Priority Questions

Diplomatic Representation

Seán Ó Fearghaíl

Ceist:

60Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the estimated yearly savings of the closure of the embassy to the Holy See; if he will reconsider the closure of the Vatican embassy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9853/12]

The decision to close Ireland's resident embassy to the Holy See was taken by the Government in response to budgetary pressures and on the recommendation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which sought to assess where budget cuts would impact least on the national interest at this time of economic crisis. The total cost saving in a full year from the closure is estimated at €845,000, of which €400,000 will come from the closure of the resident embassy to the Holy See. An additional €445,000 in savings will come from the transfer of Ireland's embassy to Italy from its previous rented premises to the State-owned Villa Spada. In the meantime the Holy See has accepted the Government's nomination of the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. David Cooney, as ambassador on a non-resident basis. Mr. Cooney is expected to present his credentials to Pope Benedict XVI in May.

The decision to close the resident embassy to the Holy See will not be reversed in the immediate term. The unavoidable budget cuts and reduction in staff numbers which necessitated the closure are still in effect and my Department has neither the staff nor the financial resources to reverse the mission closures decided on by the Government last November. However, as the economic situation improves and in the context of the regular review of the diplomatic network, it may be possible to revisit the matter some time in the future. If the Vatican is prepared to relax its current requirements so as to allow the State-owned Villa Spada to serve as a location for both our embassy to Italy and our embassy to the Holy See, this can be taken into account in any future considerations.

I thank the Tánaiste for bringing clarity to the financial aspects of the matter. When did the decision to include the Vatican embassy appear on the list? We are in receipt of two pieces of information; one from the Department suggesting it was not on the initial list and one from the Tánaiste suggesting it was. Will the Tánaiste confirm the veracity or otherwise of a report inThe Sunday Business Post by Pat Leahy on the Government meeting at which this matter was discussed? It was suggested it had been very much a routine issue on the Cabinet agenda that had been passed over and only returned to later after the decision had been made. Did the Tánaiste, in fact, discuss the proposed closure of the Embassy to the Holy See with the Taoiseach and the Minister of State, Deputy Lucinda Creighton?

The issue of which embassies might be closed in these difficult economic times had been under consideration in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for some time. The Deputy's party leader, my immediate predecessor, acknowledged here recently that while he was Minister, the possible closure of the Embassy to the Holy See had been under consideration. The confusion may have arisen from newspaper reports which referred to a document which had been produced in the context of the comprehensive spending review which referred to the closure of two possible missions, and it was assumed that the two missions in that case did not include the Holy See. In fact, the Holy See was included in those two missions referred to in that document.

With regard to the issue of how the matter was considered by Government, as I stated, the question of what embassies might be closed and how savings might be made have been under consideration in the Department. I brought a memorandum to Government which recommended the closure of three resident missions: Timor-Leste, Tehran and the Holy See. The matter was considered by the Government and it made a decision to close the three missions I had recommended.

I thank the Minister for that information but we do not know a great deal more than we did before I asked the question. Key to this is whether the Minister had discussions in advance of the Cabinet meeting with the Taoiseach on this matter.

After a year working hard in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is the Minister prepared to take advice from someone who has a quarter of a century of distinguished service in the Department, Mr. Seán Donlon, who raised fundamental questions about the Minister's decision to close this important listening post, an action which, in fact, was contrary to statements that the Minister himself had made by way of written reply to Members of this House some time ago?

Can the Minister brief Members as to whether he is prepared to engage actively via the new non-resident ambassador, Mr. David Cooney, with the Vatican in terms of the possibility of Villa Spada serving as a dual-purpose embassy or being divided so that part of it may deliver the service to the Vatican while the other part could service Rome? That is something that has been put out there into the ether. Is the Minister actively engaged in that?

I put it to the Minister that this is an issue that will not go away. I do not wish to have us returning to this time and time again on Question Time, but it is something that the people are concerned about. It is something that is of fundamental importance in terms of our diplomatic role on the world stage. The Minister is currently campaigning for Ireland to win membership of the human rights committee of the UN and, in that regard, we should have particular cognisance of the role the Vatican has played, and can play, in assisting us. If the Minister reads the interesting letter inThe Irish Times today from Mr. Michael Lillis, he can see the role that the Vatican played in informing those who were involved in an initiative in Cuba way back in 1988.

The recommendation, the memorandum to Government and consideration of the issue by Government was done in the normal way. Deputy Ó Feargháil will be quite well aware of the doctrine of Cabinet confidentiality with which we all are obliged to comply. The issue was considered by the Government in the normal way.

