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Tuesday, 6 Jul 2004

Vote 29 - International Co-operation (Revised)

: Apologies have been received from Deputies Noonan, Wallace, Mitchell and Michael D. Higgins. We are meeting to consider the Revised Estimates for 2004 in respect of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Vote 28, Foreign Affairs and Vote 29, International Co-operation. On behalf of the select committee I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, and the Minister of State, Mr. Tom Kitt, as well as the officials from the Department.

We have scheduled the meeting to last until approximately 5 p.m. The Minister will deal initially with Vote 28 and the Minister of State will deal with Vote 29. Is that agreed? Agreed. Proposed timetables have been circulated for today's meeting. It will allow for opening statements by the Minister and the Opposition spokespersons and then an open discussion on the individual subheads by means of a question and answer session. Is that agreed? Agreed. Briefing material has been circulated to members on the Revised Estimates supplied by the Department of Foreign Affairs. It provides details on the individual sub-heads.

I congratulate the Minister and his civil servants on the successful management and conclusion of Ireland's Presidency of the European Union. The successful enlargement of the Union and the reaching of agreement on the new EU constitutional treaty mark this Presidency as a very exceptional one. Ireland's international standing has been greatly enhanced by these achievements. During the course of Ireland's EU Presidency we held two meetings of chairpersons here dealing with international aid and with general foreign affairs and in both cases the chairpersons from the 28 countries in one case and 30 countries in the latter case expressed their absolute satisfaction with what was happening within the Presidency. They were very happy with the work done by the Presidency and by the civil servants and politicians involved.

I note that the Estimates provide for an increase of almost €1 million for the work of the DION committee, bringing the annual allocation to over €3.5 million. We strongly support this increase. This committee considered the work of the DION committee earlier this year and I intend to pursue this further in the autumn. We have plans to visit the emigrants in England later this year.

I see that for the first time the Department will be able to retain revenues generated by its provision of passport, visa and other consular fees. The Minister might provide us with an account of how the development of a new passports system and the move of the Passport Office to Balbriggan are proceeding. It would also be interesting to hear when the Passport Office plans to issue the new passports with the coded biometric data included, and what data are to be included.

I thank the Minister's officials for their excellent support for the joint committee by means of briefs and up-to-the-minute information. That has been helpful to us and very welcome.

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,, 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.

Let me apologise for the absence of Deputy Gay Mitchell who would normally be here but is otherwise engaged. I hope his replacement will be appointed shortly.

I congratulate the Chairman of the select committee, the Minister and his officials who were involved in the Irish Presidency. It is always good to see the home team performing well on the international stage. The Opposition has always been willing to give credit where it is due. Credit is due for the way in which the Irish Presidency conducted itself on the international stage, never being afraid to tackle any subject and always being available and at the same time, giving time and attention to the various competing demands in the European arena.

I congratulate and thank all those involved in the European Convention, as they were responsible for the ground work leading to the Charter for the Future and the European constitution. The Fundamental Charter was its forerunner and many of the same subjects were discussed. Both official and political representatives carried out their duties in a way that was exemplary and indicative of our commitment to the European ideal and our willingness not only to continue on that route but to expand on it.

The ratification of the European constitution is the next step and, as the Minister has indicated, it is scheduled to come about in two years. A great deal of work remains to be done and I am quite sure the Minister is fully aware of that. Nothing succeeds like success. Whatever momentum is gained in the early stages of the ratification processs will have a bearing on the eventual outcome, whether positive or negative. I have no doubt that everybody's objective is largely similar. To bring our own people and all our European colleagues together in a meeting of minds will need a very special effort, notwithstanding all the work that has been undertaken already.

A new dimension of worldwide crisis is international terrrorism, which appears almost by magic. This will require a combined EU and UN response, unlike anything before. This has been touched on briefly in recent statements in the House. Nobody has the ultimate answers, but as major players in the European arena we have a meaningful role to play on the international stage and our view will be listened to. We have considerable experience on both sides of the fence and that experience will be beneficial to our colleagues.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a perennial issue and will continue for the foreseeable future until such time as somebody is willing to break the pattern and slow down the atrocities until the road map can be followed. If that happens, this country has a meaningful and constructive role to play. Some years ago, I was asked at an international gathering about the Irish experience in this area. I was sorry to say that we have had first hand experience. It requires a great deal of negotiation and technique to manage the situation and replace daily violence with daily dialogue. Politics must replace the vacuum that results from taking human life.

While I am on that subject, I will reiterate what many have said in the past. The international recognition of the use of the innocent target as a means of furthering the cause of various people and organisations worldwide is deplorable. Seeking out a soft innocent target is an easy way to get publicity, allegedly to further a holy cause or whatever. I have serious doubts about the legitimacy of any group or body that claims the right to take out the soft target of innocent people who have no involvement whatsoever. They should not be sacrificed by any group with a view to pursuing a cause and getting publicity.

A classic example was the recent train bombing in Madrid. I am sure that the unfortunate families and relatives of the people who were killed and maimed were asking themselves why it happened to them. We also have to be conscious of such a possibility in the future. In the fast moving world of international terrorism and violence, we can always expect that somebody somewhere will select some part of the European Union to set an example and force people to listen to them. If that is the best they have to offer, the time has come for all free-minded people everywhere to recognise that the results they desire cannot and will not be obtained in the fashion which they have charted.

I also want to comment on the war in Iraq and on the disparate and sometimes desperate views on that war. The lack of a UN mandate initially was a psychological disadvantage which became more serious as the war progressed. From the point of view of Ireland and the EU, it removed a legitimacy that would have been there if such a mandate existed. I am not anti-American; in fact I am quite pro-American. Like many others, I am concerned about what one's friends say and do if it is an embarrassment to the rest of us. I am aware that fence mending has taken place in recent times and there has been a mandate recently from the UN on the situation in Iraq. This is welcome when it happens but it would have been more helpful if it had been in evidence much earlier as it might have saved embarrassment to many.

I conclude on the transatlantic relationship to which the Minister referred. The relationship is improving and it is necessary that it should. There were fractures that were cause for concern. I hope the fence mending proceeds satisfactorily.

The Minister also referred to the African situation and Sudan, in particular. The free world needs to take a much more active role than it has to date. It has been active in the past, but the reality is that the dual conflicts of war and hunger have left millions of people caught in the middle. This leaves a responsibility on the rest of the free world to take serious action, particularly the EU and the UN.

The Minister mentioned the enlargement of the EU and we acknowledge that progress. He mentioned the relationship between the EU and Russia. That is a relationship that will have to develop in the future as Russia and the Ukraine are right on the border of the EU. It is something that will require much European attention and influence. Not only does the Russian economy have the potential to be huge, but it can also be very influential in a future east-west axis.

I acknowledge the €1 million increase this year in support for the DION groups. However, the needs are considerably greater than was recognised at the outset. Having visited the DION groups, I am aware of their urgent and ever increasing requirements, which I hope will be borne in mind.

There has been much speculation on the future of Northern Ireland, rightly so. The process has been stalled for the past year. The two main players, the UUP and the SDLP, have been surpassed in the polls by the DUP and by Sinn Féin. Only time will tell if that is a good or a bad thing. It puts a responsibility on those at the forefront to continue on and do the job that has to be done. That responsibility was not there previously to the same extent, but it is there now.

I thank the Deputy and call on Deputy Quinn to make the opening statement on behalf of the Labour Party.

I have to inform the committee that Deputy Michael D. Higgins has a new pair of knees. They got worn out with all his talk.

He will be able to walk the talk from now on.

Indeed. I start by repeating what I said in the House. It has been a spectacular Presidency. The Minister is entitled to take full credit and we all congratulate him. Not only did he do his party proud, but as an institution the Department of Foreign Affairs upheld a firm, strong tradition. I hope that the Minister thanked not only the individuals involved, but also the victims at home such as the children, partners, spouses and parents. I am aware of the workload involved, which we take very much for granted. Those in the private sector who refer to the cushy numbers in the public service have no idea what they are talking about in terms of commitment, integrity and engagement. We do not sing this loud enough. So long as the Progressive Democrats are the Minister's partners, it will not be sung, but I will sing it on their behalf. The Minister should find some way of acknowledging it.

