Priority Questions

Passport Security

Pat Breen

Ceist:

27 Deputy Pat Breen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will provide details of the review of the security system on passports; if this was recommended in the Garda and Passport Service reports to him following the fraudulent use of passports in January 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30197/10]

Pat Breen

Ceist:

30 Deputy Pat Breen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the representations he has made to the Government of the Russian Federation following revelations that one of those arrested in the US for alleged spying was in a possession of a forged Irish passport; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30199/10]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 27 and 30 together.

The current Irish passport system is one of the most secure in the world. The taxpayer has made a significant investment in enhancing the security of passports. The passport has been designed to ensure that the technologies used are those strictly controlled and mandated by the relevant international body, ICAO, International Civil Aviation Organisation, in Montreal. Officers of the passport service meet regularly with other similar jurisdictions and ICAO to ensure that Irish passport meet international security demands and best practice.

While the fake Irish passports used by those suspected of involvement in the Dubai assassination were of a type produced before the introduction of the current APS passport in 2005, it must be emphasised that these passports conformed fully to the highest international standards in place at that time. The passport was further enhanced in 2006 with the addition of a biometric chip, the Irish e-passport.

As forgery techniques advance, through the availability of more sophisticated production equipment, it is essential that the security of Irish passports are kept under constant review. It is in this context I announced last week that I have requested the passport service to initiate an ongoing review of passport technology to ensure that the Irish passport continues to be a trusted and secure travel document. The review will include consultations with the ICAO secretariat.

In regard to the issue of the alleged use of counterfeit Irish passports on Sunday 27 June, United States federal agents arrested a number of people for allegedly carrying out long-term, deep-cover assignments in the United States on behalf of the Russian Federation. The individuals were subsequently charged with conspiring to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation within the United States and, in the case of some of the individuals, additional charges related to money laundering. The affidavit lodged by the FBI alleges that one of the defendants had travelled to Moscow using a false Irish passport.

Upon hearing of this allegation, I immediately asked the passport service to investigate the matter and to work in close co-operation with An Garda Síochána. Investigations are under way. They are at a very preliminary stage and, therefore, I am not in a position to provide more detail today.

At this time, what we are confronted with is an allegation in a US court that an individual had travelled from Rome to Moscow on a false Irish passport. Our own investigating officers are working to establish the veracity of this allegation and the nature of the evidence to substantiate it. Accordingly, it is premature to reach any conclusions or make representations to other Governments at this time.

I wish to see the current investigations concluded at the earliest opportunity. However, I am conscious that there is a legal process under way in the United States. I am sure Deputies would share with me the necessity not to comment or act in any way that might influence the outcome of these proceedings.

We all know what the started the passport affair, namely, the incident in Dubai last February. The Minister said this incident related to one of the pre-2005 passports. I presume the passport to which he referred is the one with the plastic-covered picture. Has he any idea what passport was used by the individual on the trip to Russia? What type of passport was used by the one and only Richard Murphy in that case? It is important to find out whether the automatic passport system was used.

The Minister stated the new e-passport is quite secure. Thirty-three thousand passports were stolen, mislaid or lost in Ireland last year. This represents approximately 6% of the passports issued in 2009. Is the Minister happy that the e-passport is secure and that Irish citizens feel safe using it? That is an important question.

The investigation is at a very early stage and it is important that we get the full facts thereon as early as possible. I am loth to comment specifically on the details on the assertion that has been made.

The Deputy asked whether the current passport technology is safe. It is top class and to a very high specification.

The Deputy is correct about the Dubai incident in that the passports concerned were pre-2005 passports. Perhaps some of the passports in the current case are pre-2005 passports but, to be sure, we must await the emergence of specific details.

The Deputy's point on the number of passports lost is a separate issue. We must acknowledge that, in the modern era, there are people, or agents, who have very significant capacity, despite the most recent technological advances, to continue to attempt to forge and steal identities. Technology experts would advance this point. That said, such offences have not occurred to date in respect of the post-2005 passport to my knowledge.

