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Official Engagements.

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 8 February 2005

Tuesday, 8 February 2005

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

Enda Kenny

Question:

1 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the outcome of the meeting of the European Council in December 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34092/04]

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Enda Kenny

Question:

2 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the bilateral meetings he held on the margins of the December 2004 meeting of the European Council; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34093/04]

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Pat Rabbitte

Question:

3 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his participation in the EU summit in Brussels on 16 and 17 December 2004. [34254/04]

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Pat Rabbitte

Question:

4 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach the discussions or contacts he has had with other leaders on the margins of the EU summit in Brussels on 16 and 17 December 2004. [34255/04]

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Trevor Sargent

Question:

5 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the outcome of the European Union summit of 16 and 17 December 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34608/04]

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Joe Higgins

Question:

6 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach the matters discussed and conclusions reached at the December 2004 meeting of the European Council; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2795/05]

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Joe Higgins

Question:

7 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach the bilateral meetings he attended on the margins of the December 2004 meeting of the European Council; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2796/05]

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Trevor Sargent

Question:

8 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his discussions on human rights with the Chinese authorities during his recent visit to China; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3358/05]

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Trevor Sargent

Question:

9 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach the discussions he had with the Chinese authorities during his recent visit to China on the issue of lifting the EU arms embargo; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3359/05]

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Oral answers (32 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, together.

As the Deputies are aware, I gave a detailed statement to the House last week on my attendance at the European Council meeting on 16 December last in Brussels, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who also attended the European Council, took a question and answer session at the end of that Dáil statement. I propose to briefly summarise the main points I made last week regarding my attendance at that meeting.

The future enlargement of the European Union was the principal agenda item at the Council. The Council also had a meeting with Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations.

We agreed that the accession treaty with Romania and Bulgaria should be signed in April this year. If they continue to abide by their commitments, this means these countries should become full EU member states in January 2007. The European Council agreed to open accession negotiations with Croatia on 17 March of this year. The Council also agreed that Turkey sufficiently fulfilled the criteria for EU membership. Accession negotiations with Turkey should open on 3 October next.

I did not have any formal bilateral meetings with other EU leaders on the margins of the December European Council.

I have to question whether the current system, whereby questions relating to the subject matter of a Dáil statement are deferred or postponed for a week rather than being disallowed, constitutes the best use of our time and resources, but I will go through the issues I raised last week.

Last week, I indicated in my response to questions regarding my visit to China that I had discussions on the human rights and the arms embargo with the Chinese authorities and, in response to supplementary questions, I gave a detailed reply outlining the substance of those discussions. I do not propose to detail in full those replies again. In summary, the Deputy will be aware this was the third opportunity I have had within eight months to meet Premier Wen Jiabao. I have used every one of those opportunities to address the subject of human rights.

The Chinese authorities are well aware of our very strong feelings about this matter and are paying attention. It is and will remain a regular feature of dialogue between Ireland and China. While I recognise that respect for human rights in China is not at the level we would wish, the Chinese authorities continue to move in a positive direction. I was assured by the Chinese authorities that they are committed to continue making progress on the issue of human rights.

I discussed the Chinese Government's efforts to promote human rights and the rule of law with Chairman Wu of the National People's Congress. The Chairman looks forward to Irish and Chinese parliamentarians continuing this dialogue during the course of the year. Throughout my visit, I stressed that we would be interested in developing our bilateral co-operation in the human rights area, drawing on the experiences and resources available in NUI Galway which has been involved in official EU-China programmes in recent years.

The arms embargo was discussed during my visit and I acknowledge the importance of the question to China. I pointed out the European Council's recent reaffirmation of its political will to continue to work towards lifting the embargo. At the same time, the EU is anxious that a decision to lift the embargo should not result in an increase in arms exports from EU member states to China. This is consistent with China's assertion that its concern to see the embargo lifted is driven by a desire to normalise relations rather than to pursue arms. In this context, the European Council called for the early adoption of a revised EU code of conduct on arms exports. Work on that is progressing well at a technical level within the EU.

The current version of the code has been operational since 1988. It is a politically binding document and contains criteria for assessing applications for export licences for military equipment. These criteria include respect for human rights in the country of final destination and the preservation of regional peace, security and stability. I am hopeful that it will be resolved by the middle of this year.