As the Minister concerned, I take political responsibility for making the recommendation. The decision has been made and it will not be reversed. I made it clear at the time the decision was announced that when financial circumstances would improve, we could revisit the issue as we will be reviewing our diplomatic missions in any event in the light of improving financial circumstances.

On the issue of the use of Villa Spada and what physical arrangements can be made there, of course, the ambassador and Secretary General of the Department, Mr. David Cooney, will discuss all of those issues with the Vatican authorities.

I welcome always the advice of former diplomats. In one case, we are talking about a former diplomat who resigned from the diplomatic service a quarter of a century ago. There is, I am sure Deputy Ó Feargháil will appreciate, a necessity in any event for us to modernise our diplomacy and the way in which we do our business. The circumstances of today are entirely different from what they were a quarter of a century ago but I value the advice that is given from time to time by former diplomats.

Middle East Peace Process

Pádraig Mac Lochlainn

Ceist:

61Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he still believes, as he stated to Dail Éireann on 13 July 2011, that the continuing Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories is at the heart of the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict, that it is the continuing occupation, and the creation and growth of illegal settlements on the occupied lands, which are now the major obstacles to peace; if so, if he agrees that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians alone will not remove these obstacles to peace; and if he will outline to Dáil Éireann the concrete steps he is willing to take in order to galvanise influence on Israel from the outside world in this regard. [9999/12]

It still remains very much my conviction that the continuing Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories and the growth of illegal settlements on occupied lands represent the major obstacles to securing political progress in the Middle East peace process. I have visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in recent weeks and had an opportunity to see for myself the direct impact of the occupation on the Palestinian population, particularly on the West Bank. My visit to the proposed new E1 settlement on the fringes of east Jerusalem was particularly instructive in that regard.

In my subsequent discussions with the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, and the Foreign Minister, Mr. Lieberman, I made clear how continued settlement expansion and a failure to take decisive action to end the blockade of Gaza were only extending the conflict and reducing the prospects for meaningful substantive peace talks getting under way, peace talks which I had also been assured by the Prime Minister were also very much their objective.

I believe both sides remain committed to a negotiated settlement and equally recognise that there is no alternative to direct negotiations aimed at achieving a comprehensive and honourable peace deal. The challenge, as ever, for all concerned with promoting peace in the Middle East, is how to fashion the appropriate environment and climate of confidence to allow serious peace negotiations to get under way. What are most urgently required are positive confidence building measures, particularly on the part of Israel, to instil the necessary confidence that real progress could be achieved, were substantive peace talks to resume. I urged the Prime Minister to come forward with such a package of confidence building measures as soon as possible.

No one is under any doubt that the prospects for achieving a viable two-state solution are fast diminishing. I remain determined to continue highlighting, with EU and international partners, all the pertinent issues relating to the ongoing Israeli occupation and impress on both sides the need for these dramatic gestures and acts of political will which would help to substantially transform the current depressing situation.

As the Tánaiste knows, in the 1988 agreement the PLO agreed to accept 22% of the entire landmass of what was originally Palestine. Remarkably, we have not moved on and reached a settlement based on that extremely generous agreement. At the time there were approximately 190,000 Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories, the West Bank in particular. Today there are 500,000. How long will the European Union and the international community allow to continue this defiance of international law, this reprehensible behaviour, of which I understand a recent EU report leaked to the international media is extremely condemnatory? Will the Tánaiste do something more forceful than just raise the issue? Will he let us know what strategy he has at European level to confront Israel on this core issue that is now a major impediment to achieving peace in the region?

The international community is very much engaged on this issue. As the Deputy knows, at the UN General Assembly in September a statement was agreed by the Quartet, comprising the United Nations, the European Union and so on, setting down a timetable for discussions to take place between Palestine and Israel. It is regrettable that this timetable has not been complied with and has slipped somewhat.

The purpose of my visit to Israel and Palestine was to see for myself the situation on the ground and also to have discussions with both sides. I met President Abbas and Foreign Minister Malki on the Palestinian side and, asindicated, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Lieberman and the Deputy Prime Minister on the Israeli side. My visit followed directly a separate visit by High Representative Catherine Ashton and was followed by a visit by the German Foreign Minister. There is, therefore, very much EU engagement to try to get the talks process moving. The King of Jordan had convened preliminary talks and we were trying to get both sides to engage with them. There is no doubt that the continuing blockade of Gaza and the settlements on the West Bank are huge obstacles to the progress of talks. That is why I concentrated in my discussions with the Prime Minister on examining the confidence building measures that could be advanced by Israel which would show the Palestinian side that the talks would be worthwhile.