There are a few questions that need to be answered. The pre-2005 passport had the same name and details as the original passport but a different serial number. How come this was not picked up by the authorities in the countries in question?

I am disappointed the Minister said he will not publish the report on the Israeli passport affair, or that he has not published it yet. He promised Deputy Timmins last May that he would publish it as soon as possible. A report was produced by the Garda and the Irish Passport Office. Have they recommended that the report be published? It is important. We know of eight or nine fake passports and do not know how many more there are. Is Ireland a soft touch in terms of superpowers faking passports?

Is the Deputy referring to the Dubai report?

We said we would provide a redacted version for the Deputies concerned. Members opposite, with the exception of Deputy Michael D. Higgins, were preoccupied over the past fortnight. I will revert to Deputy Pat Breen.

We must be careful about our remarks because no issue arises in respect of millions of Irish passports. There are approximately 2 million valid passports of the pre-2005 type held by Irish citizens on this island and around the world. We do not have correspondence details for every one of these people and must be practical. The Deputy may rest assured that from 2005 the investment in this area was very significant. On foot of advanced technological input, we have a very good high-quality passport. Understandably, the Irish passport is held in very high regard internationally and is not a soft touch.

When does the Minister hope to have the review on passport security carried out?

It is an ongoing review. I hope it will be ready in a matter of months.

Irish United Nations Association

Michael D. Higgins

Ceist:

28 Deputy Michael D. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if, in regard to the Irish United Nations Association, he will ensure monies will be made available to reconstitute the IUNA in order to promote public understanding and knowledge of United Nations activities here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29762/10]

The Irish United Nations Association, IUNA, is a non-governmental organisation based in Dublin whose objectives are to promote the aims and activities of the United Nations and its specialised agencies in Ireland.

IUNA received funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs to achieve these objectives from 1972 onwards, with €60,000 allocated for this purpose in 2009. In addition to providing this funding, my Department has provided support to IUNA in terms of advice on strategy and internal governance procedures. In the period 2007 to 2008, my Department, in co-operation with IUNA, conducted two extensive reports on the association. A series of recommendations were produced identifying reforms geared to better enabling IUNA to fulfil its mandate.

Following a review of departmental expenditure in 2009, and taking into account the recommendations of the McCarthy report that in the current very difficult budgetary circumstances funding for IUNA should cease, no allocation for grant-in-aid to IUNA was made for 2010. Furthermore, there is no proposal to resume funding to IUNA in future years. This position has been communicated to IUNA by my Department and the association is proceeding on this basis.

While this is a matter for IUNA, the immediate priority for the association should be reform of its structures and procedures, in line with the recommendations set out in the review and audit of the association undertaken on behalf of the Department in 2007 and 2008. I encourage the association to seek to engage with private donors following on from implementation of the necessary structural and procedural reforms recommended in these reports, including efforts to expand its membership base.

Promoting public understanding and knowledge of the United Nations is a goal that the Government, through its long-standing support for and commitment to the United Nations, actively pursues on an ongoing basis through its national and international policies. Our strong support for the promotion and protection of human rights, our long tradition of participating in UN-mandated peace operations, our leading role internationally in disarmament and non-proliferation issues and the work of Irish Aid in alleviating poverty and combating global hunger all provide good examples of how the Government demonstrates its commitment to the UN and, in turn, helps to promote awareness of the UN's indispensable role in addressing issues of global concern.

I am very disappointed with the Minister's reply. The Irish United Nations Association has as its patron the President of Ireland. It is also a member of the World Federation of United Nations Associations. During its history, it ran into difficulties and was reformed, thus breathing new life into it. I raised this at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs because it was singular in that the line for the association was lost. If one wanted to implement the 2007-08 report, which has my support, provision should have been made for a small sum to allow for the consideration of a new structure for the organisation. I am not asking the Minister whether he agrees with my next comment, but this situation relates to the crudeness of the McCarthy suggestions, particularly those on foreign affairs. The Minister's predecessor was on the review group advising Kofi Annan on reform of the UN. A unique opportunity exists through the transition year classes that Oireachtas Members visit.

