Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Shannon Airport Facilities

Catherine Connolly

Ceist:

5. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his plans to raise the ongoing use of Shannon Airport by the US military with US President-elect Biden, particularly in view of the fact that from January to October 2020, 65,965 US military personnel transited Shannon Airport; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38480/20]

My question is a direct one. What are the Minister's plans to engage with the new President of America, Mr. Joe Biden, in respect of the continued use of Shannon Airport by American troops, given that this year alone 65,965, or almost 70,000, troops have passed through in ten months which is more than in any year from 2014 to 2017?

This Government has offered congratulations to President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris. We look forward to working with the new administration, once it is in place, to progress international peace and security, including during our time on the UN Security Council and on the important global challenges of Covid-19, economic recovery and climate change.

Deputy Connolly refers to the use of commercial aircraft by the US Government. While the Department of Transport has primary responsibility for civil aircraft, I would note that the use of Shannon Airport by the US military is a long-standing practice which has been in place for over 50 years. I am satisfied that this practice is fully consistent with Ireland’s policies, including our traditional policy of military neutrality. This policy of military neutrality, together with our international activism on issues such as disarmament, international crisis management and peacekeeping has helped us to speak with a distinctive and independent voice on many of the key challenges facing the world in relation to the maintenance of international peace and security.

Our relationship with the US is strong and deep and it is this Government's intention to work with the new Administration on strengthening that relationship through building on those long-standing and close political, diplomatic and economic ties.

I have addressed, as have other Ministers, the issue of the facilitation of planes coming through Shannon Airport on many occasions. There are safeguards in place.

I do not propose to make a significant issue of this with the incoming administration in the US unless there is very good reason to do so.

There is actually a very good reason to do so because America has been involved in many wars. The figures are shocking. I hope the Minister would use his voice for the sake of peacekeeping rather than peace enforcement. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 79.5 million people were displaced in 2019. Of those, approximately 39 million were displaced as a direct result of America's involvement in wars since 2001. A great number of soldiers and military flights go through Shannon on their way to creating mayhem. I am disappointed that the Minister will not make it an issue. I would have thought it the perfect time to make an issue of it. This small country can stand as an independent voice for peace in the world, set out a new way and begin to remove the military presence from Shannon.

I agree with the Deputy on many things in respect of Ireland's role in the world and being a voice advocating for human rights, peace and peacekeeping. We do advocate for all of those things. These are some of the reasons we fought so hard for a place on the UN Security Council, beginning 1 January. The priorities we have set for our term on the Security Council are built around peace, peacekeeping and holding countries to account for their actions under international law. That is what we campaigned on and that is why we got significant support from UN member states, particularly small countries and countries that have been impacted by conflict. Many such countries trust Ireland to be a voice to which they can speak, knowing that they will be listened to. They see us as a country that will advocate for their concerns. That is not in question. I do not extend that argument, as the Deputy does, to suggest that having these objectives requires us to stop facilitating something that has been in place for more than five decades. We are talking about a country with which we want to work to advance our principles and policies internationally.

It is not possible to advance those principles and policies if we are facilitating war, and we are facilitating war. Almost 3 million soldiers have passed through Shannon Airport since 2002. Some 475 American planes have landed and 734 overflight permissions were granted in 2019 alone. It is not possible to promote peace if we are facilitating war. It is simply not possible; they do not go together. The argument that we must continue with this because it is long-standing practice is the weakest I have ever heard propounded. Later on today we will be talking about the appointment of judges, which also involves long-standing practices. Being of long standing does not make a practice right. In this situation, it is all the more important. I have read out figures that are absolutely damning with regard to the number of people displaced. The trend is such that these millions of people will not be able to go back to their countries. That is what the UN Refugee Agency has noted. War is a primary cause of that displacement and, given our history, we should be the strongest voice in promoting peace. It is not possible to do that while facilitating war by allowing military use of Shannon Airport.

With respect, the way for Ireland to maximise its influence to promote peace is to build relationships with countries all over the world that are involved in conflict so that we can try to influence the decisions they make. That is how the world works when it comes to international politics, as opposed to countries taking stands that may sound good domestically but which get nothing done internationally.

