded.
In May and June I chaired three IGC sessions at Foreign Minister level. My objective, in line with the Taoiseach's overall strategy, was to reduce the number of open issues to a minimum, but also to ensure that the most difficult questions had been properly debated in advance of the final decision. Among the numerous issues Foreign Ministers succeeded in resolving were arrangements for the future team Presidency of the Council and the rules governing the Union's annual budgetary process, a key issue for both the member states and the European Parliament. At our session in June we succeeded in striking a broad balance on the scope of QMV and unanimity in matters such as taxation, foreign policy and criminal law. That effectively took a major basket of issues off the table for Prime Ministers. Our debates on voting in the Council, on the Commission, and on the European Parliament helped prepare the ground for the ultimate resolution of those central questions where everyone felt that their opinions were being heard and interaction took place. It was a painstaking process, but it was worth it.
The final text of the European constitution is a good one. If ratified, it will serve the Union and its people well for a considerable time to come. It builds on the excellent work of the European Convention, most of which was adopted without change by the IGC. As the European Council noted, the constitution establishes an efficient, democratic and transparent framework for the future development of the Union. It completes the process which began with the Treaty of Rome and, like the Treaty of Rome, it will serve for many years as the foundation of a Union at the service of its citizens.
Legal experts will work over the summer to finalise the text so that it is ready for signature in all of the treaty languages, including Irish, later this year. The process of ratification will then begin. It is hoped that this can be completed within two years from signature.
Enlargement on 1 May 2004 was a truly historic occasion for the EU. Ireland had the honour and privilege of hosting the formal ceremony to celebrate the accession of ten new member states to the Union. In advance of accession, we had worked hard to strengthen our bilateral relations with those countries. A key element of the programme was the pre-accession assistance and training which we provided to officials of the new member states and candidate countries. Many of the new member states and candidate countries see Ireland as a model, and they are particularly interested in learning from our experiences. The training programme has contributed greatly to the success of the enlargement process. Of course, the enlargement process did not end on 1 May. During the Irish Presidency, Bulgaria provisionally concluded negotiations in all outstanding chapters, and Romania has also made significant progress.
In the justice and home affairs area a substantial body of work was completed in the fields of immigration, asylum, police co-operation and crime, action against drugs and better access to justice across borders for the Union's citizens. The fight against terrorism was also a major focus of attention with the adoption at the March European Council of a declaration on combating terrorism aimed at ensuring the safety of EU citizens while developing a comprehensive strategy to address all aspects of the terrorist threat. Work on implementing the strategy was taken forward intensively throughout the Presidency.
As members are aware, we sought to reinject momentum into the Lisbon Agenda by preparing a spring European Council focused on the critical areas of sustainable growth and employment. The European Council gave impetus to actions at EU and national level in support of sound macro-economic policies, competitiveness, better regulation, innovation, education, training and adaptability. We maintained the necessary balance between the economic, social and environmental aspects of the agenda, the European Council emphasising that future growth needed to be sustainable and that social cohesion remained central.
Our successful management of the Lisbon Agenda at European Council level was complemented by significant progress on a range of legislative dossiers that are critical in advancing that process. Those include legislation in the areas of financial services, competition, mobility, intellectual property rights, consumer protection, health, environmental protection and infrastructural development. Overall, some 80 legislative proposals were concluded with the European Parliament during the Irish Presidency. That represented some 20% of the Parliament's total legislative output for its five-year term.
We had the task as Presidency of managing the initial stages of negotiations on the next EU funding round, the future financial perspectives for 2007 to 2013 which will determine how the EU allocates its resources to address current and future priorities. This is a sensitive and potentially divisive issue which has far-reaching implications for all our citizens. We felt it critical to put a good foundation in place and get this initial phase right so that subsequent stages of the negotiations could proceed effectively. An analytical report was prepared which was considered by the June European Council to be a useful contribution towards clarifying issues and positions and offering feedback to the Commission in preparing its forthcoming legislative proposals. The work will now be taken forward by the Dutch Presidency on the basis of the issues identified in the report.
The year 2003 was the first full year of operation of the European Union Scrutiny Act. Information notes on almost 400 draft legislative proposals were submitted to the Oireachtas, and almost a quarter of those were forwarded to sectoral committees for detailed consideration. Departments compiled six monthly reports outlining developments in the EU during the 2003 Greek and Italian Presidencies. Earlier this year the Government submitted its first annual report to the Oireachtas on developments in the EU in 2003.
My ministerial colleagues and I have also had very useful exchanges of views over the past year at pre-Council meetings with members of the Joint Committee on European Affairs. The enhanced scrutiny of draft legislative proposals and the wider process of reporting and pre-Council briefing have increased the transparency of the EU policy formation and legislative process. I would like to compliment the members of the European Affairs Committee, who play a very important role in that regard.