My second suggestion is one I put it to the late Brendan Dillon, who negotiated our entry into the European Community before serving in Paris. We have no record or written history of that engagement. While many of the players are now sadly dead, we will never have a Presidency like this again. Given the Minister's resources, somebody from the various university departments should be commissioned to complete an archive or history. Our grandchildren will want to read about this and we will not be around to tell them of it. The United States and other great countries have archives. This should at least be recorded. How future generations mark or celebrate it is for them to decide, but let us give them the material on which they can make that decision.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform's handling of visa issues is appalling. It regards every Irish citizen as a criminal and, if this is the case now, it has the potential to be. If we want to maintain the openness of our economy and bring in the required skills, we must change the mindset in the Department. This is a broad and significant issue and one not just related to the incumbents and current office holders. There is a cultural problem in the Department that goes back to the 1930s and Mr. Berry. One should read the history of this, particularly Dermot Keogh's history of the treatment of the Jews in Ireland in the 1930s. I am thankful that the building is being sold. Perhaps this will get rid of the dry rot and vapours there.

Something must be done to change the attitude in the Department because we are much more unfriendly to visiting workers than other countries and we simply cannot afford this. I know this is secondary and that the operation here is different, but now that the Minister has more time, I ask him to give attention to this. To treat visiting workers as we do runs in total contradiction to the policy of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to issue work permits. As Bruce Morrison recently wrote in The Irish Times, we need a green card system whereby a worker coming to Ireland is not like a bonded servant but can operate in the labour market according to market rules and not be attached to a particular employer.

The Minister and the Department of Foreign Affairs have clout in this area because of the inter-operational activity with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Sadly, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment does not seem, despite repeated protestations, to have any interest in progressing this area. It is clear that we cannot supply the full skills need of the economy from the indigenous population and we must get this right.

If one talks to any foreigner living here, it is a deeply offensive and unfriendly country for foreign workers. A recent anecdote concerning the mini-marathon concerns a South African woman who wants to get a work permit attached to one of the main hospitals. She wants to put down roots here because she likes it and does not want to return to South Africa. However, she could not commit to getting a mortgage because she did not know whether her work permit would be renewed. At the same time, we are crying out for such workers. The problem is solvable but requires a change of attitude.

I will deal with the issue of Northern Ireland on another day. I am delighted we are making progress in regard to the EU-Russia Permanent Partnership Council. The Russians are failing to manage capitalism in direct proportion to the success of the Chinese Communists to manage capitalism, which is ironic. Russia is cowboy country and anything that can promote stability along the lines of Deputy Durkan's suggestion would be more than welcome. I fully endorse the points made by the Minister in regard to the Middle East.

We are discussing the Estimates and the contribution which the Department of Foreign Affairs can make. I was involved in negotiations when we advanced the concept of the Ireland House in Madrid. The Minister might update us as to the position on bringing forward the Ireland House, which is pertinent to some of the comments he made. While I am aware of the difficulties of getting several organisations to commit to working together, the Ireland House in Madrid is a particularly good one, thanks to the former ambassador, Richard Ryan, who located the building, where the European Commission office is also located. It is in pole position on the main street of Madrid.

I note we do not yet have embassies in Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and perhaps not in Romania. Will the Minister indicate when we will complete our representation in those countries?

I will finish on a point I explored many years ago with the late John Fitzgerald of the Department of the Public Service. The British and French have clear strategic views about placing people in international organisations. Our success in the Presidencies has clearly put us in the first division. Greece may have won the European football championship but we have won the European prize. We should consolidate this. Is there an inventory of Irish international public servants in different organisations such as the ILO, OECD and others, leaving aside the Community institutions? Do we know where they are and what they are doing? Do they get briefed? Could we fly them home once a year for free so that they could tell us what is happening in the various organisations? Could we be of assistance to them in terms of promoting their career prospects on the clear understanding that they would network back to us and let us know what is happening and how we can maximise our influence?

Some 15 years ago, the Irish public service seemed extremely successful, particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs. There were more civil servants or diplomats in the embassy of the United Kingdom in Washington than we had in the entire establishment, yet we were able to manage the Washington relationship successfully. Many Irish people work in international organisations. I tried and failed to establish a network of them. If the Minister could do this, it would be another string to our bow.

As he rightly pointed out, we are one of the most open economies in the world. We have seen the contribution that public servants in general and diplomatic staff in particular have made. If a civil servant leaves a Department to join the ILO or another international organisation, it should not be end of the relationship. There should be a formal system of networking that would enable us to keep in contact and to maximise their ability to do the job in the organisation, fully respecting the ethos of that organisation while at the same time letting us know what is happening. The model I have in mind is that of AnCO which was particularly effective in terms of linkages with the European Union. I have other comments to make and will do so in the appropriate place.

We move now to the general question and answer session. On visa applications, I support the point made by Deputy Quinn. The situation is extremely difficult for visiting workers. I currently have concerns about the case of a person which is to be dealt with tomorrow. I asked a staff member of the Department of Foreign Affairs to help with the issue. It is a worry. I am slightly distracted because of it and this is why I was so interested in what Deputy Quinn had to say. It is the reality that such situations become very difficult. We are told about all sorts of problems as matters run on. One does not get answers or service. People suffer unnecessarily and lose flights which they have booked. They are told everything will be all right but subsequently it does not work out. It is difficult to put a finger on what the problem is. Eventually it gets sorted but the flight is gone, as is the money for the flight, and issues have arisen in the meantime that should not. These problems occur even allowing for the six weeks involved and having done everything required. It is an issue which crops up frequently in this committee and I am glad Deputy Quinn mentioned it.

I also want to raise the matter of Chinese students who come to Ireland to study English. A group came before the committee and they were upset about various issues. A separate body had been established in Beijing to speed up and assist matters. However, the Chinese students were still unhappy and did not feel it was working effectively enough. There are difficulties but we should be able to overcome them from our side.

Ireland was one of the first to start up English language schools and it is now a big industry. However, when we initiate something it is sad to see other countries moving ahead of us, while we give reasons why we should not take people in. We must look at ourselves again in that respect.

In light of the democratic dividend of the recent election, perhaps it is time to invite Sinn Féin to take the two seats on the policing body. Does the Minister see a prospect of that happening? It would be a significant development.

DION has assisted 30,000 people in the past year. That is a huge figure and indicates that more attention must be paid to emigrants. An additional €1 million has been allocated this year which should make it possible for more to be done.

I congratulate the Minister, the Ministers of State, and all the officials who blazed a trail during the Presidency. Well done - it was a great job. Wearing my European affairs scrutinysub-committee hat, I have seen the additional workload which the Department carried. The committee is enormously proud of the contribution Ireland made during its Presidency.

Some of my questions have already been adverted to. Recently I dealt with a person who wants to visit Ireland from Latvia. I did not realise until then that we do not have an embassy there. The honorary consul in Latvia will not be back in his office until Friday. However, through the efforts of other Department of Foreign Affairs officials, the matter has been resolved. Can the Minister say when Ireland will have full representation in all EU member states?

I welcome, for a variety of reasons, the allocation to DION. In the past few months I had occasion to visit some of the centres in the United States and the United Kingdom. I saw the work done in both. People do not realise that the previous Government brought in a measure relating to pre-1953 pensions. This has had an enormous impact on the incomes of many Irish emigrants living as far away as Canada, Australia and the UK. Hardly a week goes by without hearing of somebody who has qualified for the 1953 pension, and it has made a difference in terms of their accommodation and lifestyle. The DION contribution is therefore welcome, and I encourage the Minister to see if it is possible to dig even deeper.

I must declare an interest in subhead E. I am pleased the contribution of €127,000 to the European Movement is still forthcoming. I am involved in the movement, as is the new chairman, Deputy Quinn. How does the Minister see organisations such as the European Movement playing a part, with the National Forum on Europe and others, in the furtherance of debate on the ratification of the treaty?