I welcome today's statement on the Middle East peace process summit in Egypt, which has resulted in the announcement of aceasefire between Israel and Palestine. The recent European Council to which the Taoiseach referred made a declaration on the Middle East peace process reaffirming its support for the two state entity and offering assistance. What sort of assistance did the Council agree would be forthcoming in view of this announcement which is a major step forward?

The European Council made specific comments about its willingness to support an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. What sort of assistance will be made available there? Did the Council discuss Security Council Resolution No. 1559 which deals with the implementation of the agreement and states that Syria and Lebanon must be an integral part of it?

I commend the Taoiseach on the trade elements of his meeting in China. Did he raise with the Chinese Government the question of its blocking Irish troops from travelling to Macedonia because that country recognises Taiwan? Air travel has resumed between Taiwan and mainland China after 40 years and it is ludicrous that on the continent of Europe we cannot support missions that have the spirit of the United Nations at their core.

Not as much progress had been made on the first issue in mid-December but I welcomed the progress that had been made at that stage at the European Council. We were looking forward to successful elections and acknowledged the work the Palestinian Administration was doing to move from the reign of President Arafat to a new reign. This was highly successful. The hand-over was well managed and we are now in a new era. What is happening today is widely welcomed and will, it is hoped, prove to be a new starting point.

The EU has for many years devoted an enormous amount of resources and effort in particular to the Palestinians but it has also been even-handed in assisting Israel with the administration of the peace process. The work done on the international quartet over recent years, including the work done during the Irish Presidency by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, during his visits there prior to and during the Irish Presidency on behalf of the European Union proved to be of assistance because, even though many of the resources the European Union put into Palestine have been destroyed in the various military activities over recent years, the EU is committed to assisting with infrastructural and social issues. That commitment will resume now on the basis of a peaceful prospect and everybody else will, I am sure, be supportive of those efforts. What we see today is a major move in what has been a difficult period over four full years and will prove to be extremely significant. The next European Council in March, and the Foreign Affairs Ministers before then, will reflect on that issue.

Regarding China, I said last week in the House that we have supported the one China policy over the years and continue to do so. We acknowledge China's position in relation to Taiwan. I reiterated Ireland's and the European Union's consistent support for the one China policy. At the same time we maintain the EU's interest in keeping links with Taiwan in non-political fields consistent with the one China policy. I stress the importance of the constructive dialogue between Beijing and Taipei in the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question. From our point of view and that of UN issues, we will always follow in the administration of or engagement in UN resolutions. I am aware of the difficulties caused by the Macedonia question and spoke on that previously. We are committed to the one China policy and have stated that clearly.

I do not think the Taoiseach referred to the situation regarding Kofi Annan and the United Nations — if he did I did not hear him. I recall the Dutch Prime Minister pledging the support of the European Union to the UN Secretary General and his programme of reforms. What is the assessment of the Government on this question if the United States is withholding approval for the UN Secretary General, as it seems to be? How realistic is it to believe that the necessary programme of reforms on his desk can be prosecuted in such a climate?

On a different matter, will the Taoiseach set out the Government's position on the prospect of accession talks in respect of Turkey starting by October? I recall the Taoiseach, in his capacity as President of the European Union, remarking that the last-minute intervention by the Turkish Prime Minister in terms of his remarks about recognition of the Cypriot Government was a bitter pill. Will he put on the record of the House, notwithstanding the position of the Irish Government, the schedule set out to allow Turkey to begin accession talks?

On the first issue, Deputy Rabbitte is correct. The Dutch Presidency made it clear, following the presentation at the European Council by Kofi Annan of the Weisman report and his endorsement of that report, that Europe would work collectively with him. That is our position. Throughout his period of office, Kofi Annan has worked extremely hard to get into this position and I give him wholehearted support. The reforms have been necessary for as long as I can recall. Now we have a leader of the UN who has worked painstakingly to bring it to this position. Perhaps it is not everything that everybody wants but he has given a huge commitment. If it is not through this year, we will move fast to the end of his period. As of now there is a totally united European Union effort on the reforms. It will be extremely important as we go through the year and work towards the September UN conference that they receive support. It is not a question of the Irish position, it is a European position. It is important that we try to keep that collective support throughout the year and into the September meeting.