With regard to the use of Shannon Airport, the practical implementation of the conditions for granting permission for landings by foreign military aircraft is guided by and reflects Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality. Conditions routinely applied include that the aircraft must be unarmed and carry no arms, ammunition or explosives; that they do not engage in intelligence gathering; and that the flights concerned do not form part of military exercises or operations. These conditions apply equally to military aircraft from all countries, including the US, seeking to land in Shannon or elsewhere in Ireland.

Brexit Negotiations

Christopher O'Sullivan

Ceist:

6. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom with regard to the future relationship; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38449/20]

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

40. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the progress to date with the Brexit discussions between the EU and Britain; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38364/20]

For clarity at the outset, as this question is grouped with Deputy Ó Cuív's Question No. 40, am I correct in saying that both Deputy Ó Cuív and I will get two one-minute slots each for supplementary questions after the initial question?

Yes. There is to be one 30-second introduction, then the Minister will respond. Both Deputies will then be allowed supplementary questions if the Minister proposes to take the questions together.

Very good. I seek an update on negotiations between the EU and the UK in respect of Brexit.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 40 together. Negotiations on the EU-UK future relationship have entered an even more intensive phase since 21 October, with negotiating teams working daily to close the gaps between the two sides. Due to a member of one of the negotiating teams falling ill with Covid-19, talks at chief negotiator level were temporarily suspended late last week. The talks have now resumed and the negotiating teams are continuing their work online.

A brief update on Brexit was provided by President von der Leyen at a videoconference of EU leaders on 19 November. On 20 November, she noted that recent days had seen movement on some of the key areas, including that of state aid, although further work remains to close the remaining gaps. That is now the focus of the negotiating teams.

The Deputies will appreciate that this process has reached a particularly sensitive point. It is clear that unlocking a deal will only be possible if appropriate arrangements are found with regard to the key issues of the level playing field for open and fair competition, governance and fisheries, a key national interest for Ireland.

In intensifying the negotiations in October, both sides agreed that regardless of progress in individual workstreams, nothing is agreed until an overall agreement is reached. Nevertheless, we understand that progress has been made in recent weeks in a range of other areas of importance to Ireland, including connectivity and police and judicial co-operation.

Any deal must involve compromises on all sides but a deal cannot come at any price. The EU cannot accept proposals that impact on the integrity of the Single Market or damage the long-term political and economic interests of the Union. We recognise that the UK also has its red lines. The work of the negotiators is to find a set of arrangements that respects both EU and UK values and interests and which gives us a strong and sustainable framework for the vital co-operation between us in the future.

Michel Barnier has our full support, and the support of the entire EU 27, at this crucial moment in the negotiating process. As the EU’s chief negotiator, he has been central to the united and cohesive approach of the EU 27 throughout the Brexit process, including during its most critical moments. The universal confidence and respect he inspires in EU capitals is testament to his efforts.

My colleagues in government and I have remained in close contact with our European counterparts over recent times. I acknowledge the absolute and unflagging support and solidarity our EU partners have demonstrated throughout the Brexit process. They have always recognised the unique ways in which Ireland, North and South, is affected by Brexit. This concern has expressed itself through the EU mandate and draft legal text and through the words and actions of our partners. I have no doubt that we will continue to enjoy their solidarity.

Irrespective of the outcome of the ongoing negotiations, the end of the transition period will bring substantial and lasting change. This means that business and citizens must take action now to be ready for 1 January. I particularly emphasise that, with or without a trade deal, any business that moves goods from, to or through Great Britain will be subject to a range of customs formalities, sanitary and phytosanitary checks and other regulatory requirements that do not apply to such trade today.

I also take this opportunity to remind the House that, regardless of the outcome of the talks, the full, effective and timely implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol, remains vital and that this is an internationally binding legal obligation on both sides. The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is explicitly designed to operate regardless of whether an EU-UK future relationship agreement is in place. I look forward to updating the House further as developments in the negotiations arise.

There are certain things we cannot say right now. The negotiations are difficult at the moment but we are hopeful they can have a positive outcome.