Ireland has now established a greater presence on the European stage. On subhead G, is it possible to extend the country's artistic and cultural reputation by perhaps establishing a scholarship or foundation to mark the enlargement of the European Union? I am thinking of Ireland's involvement with the Fulbright Commission in the United States. Perhaps it is not within the remit of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Can we explore opportunities to mark the significant artistic and cultural contribution Ireland has made to Europe?

I am struck by subhead B which deals with the repatriation and maintenance of distressed Irish persons abroad. Typically, to whom does this refer - holidaymakers who get involved in wars in Ayia Napa?

In Colombia.

I had that in mind also. Are people in distress in South American countries and elsewhere included in this heading?

They got €15,000.

I repeat the congratulations made by other members to the Ministers and departmental staff for their excellent work relating to the Presidency.

The Minister will agree that debate in this country tends to be frozen in time. There has not been sufficient recognition that, notwithstanding the recriminations of the past and the divisions within Europe and elsewhere about the legitimacy or otherwise of the invasion of Iraq, we now have a resolution at UN level around which all can gather and move forward. What are the practical implications of UN Security Council Resolution 1546? It implicitly suggests the Security Council is now calling on all UN member states to support and assist the interim Iraqi Government as well as the multinational forces. What are the practical implications for Ireland now that there is a UN Security Council mandate for ongoing democratisation and stability in Iraq? Now that we are covered by this mandate, what role can Ireland play?

It would be interesting to know the thought we are putting into strategy. What engagement will Ireland have if there is a UN request for peacekeeping and stabilisation forces? Can Ireland be generous about this request? Does the Minister think the Irish people, notwithstanding recriminations in the past, can embrace the concept of Irish troops involved in peacekeeping in Iraq? I think everybody agrees that the UN Security Council resolution is welcome.

The Irish Presidency invested thought and time in the re-establishment of the EU transatlantic relationship which was damaged by issues such as Iraq. Is there a dialogue between the western world, namely America and the EU, and the Middle East which might avoid the clash of civilisations which everyone is concerned about in the light of terrorism? There is a danger with so much focus on a security response to international terrorism of a falling off in diplomacy and strategic engagement between the two sets of values. Is any work being done at political or diplomatic level on that score to avoid this clash of cultures and civilisation?

Under subhead A.6 - purchase of premises, were any of those premises acquired to set up embassies abroad? It is an issue I have emphasised somewhat in the past because many countries are joining the EU and the land and premises are reasonably priced at present. Is anything being done to purchase premises for overseas offices or is this purely about the local cost here? Deputy Quinn raised the question of these embassies. What are the plans to establish offices, missions or embassies in countries such as Bulgaria?

I thank Deputies for their comments. On the question of the passport issue which the Chairman raised, the overall investment required to set up the new passport system will be in the region of €30 million, €15 million of which we expect to spend this year. It includes all the new hardware and software at home and at missions abroad, items such as the design and printing of new passport booklets, application forms, consultancy costs, training costs. Other costs will arise on an ongoing basis for recurring items such as the cost of annual maintenance to the system and the purchase of new passport booklets.

As passport fees had not increased since 1992, an increase was long overdue. The increases I brought in this year, particularly in the case of children's passports, do not match the increase in inflation during that period. In real terms the new prices are slightly lower than before but obviously they have to make a contribution towards the considerable investment we are now putting into this area.

We are also introducing a new concessionary fee for older people which has substantially reduced the price of a ten year passport for them. These fee increases were necessary to enable us to invest in the modernisation of the passport system. The improved service to the public which the new system will provide will more than justify the increase.

The main production site will be located in Balbriggan. Later in the year this office will be responsible for the processing and issuing of passports for applications received through the postal system. We will continue to maintain a public office in Molesworth Street, Dublin, and on the South Mall, Cork, where members of the public will have their applications examined in person by Passport Office personnel. The Molesworth Street office will continue to have full production capacity. Both public offices will have the capacity to produce emergency passports in cases of urgency.

The new passport system has been designed to the highest international standards. Under the new system all passports will be machine readable and so will comply with the new requirements in the visa waiver programme that will take effect in October 2004. The new passport has been designed in such a way that it will be capable of incorporating a microchip which will allow for the recording of biometric information. If a decision is taken to introduce biometric passports, the new passport system can be easily adapted for this purpose.

I am conscious of the problem in regard to the visa office. We have new dedicated visa offices with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform officials in Beijing and Moscow. After initial teething problems they are beginning to work more satisfactorily. We will consider extending these to other locations as required. They have speeded up considerably the issuing of visas and also helped identify fraudulent applications from those locations. I hear what is being said about the home situation and I will see what can be done to improve what is seen as a less than satisfactory position. The points are well made.

We recently opened offices in Estonia and Cyprus. We also opened offices for the Presidency in Bulgaria and Romania. We are reviewing the opening of new embassies, in Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia and Lithuania. I withdrew the people I put in the offices in Bulgaria and Romania when the Presidency was over so as to help the position there later in the year.

We have identified as a priority the focusing of Ireland's representation abroad by expanding the Ireland House concept. The objective is to maximise the impact of all the State agencies to achieve the best use of their resources. Arrangements have been made in several cities where a number of State agencies share accommodation, for example, in Beijing, Berlin, Budapest, Helsinki, Kuala Lumpur, Moscow, Prague, Riyadh, Seoul, Shanghai and Warsaw.

Ireland House New York was opened in March 1994. Those premises house the Irish Consulate General, as well as offices for Tourism Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, Aer Lingus, IDA and CIE Tours. It was the first time that all the State agencies transferred their offices to a single location. A similar arrangement was established in Madrid in 1997 and one in Tokyo in 1995. The possibility of extending the concept to other capitals will be examined where there are clear advantages to be gained from doing so. When embassies are being established for the first time or are being relocated, the possibility of an Ireland House concept is explored as a matter of course.

The present network of embassies and consultates consists of 49 embassies, five multilateral missions, 14 consulates general and other offices. Since 1998 we have opened embassies in Turkey, Mexico, Singapore, Norway, Slovakia, Cyprus, Slovenia, Brazil and Estonia. Offices were opened in Ramallah, Sofia and Bucharest while consulates general were opened in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Shanghai and Sydney. There has been a considerable amount of expansion but it is not complete yet.

In regard to the purchasing of embassies, at present 14 official residences, five chanceries and four combined chancery-residence premises are owned by the State. In addition, the State owns the first secretary's residence in Canberra. The advantage of purchase is that the State acquires an asset which in the normal way appreciates in value. The purchase of the ambassador's residence in Buenos Aireswas completed in 1997. The residence in Dar-es-Salaam was purchased in 1998 from the Vote for International Co-operation. In 1999 a residence for the ambassador in Berlin was purchased. In 2000, a site was purchased in Belfast on which to construct accommodation for a British-Irish secretariat staff. Plans for the development of the site have been prepared. In 2002 the ambassador's residence in Oslo was purchased. In 2004 we purchased the residence in Lisbon and a residence in Prague is being actively pursued.

Obviously I would like to see us purchasing more properties and we are exploring the possibility further with the Department of Finance as to how we might be able to convert rents and a mortgage arrangement over time. There are Department of Finance rules that make it difficult and that is not surprising. Creative minds are working very actively on this at present.

To my knowledge no register exists of Irish citizens working with international organisations. I agree it is a good idea and I will ask my officials to follow up that suggestion. Within the European Commission an informal list of Irish officials is available. I am aware that on a visit to the UN, the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, spoke to Irish people working in the UN system. Certainly there is a need for us to recognise the resource we have and improve the networking arrangements. It also helps to prevent people from going native.

On the question of repatriation, usually it is people who are robbed or left stranded in a night club somewhere——

In a laneway.

looking for a taxi or a plane home. Its purpose is to assist citizens in distress to return to their places of residence, normally to Ireland but sometimes to Britain, in situations where they are unable to arrange this for themselves.

Is it refunded?

I do not want to give the impression that this is a widespread practice, otherwise every clown in Spain would be trying to get home on the cheap.

