Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Questions (13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19)

Paul Connaughton


88 Deputy Paul Connaughton asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the level of aid payments being made to the Palestinian Authority from the European Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18708/07]

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James Reilly


89 Deputy James Reilly asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the political and security situation in the Middle East; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18687/07]

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Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin


114 Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of EU aid to Palestine; and the rationale behind the EU Ministers’ decisions, including his, to first withhold and then reinstate aid. [18761/07]

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Ciaran Lynch


157 Deputy Ciarán Lynch asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the present position in Israel and the Occupied Territories and particularly on reports that the Israeli Government is to repay moneys suspended over the past two years towards the Palestinian Government to a section but not all of the Palestinian people. [18662/07]

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Joe Costello


175 Deputy Joe Costello asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the position regarding the ongoing crisis in Gaza city; the intervention the EU may have proposed; the action Ireland favours as a member of the European Union, itself a member of the international Quartet; and if Ireland will take action to ameliorate the suffering of the Palestinian people in the area. [18661/07]

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Bernard J. Durkan


292 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his most recent submission in the context of international attempts to bring about peace in the Middle East; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19084/07]

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Bernard J. Durkan


293 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if experiences in Ireland are expected to be utilised in attempting to achieve peace in the Middle East; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19085/07]

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Oral answers (36 contributions) (Question to Minister for Foreign)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 88, 89, 114, 157, 175, 292 and 293 together.

I have already set out the broad lines of the Government's policy on the Middle East peace process in my reply to Question No. 85. The root cause of the current crisis in the occupied Palestinian territories is the absence of a credible political process for a viable two-state solution. The Government has argued strongly that the EU can play a more effective role directly and within the Quartet in seeking to revive the peace process. The most recent meeting of the General Affairs and External Affairs Council in Luxembourg on 18 June recognised the urgency of the situation, following the terrible violence in Gaza and the effective collapse of the national unity Government.

The EU strongly supports the efforts of President Mahmoud Abbas to avert further chaos in the Palestinian territories, including his decision under Palestinian law to establish an emergency government. We will support all efforts to restore Palestinian unity and to establish a political consensus around the concept of a two-state solution. The EU is gravely concerned by the critical humanitarian situation in Gaza and determined to maintain its vital assistance to the people of the area.

The EU has never cut its assistance to the Palestinians. Overall EU assistance increased to almost €700 million in 2006, around €340 million of which came from the European Community budget. The decision to suspend direct assistance to the Palestinian Government formed in March 2006 was based on the refusal of Hamas to commit to the core principles of the peace process. However, the EU maintained its assistance through the office of the President of the Palestinian Authority and took the lead internationally by establishing the temporary international mechanism to channel payments directly to the Palestinian population. Until the recent violence, the EU was working closely with the Minister of Finance of the national unity Government on the gradual restoration of direct assistance. The Council on 18 June decided to begin work immediately on arrangements for urgent practical assistance to the Palestinian Authority. This will include direct financial support to the Government, support for the Palestinian civilian police and intensive efforts to build the institutions of the future Palestinian state.

It is both wasteful and a tragedy that the Palestinian people are now so dependent on international assistance, especially as the outlines of the only possible political solution to the conflict have been so well rehearsed. All parties must meet their responsibilities in creating the conditions which will enable movement towards a political settlement. They must also respect their obligations under international law. The EU will continue to call on Israel to end all policies which threaten to undermine the viability of a two-state solution, notably the illegal expansion of settlements and construction of the separation barrier on occupied Palestinian land. We in Ireland have learned painfully that there are no security or military solutions to the problems of divided societies, or to conflicts on the sharing of territory. Our Government will continue to support all those Israeli and Palestinian leaders with the courage to make the difficult compromises needed for the establishment of a lasting peace.

The Minister of State may have been in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government at the time but he should not try to rewrite history. This Government was party to a disgraceful decision made after the free and open elections in Palestine——

I would prefer if the Deputy posed a question.