I appreciate that the Minister is restricted in some of the things he can say. Negotiations are obviously at a sensitive stage. I do not envy the Minister his job but I certainly appreciate his dedication to finding a resolution.

I will focus on the fishing industry and fisheries. I read a concerning report in The Irish Times today to the effect that France is seeking the lion's share of the €5 billion compensation fund. That will create a major concern for the Irish fishing fleet and industry. I am keen to hear an update, if possible, on where fisheries stand.

There are two aspects to this. The first is future access for the Irish fleet to UK waters. The Minister knows well that the Irish fleet relies heavily on UK waters for its current catch. The second is the issue of compensation and where we stand on the Irish fleet getting its fair share of the €5 billion compensation fund.

Does the Minister agree that it is in Ireland's overwhelming national interest that an agreement be reached between the EU and the UK rather than having a no-deal Brexit? Will he indicate the absolute latest date for this? Is 31 December the latest date by which we can come to an agreement? Could an agreement signed as late as the end of next month be ratified after 1 January? There are reports that this might be possible and that the talking might go on until the last minute. If this is necessary, we should do it ensure no stone is left unturned in trying to reach an agreement between the European Union and the UK. Ireland will be the big loser in the absence of an agreement.

I will address Deputy Ó Cuív's questions first. I will then respond on fishing, although I imagine Deputy Ó Cuív is interested in fishing too in the context of Ros an Mhíl and other ports.

First, we want a deal. That is absolutely the case. We have been working towards that end for four and a half years now. Since the UK made the decision to leave the European Union, we have been working with all sides to try to find a fair and acceptable deal that protects Irish interests, Ireland's place in the EU Single Market and our relationship with the UK, especially in the context of relationships on the island, North and South. It has been an incredibly complex process. So far, Irish interests have been factored in to the solutions that have been agreed. We must try to ensure that the final agreement on a future relationship and a trade agreement can be reached in a way that does the same. However, that is not easy and the outstanding issues around fair competition, fisheries and governance in respect of the level playing field are proving difficult to make progress on, if the truth be told. I hope the negotiators will be able to do that.

I was asked about the timelines. I have said this more than once that we are running out of time. There is a ratification process that will take several weeks. The commitment from both sides is to get a deal done and ratified before the end of the year. Legalities and the obligations on trade change from 1 January when the UK will be outside the customs union and the Single Market. This has consequences and could be singularly disruptive, in particular for Ireland and Britain but also for some other EU member states. The incentive to get a deal is strong given the cost of failure.

As a former Minister with responsibility for fisheries, this issue is one in which I am especially interested. I have spent many hours discussing how to find a way forward on fishing that is fair to the Irish fishing fleet and that protects their interests. We are trying to find a way in these negotiations to ensure fishing is part of a broader agreement. This broader agreement should recognise that the UK is being accommodated in terms of accessing EU Single Market areas, whether on energy, aviation, road haulage, data, data security or financial services. The EU has a legitimate request in accessing UK waters in the context of its legitimate fishing interests that go back many decades. We are looking for a fair outcome. We are also want to ensure that, whatever the outcome, there is fair burden-sharing across the European Union and that any support packages are available.

The Minister will have another opportunity to contribute on this question.

I am interested in fish, first and foremost, and in keeping the fishing industry intact, as opposed to relying on compensation.

I am fully aware that the Minister has a keen interest in this issue as a former Minister with responsibility for the fisheries sector. He is a keen mariner and he is familiar with Cork coastal communities such as those in Kinsale, Union Hall and Castletownbere, which is the biggest fishing port. He is aware of how important access to UK waters will continue to be for these fishing communities. He is also aware of the devastating impact that not having access to UK waters would have on the industry and the communities it serves. I ask him to elaborate on that a little.

The Minister stated that his interest is in fish. Protection of fish stocks is absolutely vital. What if European vessels are frozen out of UK waters and boats from France and Spain come to Irish waters instead? Our waters are incredibly rich and we are lucky to have them. In such a scenario we could jeopardise fish stocks and biodiversity as well as an industry that is important to the country. I ask the Minister to elaborate a little on that.

