Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
91. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the measures that constitute an appropriate response at both a national and an EU level to assist in bringing an end to Israel’s illegal settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; the actions Ireland will take as a member of the UN Security Council to facilitate the fulfilment of the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34135/21]
In light of the passing of what can be described only as the historic motion that declares that Israel's settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank amounts to de facto annexation, which is illegal under international law, what measures do the Minister and the Government now intend to take at a national and EU level, and on the UN Security Council?
Ireland’s position on the illegality of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory informs our engagement with the state of Israel across a range of bilateral issues and will continue to do so. Ireland distinguishes between the territory of the state of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967 in line with international law and the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.
Ireland will continue to use our seat on the UN Security Council to draw attention to the issue of settlements, demolitions, evictions and settler violence. When I addressed the Security Council on 16 May, I raised illegal Israeli settlements and their impact on the viability of a future two-state solution. Later today, Ireland will join a meeting of the Security Council with the UN special co-ordinator on the Middle East, which will focus on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2334.
At an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers on 27 May, I called on EU colleagues to address the issues of settlement expansion in a more robust way. I raised these issues again at the Foreign Affairs Council on 21 June. The EU and the international community more broadly has an obligation to act and seek to address these root causes of violence and tension.
Ireland consistently conveys our views on settlements to the Israeli authorities directly. I have met with the Israeli ambassador and conveyed in the strongest terms my concerns on settlement announcements and associated infrastructure development. Department officials work closely with the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, and UN agencies on the ground, on these issues.
Ireland’s ambassador in Tel Aviv raises this issue regularly with the Israeli Government. Ireland's representative office in Ramallah has made a number of visits, along with EU representatives, to sensitive sites of concern in the West Bank. Ireland’s position is informed by international law, respect for human rights and the negative political impact of settlement activities on the prospects for a future negotiated peace agreement.
I welcome the Minister's response. We need to do more, however. We have now declared that Israel has breached international law and continues to do so at an accelerated pace. This week, sanctions were reimposed on Russia for its illegal actions - as the international community has declared - on annexing Crimea. We now need to push for similar sanctions on Israel for its grave violations of international law and continued policies of apartheid. We should now be pushing for a downgrading of economic, cultural, military and diplomatic relations with a country that has and continues to breach international law.
I need to hear the Minister state this is what we are pushing for when we say we are highlighting these issues. It is all well and good highlighting them but the perceived impunity with which Israel believes it can continue to operate needs to be challenged. It can done only by imposing similar sanctions as we have on other countries that have broken international law.
I do not agree with the Deputy on this issue. The question of boycotts and sanctions has been discussed on many occasions in the Oireachtas. The Government does not support boycotts on Israel. Such sanctions would be ineffective and, more importantly, counterproductive.
Although we differ on issues to do with the occupation, we do not regard ourselves as hostile to Israel. If we are to achieve what the Government wants to continue to advocate and work towards, which is a peace settlement that results in two states living side by side, with security issues and sovereignty issues addressed, then we need to maintain a relationship, particularly now that there is a new Government in Israel. We need to work to build consensus within the EU and within the international community in terms of how the international community works with the new Israeli Government and the Palestinian authority. There is work to be done there as well.
We must work to ensure we isolate and reduce the influence of Hamas and other terrorist groups in order that we can ensure good international politics and the right kinds of interventions result in both sides, through legitimate political leadership on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, working towards a negotiated peaceful solution with the support of the international community. That is the objective we are after here. Isolating, boycotting and targeting Israel at this stage would be counterproductive towards achieving those aims, and would potentially undermine Ireland's capacity to influence others to build the kind of consensus I believe is needed.
That said, we will of course continue to raise these issues. Ireland is probably the most vocal country in the European Union on this issue. We have asked the commission to produce a toolbox to ensure we can use the leverage we have to the greatest extent possible to move relationships in the right direction. Talk around boycotts and sanctions at this stage, however, isolates Ireland rather than puts us in the middle of an influential discussion to bring about change. We have an opportunity now with the new Israeli Government to make progress and we should focus on doing that.
The Minister will have additional minutes following supplementary questions. I ask people to please keep to their times.
What is counterproductive is continuing with the same failed policy that allows Israel to continue its legal settlement expansion policies. What we now have is a new Israeli Prime Minister, who is committed to the illegal colonial settlements and their expansions.