I will, yes. In 2006, it was party to a decision to terminate payments and support aid to the Palestinian Authority because of the presence of Hamas. Will the Minister of State agree that that decision was short-sighted, that it led to an appalling humanitarian situation in Palestine, strengthened the hand of Hamas and has effectively driven Fatah out of the Gaza region? Those were the actions of the European Union in tandem with the actions of Israel in withholding payments of taxes due.

I do not agree with the Deputy. The European Union did not cut its assistance to the Palestinians. It sought alternative routes to channel funds.

As I outlined, the European Union maintained its assistance through the office of the President of the Palestinian Authority and took the lead internationally to establish the temporary international mechanism. I share the Deputy's view on the withholding of funds due to the Palestinian Government through the Israelis.

Will the Minister not agree that the actions of the EU in suspending the payments through the official channels, albeit they continue them through other unofficial channels, as he pointed out to us, has not improved the situation? On the contrary, it has led to a schism down the middle of the country and internecine strife between the two communities in Palestine. Will the Minister not seek immediately to have all official EU funding restored to the officials in Palestine because what they are experiencing currently makes our troubles in the North look minor?

The Deputy cannot suggest, by any reasonable extension, that the European Union was responsible for the schism, to use his word, which resulted in the dreadful events in the recent past. There can be no doubt that any solution will have to involve Hamas but the arrangements the European Union took at the time was to make sure funding got to the people, which is most important.

Is the Minister standing over the first unaccountable decision in 2003 where a sub-committee of civil servants known as the clearing house, formed from the permanent representatives to the European Union, COREPER, had Hamas proscribed, which stopped it participating in political discussion and raising money? I am sure the Minister does not want to mislead the House but is he aware that the European Union stopped funding in 2006 in yet another unaccountable decision? It found an alternative stream for humanitarian relief but not the full funding. In November 2006, having encouraged Hamas to participate in elections, the European Union issued a statement welcoming the fact that the elections had been peaceful but not accepting the result. Is the Minister of State aware that in the presence of the senior Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, President Carter referred to the elections as perhaps the fairest and most peaceful the Carter Center had observed and that it was he who said he was outraged that the Irish Government, with other Governments, in an unaccountable decision, decided to act in such a way as destabilised the Palestinian people?

I accept the Deputy's point that the temporary international mechanism was a less than perfect solution but it was an honest, if imperfect, approach to get in funding. I note the Deputy's concerns about the manner in which decisions are made at the edges of COREPER II and I will pass those comments and concerns on to the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, although I am sure the Deputy has already done so. Regarding the Deputy's final point, I was aware of the comments made by President Carter and the Carter Center.

The tragedy has to be borne by the Palestinians.

Loath though I am to quote from House of Commons committees, is the Minister aware that the House of Commons International Development Committee — it is not the most progressive committee but its findings are interesting — found that the effect of withholding budget support has been to place the Palestinian Authority under severe financial pressure and has increased poverty and hardship among Palestinians? Does the Minister agree that the decision by the EU to withdraw funding from the Palestinian Authority further compounded the humanitarian situation in Palestine, with high levels of unemployment, especially in the public sector? Is he aware also that the conclusions of that committee state that the withdrawal of funding might put Hamas into a corner which encourages violence rather than negotiation and that the international community must ensure it is not bolstering one faction against another, thereby increasing the risk of internal strife?

The Deputy must ask a question rather than——

Does the Minister agree with the conclusion that Palestine's development prospects are being eroded largely by the actions of the Government of Israel? Does the Minister agree with that assertion and, if so, will he now press the EU to take concrete actions to persuade that Government to end its occupation of Palestine, including through the activation of the human rights clauses of the association agreement between the EU and Israel, which provide for the suspension of preferential trade? Will the Minister progress that?

I agree with the Deputy's general point that taking any side in the dispute and trying to effectively put them into a cul-de-sac is not the best way forward. I have not heard the House of Commons report to which he refers but I have already referred to the Government's view on the actions by the Israeli Government over the years and our welcome for the fact that, very belatedly, as Deputy Allen pointed out, funds due to the Palestinian Authority which could have been helpful have been released.

I congratulate you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, on your appointment to your new office and wish you well in the future.

Go raibh maith agat.