Does the Minister agree that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Northern Ireland, as compared to anywhere else in the European Union, including this State, will be in a uniquely favourable position with tariff-free access to both the British and European markets? Moreover, it will be the only sterling area within the Single Market. Are there concerns in the Government about the disadvantage that would put this part of the island at in the event of a no-deal Brexit?

The fishing question is about access, quota share and fleet displacement. We are trying to ensure our fishing interests are protected in all these areas. The danger is that the conversation moves to compensation as opposed to protection of fishing interests and access to quota share. I have tried to resist that throughout this process. First and foremost, the Government and I are interested in protecting fishing interests to ensure we have a fishing industry in future. The issue of the Brexit adjustment fund and what proportion of it goes to fishing and so on is separate. I have had conversations with the Commission on the matter. I am confident that Ireland will do well in the context of the Brexit adjustment fund, but it should not be seen as a fisheries fund. Many other areas are being disrupted and will need financial support to help them to get through that disruption. Help will be needed to reconfigure and reshape certain sectors of our economy linked to Brexit.

For me, fishing is about trying to hold on to as many fishing opportunities as possible across the pelagic and demersal sectors. What we are seeing in the negotiations is a breakdown of the sector stock by stock and a discussion between the two negotiating teams on access and quota share. We need to continue to deliver this while also ensuring that the issue of fish is part of the broader negotiation and not isolated from the other issues. I believe it would be dangerous for us to move there.

I will make one final point as there were two questions.

We must talk more about the advantages for Northern Ireland and the all-island economy that will come from the full implementation of the protocol here. It is an extraordinary position for the EU to have granted Northern Ireland full, unfettered, tariff and check-free future access to the Single Market of 450 million consumers. That is in addition to ensuring unfettered access for Northern Ireland into Great Britain. There is an upside to that which we should see and share with Northern Ireland, as opposed to seeing it as a threat. We should view Ireland as an island for economic purposes and as an all-island economy, and we should ensure that the protocol works in that context.

EU Issues

Barry Cowen

Ceist:

7. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on whether the actions taken by Hungary and Poland are undermining the effective functioning of the European Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38445/20]

Paul McAuliffe

Ceist:

9. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on Poland and Hungary blocking coronavirus recovery funding due to it being linked to the rule of law; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38266/20]

Cormac Devlin

Ceist:

47. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the action being taken to ensure that the rule-of-law mechanism will be effective in the EU budget discussions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38456/20]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

54. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the action of Poland and Hungary in vetoing the multi-annual budget and recovery programme of the EU; the way in which he sees the requirement for member states to adhere to the common values of the Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37954/20]

I acknowledge that the Minister answered a similar question earlier and went into great detail. I just want to seek his response to and comments on reports regarding the Hungarian justice minister's comments on reported plans to set up a rule of law institute, hitting back at criticisms regarding the decline in democratic norms in the Poland and Hungary. She also stated that it was "hoped to bring other countries in the region into the initiative". It is quite inflaming, to say the least, and I would like to hear the Minister's response, notwithstanding the commitments to which he alluded regarding the German Presidency's efforts to resolve this issue and bring it to a conclusion. I am also conscious that two years' of hearings have taken place concerning the issues being raised by these two countries regarding others' impressions of them.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7, 9, 47 and 54 together. I thank the Deputy and I share his concerns. I outlined in my earlier reply the state of play on efforts to reach agreement on the MFF and the next generation EU recovery package. I am confident that the German Presidency will ensure that clear rule-of-law conditionality is retained. A prolonged delay in releasing funds to vital EU programmes due to continued objections from Poland and Hungary would have a negative impact on the EU’s efforts to deliver recovery across the Union.

More broadly, Ireland is a firm supporter of the rule of law and the values of the EU enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union. We believe it is vital for the EU to have the necessary tools to monitor possible breaches across member states and to respond effectively to challenges when they arise. The EU must insist on the highest standards from its own member states if it is to remain an effective advocate for the rule of law globally. Indeed, the very credibility of the Union is at stake. We have, therefore, supported strong and effective rule of law provisions to protect the EU budget. Once the regime of conditionality is introduced, Ireland will support its fair, proportionate and effective implementation.