The European Movement, over the past 50 years, through its range of EU information activities has contributed to the public debate about our role in Europe. In addition to its public information initiatives, the movement has continued to engage the public in recent years in discussing and defining Ireland's place in the future of Europe by making submissions to the Convention on the Future of Europe and participating in the National Forum on Europe. As a long-established non-governmental organisation, it provides an objective insight into the continuing debate on the future of Europe. I am sure that, under Deputy Quinn's leadership, it will play a growing role in the months and years ahead.

I accept what Deputy Carey said about the possibility of some sort of scholarship arrangement for accession countries. The Government was making a decision this morning in terms of how we would accommodate free fees for citizens of accession countries who wish to pursue undergraduate courses here. There was always a three to five year residency requirement in respect of existing member states, but as these countries have just joined the European Union we are trying to overcome that obstacle in order to ensure that they will not be treated differently.

Deputy O'Donnell inquired about Resolution 1546. It is true that this is the turning point in terms of re-establishing some form of international consensus and the resolution is now the established international position. Resolution 1546 endorses the formation of a sovereign interim Government of Iraq and welcomes the fact that the occupation officially ended on 30 June. As members are aware, the provisional authority has ceased to exist and Iraq will reassert its full sovereignty. The resolution also endorses the proposed timetable for Iraq's political transition.

As circumstances permit, it provides a mandate to assist the Iraqi people and Government to the special representative of the Secretary General, Mr. Brahimi, and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, as requested by the Government of Iraq, to play a leading role in assisting in the convening of the national conference to select the consultative council that will support and interact with the interim Government; to advise and support the independent electoral commission of Iraq as it prepares for elections; to promote national dialogue and consensus-building on the drafting of a national constitution; to advise the Government in the development of effective civil and social services; to contribute to the co-ordination and delivery of reconstruction, development and humanitarian assistance; to promote the protection of human rights, national reconciliation and judicial and legal reform; and to advise and assist the Government on initial planning for the eventual conduct of a comprehensive census.

The resolution also welcomes ongoing efforts by the interim Government to develop the Iraqi security forces, including the Iraqi armed forces; gives authority to the international force to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq, including preventing and deterring terrorism, in order that the United Nations can fulfil its role; notes the intention to create a distinct entity under the unified command of the multinational force with a dedicated mission to provide security for the UN presence in Iraq and calls upon member states and relevant organisations to provide such resources, including contributions, to that entity; and requests member states and international organisations to contribute assistance to the multinational force, including military forces as agreed with the Government of Iraq.

On the latter point, Ireland has a complement of approximately 850 soldiers available for international peacekeeping and crisis management. There are approximately 800 in the field at present. Therefore, we see our work lying in other areas. As regards the protection of our own people, we would not be interested in providing forces as long as the security situation remains as it is as present. The position would have to be dramatically different before we could contemplate such a proposal.

The fact that a resolution is now in place means that the EU, through Chris Patten and others, can work with UN personnel in providing the wherewithal to assist in reconstruction efforts in a way which was not possible heretofore when it was a US-sponsored operation. The financial mechanism has been clarified and is now UN-compatible.

The resolution also welcomes efforts by member states and international organisations to respond in support of requests by the interim Government to provide technical and expert assistance while Iraq is rebuilding administrative capacity and reiterates its request that member states, international financial institutions and other organisations strengthen their efforts to assist the people of Iraq in the reconstruction and development of their country. It basically calls on everyone to assist the interim Government, recognise its legitimacy, help with the nation-building, work with UN personnel in terms of reconstruction efforts and provide help and forces, if we wish, upon request from the interim Government. It provides a framework of co-operation between the international community and this interim Administration, based on the road map set out in terms of the ultimate holding of elections, preparation for those elections, the holding of a census, electoral commission work, the establishment of political parties and the usual detailed work in which the UN specialises.

When I met Kofi Annan, he was anxious to proceed with the work to which I refer. However, given what happened to Sergio de Mello and others, he had to be satisfied that the security situation would permit UN people to be physically present in Iraq. Arrangements have been made with neighbouring countries to do the work and Mr. Brahimi has been travelling in and out of Iraq on a regular basis.

As regards the clash of civilisations involving the US, the EU and the Arab or Muslim world, there was a great deal of discussion during our Presidency with the US regarding its wider Middle East initiative to ensure that it would not be seen as an imposition on the priorities that those in the Arab world would identify. We were very much the bridgehead between the Arabs' perception of what the intentions of the United States were and what those intentions were in reality. We came forward with declarations at the EU-US summit which emphasise partnership and working with these regimes, while also highlighting in clear terms the need for political and economic reform. There is no point in merely talking about these things.

The UN human development report by Arab intellectuals, which was published last year or the year before, clearly sets out the huge challenges that demography presents for the Arab world. This is quite apart from all the other issues relating to participative democracy and institutions which have the support, fealty and loyalty of their peoples. These issues must be addressed and we are working through existing methods such as the Barcelona process and the EuroMed partnership. I may be wrong but I understand that a significant sum in the amount of €1.5 billion was provided to these countries. We are also engaged in building up relationships with the international banking sector to provide private sector money for micro-enterprises, etc. There is a great deal of work going on.

The idea of "soft power" was often mentioned to me by Richard Haas and it is probably something at which the European Union is more adept than the United States in terms of developing these sorts of initiatives. The US always places an emphasis on the harder military aspect. Co-operation will be needed if it is to work. These are aspects of security that have their place in any given situation and, rather than hectoring each other, we need to engage in a constructive dialogue in order to make this work. If the EU and the US can agree on matters, one is usually half way towards solving a problem. We recognise the differences but despite the difficulties we must make it clear that we share the same basic democratic values, even if, as was the case in the past 15 months, serious problems arise between us. There is an openness among Americans to discuss these issues.

There might be more openness after November.

Regardless of the outcome in November, I believe people will be more open. That is particularly true in the context of the fact that we need international co-operation to solve these problems.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I do not know much about German culture but I get the sense that, with the enlargement eastwards, Berlin has assumed a major importance and is now somewhat of a capital for that entire cultural hinterland, including Bulgaria, Romania and, because of the historical links, Turkey. I have visited the ambassador's residence, which was designed by Mies van der Rohe, in Berlin. I invite the Minister to explore creatively with his colleagues in the PW, perhaps through a public private partnership and by means of an architectural competition, the construction from scratch of an Ireland House in Berlin. Invitations have been issued to various countries to come forward in this regard and the Minister, from his visits there, is aware of the nature of the city. It is very spread out and much ground is available, particularly in the former eastern part which is under the ownership of the city government. It would be an extraordinary opportunity to build on that and - here I endorse Deputy Carey's suggestion - to establish a cultural and intellectual presence, including English as a foreign language, rather than leaving this to the British Council. Plenty of Irish capital is available for a public private partnership over 20 years which, in terms of cost, could be managed. There is no currency risk. That is something I invite the Minister to explore.

I fully endorse the soft power concept. I vividly recall being at a seminar at which a representative of the Albanian community in Kosovo said that if the Europeans had managed to deliver a dozen refuse trucks and skilled personnel to clear the piled-up refuse in the streets of Pristina on a regular basis, it would have been a major contribution to confidence building and civic society. Maybe in that context there is a role which would reach across the political spectrum. Perhaps we could establish within the Irish public service whether we could deliver at short notice, irrespective of language, a group of firemen, sanitary engineers or public health officers.

We know from the Belfast experience that troops in helmets and guns do not make good policemen. If the water does not flow, the electricity does not function or the refuse is not collected, which are basic things we take for granted in this country, then civic society breaks down. In a failed state, these are the things that go first, as we know from Africa. Given the different political and military traditions in this country, if we had a reserve team through health boards and local authorities, we could put 25 civic municipal experts into Baghdad or Basra. They would know how to make the water system work or how to organise refuse collection. Those are basic issues. There is a difference between public health and public sanity. That could be our contribution.