It would have been ideal had we at least left some seed money so that it could be reformed. On 1 January 2010, all funding ceased. A telephone call to the office when the telephone had been cut off and the website had been closed down to ask what the office's current activities are would not be helpful. Will the Minister consider setting aside a nominal sum while the review takes place so that we could all co-operate on setting up a mechanism? That the Irish United Nations Association, IUNA, under the patronage of the President, would be abolished from the Estimates in one stroke on foot of the McCarthy suggestion seems inconceivable.

The feedback I received about outputs, activity levels and so on was not good. Sometimes, I make my views known about some of the recommendations in the McCarthy report, but we cannot blame it for everything, particularly in this context. The bottom line is that we cannot——

We could have left basic seed money to review it.

The feedback I received about outputs and activity levels was not positive.

It needed to be revitalised. Actually, it was revitalised, but——

Please, allow the Minister to reply. I will call the Deputy again.

Sometimes, we need to make calls on these issues. Subheads and budget allocations cannot be continued forever on the basis that everyone is nice.

That is not what I am asking for. If I remember correctly, a good programme was put in place in this respect after the association held an AGM back when Muireann Ní Briain headed it. It was active. Had the Department's UN desk been unhappy with the association, it should have told the Minister that IUNA was not performing well and he could have addressed the matter through the Estimates. Let us remember the history of the situation. The amount of money involved was more than €60,000 at one stage. Making it €200,000 was considered, but the amount fell to €60,000, then to €10,000 and finally it was cut.

With the greatest respect, the IUNA, as part of the World Federation of United Nations Associations, WFUNA, and under the patronage of the President, is an important connection with schools. At the very least, the Minister should put a small sum of money in place to allow every Deputy to make suggestions on how the IUNA could become more active. I am not asking for much. With the greatest respect and while the Minister might restrain himself, I know more about foreign affairs and educating people on the subject than Colm McCarthy.

I have given the outline and the reasons for taking this decision. In terms of the objectives that the association set for itself, we cannot keep slotting money into various subheads year on year.

I am not asking for that.

It is the underlying rationale. However, we encourage support for UN objectives, particularly in terms of increasing awareness in Ireland of the UN's work. I am available to receive any proposal that comes my way and I will discuss the Deputy's points with my people.

I will make a proposal.

Passport Applications

Pat Breen

Ceist:

29 Deputy Pat Breen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the steps he will take to clear the backlog of applications for passports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30198/10]

On 2 July, 59,452 applications were in the system, representing a reduction of more than 8,500 applications in the backlog since the middle of June. I am conscious that the level of passport applications in the system remains excessively high. However, one contributory factor is the exceptional demand for passports this year. To date, passport demand is running at 13.8% higher than this time in 2009.

Passport service staff continue to work overtime to assist in keeping the number of applications in the system to a minimum. Recently, 50 additional temporary staff commenced work in the service and are working with permanent staff members to clear the backlog. These measures alone have allowed for more than 68,000 additional passport applications to be examined over and above those considered during normal hours. I am also prepared to recruit additional temporary staff if necessary.

I fully accept that the current service is less than satisfactory and is not of the standard that the public has been used to and is entitled to expect. However, the effects of the prolonged period of industrial action and the increased demand have made it difficult to return immediately to the excellent service normally offered by the passport service. However progress is being made. The service has re-introduced a guaranteed turnaround time for passport applications. Applications submitted via the passport express service — Swiftpost in the Republic and NIPX in the North — available through local post offices are now guaranteed to be processed within 20 working days. This guarantee will be kept under review and it is intended that time required will reduce over the coming weeks. The new guarantee turnaround time will help re-establish trust in the operation of the service.

A new service to prioritise applications for those with immediate travel plans has also been introduced. Applications with proof of travel are guaranteed to be processed within three working days. Applicants should make contact with the passport service and provide this proof where applicable. An additional fee may apply in respect of such new and urgent applications, as was the case before the dispute. This is the fastest turnaround time for all applications except for those whose travel is required for urgent humanitarian reasons. While clearing the backlog will take some time, every effort is being made to minimise the inconvenience to the travelling public.