In recent weeks, we have seen continued abuses, human rights violations and attempts to remove Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere in the occupied territories. We see the continued bombardment of Gaza despite a so-called ceasefire. The policies that have been attempted up to this point are failing. Israel is a rogue state and a continual breacher of international law. It needs to be treated accordingly and we must act, at national, EU and international level, in that regard. This House has passed a historic resolution but there must be consequences arising out of that action.
Does the Minister agree that now is the time, at national level, to move to recognise the state of Palestine? It is something we, as a State, can do. If he is hell-bent against moving to impose sanctions, a position with which I totally disagree, then we must move on recognising the Palestinian state. We also must move forward the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018. What are the Minister's intentions on those two specific issues? Will he recognise the state of Palestine and will he progress the 2018 Bill or, at the very least, ask that its provisions be looked at on an EU level?
It is clear that I am not shy to call out Israeli policy when it is not consistent with international law. I have repeatedly referred to the illegality of settlements, settlement expansion, demolitions and forced evictions. I have been highly critical, both nationally and internationally, of those policies because I believe they are counterproductive to achieving the outcome of a peaceful resolution to a conflict that has gone on for far too long. Do I believe that taking the approach the Deputy is advocating, which is to try to isolate Israel through boycotts and sanctions, is the right mechanism to achieve a resolution? No, I do not, because, in doing that, we would isolate Ireland rather than isolating Israel.
We need to build an international consensus and Ireland has been at the centre of trying to do that. We will continue to do so at an EU level. We will continue to ask the European Commission to bring forward a toolbox that enables us to use the EU's leverage, which is far more powerful than Ireland's leverage alone. That is what we will focus on. It is what, in my view, foreign policy is about. The debates in this Chamber are, of course, important and Ireland needs to lead by example and try to give global leadership in forums such as the EU and UN in an effort to bring about real change to protect Palestinians and international law. We must work in partnership with Israel where we can to achieve those ends. That is what we will continue to do.
92. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on recent Israeli air strikes and their effect on children in Gaza; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34137/21]
I want to ask the Minister his views on the recent assault on Gaza that left more than 60 children dead. What does the Government intend to do regarding the impact of this terrible conflict on the Palestinian people, particularly children?
I thank the Deputy for his question. As he knows, I have strong views on this matter, as do many others in the House. I am deeply concerned by the impact of the recent escalation of the conflict on children in the occupied Palestinian territories and in Israel. I have been clear about the need to respect international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians, particularly children, and the need for any response to attacks to be proportionate.
In my address to the UN Security Council on 16 May, I made it very clear that children must never be made prisoners of history. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, of the 260 Palestinian fatalities in the recent conflict, 66 were children. In Israel, two of the 13 fatalities were children. In addition to the tragedy of these killings and injuries, no child anywhere should have to endure the trauma of an onslaught of rockets and missiles. In my address to the Security Council, I called for violations against children to end.
As I have stated, the ceasefire that came into effect on 21 May is welcome and we must do all we can to support it. Tensions are still high in the region and there remains a responsibility on all parties to ensure the ceasefire is respected. All unilateral actions that could increase tension must be avoided. Responsibility also lies with the international community to support the ceasefire and encourage the parties towards a return to political engagement. This is an effort to which I am fully committed.
The focus now in the Gaza Strip is on recovery and protection. On 19 May, I announced an additional €1.5 million in emergency humanitarian support for the occupied Palestinian territory in response to emergency appeals from both the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, and UNICEF. I will continue to highlight this issue at the UN and through the EU and support international efforts to ensure the current ceasefire holds.
I want to give an example of the murderous intent of the Israeli Government. There is a project in Palestine called the Better Learning Programme, which is funded by the Irish taxpayer and the Norwegian Refugee Council. Eleven children participating in that programme were murdered in May, most of them in their homes. I do not know how the Minister and his counterparts can stand over, and even legitimise, the state of Israel when it conducts murderous bombings of innocent people. It is incredible that the Minister can stand here and say he does not see how a policy of sanction against Israel could be worthwhile. I find that absolutely incredible. Would he have said the same in the 1980s when apartheid in South Africa was at its height? I know he would not have done so. Why does he say it now when there is apartheid in Israel and that state has murdered not only the children in the recent conflict but thousands of children over the past 40 years?
As I said earlier, the only way sanctions are effective is if they are agreed collectively. Ireland, on its own, does not have the capacity to impose sanctions on Israel and should not do so. We would end up isolating ourselves, not Israel, if we tried to do that. The way to do this is to focus on the relationship between Israel and the EU because that is where there is real leverage. We are trying to work within the EU system, and with the UN, to ensure there is real engagement with the new Israeli Government and that it is very clear regarding the intent of the EU in ensuring the status quo between Israel and Palestinians, which results in cycles of violence every number of years, is not sustained. We have to change that and the direction of it. In my judgment, the way to do so is to maintain a relationship with the Israeli Government and use the tools we have available to us to bring about a change in approach that can result in a peace negotiation. We also must do that with the Palestinian Authority. We need to empower democratic, moderate forces across Palestine and challenge violent, extremist forces within Palestinian communities.