On the issue of Turkey, the commencement of engagement will be in October. By its nature it will be long drawn out. Turkey will have to prove to everybody — the Prime Minister, Mr. Erdogan, and the Foreign Minister, Mr. Gul, are determined to do so — that it is not only willing but has the capacity and the determination to implement the Copenhagen criteria that applies to all the other accession countries in the years ahead. Obviously it is not an easy task for them but they are committed to fulfilling it. I had approximately six meetings with them during the Irish Presidency and met them again before the December meeting, because I have been engaged in this process. We have supported them. I was particularly supportive of them given that when I asked them during the Irish Presidency to be helpful on the Cypriot issue and to follow Secretary General Kofi Annan's initiative at that time and Commissioner Günter Verheugen's efforts, they did so. Deputy Rabbitte is correct in saying it was totally unnecessary at the end of the debate when everyone had made commitments and concessions, literally in the last three minutes of his speech, to have a public confrontation with President Papadopoulos. It was not helpful and ruined a moment that would have been seen as a great success. Instead of the decision being greeted with applause or, at least, satisfaction it was a "heads-down" situation where nobody said anything. That was a pity but these things happen and people make mistakes and pick the wrong time to say something. However, it means — and it highlights the question — that Turkey can hardly hold to a position for long in seeking to join the European Union and not recognising one of the members of the European Union. That was what it highlighted and that was how it was interpreted. They have to resolve that issue. Mr. Tassos Papadopoulos is well able to fight his Turkish cause but it is not an issue the Cypriots will let go.

Having said all of that, it is good and welcome that the process of engagement has started. The initial decision has been made. Obviously, over time we will have to see how it progresses. It has already been decided that this process cannot come to a conclusion until after the next round of the finance prospective. The earliest this process will come to a conclusion is a decade off but the interim progress will be vital, and particularly in the early months.

I acknowledge that Turkey has made at least one concession on the Cypriot side. It is small but it is seen as a move of recognition by Turkey which is of some significance, though not anything enormous to the Cypriots.

I note at the European Council summit that the issue of EU immigration policy was one of the areas covered. Can the Government say it fully lives up to its international obligations in terms of immigrants and asylum seekers? I note Spain has recently regularised 1.5 million illegal immigrants. It seems that Ireland and some other EU states are reluctant or are refusing — I am not sure which is the case — to ratify the UN international convention on the protection of the rights of migrant workers and their families. Given that immigration was discussed, will the Taoiseach outline why the call for ratification from Amnesty International and others is not being heeded?

The Taoiseach will be aware of the Green Party's concerns about ongoing militarisation of the EU. I note that the EU Council welcomed the battle groups proposal. I also note that the Irish Government wants to be a participant in the battle groups. Will the Taoiseach answer a question many wish to ask him? Given that Ireland is the only EU state demanding a UN mandate for use of its troops, how is it possible for Ireland to be part of an integrated battle group arrangement? I cannot imagine the EU sending half a battle group, if Ireland does not have the UN mandate to participate. Is it not difficult for Ireland to participate if such is the scenario?

The issue of signing UN orders by the country was not raised. I am not sure whether that is an issue——

Will the Taoiseach come back to me on that question?

Yes. I suggest the Deputy submits a parliamentary question but I will raise the matter in any case.

The Government's national plan to deal with racism and migration issues was published a fortnight ago. The plan takes account of the Equality Act 2004, which transposes the race directive and is designed to meet the commitments entered into by the UN world conference. This may answer the question raised by the Deputy. The overall plan is to provide a strategic direction to combat racism and develop a more inclusive inter-cultural society in Ireland. The strategic monitoring group has been established to oversee its implementation.

In answer to the Deputy's second question, the aim of the creation of battle groups is to ensure that in times of need the EU will be capable of putting in place a group to deal comprehensively with a disaster or trauma quickly and speedily. The traditional Irish position is that Ireland operates under a UN mandate and not under an EU mandate. Ireland's position is strictly defined and there are good reasons for this. I recently met all the aid organisations in the aftermath of the tsunami. Given that situation, many of them did not understand the position and wondered why Ireland was in such a straitjacket. On other occasions I remember people saying that we should remain in a straitjacket. Ireland's position is clear: the Government, the Dáil and the UN mandate defines it. This will be so until that position is changed and as a result it is difficult for Ireland to operate in that EU vehicle.

I understand completely the desire and the necessity to be able to move an action group very quickly when a disaster happens but we have a constitutional legal position.

