Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4)

Gerry Adams

Question:

1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach to report on his recent contacts with the Government of the United States of America; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18143/16]

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Mick Barry

Question:

2. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach to report on his meeting with the Vice President of the United States of America, Mr. Joe Biden; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18070/16]

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Jim Daly

Question:

3. Deputy Jim Daly asked the Taoiseach the discussions he had with the American Vice President, Mr. Joe Biden, during his visit here in relation to progressing the proposed Cork to Boston Norwegian Air flight route. [19090/16]

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Jim Daly

Question:

4. Deputy Jim Daly asked the Taoiseach if he will make direct contact with the President of the United States of America, Mr. Barack Obama, to stress the importance of the progression of the proposed Cork to Boston Norwegian Air flight route; and to ensure any political obstacles in the United States of America are adequately addressed. [19091/16]

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Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

I have previously reported to the House on my visit to the United States in March for the St. Patrick's Day programme, which included a number of political meetings, including with President Obama. I have also already reported to the House on my visit to Washington in May for events to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

On Tuesday, 21 June, I met US Vice President Joe Biden in Government Buildings. This was the first engagement of his six-day programme in Ireland. We had a cordial and productive discussion on a range of issues of mutual interest to our two nations, including the strong bilateral economic and trade relationship between Ireland and the United States.

In this context, I recalled that I had raised the issue of the licensing of Norwegian Air International with President Obama and Vice President Biden when we met in March. I welcomed the subsequent progress that the US authorities have made with their tentative decision on 15 April to grant a foreign air carrier permit to Norwegian Air International. I emphasised to the Vice President that we look forward to this decision being confirmed as soon as possible so that Norwegian Air International can launch new services between the US and Ireland, including a route from Cork. The Vice President expressed his hope that the issue could be resolved as soon as possible.

The Vice President and I also discussed a range of international and European matters, including the British referendum on EU membership, which was due later that week, and the Northern Ireland peace process. We also discussed the issue of US immigration reform.

The Vice President commended the Irish Government on its ongoing advocacy for immigration reform and expressed his dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on the issue in the United States. Deputies will be aware of the latest disappointing development where the US Supreme Court is evenly split on President Obama's executive action, so the lower court decision blocking President Obama's executive action remains in place.

During our meeting, we spoke about the recent mass shooting in Orlando. I had previously written to President Obama to convey the condolences of the Government and the Irish people following this atrocity and I took the opportunity to express our condolences in person to the Vice President.

Our meeting concluded with us looking forward to the remainder of the Vice President's visit, which included a meeting the following morning with President Higgins. Reflecting the Vice President's interest in exploring his Irish heritage, the programme included events in counties Mayo and Louth as well as in Dublin. The Vice President was also accompanied by a number of close family members. Before his departure for Washington on Sunday, 26 June, I hosted a lunch at Farmleigh House for the Vice President and his family, which was also attended by Government Ministers, the Ceann Comhairle, representatives of the main Opposition parties, business representatives, the State agencies and Irish American interests.

The Vice President's visit was a great success and, I believe, has contributed to further strengthening the deep friendship between Ireland and the United States.

Before his departure for Washington on Sunday 26 June, I hosted a lunch at Farmleigh House for the Vice President and his family, which was also attended by other Government Ministers, the Ceann Comhairle, representatives of the main Opposition parties, business representatives, the State Agencies and Irish-American interests. The Vice President's visit was a great success and, I believe, has contributed to further strengthening the deep friendship between Ireland and the United States.

I agree with the Taoiseach that the visit by Vice President Joe Biden and his clan was a great success. Like the Taoiseach and others here, I have met many who have travelled back home to their ancestral home place. It is always emotional and that was very obvious in the way Joe Biden and his family were met, not least in the Taoiseach's county of Mayo. Along with Deputy Munster, I attended the event in Carlingford in County Louth and the farewell luncheon in Farmleigh House. I thank the Taoiseach for the invitation to that event. Vice President Biden was entirely at home in the beautiful Cooley Peninsula, particularly in the lovely village of Carlingford looking out across the lough towards the Mourne Mountains with Slieve Foy at our back.

I am also pleased that the Taoiseach had the opportunity to discuss immigration reform. Vice President Biden is a long-standing supporter of the peace process, so it was good that the Taoiseach was able to talk to him about that as well. I know that Vice President Biden is very conscious of the difficulties faced by the 50,000 undocumented Irish citizens in the US.