It is important to recognise that this regime of conditionality would strengthen the range of existing tools available to the EU for monitoring, promoting and enforcing the rule of law. These include the ongoing Article 7 proceedings against Hungary and Poland, under which there have been several hearings at the General Affairs Council. Ireland has been an active participant in these hearings and will continue to be.

We have also welcomed the publication of the Commission’s first annual rule-of-law report this year, which presents a broad overview of the rule of law situations across member states and the EU as a whole. It provides a valuable, impartial assessment of both the positive and negative developments relating to rule of law. We actively engaged with the Commission in the preparation of the Ireland chapter of the report and we welcome the independent and impartial review of rule of law in Ireland. We look forward to discussing the Irish chapter of the report with fellow member states at a meeting of the General Affairs Council during the Portuguese Presidency in 2021.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I reiterate, from my perspective and that of many others, our acknowledgement of the ongoing politicking taking place within the EU in an effort to address this issue, notwithstanding the ongoing efforts to which the Minister referred and the hearings that have been taking place for the past two years. Our ability to respond effectively to Covid-19 and its impact on economies across Europe is now being threatened by the protracted delay in respect of this issue. Next generation funding is particularly relevant to assisting us across a wide range of areas. Even the Common Agricultural Policy budget is supplemented with funds contained within the next generation allocations.

It is imperative, therefore, at this critical crossroads for our economy and for the economies of other member states and in the context of our response to Covid-19, that this money begins to flow in respect of the assistance available to us in the form of financial measures and packages to help and assist various sectors. I ask the Minister to impress upon our colleagues the need for them to revitalise their efforts to ensure that this issue can be resolved amicably but quickly.

I could not agree more with the Deputy. We just spoke about the potential disruption of Brexit in the context of a deal or no deal, particularly in areas such as fishing and agriculture. We have a €5 billion Brexit adjustment reserve waiting to be allocated and Ireland is certainly going to be first in line for that funding because of the levels of disruption with which we may have to deal. We have, however, potential delays now in sanctioning and progressing EU expenditure because of a separate, but linked, issue in respect of accessing EU funds.

This is something on which the EU collectively has to find a way forward, without undermining its credibility and value system and recognising that the majority of EU member states have a genuine concern regarding the rule of law and its application, and that there be a link between that and the availability of financial resources. We are lucky to have the German Presidency in place now. It is putting in a significant amount of work to resolve this issue and find a way forward, and we support the German Presidency in that endeavour.

I thank the Minister for his comments. There has been debate on this issue already and I will not extend it. A sum of €2 trillion is an eye-watering amount of money, but even that amount is not enough to entice Europe to deviate from its values. Many in the UK argued for a long time that the EU is a Common Market rather than a Union. That is an important aspect in respect of how we consider this matter. Ultimately, the EU is more than a Common Market. It is a Union and, ultimately, a peace project and at the heart of peace are key values. Freedom of the press, freedom of civic space, lack of interference with the judiciary, etc., are important values. I also believe that the way we can tackle the popular right in Europe is by tackling disadvantage and issues in our communities. We do that through budgets like this one, so I impress upon the Minister, as a representative, and on the Taoiseach the need to stand by this position.

The European Union is much more than a Single Market and an economic opportunity for its member states. It is a political union, where there is agreed pooled sovereignty in certain areas, a value system and a vein running through all member states ensuring certain standards are maintained and protected that are core to democracy. It is a value system which allows the European Union to be a credible example of a multilateral system and project that secures peace and protection of its own citizens, but also to be an example internationally for how democracy, the rule of law, a legal system and an acceptable social safety net for people should actually function. While countries will have different policies in different areas, the value system across the European Union must be consistent. It is the job of the European Commission to be the guardian of the treaties and the value system linked to those treaties. That is what is at stake here.

This is not just a difference in policy approach on a certain issue. That is why I believe that the German Presidency is taking this as seriously as they are, and why they have such strong support. That being said, we have to find a way forward because many countries need the application of the budgetary decisions that have been made in recent months, especially in the context of a post-Covid environment.