I commended the Tánaiste last year when he took his decision on behalf of the people at the United Nations and followed it up at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. Does he understand the absolute rage among people within the region when they see sanctions being imposed on Iran because it is not fully compliant with the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, while Israel, on the other hand, is not even a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty? Israel has ignored the will of the international community for decades in regard to settlements, yet not only are there no sanctions imposed on it, we have a complementary trade agreement between it and the European Union. Does the Tánaiste understand why young people on the West Bank consider it necessary to lift stones, their only weapon of resistance, or why a man might believe he must go on hunger strike? The international community has entirely failed them and, in so doing, sown the seeds of extremism within the region. What can the Tánaiste, as chairman of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and part of the European team, do to address their concerns and bring peace to the region at last?

Ireland has taken a very strong interest in the Middle East peace process, particularly the situation on the West Bank and in Gaza. I have conveyed our concerns in clear terms at meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union. I set them out clearly in my statement to the United Nations General Assembly last September. The Deputy and other Members urged me strongly in the House to visit the Middle East to see the situation for myself and engage in discussions. I have done this at the highest level with both the Palestinian and Israeli sides. My meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, lasted for almost one and a half hours and involved full discussions on what was needed to advance the situation. Everybody agrees that if there is to be a two-state solution, it must be negotiated. There are many issues to be resolved, including the issue of boundaries. The matter has become more complex as a result of the settlement problem. The most constructive role that Ireland and the European Union can play is to engage in that process and encourage both sides to engage in meaningful discussions with a view to finding a lasting settlement.

International Debt Relief

Stephen S. Donnelly

Ceist:

62Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of the joint review of Ireland’s international debt policy by his Department and the Department of Finance; and if he will provide a statement of current policy on international debt, including the issues of debt cancellation, conditionality and governance reform of the World Bank and IMF. [9940/12]

Ireland is recognised internationally for its contribution to the fight against global poverty and hunger and leading role in making international aid more effective. The State has played a strong role in the development of a consensus on the issue of debt cancellation for the least developed countries. All of our aid is provided in the form of grants, not loans. We have contributed our full financial share of more than €116 million to the two main multilateral initiatives to address debt relief. We have also worked with partners in our programme countries to ensure the additional money in debt relief is spent on programmes that benefit the poor.

The Government's debt policy strategy was prepared jointly by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Finance and launched in 2002. It supports the total cancellation of the debts of the world's poorest countries. The policy has not changed. In our ongoing review of policy we are surveying the changes in the global situation and the impact to date of debt relief efforts. This work will feed into the current review of the White Paper which I hope to conclude by the autumn.

Debt relief for developing countries and loans from the international financial institutions are often conditional on the implementation of certain macro-economic and development policies. We take the view that all development interventions, including those of the international financial institutions, should be framed explicitly in the context of country ownership, poverty reduction and the achievement of the millennium development goals.

I welcome the ongoing process of reform within the World Bank and the IMF to ensure they can adequately meet the development challenges of a changing world. Ireland has supported the governance reforms of the past two years and the shifts in quotas and voting power in favour of developing and transition countries which have served to increase the legitimacy and democratic representation of the international financial institutions.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for allowing me to take this question in place of Deputy Stephen Donnelly.

I attended the conference held in Dublin Castle last Friday. Ireland's reputation is second to none, but we could do more. The international financial institutions continue to lend money to countries which they know cannot repay it, knowing such borrowings will push these countries further into poverty. They are knowingly lending to oppressive regimes. The President of the Democratic Republic of Congo built up a debt of US$12.9 billion. Also, the conditions attached to such loans are affecting industry. There has been privatisation and decimation of local industry in a number of the countries in the global south. There continues to be a lack of democratic representation from southern countries at the IMF,as well as a lack of democracy in the leadership selection process at the World Bank. Can Ireland do something to address these two matters?

Ireland favours debt cancellation which has been our position since 2002. As stated, the situation is being reviewed jointly by the Departments of Finance and Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Deputy may be aware that a review of the 2006 White Paper is also under way, which review will feed into the consultation process. We would welcome an input from Members of this House into the review of the White Paper which will inform our policy for a number of years.

On the wider question of what has been happening throughout the world, there has been considerable development in dealing with the issues of debt relief and debt cancellation. A heavily indebted poor countries initiative, HIPCI, was launched in 1996 which was followed by the multilateral debt relief initiative, MDRI, in 2005. Some 38 countries have benefited from these initiatives. As part of the MDRI €33.8 billion has been provided, while €76 billion has been provided as part of the HIPCI, amounting to a total more than €110 billion in debt relief. Three countries recently became eligible for debt relief and four others will shortly become eligible. The process, therefore, is ongoing.