The Minister mentioned an increase of 13.8% in the number of passport applications being processed this year. However, it is highly unlikely that the increase is due to people going on holiday. Rather, it is down to people emigrating because Government policies have left them with no hope.

I have a number of concerns. For example, that it still takes 15-20 working days to process a passport application is not good enough. I welcome the important agreement between the Government and the public service, as the situation was frustrating for those seeking passports. We all remember the queues earlier this year. As someone who attends the Passport Office on a weekly basis, that applicants must still spend hours queuing is frustrating. It is also frustrating for the staff. Every time I have been in the office, I have seen an argument because of people's frustrations. This problem must be eliminated.

What options is the Minister considering to speed up the process? Doing so would be important. Has the Minister taken on temporary seasonal staff and how many are there? We are in the height of the season for people seeking passports.

In a parliamentary question some time ago, I asked the Minister whether he had progressed his proposal to establish an additional passport office outside Dublin. Speaking as someone who deals with the offices in Cork and Dublin, the former seems to be running more efficiently. I do not know whether this is because the Minister is from Cork.

It is down to DNA.

The Dublin area contains a larger population. The Minister stated that he would examine the option of providing another passport——

The Deputy has asked a number of questions and we are running out of time.

I really only asked two questions.

I will call the Deputy again.

I would like to elaborate on my last question, as it needs more time.

The Deputy is entitled to one minute for a supplementary question, but he has had two and a half minutes.

My supplementary question will be on the additional staff.

Many of the Deputy's questions were answered by my original reply. We have recruited the additional 50 staff. The passport service receives approximately 2,900 applications per day. However, I stated that passport demand is running at 13.8% higher than it was at this time in 2009. The main reason for this is the publicity around the delay owing to industrial action. Many people decided to get their applications in for fear of the length of time the process would take. That is the logic.

They see no hope.

In view of the backlogs being dealt with, I expect things to return to more normal patterns in due course. The advent of overtime and the recruitment of additional temporary staff has had a positive impact because the number of passports being issued per day now is in the region of 3,200, which is considerable.

The Deputy made reference to people queuing up and so on. We are saying, unequivocally, that the recommended method for submitting passport applications is via the passport express service, or the Northern Ireland passport express service, available through the local post office. We would recommend to people generally that this is the best and optimum methodology. Public counter or the wire services should only be used by those who have a necessity to travel for reasons of family emergency. All other applications should be submitted via passport express channels.

I have two brief questions. What progression has the Minister made in regard to the provision of an additional passport office? Being parochial, I should like to see a passport office being set up in the mid-west region, building on the success of the Cork passport office, particularly given the fact that the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food office in Ennis is closed, and staff have not been reassigned to other duties. The Government owns the building in Ennis, so perhaps I can lobby the Minister in that regard this afternoon, given the success of the Cork initiative.

When does the Minister expect the passport processing service for Oireachtas Members to resume, whereby they could leave passports here in the Dáil and they would be collected the following week?

In terms of the extension of the service this is subject to capital funding, and funding generally but I indicated on the last occasion that priority would be given to the north west because of the Northern Ireland demand and so on. I do not envisage anything beyond that in the medium term. Prior to the difficulties we have had, the passport service was working very well, the turnaround time was exceptionally good and customers were well served. I am confident we shall return to that.

In terms of the facility that was available for Members of the Oireachtas, as soon as things return to a more normal pattern I envisage that service returning as well. Members have been accommodated as much as humanly possible in emergency cases that they have brought to the attention of the passport office. As I said in my original reply, the prioritisation of those who have immediate emergencies will be accommodated within a three-day period. That again will meet many of the concerns and issues that Deputies have.

Question No. 30 is in the name of Deputy Breen.

Questions Nos. 27 and 30 were taken together.

We were not advised of that. We shall take the answer to Question No. 27, then, as given.