Is there a ceist eile from Deputies Cowen or McAuliffe?

No. I thank the Minister; he has been more than forthcoming.

I thank the Minister.

We will move on to question No. 10. Had Deputy Kenny indicated that he wanted to withdraw his Question No. 8?

Before foregoing the question-----

We have to take the next one in line, which is Question No. 10, and then it is the Deputy's question after that.

Okay. Is it in order for Deputy Bríd Smith's question to be facilitated if possible?

That will be discussed in the grouping of Questions Nos. 11, 24 and 27.

That is fine.

Question No. 8 replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 9 answered with Question No. 7.

European Council Meetings

Cian O'Callaghan

Ceist:

10. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if the draft UN treaty on business and human rights was discussed at the European Council; and the position he took on same. [36238/20]

Cian O'Callaghan

Ceist:

53. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he supports the draft UN treaty on business and human rights; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38197/20]

Do the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Government support the draft UN treaty on business and human rights? What position is Ireland taking with regard to the draft treaty?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 53 together.

This is somewhat linked to one of the questions I answered earlier. I will happily focus on the UN element of it. As the Deputy will appreciate, it would not be appropriate for the European Council to consider this matter at such an early stage in the process. The appropriate Council working group is engaged on the matter. Ireland participated in a range of discussions, both in Brussels and Geneva, relating to the EU's approach to the sixth session of the open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises, which took place from 26 to 30 October 2020.

As I mentioned in my response to an earlier question, the Union delivered a statement and separately raised specific concerns relating to the draft text on behalf of Ireland and other member states. The EU statement is publicly available on the website of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The statement welcomed some of the changes in the latest draft of the proposed treaty, highlighted further necessary changes, and outlined the many measures under way within the EU and across member states to give greater protection to human rights in the context of business activities.

The statement set out continuing concerns including the need for any such instrument to cover all businesses in a non-discriminatory manner; be consistent with the UN guiding principles on business and human rights; be realistically implementable and enforceable; and be supported by a critical mass of UN members.

The EU continues to develop its approach to the proposed legally binding instrument and Ireland continues to support a constructive and engaged approach.

The Deputy may know, separately, that the UN working group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises is reviewing implementation of the UN guiding principles on business and human rights and next year, on the tenth anniversary of the unanimous adoption of the principles by UN member states, it will set out proposals for a “decade of action on business and human rights” more generally.

I thank the Minister for the answer. The sixth round of negotiations on this took place in Geneva recently. While Ireland may have been represented in the room, if one counts that as participation, Ireland did not engage in the process and Ireland did not speak up on this. Ireland was silent on it. It is the case that the EU does not have an agreed mandate on this yet and I believe that it should. In the absence of an agreed mandate, and given how long it can take to get consensus on this in the Union and that there may never be consensus on this, I believe it is important that Ireland has a voice in this and is not silent.

Many of the concerns that the Minister raised about this previously, and which he has just articulated again about the treaty, must apply to all businesses to be fair, and not just to transnational corporations. Those concerns have now been addressed in the draft. Will Ireland now support this treaty, engage more, and not be silent at future negotiations?

As I stated previously, the EU made a statement on behalf of its member states at the sixth session of the working group, and raised a number of specific concerns on the draft text. While individual national statements can be important, in this context an EU statement on behalf of the 27 member states carries much more influence. Ireland, alongside fellow member states, helped to shape a coherent EU approach. I am aware that France made a statement, which included reference to some national initiatives while also highlighting some concerns with the current draft of the proposed treaty. These concerns are broadly similar to those reflected in the statement made by the European Union on behalf of member states. Both statements are publicly available on the UN Human Rights Council website. As I mentioned earlier, we are trying to be part of shaping a collective EU approach on this issue. That makes sense for all sorts of reasons in the context of how the European Union operates its Single Market and it applies standards and rules and regulations to businesses within that Single Market. We could do something very significant if we could be part of a group of proactive member states that progressed the issue at an EU level.