I welcome the Minister's response to Question No. 88, particularly his response on the two-state solution. Will the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, use the experience gained in our peace process to assist the Palestinian people? I refer in particular to the current civil war between Fatah and Hamas. Could we use the experience gained in our peace process, particularly in the past few years, to assist them? I am saddened by the civil war that is taking place. Will the Minister of State use Ireland's influence abroad, particularly in the Middle East, to assist the Palestinian people because they are in dire straits and they need our urgent help?

I agree with the Deputy on the last point. Rather than factionalise the people it is a great tragedy that all the Palestinian people cannot focus on help. I made the point in an earlier response to Deputy Allen that we have some experience that hundreds of years of fighting and killing achieves nothing. A few years of political courage focused on talking can provide solutions. This tragedy for the Palestinian people and the relationship between Palestine and Israel will only be resolved by honest negotiations and by people taking the view that there is benefit in listening to every side in an argument. It has been the view of successive Irish Governments that the two-state solution, in which people can live side by side in peace, harmony and tranquility, is the appropriate way forward. The Deputy is right. Ireland can bring some experiences to the international table.

The love-in between the Minister of State and Deputy McGrath is much to be admired. It shows that Deputy McGrath has already been politically neutered.

We are talking about the Palestinians.

The Minister may not be familiar with his brief yet but will he accept that the fact that payments to the Palestinian Authority were delayed and stopped meant that payments to 140,000 Palestinian Authority workers were curtailed, resulting in major hardship to those people and their families? Will he accept that was a wrong decision taken at the wrong time and that it drove the Palestinian people into the hands of the extremists?

The only point on which I disagreed with the Deputy was the characterisation that it was decisions made about payments that created the current situation. On whether it causes hardship, of course it does. Withholding any form of revenue from any side causes hardship. However, the European Union made an honest effort and, as I stated, even an imperfect effort through the arrangements which I have already described, to fund support directly to the people who needed it.

Would the Minister of State agree that one of the great contrasts between the Northern Ireland achievement and the Middle East is that the Northern Ireland talks had a secretariat attached? If the European Union was serious about the roadmap for peace and the Quartet, it would have established a secretariat to serve the proposals of the Quartet. It did not do so, and neither did the European Union condemn outright the building of the wall that divides Palestinians from their own lands, nor did it seek to vindicate the International Court of Justice.

Is the Minister of State aware of the widespread public opinion in Ireland that Ireland has no longer an independent opinion on the Middle East crisis, that it has buried itself within an unaccountable position that has excluded many Palestinians from what are their revenues? I put it to him that it is not true to state that the taxes withheld have been restored to Palestinians. They have not. Part of them have been restored to some of the Palestinians, particularly those in the Fatah Party who are loyal to Mahmoud Abbas.

I made the point to the Deputy that the arrangements which apply at the moment are appropriate within Palestinian law and it really is not a matter for us to adjudicate——

They are legal. Whether they are appropriate is a judgment for Palestinians.

That is true, but it is the Palestinian people who have adopted their laws and it is not a matter for us to second guess them.

I did not argue they were illegal.

We are not in disagreement. I simply make the point that they have adopted their own laws and methods of operation, and it is not a matter for us.

Deputy Higgins's point about a secretariat and about putting in place a structure is an interesting one on which historians may possibly make an adjudication. With a new envoy in place, perhaps that will happen. I hope something positive will come of that move.

I apologise to the Minister of State. I forgot to congratulate him on his recent appointment. I hope he fairs well in it.

Can the Minister of State ask this House or the people to believe his statement that the actions of the EU in withdrawing payments to the Palestinian Authority at the time it was done did not cause a serious deterioration and contribute significantly to the current exacerbation of the problems which have existed for the Palestinian people for quite some time? If the Minister of State tries to ask that of us, his credibility will be very poor indeed and it would not be an auspicious start for him.

With the benefit of hindsight, 20/20 vision always exists. There were specific circumstances in the particular period that informed European Union decisions made.

It was not hindsight; it was said at the time.

It was said at the time.

It is on the record of this House.

I take Deputy Allen's word for that. I also made the point that it would be wrong to characterise the Union as being the villains of this piece.