Can I ask a few questions, as regards Question No. 30?

The Minister in his reply to Question No. 27 said how serious the fraudulent use of an Irish passport was. It is a very serious matter and it came to light last February and again recently with the name of the famous Richard Murphy. In light of the previous case in Dubai, the Minister called in the Israeli Ambassador for questioning, as regards what happened there, as he was justified in doing. The Minister spoke with Foreign Minister Lieberman at one of the Council Meetings in Brussels in regard to this.

Now there is another serious situation, where an Irish passport was issued in the name of a Donegal citizen and picked up in Rome which was allegedly used by Russian spies. Has the Minister made any contact with the Russian ambassador here in Dublin in relation to this incident, and if not, does he propose to do so? Will he say whether the Irish ambassador in Russia has made similar contacts with his counterparts there as well?

The Garda and the passport service are investigating the allegations that were raised in a US court. What we have is an allegation and we have to establish the veracity of that assertion. We are not at that stage yet. We have not had access to much of the material because obviously it may be used in the court case. This will involve liaising with the US authorities, and following up with any citizen whose passport details might have been misused. Again, we shall look at the travel histories of any such persons and I shall report to the House when these investigations have been completed.

I will come back to the House in regard to those matters. My position in regard to the fraudulent use of Irish passports is well known, and has been articulated on the floor of this House. The Deputy can take it that we take any misuse of an Irish passport very seriously, indeed, and will act appropriately.

The fact is an Irish passport was allegedly used in a given situation, and this has more or less been confirmed by the authorities. I ask the Minister to talk to his Russian counterpart because Ireland does not want to be seen as a soft tough on the international scene. Here we have Israel and Russia, two so-called superpowers allegedly using Irish passports for fraudulent purposes. That is a very serious situation, as the Minister has acknowledged. The fact that these passports were used puts the safety of Irish citizens at risk. How come it was not a case of passports from any of the Eastern Bloc countries, but rather Ireland? I ask the Minister to call in and talk to the Russian ambassador about the situation. I understand he has to find out the facts, but he must emphasise to the Russian ambassador how serious is the situation.

In terms of the flow of information, in the Dubai case when our ambassador went to the Dubai authorities, significant details were provided in terms of numbers and so on. Before one sees anybody one needs to establish the veracity of the assertion being made. We must also be mindful that in the US jurisdiction, as we speak, a court case is ongoing, and we have to be very careful.

Why cannot the Minister act in regard to the Russian Foreign Minister?

Equally, there is a report that a British passport was used but I do not know whether that is the case.

Question No. 30 answered with Question No. 27.

European Council

Lucinda Creighton

Ceist:

31 Deputy Lucinda Creighton asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if the recently agreed numerical targets in Europe 2020 will be binding; the way that they will be monitored; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30200/10]

The European Council at its meeting in June adopted the European strategy for jobs and growth, Europe 2020. This includes EU headline targets in the five areas of employment, research and development, climate change, education and social inclusion. The targets represent shared objectives covering the action of the member States and the Union. Some, notably those on greenhouse gas emissions, have a basis in EU legislation. The majority are not binding in the regulatory sense, but they constitute a common aim and the combination of monitoring, reporting, scoreboards and peer pressure should contribute to their realisation.

The focus has now shifted to the work which must be undertaken, at both national and EU level, to ensure the strategy is successfully implemented. Essentially this means translating all EU headline targets into national targets. Member states, including Ireland, must now work over the coming months to agree national targets and identify potential bottlenecksI might mention here that we have already exceeded the target of 40% of 30 to 40 year-olds having completed tertiary or equivalent levels of education and our school drop-out rate at 11.3% is close to the set target of 10%.

A series of bilateral dialogues organised by the Presidency and the Commission with each member state has taken place to discuss with member states how they intend to translate these targets and identify national specificities. These meetings enabled member states to point to specific national situations influencing the national target-setting. This work is expected to be completed by member states in their national reform programmes this autumn which will see the strategy's translation into definitive commitments and national targets. Throughout this process, a co-operative approach will be taken between the Commission and the member states to ensure the targets which are set are both attainable and take into account the particular circumstances of each member state.