I do not agree with the Minister in terms of an approach across the European Union. The issue is that this has now been going on for quite some time. As the Minister correctly said, other member states made a statement, including France. I believe that the Irish people would like to see the Government make a statement on this in future negotiations in the absence of an agreed EU mandate. They would not like to know that our representatives go to these negotiations, do not make a statement and are silent. The Irish people would like to see accountability for corporations and businesses with regard to how their business activities impact human rights, workers rights and climate change on a global scale. It is not unheard of that a corporation or a business can have an excellent record on these domestically in Ireland and have a poor record abroad. There has to be accountability in this. I urge the Government to be more proactive in this in the future and to be more vocal.

There are two issues here. One is that we have to get our house in order domestically in respect of business and human rights. I answered questions earlier on what we are doing on that score. We have committed in the programme for Government to review what we had been doing for the past number of years so we can be a credible international contributor to the debate on this issue.

Second, at UN level and as an EU member state we must try to do everything we can to shape an approach within the European Union that is consistent across the Union, if possible, and which ensures the Union and its member states, go as far as we can to ensure the Union becomes a leader in the context of ensuring that not only transnational companies but also domestically focused companies are applying by a common standard and factor in human rights considerations in their business models, sourcing models, supply chains and so on.

Human Rights

Gino Kenny

Ceist:

11. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will raise the matter relating to a person (details supplied) with his EU counterparts at upcoming EU-wide meetings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38338/20]

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

24. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on his discussions with the ambassador of Saudi Arabia on the issue of the treatment and imprisonment of a person (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38336/20]

John Brady

Ceist:

27. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of progress his Department has made towards the release of the women's human rights defender (details supplied) currently on hunger strike in Saudi Arabia. [38299/20]

I thank Deputy Kenny for foregoing his very serious question on abuse of human rights in Palestine to allow me to raise this matter. The reason he did so was that yesterday Ms Loujain al-Hathoul was 1,000 days in custody and had her first appearance in court, having been transferred to the anti-terrorism court by the Saudi regime. Her crime was to have posted on social media posts on women's rights. Ms al-Hathoul was jailed just before driving was made legal for women but she also campaigned on domestic violence against women in Saudi Arabia. Ironically, yesterday was International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I am aware that the Minister has done some work on this but will he please comment on the question I have asked and will he raise the matter further with his EU counterparts?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11, 24 and 27 together.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. Protecting and promoting human rights is a cornerstone of Ireland’s foreign policy, as I have said in my answers to most questions. Ireland has consistently supported women human rights defenders and continually advocates for the freedom of all civil society actors to operate in a safe and enabling environment. The detention of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia is deeply concerning and Ireland has raised our concerns bilaterally with the Saudi authorities. Most recently, on 9 November, the detention and welfare of Ms Loujain al-Hathloul were raised directly by officials from my Department with the Saudi ambassador to Ireland.

Ireland also raises these issues in international forums. At the most recent meeting of the Human Rights Council in October, Ireland co-signed a joint statement expressing deep concern at the ongoing detention of women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. Ireland has also co-sponsored resolutions at the Human Rights Council calling on states to investigate alleged human rights violations in the administration of justice and abuses suffered by persons deprived of their liberty.

During the latest universal periodic review of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record in November 2018, Ireland raised its concerns about the imprisonment of human rights defenders. Ireland regularly discusses these issues in various EU forums and works closely with other member states to ensure human rights issues in Saudi Arabia are addressed. The EU delegation in Riyadh has raised the cases of the detention of women human rights defenders, including Ms al-Hathloul, directly with the Saudi authorities on multiple occasions and will continue to do so. We welcome the advancement of plans to establish an EU-Saudi Arabia human rights dialogue. This will provide a valuable additional forum to discuss human rights issues, including individual cases. Ireland will continue to take every opportunity to raise this case with all appropriate interlocutors.