We know from the observers of independent elections that there is a panel of people across the party political spectrum - some might regard them as political anoraks - who like elections in any country. Perhaps the Minister's Department administers that panel, the members of which have expertise and can travel at the drop of a hat. Could that be explored as a contribution after an earthquake, in a failed political context or in the context of Baghdad? We could make a positive, concrete contribution. It would be non-military but an essential soft contribution.

On the second point, obviously, there is always the idea of how one can have a reserve peace corps which would be available to do some practical work. Regarding Pristina, the best way to ensure a multi-ethnic Kosovo would be to ensure the Albanians went into Serb areas and reconstructed what more extreme elements did. To be fair, some of them did that. Obviously international solidarity in the form of showing preparedness by having people who have the time to work voluntarily and the ability to travel at short notice is difficult to achieve. I take the point about technical assistance and having a corps which could help. It is something the EU is developing in terms of civilian crisis management functions.

For example, the unfortunately named Battlegroup, involves having 1,500 military personnel available to go into a situation at the behest of the UN Secretary General if something happens. We have done a great deal of work on having that operational by 2007 or 2008. These people would go into an area as an immediate bridging response pending the UN making a Liberian-type contingency intervention which might take two or three months to plan. The idea of a rapid response unit was decried during the Nice treaty referendum campaign as some kind of military conspiracy but is a practical and focused approach to ensuring the UN would be able to go into an area where the crisis would not have deteriorated to such an extent that the peacekeeping or peace enforcement mission would be at risk by the time it gets there. The French went into Ituri in the Congo at the request of the UN and that was very effective, even if it was not heralded or highlighted as a successful crisis management exercise by the EU on behalf of the UN.

During our Presidency we were able to emphasise, in a way that Irish public opinion needs to learn more about, that the EU developments in the areas of defence and policy regarding the Petersberg tasks, etc. are consistent with the UN approach. The UN itself is in the throes of reform in the aftermath of the Brahimi report commissioned by Kofi Annan after the disasters for UN peacekeepers in Liberia, West Timor and elsewhere.

We need to get beyond the idea of just standing at a border checkpoint. We now have a very well-equipped, highly regarded army which has done outstanding work. Other speakers will be able to say how highly regarded it is, and I have heard the Liberian mission was an outstanding success, although they were involved in probably the most dangerous mission any Irish peacekeepers have been sent on in modern times. The rangers are also in East Timor and there are many other tight specialist groups in the Army. Perhaps we could develop not just the Army response but also examine whether civil synergies could work with Army engineering expertise to assist with situations such as the examples given by Deputy Quinn.

On Berlin, we have the State agencies in the commercial capital, Frankfurt, but I take the point that Berlin is finding its place as the capital of the eastern side of the EU. Now, as a result of this successful Presidency, we must exploit and enhance bilateral relationships with all these countries. We are viewed differently in Germany now after the successful outcome and there were some interesting observations by our ambassador on that point, which were communicated to us recently. Ten member states represent 3% of our trade, so there is huge potential here. Also, Irish companies can invest in these countries, as distinct from just trading with companies there, and we can be physically present. Many Irish companies are already there, particularly construction companies, such as Roadstone in Poland and the banking sector. We have much to achieve and we need to convert the goodwill which has been generated into practical, mutual benefits to enhance bilateral relations.

I agree with what has been said on cultural issues also. We should never underestimate the contribution that sector makes. When Deputy de Valera was Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, I handed over the famous cultural relations section of the Department, which The Phoenix discussed for months on end as a major loss of status for us. We survived it and the haemorrhage was stopped before all the blood drained away.

We noted all the resignations on principle.

There is a tight corps of people with whom we work on an agency basis. They were involved in the 1 May celebrations and the functions in the Áras. It is possible to do this without having a plethora of people who are required for other matters. We do not diminish the significance of cultural issues and we work very closely with those involved in this area. Now we have a Department responsible for arts, tourism and culture——

The Minister inherited it.

Yes. I saw it grow from infancy as Deputy Michael D. Higgins developed it and it seemed incongruous to continue with the previous situation.

There are many issues we would like to discuss which arise from the Estimates. I thank the Minister for attending. We will discuss overseas development aid, ODA, in the next section. Before the Minister leaves, I would like him to understand that we feel a substantial increase in ODA funding will be necessary to keep moving towards 0.7%. We are currently at 0.41%.

And slipping.

All the members would like to see substantial progress in that regard in the forthcoming budget, and we will support the Minister in that endeavour. I thank the Minister and his officials for attending today's meeting and for being so forthcoming on the issues we discussed. We have received a very good service from the Department and we appreciate it is developing rapidly to meet current needs. It would be wrong to underestimate the importance of the presence of foreign affairs representatives in these countries. Mr. Austin Gormley recently worked in Bulgaria as a chargé d'affaires. In that short time he made a significant impact on the business and cultural community when matters improved dramatically. I make the point to emphasise the importance of the representation by the Department of Foreign Affairs in these circumstances.

Sitting suspended at 3.55 p.m. and resumed at 4 p.m.

I am honoured to present to the committee and seek its approval of the allocation for the year 2004 for Vote 29 - International Co-operation. The proposed allocation for the Vote this year is €400 million. This represents an increase of 7%, or €27 million, over the outturn for 2003, which is the highest ever in the history of the programme. When contributions from other Departments towards overseas development aid, ODA, are taken into account, total aid for 2004 should approach €480 million.

In 1997, when the Government took office, total ODA stood at €158 million. The allocations for overseas aid have been increased each year since then and this year's expected figure of €480 million would represent a trebling of total ODA over seven years. Progress over the period towards our objective of reaching the UN target for ODA of 0.7% of gross national product, GNP has also been impressive. As recently as 1998 our contribution stood at 0.27% and this increased to 0.41 % in 2002.

The difficult economic circumstances of the past two years have constrained the progress we would have liked to make towards the 0.7% objective. While other donors in similar circumstances have scaled down their contributions, we have managed to achieve increased allocations in 2003 and 2004 and to maintain total ODA at 0.41 % of GNP each year. In percentage terms, Ireland is one of the world's leading donors. Preliminary OECD data for 2003 rank Ireland in joint seventh place in a league table of 22 countries and well above the EU average of 0.35%. The Government hopes that, as economic circumstances improve, increased allocations will be possible over the coming years with a view to the achievement of the 0.7% objective. We can justifiably be proud of the progress we have been able to make to date despite the difficult economic climate of recent years.

In addition to increasing our contribution, we must also ensure that the quality of our programme is maintained and that our contribution makes a real difference. We have in place a range of measures designed to ensure not only that Irish funds reach their intended recipients and are spent on the purposes for which they were intended, but also that funds are spent effectively and make a difference to the lives of those most in need.

Last year the quality of our programme was subjected to a rigorous peer review process. Peer reviews are undertaken by a team of development experts drawn from the OECD secretariat and from other donors. In Ireland's case they were drawn from Belgium and Switzerland. The process included my officials and I held a round of interviews for a week as well as discussions with development stakeholders such as Irish non-governmental organisations, NGOs. A field visit to one of the programme countries was also undertaken. Our programme received a strongly favourable review. The review concluded that: "The programme distinguishes itself by its sharp focus on poverty reduction and its commitment to partnership principles." It noted that half of Ireland's ODA was channelled to least developed countries and it was the largest proportion of any DAC member.

While the peer review represented a welcome vote of confidence in the quality and impact of our programme, we must work to improve even further the effectiveness of our assistance. The review set out a range of recommendations that will help to guide our work over the next three years. In an increasingly complex business, Development Co-operation Ireland needs access to a growing range of specialist expertise. Over the past two years we have expanded and strengthened technical capacity within the organisation. In particular, we have employed additional development specialist personnel who bring with them many years of field experience with NGOs and other development agencies.

The DCI's advisory board has played an active role since its establishment in 2002 in providing me with independent advice on a wide range of programme issues. An audit committee for the Department of Foreign Affairs that was put in place at the end of 2003 will also provide an independent appraisal of audit arrangements throughout the Department, including in our development programme. It will issue recommendations regarding the strengthening of audit controls and of evaluation capacity in the organisation.