One of the greatest challenges that we have faced, as Presidency, over the last six months has been to manage effectively and make progress on the Union's complex and far-reaching global agenda. During that time, the Taoiseach and members of the Government have chaired a number of successful summits and ministerial meetings with the Union's main partners around the globe. We have worked constructively with the Union's strategic partners on a wide range of issues of common interest.
A central priority of Ireland's Presidency was EU support for a strengthened United Nations and an effective multilateral system. As Presidency, we worked to increase EU-UN co-operation in crisis management. We also co-ordinated the EU contribution to the work of Secretary General Annan's high level panel on threats, challenges and change, and we engaged actively with key regional partners, in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean in reaffirming our shared commitment to the multilateral system.
Ireland's commitment to the UN has, in the past year, also been evident on a national level. Nowhere is that more evident than in Liberia, where Ireland has deployed more than 430 troops to the UN's peacekeeping operation, a demonstration of Ireland's abiding commitment both to Africa and to the principles of the UN. Secretary General Annan expressed appreciation in the warmest terms for Ireland's national and Presidency support for the UN when I met him in New York on 23 June.
As Presidency, we worked tirelessly to promote a just and lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict based on the Quartet road map. An essential element for progress in the peace process is an active Quartet. Prior to the start of our Presidency, the last meeting of the Quartet had taken place in September 2003. We sought to inject momentum into the work of the Quartet, with the result that there were four meetings during our Presidency at envoy level, leading up to a meeting at principals level which I attended in New York on 4 May.
We also continued EU efforts to encourage both sides to implement their commitments under the road map. A key challenge was how to respond to the announcement of Israeli plans for a withdrawal from Gaza. The EU position is clear. This withdrawal must be a first step towards implementation of the road map. At the February meeting of the Council we reached agreement on a number of conditions the planned withdrawal from Gaza would need to meet in order for it to enjoy international support. These conditions, which were endorsed by the European Council in March, are as follows: it should take place in the context of the road map; it should be a step towards a two state solution; it should not involve a transfer of settlement activity to the West Bank; there should be an organised and negotiated handover of responsibility to the Palestinian Authority; and Israel should facilitate the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Gaza.
A reaffirmation of the EU position was issued after the informal, or Gymnich, meeting of Foreign Ministers in Tullamore. This statement welcomed the prospect of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, provided it is carried out in accordance with the conditions we identified in February. The statement laid the ground for the EU's position at the Quartet meeting on 4 May which I have already mentioned. The Quartet statement issued following this meeting reaffirmed the principle of a negotiated two state solution. It made clear the EU would not recognise any change to the 1967 borders other than those agreed between the two parties. Since May it is encouraging to see Quartet activity continue in the region, with the possibility of a meeting at principals' level in September.
With the unanimous adoption by the UN Security Council of Resolution 1546 on 8 June, the international community is now working together in support of the political transition process leading to the establishment of a democratic Iraqi government. The transfer of sovereignty in Iraq on 28 June and the establishment of an interim Government was an important step in that process. It is essential that the interim Government is able to carry out its mandate. Iraqis must be seen to govern in the interests of Iraqis, with the aim of bringing about security, stability and an improvement in living standards for the people of Iraq. The Security Council has called on all UN member states to support and assist the interim Iraqi Government as well as the multinational forces.
The resolution assured a central role for the UN in important aspects of the process in Iraq for the future. The EU stands ready to assist the transition process and, to that end, we finalised a medium-term strategy on Iraq which sets out a framework for the EU's engagement with that country in the period ahead, including support for a central UN role. We also reached agreement on a joint declaration on Iraq at the EU-US summit last month which demonstrates a shared transatlantic determination to work together in the interest of all the Iraqi people.
We were also active in developing the Union's relations with the wider region of the Middle East, securing agreement on a strategic partnership for the Mediterranean and Middle East. This aims to promote the development, through partnership, of a common zone of peace, prosperity and progress. The strategic partnership, which is based on extensive consultation with our partners in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, will provide the framework for deepening the Union's already extensive engagement in this strategically important region through the Barcelona process.
We have also succeeded in helping to revitalise the transatlantic relationship. The EU-US summit at Dromoland Castle was extremely successful, and provided a solid basis for continuing close co-operation with the Americans. We discussed transatlantic economic relations and a broad range of international issues and reached agreement on joint declarations on Iraq, strengthening economic ties, combating HIV-AIDS, the Middle East, Sudan, non-proliferation and the fight against terrorism. We also held a productive summit with Canada in March.