In the meantime more could be done to ease the conditions attached in order that local industries on which people depend will not be decimated. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that human rights must be at the core of all of this work.

We do not believe there are any conditions attached. Irish Aid has never been tied. We have always argued this point internationally.

I was not speaking about Irish Aid-----

-----rather I was speaking about the conditions of the World Bank and the IMF, in respect of which Ireland could have a role to play.

Yes, we do have a role to play in that regard. Reform of the quota system and the manner in which voting takes place at the IMF is under way. The likelihood is that this will result in the Irish voting position, dating back to the old quota system, being considerably improved. A new voting system is being introduced and it is likely that it will provide Ireland with a much stronger role. Likewise, the emerging countries will have a much stronger role under future systems. We will be pursing this matter.

Foreign Conflicts

Seán Ó Fearghaíl

Ceist:

63Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the actions he has taken in conjunction with the European External Action Services to bring an end to the nascent civil war and brutal repression in Syria; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9854/12]

Ireland has been working intensively with the European Union, the United Nations, the Arab League and other partners in the international community to compel the Syrian regime to cease its appalling and unacceptable attacks on the Syrian people through a series of robust economic, political and diplomatic measures. At EU level, the Foreign Affairs Council agreed on 1 December and 23 January additional measures which I entirely support related to the energy, financial, banking and trade sectors, as well as the listing of additional individuals and entities involved in the violence or supporting the regime. This comes on top of extensive existing EU sanctions, including a ban on oil imports from Syria.

At UN level, Ireland and all EU partners voted on 16 February in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution, which was supported by an overwhelming majority of UN member states, condemning human rights violations in Syria. I also outlined my serious concerns about the situation in Syria when I addressed the UN Security Council on 9 February. In addition, I discussed the issue with the UN Secretary General at a meeting on the same day. I regret very much that the Security Council has so far been unable to speak with a single voice on Syria in failing to pass a resolution on 4 February which otherwise commanded the full support of the Council. A strongly worded Council resolution would represent a tremendously important demonstration of the international community's concern and significantly add to the pressure on the Assad regime.

The Arab League has been providing strong leadership on the Syrian crisis and the peace plan which it outlined last November still provides the best basis for achieving a resolution. The initial meeting of the Friends of Syria Group in Tunisia on 24 February, to which Ireland and all EU partners have been invited, is also likely to prove valuable in considering next steps and endeavouring to bring together representatives of Syria's fragmented peaceful opposition. Ireland and its international partners are determined to maintain strong and united political pressure on the Syrian regime until it ends the violent repression against its own people.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply and acknowledge the efforts outlined therein. One must be conscious of the fact that 6,000 protesters have died in this awful situation in recent times. In addition, while one must acknowledge the role of the Arab League, one also must express concern that following the withdrawal of its observer force at the end of January, the Arab League may no longer have the capacity to address the problem successfully. I commend the Tánaiste for his engagement with the Chinese delegation over the weekend which was a great success. Did he avail of the opportunity presented to discuss the Chinese veto of the United Nations resolution when he met the Vice President? Does he have plans to engage with his opposite number in the Russian Administration to try to impress on that country the need to adopt a more pragmatic approach to the problem? While I acknowledge the Chinese appear to have moved somewhat by virtue of their willingness to engage with the Arab League to a far greater extent, what can he do in respect of the aforementioned two countries?

I thank the Deputy for commending me on the actions the Government has taken on the situation in Syria and the successful visit of the Vice President of China over the weekend. The Foreign Minister of China also was part of the delegation and I had the opportunity to talk to him separately. We discussed the situation in Syria and shared our respective views on the seriousness of the issue. What is happening there on a daily basis is absolutely unacceptable and intolerable. As the Deputy noted, more than 6,000 people have been killed. The approach at this stage is one of supporting the Arab League. As the Deputy stated, the latter has withdrawn its monitors. However, it has a key role to play. The Arab League has put forward a formula which would lead to a change of regime in Syria and to a more general change in that country. The meeting being arranged by the Friends of Syria, which is due to be held on Friday next, will present a further opportunity for the international community to engage with the Arab League in considering what might be the next steps with regard to making progress. It is regrettable that the Security Council was not in a position to adopt a resolution in respect of this matter. I previously discussed the situation in Syria with the Russian Foreign Minister. Following the meeting on Friday, it is possible that I may do so again.

Did the Tánaiste avail of the opportunity to discuss broader human rights issues with the Chinese delegation during its visit to Ireland at the weekend? In light of the sectarian nature of the problems that are developing between Sunni Muslims and Alawite Muslims in Syria, does he envisage that this country might, on a unilateral basis, offer the services of the conflict resolution unit of his Department in order that it might assist in dealing with the problems to which I refer?