We have been considering a number of options for expansion that would extend the range and impact of our programme. Bearing in mind that Asia has the largest number of poor people in the world, I am keen to see an engagement in south-east Asia that would focus on the private sector as an engine for growth and sustainable development. We will propose a new programme in Vietnam shortly that will also address the needs of Laos and Cambodia. The developmental needs of the region are enormous. There is also considerable potential for trade in the medium to long-term as these needs are addressed. I look forward to working in partnership with the Irish private sector in that region and more generally. After my visit to Liberia and Sierra Leone in March I decided to open an office in Freetown to deepen our engagement in the region. Members will agree that it is important that we have some engagement in west Africa where the Irish NGOs, missionaries and Army are active. The Army has a substantial presence in Liberia.

My colleague, the Minister, has already referred to the principal milestones of Ireland's EU Presidency. Development issues featured prominently throughout the six months. At the beginning of our Presidency we set out three priority areas for the development co-operation agenda: poverty eradication, the fight against HIV-AIDS and co-operation with Africa. Again, I acknowledge the Minister's hard work on these issues and his focus on Africa.

Reflecting the strong emphasis in our national programme on the least developed countries, we kept a sharp focus during the Presidency on the need for the EU's development policy to give top priority to the problems faced by the poorest people in the world. We sought to build on the consensus supporting the EU's development policy statement of November 2000 and to intensify the EU's efforts to ensure that the millennium development goals, MDGs, are achieved. Last January the General Affairs and External Relations Council affirmed that the commitment to the achievement of the MDGs should be reflected across the range of EU policies and in decisions on financial allocations. As holders of the Presidency, we secured an agreement that the EU would report contributions to the MDGs both via reports from individual member states and by means of a consolidated report on behalf of the Union. We have also set in motion a process to monitor progress towards commitments made at the Monterrey conference on financing for development to raise the levels of global development assistance and to harmonise our development practices.

The second priority of our Presidency programme was the fight against HIV-AIDS. I am sure many members will have seen the statement published today by UN-AIDS on the alarming pandemic that we are all trying to deal with globally. A number of events were held over the past six months to promote this aim. In February a ministerial conference, entitled Breaking the Barriers: Partnership for an Effective Response to HIV-AIDS in Europe and Central Asia, was held in Dublin. It provided a unique opportunity to mobilise political commitment to fight HIV-AIDS in the region. It led to the adoption of the Dublin Declaration that provides a framework for the countries of Europe and central Asia to respond to this challenge.

In April a seminar held in Dublin gave European and African parliamentarians an opportunity to discuss the challenges that HIV-AIDS presents to governance in Africa. On 24 June we co-hosted, with the Netherlands, a conference in Dublin entitled New Preventive Technologies: New Options to Stop the Spread of HIV-AIDS. It focused on the importance of investing further in the development of an effective vaccine against HIV-AIDS and on the need for further research on and development of an effective microbiocide.

Another important Presidency event was the informal meeting of Development Ministers held on 1 June in Dublin Castle. We had substantive and wide-ranging discussions on items such as the relationship between development and security and how to improve the effectiveness of the EU's development co-operation policies. It is fair to say that these discussions, as well as the other achievements during our Presidency, have set an agenda which will strongly influence EU development policy over future presidencies.

I will now briefly deal with the main elements of the DCI programme. There are two changes to the structure of Vote 29 this year. First, the grant-in-aid to the Agency for Personal Services Overseas was redistributed across other subheads because it was integrated into DCI. Pursuant to an Ireland Aid review recommendation, APSO was integrated into my Department with effect from 1 January. APSO staff were recertified by the Civil Service Commissioners as permanent staff of my Department and their salary and ancillary administrative costs were assigned to subhead A. The valuable work undertaken by APSO for many years is continuing and funding for its programme activities, notably for training and personnel funding for NGOs and missionaries, was assigned to subhead B. These amounts are identified separately in the appendix to the published Revised Estimates.

Funding under a small subhead relating to funding for eastern Europe was also reclassified as subhead B. It allows for a more logical configuration of expenditure given that all other funding with a specific geographical focus, including some additional support for eastern Europe, already appears under the subhead.

Administrative costs under subhead A, at less than €25 million, again accounts for just 6% of total expenditure. Salaries and allowances of staff in Dublin and in the field account for just over half of the figure. The increase over the 2003 outturn figure takes account of the re-allocated salaries of staff of the former APSO as well as increased costs arising from benchmarking and national pay awards. Other administrative costs, including travel, telecommunications, premises and consultancies, amount to €12.1 million, a slight reduction on 2002. The balance of €375 million is spread across four programme subheads, with an increase over 2003 recorded in each case. Some €295 million is allocated as a grant-in-aid for the bilateral aid programme. The subhead accounts for more than 70% of the total Vote.

As in previous years, our main focus in the bilateral programme is the programme countries of Ethiopia, Lesotho, Mozambique, Tanzania, Timor Leste, Uganda and Zambia. The focus in these countries is on poverty reduction and on basic needs such as primary education, basic health care, water and sanitation.

Combating the spread of HIV-AIDS in developing countries has become a cornerstone of our programme. In addition to the €30.5 million of dedicated funding set aside in subhead B, a further €10 million is allocated to HIV-AIDS interventions in the programme countries, South Africa and Zimbabwe. There is a compelling case for making HIV-AIDS a key focus of our development programme. More people than ever are dying of AIDS and infection rates continue to increase. The pandemic represents the single greatest obstacle to progress in developing countries and a failure to combat the threat of HIV-AIDS will mean that our efforts to promote development in other sectors will be in vain.

As I have already indicated, HIV-AIDS took centre stage during Ireland's EU Presidency. The torch now passes to the Netherlands and I know that HIV-AIDS will continue to feature as one of the main areas for EU action over the next six months. To follow up on what my colleague the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, said about the EU-US summit, I am pleased to say that we managed to get a joint declaration on HIV-AIDS and the issue was very much top of the agenda at the summit at Dromoland Castle. It was important that the EU and US come together and agree on a programme to deal with the way forward. In the context of today's UN aid statement, this is important.

We have, under subhead B, increased the level of funding set aside for NGOs. At €45 million, this represents an increase of 21% over 2003. Most of the increase is accounted for by the multi-annual programme scheme, MAPS, which is now entering its second year of operation. Providing funding on a multi-annual basis should enhance the planning and effectiveness of development activities.

NGOs, including missionaries, also qualify for significant funding from other areas of the programme, including the €21.8 million allocation for missionary and NGO personnel funding, formerly administered by APSO, emergency humanitarian and recovery assistance, HIV-AIDS funding and human rights activities. Taking all these areas into account, it is likely that the total allocation to NGOs and missionaries from Vote 29 will exceed €70 million.

Our relationship with Irish missionaries has moved to a new level within recent days with the conclusion of a framework agreement with the newly formed Irish Missionary Resource Service which will introduce a more strategic dimension to the Government's support for the development work done by missionaries. I have also launched an initiative called Volunteer 21 to modernise our support for Irish voluntary workers in the development field. This builds on and takes forward the remarkable work done over the past 30 years by APSO which was integrated with Development Co-operation Ireland as of 1 January last.

Under subhead C, we have increased funding for emergency humanitarian assistance to €24 million. The purpose of our humanitarian programme is to respond rapidly and effectively to emergencies which arise across the globe. Particular attention is given to water and sanitation, health and nutrition, emergency feeding, shelter and emergency supplies and refugee protection. The worsening situation in Darfur is the current priority area for action and we have to date allocated €2.5 million to relief efforts there. The humanitarian programme is complemented by the €12.5 million recovery programme under subhead B, which focuses on post-emergency situations. I am making arrangements to go to Darfur next week and hope to have news on the final arrangements later today.

Subheads D and E provide for payments to international agencies. The €16 million under subhead D concerns mandatory payments due under international treaties. Most of this relates to payments to the European Development Fund. We have increased to €40 million our support under subhead E for voluntary contributions to UN and other international organisations. As in previous years, the main recipients will be the UNDP, UNICEF and the UNHCR.