Some 31 Deputies and Senators signed an open letter on this matter to the Minister and he responded by sending officials from his Department to the Saudi ambassador. We have to ratchet up our response because Saudi Arabia has certainly raised the bar. Yesterday, Ms al-Hathloul was transferred and she had one day's notice that she was to appear in court after 1,000 days of illegal detention. Her family said they were shocked when they saw her in court. She was shaking uncontrollably and she was very weak. She has been on hunger strike to protest physical and sexual abuse and torture in prison. She is not the only feminist in prison in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is charging her with crimes that it claims involve espionage and agency work. Espionage and agency work do not get posted on social media to encourage women to fight for their rights. The Minister needs to ratchet it up and call in the ambassador himself, rather than sending officials. I ask him to please call him in and intervene directly and correctly in this issue.

This is not the first time we have looked at the case of this young woman or women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia in general. There is a growing body of opinion that the loss of international prestige is too high a price for Saudi Arabia to pay and many want this crackdown to end. There needs to be more focus. This particular case is horrific, as has been outlined. Ms al-Halthloul has been beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted and her crime, if any, was speaking out for women's rights and applying for a job in the UN. Women such as Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah and Loujain herself are being subjected to torture, including flogging, electric shocks, sexual abuse and solitary confinement, on a daily basis. They cannot afford to wait for the niceties of international diplomacy to be observed by countries such as Ireland, the UN or the EU. It is time to act and put serious pressure on Saudi Arabia to defend these human rights defenders.

I appreciate the concerns of colleagues about this case and others that have been mentioned. As I said earlier, officials from my Department spoke to the Saudi ambassador to Ireland on 9 November to set out our concerns about the ongoing detention of Ms al-Hathloul and the conditions under which she is being held, including the restrictions on visits from her family and other concerns, some of which have been outlined. Ireland also raises concerns about women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, including Ms al-Hathloul, as a member of the EU. The UN delegation in Riyadh has raised the cases of the detention of women human rights defenders directly with the Saudi authorities on multiple occasions and at various levels. I welcome plans, which are advanced, to establish an EU-Saudi Arabia human rights dialogue co-chaired by the EU special representative, Eamon Gilmore. This will provide a valuable additional forum to discuss human rights issues, including individual cases such as the one that has been raised. Deputies are asking me to take a more direct approach with the Saudi embassy here in Dublin and I will certainly do that on the back of the requests made today.

A direct approach and as strong an approach as possible would achieve a huge amount more than what has been done so far. It is absolutely required because the Saudi regime, which is very wealthy and powerful and recently hosted the G20 summit, has clearly offered lots of platitudes about human rights. It talked about all the forums the Minister just mentioned and all the dialogue it has but it makes no odds when it comes to the repression of those who seek their own liberty. Due to its wealth and power, it seems to wield an awful lot of influence in the western world. We need to put pressure on the regime by calling in the ambassador and insisting this is dealt with in a humane way, that Ms al-Hathloul is released and that the terrorism charges against her are dropped. Clearly what she is doing is campaigning for human rights.

This is important because the open letter Oireachtas Members sent to the Minister has been circulated in Norway, Sweden and in the British Parliament as an example of how world pressure must be put on the Saudi regime, and other parliamentarians have been asked to follow the Irish model. If the Minister calls the ambassador in and does his absolute best to tell him this will not be tolerated and that it is seriously damaging Saudi Arabia's international relationships, they may well follow the Irish example. I ask him to please do something to set that example on behalf of the women of Saudi Arabia and on behalf of all human rights activists.

The oppressive system of male guardianship within Saudi Arabia is well-documented and restricts women from enjoying the most basic of civil rights, which are taken for granted in this State and in most European countries. Women must gain permission from a male guardian for many of the most mundane and everyday decisions and actions. While Ireland has worked alongside other EU member states to ensure human rights issues in Saudi Arabia are raised with the authorities there, it does not appear to be having the desired effect. I appreciate and welcome that the Minister will take a more direct approach with the embassy here. However, as a nation set to take its seat on the UN Security Council, we also need to utilise our position and status to bring the world's focus onto the plight of oppressed human rights defenders across the globe, particularly in regimes such as that of Saudi Arabia.

I have heard what people have said. I am familiar with the letter and our response to it. I will certainly take on board the Deputies' concerns. I will talk to my team and try to do something as impactful as possible to ensure we impact on the decisions taken regarding the case in Saudi Arabia that has been raised today.