The European Council endorsed the report on the implementation of the EU strategy on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, meaning nuclear weapons. It noted progress in this respect in relation with third countries and re-affirmed its commitment to use all instruments to counter the threat of proliferation. In the Taoiseach's view what moral authority has the European Union to demand of other states that they should not develop nuclear weapons when key EU states maintain these weapons of mass destruction?

A Deputy

Hear, hear.

Is it not rather like the bully in the schoolyard who insists on having a stick but will allow nobody else to have one? Does the Taoiseach agree that the campaign now should be that all nuclear weapons should be decommissioned, both within the EU, the United States and elsewhere?

The National Forum on Europe has planned out a process of meetings and public debates over the coming period. Members of the forum believe it would give a focus to their work and the debates if the Government would name an approximate date on which it proposes to hold a referendum on the proposed new EU constitution. Does the Taoiseach accept the validity of that point and will he name a rough timescale as to when a referendum will be held?

On the first issue, Deputy Joe Higgins is right. It has been the Irish Government's position on this issue for many decades to work for the absence of all arms, nuclear and otherwise, and it has made such efforts over many decades. The last major round of this work was done by the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. David Andrews, when he was in the Department. That is our position and we have tried to do that with like-minded countries such as the European neutrals and others. We will continue to work for the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and all other arms. I note that for once the Deputy and I agree on something.

The hand of history is upon us.

On the second issue, we will definitely have the referendum before the date on which we must have it, that is, October next year.

Will the Taoiseach be a little more forthcoming?

That is unlikely. Will the Taoiseach clarify his comments on the battle groups concept discussed at the Council meeting? I understand the Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, stated Irish troops will not participate in battle groups regardless of the triple lock system. Does the Taoiseach not agree that most of the missions on which the battle groups will be sent will be at the request of the United Nations, in which case the triple lock mechanism would not be a problem? The Minister appears to believe there is a problem with contributing Irish troops to battle groups. Will the Taoiseach offer some clarity in that regard?

The European Union has welcomed a new peace deal between northern and southern Sudan. Does the Council intend to take a more proactive and interventionist approach to the continuing slaughter of innocent people in Darfur in western Sudan through what could almost be considered ethnic cleansing in certain instances which are being witnessed by many Irish volunteers working for non-governmental organisations in the region?

Will the Taoiseach comment on the new political era in Ukraine whose primary long-term objective is EU membership? What is the Government's position on how the European Union should treat Ukraine?

As I stated to Deputy Sargent, our position, while restrictive, is clear. If there is a UN mandate, constitutionally we can be involved and we will make the decision on whether we will be involved.

Will our troops train with the battle groups? Will the battle group concept move ahead with Irish involvement?

As of now, no.

For what reason?

The reason is our interpretation of how they are being designed at present — if they were not UN mandated. It is not the intention to have a UN mandate. That has been the case and the Deputy will have heard the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Jack Straw, and others state they will be done on a UN and EU basis. That restricts us totally. If it is done on a UN mandate, then we could be open to it. However, with our own extensive commitments, the Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, has made it clear that at least in the reasonable period ahead we will not engage with them. That is the position.

On Darfur, Deputy Coveney is correct. I have been talking to Irish NGOs and aid workers in this area. I was not involved in the meetings last week but the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern,briefed me on what happened at the General Affairs Council last Monday week. The European Union is continuing to make every effort to make progress on this but the situation is still grave to say the least.

The new Government of the Ukraine was appointed last week. A new prime minister and administration have been elected. We can take it that they will certainly engage actively with the EU. The present position, of which Deputy Coveney will be well aware, is that the Ukraine would come in under the new neighbourhood process, that is, the vehicle established to deal with it. I think it will use that to build up relationships with Europe. Many of the countries in the region are anxious that is progressed speedily. There have been no formal decisions on that but with the new administration elected last week, there will obviously be engagement with the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council, which has not yet happened. The EU will adopt a positive role in engaging with the Ukraine.

Will the Taoiseach advise us what input the Government had in framing the European Council EU-wide drugs strategy for 2005-12? I understand that a three-year action plan is to be presented for adoption at the European Council early this year. What input will we have into that particular process? Will the Government schedule a debate in this House on what is a very important policy area, that is, the growing drugs problem and our response both at home and in the context of the European Union?