As members of the committee will be aware, Development Co-operation Ireland will be relocated to Limerick under the Government's decentralisation programme. Planning in this regard is already under way in my Department and an initial implementation plan has been drawn up. The implementation committee for the Department of Foreign Affairs will continue to lay the groundwork for the move.

Another challenge facing us is the need to build greater public awareness of the Development Co-operation Ireland programme and of the contribution which the Government is making through this programme, on behalf of the taxpayer, to the alleviation of global poverty and disadvantage. We in Ireland have a long tradition of solidarity with the poor and dispossessed, a tradition which has been influenced by our own history of poverty, famine and mass emigration. The Development Co-operation Ireland programme belongs to the people of Ireland and it is right that they should learn more about the crucial work which is being done on their behalf in the poorest countries of the world.

I have sought to give a brief summary of the wide range of activities which will be supported under the Government's development co-operation programme during 2004. I thank the committee for its attention and will be happy to answer any questions the members of the committee may wish to raise.

When he replies will the Minister of State give some indication of the situation in Darfur and the Sudan with regard to the negotiations and continuing operation of the militia? What is the possibility the negotiations will prevail and provide a basis for development and peace?

I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on the work he has done this year on this portfolio. I am delighted a decision has been made to become involved in south-east Asia. This is something the Department has been considering for some years. It will be quite a change from the style of development in which we have become proficient working with the least developed countries in Africa. It is appropriate, as our programme expands in volume terms, that we now move into a poor area of south-east Asia, Vietnam, with a view to looking after Laos and Cambodia as well. I welcome that decision.

I also welcome the establishment of the newly formed Irish Missionary Resource Service. I imagine the purpose is to assist Irish missionaries of all denominations working in the field in Africa and elsewhere to interact with the expanded programme. This was one of the issues raised during the presidential visit to the missionary orders in Africa. Many of them lacked the capacity to engage proficiently with Department systems to access funds. I presume the purpose of the new resource service is to strengthen that capacity for the missionary orders.

One of the recommendations of the Irish aid review was that the Department would employ a large number of extra specialised staff. This was to be done to make up for the fact staff levels had not kept in pace with the expansion of the programme over the years. Will the Minister of State provide an update on the number of extra staff or specialists taken on by the Department to implement the various programmes?

I welcome the total allocation to NGOs and missionaries of approximately €70 million in the Estimate. That is good and in line with a broad consensus in the Oireachtas that the NGO community and missionaries should be well resourced in an expanded budget.

My final point relates to the growth in the budget. The Minister of State is accurate in his report to us that the Vote, which this year is at €400 million, represents a significant increase over previous years in absolute terms. Bearing in mind that in 1992 the budget for Ireland Aid was £40 million, this is a significant increase in volume terms for spending on Ireland Aid in 2004.

However, there is an issue with regard to the integrity and compliance of the Government's stated commitment at various stages since the Taoiseach's first statement of the commitment to reach the UN target of 0.7% of GNP by 2007. There has been a degree of backsliding on that particular commitment. I am neither criticising the current Minister of State, his officials nor this Government. I am just saying that in terms of integrity of commitment and Ireland's credibility in the international community, if we are not going to reach that target in 2007 or our interim target of 0.45% of GNP, it would be better to be honest about it now. There is cross-party support in the House for reaching the 2007 target of 0.7% by 2007. However, on these figures, I cannot see how that can be achieved over the next three years. The fact is we have not yet reached the interim target of 0.45%. This Estimate would allow for a figure of 0.41%. We need to rewrite the schedule which was in mind when the Taoiseach made that public and genuine commitment to the international community at the UN millennium summit in New York. I accompanied the Taoiseach to New York. The commitment was made in good faith.

There is little point, if words mean anything, in the Government repeating that commitment at various intervals when the figures are not stacking up. At that time we had a schedule which was agreed at Cabinet level. A multi-annual agreement was in place which worked quite well in that for the three years 1999, 2000 and 2001, there was an agreed increase over the period which was adhered to. I believe that, with all-party agreement, the Minister of State could request the return to another multi-annual agreement with the Department of Finance, to be agreed at Cabinet level and then adhered to over the coming years. There has never been a more important time, notwithstanding the difficult economic climate of the last two years.

Development is the most important foreign affairs subject for Ireland. There is broad public support for expansion of the programme. Ireland does not become involved in wars; we are a non-aligned country. We concentrate on peacekeeping and development and we do those things very well. I believe there would be sufficient cross-party support for another multi-annual agreement which could put a schedule of expansion of this aid programme in place for the next few years. We can then state with honesty in international fora that we will reach the target or at least move some considerable way towards achieving the UN target of 0.7%.

I would like the Minister of State to know he has the support of this committee when he goes to the Minister for Finance requesting budgetary expansion. The increase of €27 million over the previous year is very respectable in terms of volume, but in terms of Ireland's commitment declared by the Taoiseach in an international forum, it is not adequate. I thank the officials for their work during the year. I wish the Department well as it prepares to move to Limerick.

I too congratulate the Minister of State and his officials for their work in the past year. Some significant milestones have been reached in the past year, particularly in the area of HIV-AIDS. In that regard and in light of today's statement on the alarming figures that seem to be facing us in regard to that pandemic, is there a time for reviewing or repositioning Ireland's policy in that area? I do not have enough knowledge as to whether it should be done. I agree with Deputy O'Donnell about our contribution to overseas development assistance being very significant and is regarded as being such. Its significance was mentioned at the UNCTAD conference in São Paulo a few weeks ago. I too am of the view that it is unfortunately unlikely that we will not reach the target of 0.7%. We would have to make contributions of quite extraordinary proportions over the next few years to achieve that target. It might be in all our interests if that were examined again with all-party agreement, as Deputy O'Donnell said, and if slightly less ambitious but achievable targets, were agreed.

In the area of HIV-AIDS and in the context of the EU-US summit at Dromoland, recognising that the Bush administration has set aside large amounts of money to support HIV-AIDS initiatives, is it timely that discussions should be reopened with the US Administration about its current policy on HIV-AIDS? This is the policy of ABC, abstinence, be faithful, use condoms, etc. It is all very well for any administration to set vary large amounts of money aside but if those moneys cannot be spent for a variety of reasons, there is not much point in making the grand gesture of making the money available but not spending it.

I welcome the agreement with the missionaries. I am not familiar with their work but from what I have seen of it, I am very impressed. They clearly have a problem with the ageing of their members. The age profile of the members of the orders in the projects I have visited would lead one to wonder what plan B is. Are the orders encouraging local volunteers, for instance? That is for the orders to decide.

I compliment the Minister of State on the launching of Volunteer 21. There is a significant number of talented younger and youngish Irish people with a wide variety of skills who take their sabbatical year to travel, usually to Australia, to do productive things and learn about the ways of the world. It strikes me that many of these would have a significant contribution to make in working in overseas development in areas where skills are not widely available in the run-of-the-mill volunteer cohort. APSO did very positive work over the years which was also enriching for the volunteers and for the countries in which they worked. I hope that Volunteer 21 will be promoted widely at a time when there is a fall-off in volunteer activity in Ireland and probably elsewhere. People might consider it as an alternative to spending a year or two circumnavigating the world. They might consider the possibility of working in the least developed countries in south-east Asia, Africa or South America.

I am delighted to see the Minister of State taking an interest in Vietnam. Members of this committee attended the UNCTAD conference, as did the Minister of State. We saw the situation in São Paulo and the work being done with so little money in so many of these areas, often by Irish missionaries. In São Paulo, 29 Irish missionaries worked in one centre. There are approximately 19 missionaries working directly in the shanty towns and they do tremendous work. It reminds me of the work done over the years here in Ireland with community and women's groups. This gave people the belief in themselves and built them up to allow them to participate in society and make use of what was around them. We have travelled to some of the areas and seen the work being done. It is a pity that the media will not cover this matter better and show the impact of the work done by the NGOs, Development Co-operation Ireland, DCI, and the missionaries. Our standing in those countries is very high because of that commitment and the effectiveness of the work. It has been very well done.