Deputy Ó Fearghaíl has attempted to broaden this debate by inquiring about my discussions with the Chinese delegation. I engaged in a discussion on broader human rights issues with the delegation at the weekend and I would be happy to answer questions on the matter if they are tabled.

On Syria, the approach being taken at this stage is multilateral in nature. I do not believe that, at this point, the situation in Syria lends itself to individual countries taking unilateral action. This is a matter in respect of which the international community must work together. We will certainly work with our European Union colleagues in the context of taking a common approach. We will also work on this matter at the United Nations and we will endeavour to support the Arab League in its efforts. If the conflict resolution unit of my Department can be of assistance at some point, and if such assistance is requested, consideration can certainly be given to that matter. In view of the nature of what is happening in Syria, however, I do not believe that the conflict resolution unit could play an immediate role. This matter is at a different stage entirely.

Human Rights Issues

Mick Wallace

Ceist:

64Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he accepts the evidence presented by Amnesty International and others that Shannon Airport has been used as a stopover point for renditions; if he will initiate an enquiry into the State’s participation in this illegal activity; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9942/12]

The programme for Government states that "we will enforce the prohibition on the use of Irish airspace, airports and related facilities for purposes not in line with international law". I have placed on record on numerous occasions my abhorrence at the illegal activity known as extraordinary rendition. There is no evidence that Shannon or any other Irish airport has ever been used for this purpose. There is no basis whatsoever for the Deputy's suggestion that the State has participated in this illegal activity. Under our legislation, no transfer of prisoners may take place without the permission of the Irish authorities. Furthermore, the United States has provided assurances at the highest level that it would not transport prisoners through Irish airspace without seeking our permission. I assure the Deputy that no permission has been sought or granted in respect of any case of extraordinary rendition and, equally, that such permission would never be granted.

We understand that a small number of commercially leased aircraft which have been involved in legitimate commercial activities have also been involved, at various times, in activities relating to extraordinary renditions. However, there is no evidence to suggest that they were carrying prisoners at any time when they transited through Irish airports. Should the Deputy or any other person be in possession of evidence which suggests that Irish airports have been used for the purpose of extraordinary rendition, I would urge them to bring this to the attention of the Garda Síochána.

I remind the Tánaiste that in June 2006 he said that the European Court of Human Rights, the United Nations Committee Against Torture and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had all indicated that:

[I]t is insufficient to accept the diplomatic assurances of another state that nothing illegal was happening on planes being used and chartered by the CIA, which are going through Irish airports. There is a positive obligation on the State to investigate, inspect, send gardaí on board, and establish independently that the law of this country, international law and the Convention on Human Rights are being upheld, and that nobody is being transported through an Irish airport or through Irish airspace to undergo [torture].

Does the Minister still not think it would be a good idea for us to check the planes? When he was in opposition he was not as convinced that everything was above board. If there was even a 1% suspicion that people were bringing drugs into the country we would be keen to inspect the planes, and we would be right to do so. We should also inspect these.

We have a procedure in place. It is not just a question of accepting assurances. There is a procedure in place whereby if prisoners are to be transported through any of our airports, the permission of the Irish Government must be sought and obtained. No such permission has been sought or granted and I have made it absolutely clear that under no circumstances will we grant permission for the transport of prisoners who are subject to extraordinary rendition.

The chances of the Americans asking us for permission to bring through prisoners who they will torture are pretty slim. We have seen what has gone on Guantanamo Bay where only a handful of people have been convicted despite the numbers held in custody. I draw the Minister's attention to a comment by President Michael D. Higgins in December 2010, only 14 months ago. He stated:

The disclosure that the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, was ‘quite convinced' that Shannon Airport had been used on at least three occasions by aircraft involved in extraordinary rendition of prisoners strongly reinforces the case for a change in the law to ensure that Irish airports are not used in this way and that any such aircraft are subject to proper inspection by the Irish authorities.

On the previous occasions the Minister told me-----

A question, please.

The Minister stated the law is very robust in respect of control of airspace. Why did President Higgins, when he was a Labour Party Deputy, propose legislation to close the loopholes in Irish legislation to ensure rendition flights could no longer be possible if the Labour Party now believes everything is grand?

Rendition flights are not possible. They are illegal. The use of our airports for rendition purposes would be illegal. If any country wants to transport prisoners through our airports, they must seek permission from the State. As I stated, no such permission has been sought or granted and no such permission will be granted in the case of possible rendition.

Why did President Higgins suggest it when he was a Deputy? The Minister did not answer my question.