Through the Departments, officials and the Council secretariat, we have an input into drugs policy. What happens in all these areas is that, through COREPER, we would feed in suggestions, recommendations and changes. At EU level, drugs policy is crucially important because, as everybody is fully aware, the best way to make any real impact on the movement and shipment of drugs and on the international gangs involved in drugs, most of whom come from far off countries, is to co-operate is at EU level in terms of using information and intelligence. That is on one side. The other side is to build up expertise on the treatment of and the assistance and aid programmes to help the rehabilitation of those on drugs. Many member states have advanced very good programmes. While I am not directly involved, I know from some of the discussions that many countries have piloted various schemes on drugs, on cocaine, heroin and other opiate abusers. Co-operation at EU level in those areas makes enormous sense.

Was there discussion on the continuous stream of heroin from Afghanistan into Europe and on measures to block that or to offer cash alternatives to Afghan farmers to growing opium?

Last week the Taoiseach referred to the Meyanmar-Burma situation. What is the status of Irish connections with Meyanmar? We opened diplomatic relations last year. The continuous stream of human rights abuses in Meyanmar-Burma should concern us. Is the leader of the opposition in Meyanmar still under house arrest?

I do not think that question arises out of these questions.

It could arise.

It arose at the European Council. The Taoiseach knows about it anyway.

The issue of heroin and other drugs and opiates from Afghanistan did not arise at the European Council. However, it is an enormously important issue. As Deputy Kenny and other Members are aware, the crops have flourished. The Taliban were extremely dangerous and corrupt people in every way but they were opposed to drugs. The warlords have had a field day since the demise of the Taliban regime and we have seen an increase in drugs production. This increased availability has had the knock-on effect that prices have gone down. This is a real problem.

There has been much progress in Afghanistan but it is limited to certain sectors and areas and does not cover vast amounts of the countryside. Although I am no expert on this issue, it seems from discussions I have had and everything I have heard and read that the only way to put a stop to this is to introduce compensation to farmers. As long as farmers have no other means of income, they will operate this system. They do not receive significant amounts of money for their produce, however. It is the middle men and the criminal elements who are profiting.

I attended a meeting during the Irish Presidency at which the President of Afghanistan, Mr. Hamid Karzai, made an excellent contribution. It is his hope that the rule of law and justice will be established in the countryside. I understand that position is not close to being reached and, while President Karzai is a brave and good man, this objective will be difficult to achieve. The production of drugs out of Afghanistan will continue to be a significant problem across Europe and the world.

Deputy Kenny is correct that human and civil rights abuses continue apace in Myanmar. During the Presidency, we said we would take out diplomatic relations in an attempt to help the situation. As it happened, it never got to that because the situation has deteriorated since then. The view of the authorities there is that everybody should mind their own business and that they will handle their own affairs. They have not engaged with the international community and this continues to be a major problem. I understand the authorities are not making any progress on diplomatic relations with any other state.

I thank the Taoiseach for this reply. He is correct in respect of the compensation issue. We have an unusually successful experience of that in Ireland, not with growing drugs but in terms of the set-aside scheme. If European countries were to take to heart the continuous caravan of heroin leaving Afghanistan for western European cities, including those in Ireland, this might be an issue that should be raised.

There are circumstances where science in terms of crop-growing methods could deal with this through nature itself. I do not refer to the spraying of agent orange or anything similar. I am undertaking some research in this regard and, when I am more clear on the issue, I will let the Taoiseach have this research for his information.

Perhaps others have a total security view on Afghanistan and believe the issue can be resolved by force. However, it would take light years to stop this practice through an approach of force. That has already been tried in Colombia where the US and others invested a significant amount of money in an attempt to destroy crops. This had no great effect. President Karzai explained to me during his visit to Ireland for the EU Council's social development conference that these are extremely poor people. They live in the wilds, have no education or societal engagement and will continue to produce opiates as long as such activity continues to be financially attractive in providing some small allowance.

The difficulty is that President Karzai and his colleagues have almost no say in the areas in which the drugs are produced. If he travels 20 miles outside, even though he is heavily protected by the Americans, he cannot operate. So they are still operating in a very small area as he explains. Anytime he moves outside a certain region he is attacked, which is the difficulty.

If the House is agreeable we will move on to questions for the Minister for Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources, as the next grouping for the Taoiseach contains a number of questions.

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