I agree with what has been said about our contribution. It is important that we continue to enhance our contribution and increase it from a figure of 0.41%. When we met representatives of UNICEF during a trip to Zambia and South Africa, they pointed out that apart from official development aid, ODA, the money contributed by people directly to UNICEF from Ireland was per head of population the second highest rate in the world. This indicates that the people want the work done well and are prepared to support it with their pockets. This is a strong point indicating how the public feels. This is the unseen part that only comes up indirectly.

In São Paulo we saw the impact the donations made by Irish people to the missionaries there was having. We saw how €1,000 could go a long way there. Much other money is being given which shows the interest and the will of the people to support that work. We have had the privilege of seeing that work being done. We have been to Zambia and South Africa and will shortly go to Uganda and Ethiopia. We have all been in other countries at different stages. A delegation went to the UN and saw much of the work and commitment there. Considering Ireland's position, it would be very sad for the targets to be set aside. While I can understand it taking longer to reach them, we need to make significant progress this year and we need to make an upfront commitment in this regard.

It is a bit like what we did with old age pensions in the past. We decided to deal with old age pensions and then we would see what we could do in other areas. It is as simple as that. It is a question of whether we are genuinely committed. Some comments in the media might colour the picture as to where money goes, the need for governance, etc. However, DCI is looking after these matters. The Department of Foreign Affairs through its work in DCI is doing an excellent job. It is a pity more people cannot meet those working on the ground.

The work on HIV-AIDS with such few resources is particularly impressive. We have only today heard the reports on the spread of HIV-AIDS. What has been done in Uganda is one of the better examples of what can be done. We have tried to promulgate the issue as much as we can in the meetings we have had, as has AWEPA. Various organs have been trying to develop best practice as much as possible. Much information is available on the topic. I will be interested to see this other report. Uganda has seen a dramatic reduction. As we know, it still has considerable problems on the army side, but it has made great progress.

I also welcome the framework agreement with the Irish Missionary Resource Service, which is a worthwhile development. The missionaries have trained local people to carry on their work. While most of the missionaries who came from Ireland are now older people, it is amazing to see the work they do. If the Taoiseach could see the work they do, he might reconsider the over-60s situation. He often says that for himself and only himself, that is an age at which to give up some heavy duties.

I would like to know more about the Volunteer 21 initiative which appears to be very worthwhile and should be broadcast as widely as possible. We would certainly help in any way we can in that effort.

I will leave the issue of Darfur until the end of my reply. I will cover some of the common ground covered by the Deputies. I thank Deputy O'Donnell for the work she did in this area before I arrived, particularly in the Ireland Aid review in which she outlined some important initiatives that I am pursuing. One relates to south-east Asia. I welcome her comments on our decision to consider opening a programme in Vietnam to oversee our involvement in that country and also in Laos and Cambodia. While it might take some time to open a full embassy there, we could involve Enterprise Ireland in the slipstream of our activity there in pursuing other private sector engagement. This would complement my initiative on the private sector forum, which I have established.

Our private sector has considerable potential to be challenged to become involved in overseas development. I established the forum recently with the chief executive of United Drug, Liam Fitzgerald, as its chairman. He and others will travel to Uganda soon to determine what opportunities might exist there. It is good to get our private sector involved. Many members of the committee have encouraged me in this regard and I will keep them informed of developments.

Deputy O'Donnell was involved with the Irish Missionary Resource Service which will give clear lines of communication for funding. It is much better to have more input and control in this area. We all value the work of the missionaries. In São Paulo the Chairman and I recently saw the work of some of our missionaries abroad. Every time I visit such people abroad, I return energised by their contribution. It is important we recognise this and we are doing so through our budget.

As regards extra staff, Deputy O'Donnell asked specifically about specialists and she is correct that we need to have specialists in the areas in which we work. In 2002, 30 additional posts were sanctioned, of which 18 were allocated for specialist posts. We now have dedicated specialist personnel in key areas such as HIV-AIDS and health - one person dealt with this area previously - civil society and the environment. We have also strengthened other areas, including audit and evaluation. We have a good overall balance in this area. I thank Deputies for their support in ensuring we have a good budget line for NGOs.

Deputies O'Donnell and Carey and the Chairman have strongly supported increasing the development aid budget. Like Deputy O'Donnell, I favour multi-annual budgets as they represent the best approach. When I begin negotiations on a budget later in the year, I will put forward the option of having multi-annual budgets. I share Deputies' ideas on this matter and their support is appreciated. We will be happy to pursue the multi-annual approach.

We have a target of devoting 0.7% of GDP to development aid. Following the previous round of negotiations last year when we secured an increase in the budget, I stated that our allocation of €480 million is a great deal of money but it is important we follow through on our pledge. I will work hard to achieve our target. The support of the committee in this regard is much appreciated.

Aligned with this is the requirement to reinforce public support. We are working hard to inform the public about what we are doing. We plan to relay information from our information unit to the public through a series of television programmes. Although work has been done in this area previously, communications remain important in achieving public support. As Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I initiated the communicating europe strategy which has been further developed under my successor, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Roche. We need to develop communications in the area of development and get our message across.

Deputy Carey and the Chairman raised the issue of HIV and AIDS. I thank my officials for all the work they did during the Presidency. Highlighting the challenge facing us all in trying to deal with the HIV-AIDS pandemic was an important issue for us during the Presidency. We held a major conference early in the Presidency to discuss our region, namely, Europe and central Asia. I recall in particular the involvement of young representatives from NGOs in Belarus and the Ukraine who rely on us addressing problems in their region. The problem there is strongly related to drugs, which creates a different type of challenge. HIV positive status also carries a stigma.

We will pursue the Dublin Declaration and our action plan. A major global conference on AIDS to be held in Bangkok next week is the reason UNAIDS made a statement today. I will represent Ireland at the conference and we will follow through on our good work during the Presidency. I will chair a number of sessions and will address the kinds of activities we should be pursuing.

We have the right policies on HIV-AIDS, although I am aware that today's statement by UNAIDS states that we are failing globally. I wish other countries would take the issue as seriously as we do. While prevention and care are clearly crucial, treatment is a human right. Approximately 10% of the people of central Europe and central Asia have access to anti-retroviral drugs, whereas those in western Europe who need such drugs can obtain them as of right. There are, therefore, human rights issues attached to this area.

Africa, in particular, is facing a crisis and this has been our focus. During our Presidency we held a conference on governance and HIV-AIDS in Africa. The three elements we must examine are prevention, care and treatment while a fourth, crucial element is to try to develop a vaccine. If we manage to discover a vaccine, we will achieve a major landmark in dealing with AIDS. The general consensus among experts is that this is unlikely for another eight to ten years. Clearly, we must work towards this objective. Our budget for this area alone is between €40 million and €45 million, part of which is invested in trying to find a vaccine.

HIV-AIDS is a difficult area to address and one on which people criticise the international community. We work as best we can with the appropriate organisations, including UNAIDS. We allocate money to the global fund and, more recently, we have worked with the Clinton Foundation. We are working in Mozambique and shaping our involvement there to requirements. I have visited the country and met our highly focused experts working there. I thank Deputies for their support on this matter.

As regards the role of the US, which Deputy Carey raised, the Americans have a different approach to HIV-AIDS. We had to work hard in preparation for the EU-US summit. I had a number of meetings with Commissioner Neilson on this issue to try to find a common approach.

I note there is vote in the Dáil. Does this mean the meeting must conclude? I will make a brief comment on Darfur before we finish. I will visit Darfur to follow through on our work during the Presidency. We were instrumental in organising a recent conference on this issue in Geneva, which dedicated sizeable resources to the humanitarian situation in Darfur where 30,000 people have been killed and 1.2 million displaced. During my visit I will meet UN agencies, NGOs and political leaders. A key issue will be access for humanitarian workers and the Sudanese Government's control over the janjaweed militia. I intend to follow through on our work during the Presidency. Kofi Annan and others have visited the region. We will work hard with Irish NGOs in particular to try to ensure that humanitarian aid can be provided to those in need.

On behalf of the select committee, I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials for joining us today to discuss the Estimates.