Both the European Council and the European Commission will play an important role in monitoring the implementation of the strategy. Effective monitoring of the strategy will be key to its successful implementation. The European Commission will monitor annually the situation on the basis of a set of indicators which will be developed to show overall progress towards the objective of a smart, green and inclusive economy delivering high levels of employment, productivity and social cohesion.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

It will issue a yearly report on the delivery of the Europe 2020 strategy focusing on progress towards meeting the agreed headline targets and assess country reports and stability and convergence programmes. As part of this process, the Commission will present policy recommendations or warnings, make policy proposals to attain the objectives of the strategy and will present a specific assessment of progress achieved within the euro-area.

The European Council will once a year assess the progress made at EU and national level towards the implementation of the strategy. The Council will also regularly debate economic developments and the main priorities of the strategy.

It is widely acknowledged that the Lisbon strategy, predecessor to Europe 2020, was a disaster in that its targets were not met with no mechanism in place to bring into line those member states which failed to achieve them. The Minister referred to the targets set by Europe 2020, such as an employment rate of 75% which is very ambitious. The target of 3% of GDP for investment in research and development is the same as the one set ten years ago which was not met then. It is difficult to identity what can give us confidence that this 3% target will be met by the Europe 2020 strategy.

May we have a brief question please, Deputy.

The monitoring of the implementation of the Lisbon strategy through the open method of co-ordination was loose. There was no clear way of disciplining or responding to those member states which did not achieve their targets. Will this be different with the Europe 2020 policy? Does the Minister believe the implementation of a fines system is the way to deal with this, particularly considering the already enormous budgetary deficits in most member states?

I would not favour financial fines for member states which do not reach their Europe 2020 targets. A different situation, however, pertains to financial governance and membership of the euro. I accept there is a need for measures to ensure compliance in this regard.

That is merely aspirational.

The difference between the Europe 2020 and the Lisbon strategies is that the former is more sharply focussed with its narrowing down to five key objectives, namely employment, research and development, climate change, education and social inclusion. Not all of the Lisbon strategy was poor but much of it depended on the adherence to it by member states.

The fact that Ireland has a 46% participation level in tertiary education means that we took certain issues seriously. We worked to enhance our educational performance and achieved such a participation rate through significant investment in third level capacity over the past ten years. One does not get the extra numbers into third level if more places, seats, lecturers and education personnel are not provided.

Deputy Creighton is correct that many member states did not reach 3% of GDP on research and development. Ireland did transform its research and development landscape in the past decade so that it now stands at 1.5% of GDP. In 1997 when I became education Minister the departmental budget for research was nil with no programme for research in third-level institutions, PRTLI, or Science Foundation Ireland. While significant changes have occurred in this area, we must also focus in outcomes and intensity levels in research.

I have no doubt as to the achievements of the Minister when he was in the Department of Education and Skills. However, my question was referring to the whole of the European Union, not simply the Irish level of progress.

There is a concern that the Stability and Growth Pact has not been brought into the Europe 2020 strategy, meaning both still operate as parallel systems. Will the Minister agree it might be useful and logical if they were integrated so as to ensure they achieve a greater degree of competitiveness and economic growth but do not diverge on different policy paths?

I understand and see the merit in the Deputy's argument about integration but I am not sure one could achieve a Europe 2020 strategy if one followed that course of action.

That is a neoliberal contradiction.

No, the point is that one cannot divorce the obligations of member states under the Stability and Growth Pact and Europe 2020. The strategy tells member states the core areas of economic development on which they should be focussing as a priority. Member states do not want Europe telling them how to develop every single policy area in, say, health or education. Historically, the control of those two areas has been guarded for national parliaments and executives.

I support the idea of identifying five key strategic objectives for Europe and each individual member state. No one can argue with setting targets for employment, research and development, climate change, education and social inclusion, of which the most challenging climate change and energy.