The EU-Russia relationship is in good shape following agreement on the extension of the EU-Russia partnership and co-operation agreement and a successful EU-Russia summit in May. The summit took place in a positive atmosphere, and provided an opportunity for comprehensive dialogue on all issues, including human rights and the EU's concerns about Chechnya. As the Presidency, we succeeded in placing the Union's relationship with Russia back on a sound footing following the strains of the pre-enlargement period. The conclusion of EU-Russia-WTO negotiations was a major achievement of the summit.
The EU-Russia relationship was further strengthened by the formal establishment of the EU-Russia Permanent Partnership Council. On 27 April, I chaired the first meeting of this new format for dialogue, which has the potential to promote practical, coherent and concrete co-operation across the full range of issues on the EU-Russia agenda. I look forward to the permanent partnership council format being developed by the Dutch Presidency through meetings of Environment Ministers and Justice and Home Affairs Ministers.
We have also placed an important focus on relations with Asia. In April I chaired a successful meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Asia-Europe Meeting, ASEM, in Kildare, and the Taoiseach travelled to Tokyo in June to attend the EU-Japan summit. We have also had wide-ranging and constructive dialogue with China, which included human rights issues, most notably during the visit in May of Premier Wen.
One issue which remains of particular concern, however, is the situation in Burma. In light of the continuing detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, I appointed a special envoy of the Presidency to convey to the governments of the region the EU's concerns about Burma. Regrettably, there has been no positive progress and Ms Suu Kyi remains in detention. We will continue to work with our Asian partners to encourage Burma to adopt the path of democracy and freedom which would pave the way to developing relations between the EU and Burma.
At the outset of our Presidency, we set ourselves the task of ensuring that European Security and Defence Policy continues to develop in the service of peace and to strike an appropriate and ongoing balance between its military and non-military elements. I am pleased to report that we have been successful in completing these tasks. I have already referred to the progress achieved in EU-UN co-operation in the areas of peacekeeping and crisis management. We have also sought to build links in these areas with the African Union and with other regional organisations throughout the world, with the peace support facility of €250 million now being made available to the African Union and other regional bodies there.
EU police operations in Macedonia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina are progressing well, the latter now under the leadership of a Garda Assistant Commissioner, Kevin Carthy. As the Presidency, we successfully brokered agreement on key aspects of the EU operation which is due to succeed the current SFOR mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina later this year. The EU is about to undertake its first rule of law mission under the ESDP, in Georgia. We also ensured the continuing development of civilian as well as military capabilities for EU crisis management in a balanced manner.
We set out to move Africa up the Union's agenda and to enhance the contribution we can make to addressing the problems and challenges facing that continent. It was our aim to do so in partnership with African countries. In addition to successful meetings with the African Union, ECOWAS and South Africa, we succeeded in getting the African peace facility established and operational. This will directly help to save African lives through supporting African-led peacekeeping efforts. Support for conflict prevention has also been a priority, particularly in the first EU troika visit to Ethiopia and Eritrea in April. Situations of serious concern remain. Recent developments in Darfur and in the Democratic Republic of Congo require urgent international attention and, as the Presidency, we have sought to ensure an effective EU response to the critical humanitarian crisis there.
The challenge in the period ahead will be to build on the contacts and the good will established during the Presidency, as well as previously during our membership of the UN Security Council, in our bilateral relations and national foreign policy. The relationships which the Taoiseach, the Ministers of State in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputies Kitt and Roche, and I have been able to develop during the last six months will be of great value in this regard.
Before I leave Presidency matters, I would like also to mention that one of our key priorities was to address the challenge of keeping citizens fully informed and engaged in relation to EU developments which affect their daily lives in so many ways. The Presidency website, www.eu2004.ie, has been the key communication tool in this regard. The website recorded over 47 million hits, making it the most successful Presidency website ever.
Ireland is deeply integrated within the global economy and remains highly dependent on trade and investment as instruments to advance economic growth. Consequently, any budgetary discussions surrounding the Department of Foreign Affairs for 2004 should be placed in the context of the Government's wider economic agenda. My Department makes a significant contribution in that regard.
Economic promotion is at the heart of the activities undertaken by missions. Overseas staff are firmly committed to the promotion of Ireland's economic well-being through their varied work in supporting the foreign earnings and inward investment activities of State agencies. Where the agencies are not represented, our missions provide all possible assistance to Irish companies in their commercial endeavours. Embassies and cnsulates often enjoy privileged access to influential public and private sector decision makers and this level of access provides valuable support to Irish business people and the State agencies.
At home, the bilateral economic relations division plays a key co-ordinating role between the Department and its missions, on the one hand, and relevant Departments, semi-State agencies and the business community, on the other. The division co-operates with all relevant actors on a variety of initiatives aimed at promoting trade and investment.