The Taoiseach alluded to talking about other international issues. He may know that, unusually, the US Administration has strongly criticised Israeli plans to illegally build hundreds of new homes in existing Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem. The US State Department has described this as the latest step in a systematic process of land seizures and the UN Secretary General has said that he is deeply disappointed. Half a million Israeli settlers have been living in more than 100 illegal settlements since the 1967 occupation. Did the Taoiseach raise this issue with Vice President Biden? Clearly, it is a good thing that the US Government is criticising this action. I think our Government can give a lead. The Taoiseach knows about the programme for Government commitment to recognise the state of Palestine and that in 2014, the Oireachtas voted in support of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Will the Taoiseach consider formally recognising the Palestinian state, upgrading the Palestinian mission and adding this State's support to the political movement needed to re-establish the peace process in the Middle East?

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I have spoken with him on a number of previous occasions about the importance of this route for Cork to connect the entire southern region of Ireland to the US. While for the US this is clearly a football they want to kick around politically, for us in Cork it is far more important than that. What interests those who are trying to promote the region as a tourist destination is the footfall that would result from this connectivity. We have many hidden gems of excellence throughout the region that we want to showcase to the US, so this is a vital link that we need to see progressed.

I thank the Taoiseach for raising the issue with Vice President Biden. I asked the Taoiseach whether he would be willing to go back to President Obama, because I understand that the US authorities will sit on this until after the election, so it will be towards the end of the year before they make any decision. That is a lot of time and a lot of lost opportunities for the southern region. It is not just a Cork issue. I think the Taoiseach is aware that it has a knock-on effect on his constituency and the airport in Knock. Indeed, I think it will have an impact on the entire country and our economy. In the aftermath of the Brexit debate, it is important that we look after our strategic interests and ensure this is followed up.

I would appreciate if the Taoiseach would confirm that he will go back to President Obama and ask him. The Taoiseach said Vice President Biden said he hopes it will be resolved, but I hope he will do more than just hope and that he will take out the finger and ensures it happens because it is on his desk.

To follow on from the question that has been raised by Deputy Jim Daly, I am interested in the conversations the Taoiseach had with Vice President Biden in a general sense but particularly on the issue of the Cork-Boston flights. It is fair to say that in Cork city and county there is a strong mood for connectivity and flights connecting ourselves with Boston and New York at a later point. Cork city and county also form an area with a strong tradition when it comes to standing up for and respecting workers' rights. The issue of workers' rights is in the mix of the debate about these flights. We have had reports that Norwegian Air is talking about using agency workers who would be sourced from outside the US and the EU, perhaps with cabin crew and pilots taken on from south-east Asia. There has been talk of wages being paid of $500 a month, and with the race to the bottom, that is something that would concern people. In this country, the Irish Airline Pilots Association, IALPA, has raised those concerns and in the US they have been raised by various trade unions and members of Vice President Biden's party, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. I am interested in information and an update on flights and connectivity. I am also wondering if the Vice President, whose Department of Transportation is looking into this, has any further update or information about the workers' rights issue here.

I extended an invitation to Vice President Biden to come here quite a number of years ago and I was very glad that during his last year in office he was able to come to Ireland on a semi-formal visit. I agree with Deputy Adams that he was really pleased to explore the roots of his forefathers in Carlingford and Ballina, County Mayo. I found Vice President Biden to be really interested in people, his Irishness and his roots. He was accompanied by his sister, daughter, sister-in-law, grandchildren and other members of his family. He was making a real effort to have them understand the extent of the connections between Ireland and the United States. His visit was an outstanding success.

While we did not discuss the question of Israel with him, the acquisition of further lands by Israel for the purpose of building apartments or houses is one I deplore. It is of great concern to the general, fragile efforts being made to bring about a two-state solution. This will not help the situation. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is working on the question of Palestine, having moved some way in this direction, and there are still some matters to be considered.

Deputy Daly raised the question of Cork Airport and Norwegian Air, as did Deputy Barry. Deputy Martin has also raised it on many occasions. When I raised it with President Obama in the White House, while it is not directly within his remit, he was very supportive of the matter being dealt with quickly. Shortly after that came the approval of a foreign air licence to Norwegian Air International from the secretary for aviation. That was on the basis of it being compliant with the open skies agreement with the EU. The matters Deputy Barry raised in respect of the employment of pilots have all been sorted out.

Vice President Biden was well aware of this and gave his support strongly for a quick conclusion. It should be noted that, were this to be in operation now, Norwegian Air International would do for long-haul flights what Ryanair has done for short-haul flights, which would increase footfall through to the country generally in huge numbers either way across the Atlantic. As I understand it, it is fully compliant with the European Union open skies policy and is backed by the European Commission. This is not an administrative hold-up. There were quite a number of objections from unions in the United States, which feared the employment of pilots from the Far East. As I understand it, that matter has been resolved. I hope this can become a reality quite quickly.

Deputy Daly asked me to confirm that I would go back to speak to President Obama. We can communicate with him anyway. We will certainly do that because the Vice President undertook, after I spoke to him in Government Buildings, to speak to President Obama about this. Obviously, we have given a report of the discussion that we had on that matter.