Notwithstanding the continuing suspension of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, the Government has remained deeply engaged over the last year in the collective efforts to achieve the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Deputies will be aware that on 26 November last, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly took place. While all the main parties were successful in achieving substantial representation in the Assembly, the DUP emerged as the largest party and Sinn Féin, with 24 seats, emerged as the largest nationalist party. Since then, we have had wide-ranging engagement with all the parties, designed to achieve the restoration of the Assembly and of an inclusive power-sharing inclusive Executive, based on cross-community consent.
The Good Friday Agreement is, wider than devolution. It embraces a broad agenda of changes in other areas, changes reasserted in the Joint Declaration last year, including policing, criminal justice, human rights and equality. This remains the agenda for both Governments and we will continue to insist that these changes are implemented. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which the Secretary of State and I chair, is taking the process of implementation forward. We are also committed to ensuring that the North-South arrangements continue to function in a satisfactory manner.
Last November, Judge Peter Cory presented his reports on cases of alleged collusion to the two Governments. Preparations are currently under way for the establishment of a public inquiry into the murders of police officers Breen and Buchanan, as recommended by Judge Cory. The Government has welcomed the British Government's commitment to hold inquiries in respect of the Hamill, Wright and Nelson cases, and we continue to urge it to establish a public inquiry into the Pat Finucane case as recommended by Judge Cory.
A review of the operation of the Good Friday Agreement was convened on 3 February 2004. Since then, both Governments have had the opportunity to meet with the political parties elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly to discuss all aspects of the operation of the Agreement and to examine collectively ways to resolve the outstanding issues.
Within the review, we have emphasised that in order to achieve progress, it is important that the participating parties table proposals capable of attracting a wide measure of consensus and which do not affect the fundamentals of the Agreement. The review offers all participants, and the people they represent, a valuable opportunity to take stock together and collectively assess where and how the operation of the Agreement can be improved, made more efficient and effective.
In tandem with the review process, the two Governments are preparing for a round of intensive negotiations with the parties in an effort to resolve the current impasse. On 25 June, the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair met the political parties elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in London. The purpose was collectively to find a way forward and, in particular, to focus on the key outstanding issues. The achievement of a political way forward requires a definitive closure to all paramilitary activity; the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons; a commitment on all sides to the stability of the political institutions and their operation; and support for policing from all quarters and an agreed framework for the devolution of policing.
The Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair have announced their intention to engage in intensive dialogue in September to finalise agreement on all these issues. The core outstanding issues have been exhaustively debated and defined. It is now time to bring them to finality. The key question is whether the relevant parties have the necessary political will, courage and sense of generosity to take the fundamental steps required to fully secure peace and inclusive politics in Northern Ireland.
While the high profile work of the Presidency took the headlines over the last period, the more regular services of my Department continued to be supplied. For example, demand for passports continues to rise and is up 13% during the first six months this year compared to the same period in 2003. A major project is under way to streamline the passport production system and to provide a better service to the public. This project, known as the automated passport system, is making good progress. The machines for printing the new passports have been installed in Molesworth Street and at our new passport building in Balbriggan. The software that will manage the system is being developed and testing of the system will start next month. Full passport production using the new system will be under way towards the end of this year.
We are also taking steps to improve the visa service we provide to non-nationals, in close co-operation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I take this opportunity to thank the Members of both Houses who have expressed their appreciation to me for the consular assistance provided by officers of my Department at home and abroad. I can assure Members that my Department will continue to do everything in our power to help Irish citizens abroad who require special assistance.
I mentioned earlier that I had secured an additional €l million in 2004 for programmes to support Irish emigrants abroad. This was a direct response to the recommendations of the task force on emigrants. The purpose of the task force was "to address the special needs of those Irish emigrants abroad who are particularly marginalised or at greatest risk of exclusion" and to develop a coherent, long-term approach to our emigrants and their needs. This additional €l million brings the overall expenditure on emigrant services by the Department of Foreign Affairs this year to just over €4 million, an increase of one third on 2003.
The bulk of the moneys allocated to Irish emigrant welfare by my Department is dispensed through the DION fund which is administered by the Irish Embassy in London. DION grants are mainly given towards the salaries of workers in front-line welfare organisations who assist Irish people in need. The allocation to the DION fund has increased from €2.6 million in 2001 to €3.57 million this year. Last year 57 welfare organisations received DION grants and over 30,000 Irish people in all benefited from assistance provided by them
I thank the Chairman and the other members of the committee for their constructive contributions on the many issues that have arisen at meetings of this committee during the past year and I look forward to continuing this good working relationship over the coming year.