In regard to Gaza, I assume the Deputy has been there. I have gone there a number of times.
I must go back to Deputy Gino Kenny.
We will, of course, focus on supporting communities there. We are putting our money where our mouth is in that regard.
Has there been any sanction against Israel for what it did in Gaza in May? Was there any punishment imposed or any effort to secure accountability? Was there any kind of sanction in regard to the economic and trade agreement between Israel and the EU, which is worth tens of billions of euro per year? I already know the answer is "No". There has been no sanction or punishment. The innocent people of Palestine suffer while other people pay lip service to what is happening.
The Minister must go back and say to his EU counterparts that Israel is not a normal state but an apartheid one that lives on violence and fear. If there is no sanction or punishment, Israel will continue to do this and we will still be having this conversation. The only way Israel will come to heel is when it is punished economically and legally.
Using terms like "coming to heel" probably is not appropriate in relation to-----
That is mild.
I know it is.
That is very mild.
Often the language used in this Parliament about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not helpful to what I am trying to achieve internationally on behalf of Ireland and the Government. I am trying to ensure we are a relevant partner internationally, influencing decisions that impact on the lives of young Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and indeed young Israelis as well, who have also lost their lives, although the injury and loss of life has been completely disproportionate, as it always is when there are rounds of conflict between both sides because of the military might on one side. Having said that, the Deputy talks about punishment, sanction and so on. We do not have the capacity to deliver that as a State unless we can convince others it is the right thing to do. That is how the relationship between the EU and other parts of the world works. One needs to win the argument not just in this Chamber but across the European Union as well. I am trying to ensure that our position remains credible, that we have a good and functioning but honest and blunt relationship with the Israeli Government, and that we have a close relationship with the Palestinian Authority as well. In doing so, we are able to influence both in the context of trying to move towards a negotiated solution. Otherwise we will be back here again in a few years' time talking about the loss of lives of children and civilians, similarly to what we have seen in recent weeks. That is the approach we continue to take.
93. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the urgent measures he will take on the UN Security Council and at EU level to bring pressure to bear on the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments to allow a ceasefire in Tigray and co-operate with humanitarian organisations on the ground (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34136/21]
Given Ireland's long-standing relationship with Ethiopia and especially the Tigray region, and given there has been a terrible onslaught on civilians in the region since November 2020, what urgent measures is Ireland taking at EU and UN Security Council levels to bring about a long-lasting and sustainable ceasefire and access to the region for humanitarian aid? The region is in the grip of a man-made famine at this point.
I thank the Deputy for his question. I am really glad he asked it. I know there is huge interest in the Israel-Palestine question and that is always going to be a big feature of foreign affairs questions but there are so many other really significant issues and conflicts that Ireland is involved in also, particularly in the context of the UN Security Council, and this is one of them.
I am extremely concerned by the ongoing conflict in Tigray. Notwithstanding commitments made, the situation on the ground is deteriorating. Yesterday we heard deeply disturbing reports of an air strike on civilians in a crowded market, which, if deliberately targeted, would constitute a war crime. An immediate ceasefire is urgently required. In this regard, it is imperative that Eritrean forces leave Tigray immediately. They have committed to doing so and it has not happened.
I am alarmed by credible warnings of famine coming from UN organisations. I am also concerned by ongoing attacks on humanitarian workers. There is an urgent need for full humanitarian access, which is being partially but not fully facilitated. Ireland joined recent international calls for a humanitarian ceasefire to allow for planting and to avert the risk of famine.
Ireland continues to work on the UN Security Council to ensure it addresses the situation in Tigray. Most recently, on 15 June, we called an informal meeting of the UN Security Council that focused on the humanitarian situation. In April, Ireland led the negotiation of a council press statement on the situation in Tigray, which was the first time the UN Security Council spoke publicly on the ongoing crisis. We have also used council thematic discussions on conflict and hunger, and on conflict-related sexual violence, to highlight these aspects of the crisis. It is fair to say our role in bringing the crisis in Tigray to the attention of the council has been widely recognised internationally.
Ireland continues to support a strong and constructive EU response to the crisis. I underlined our real concern in this regard at the foreign affairs committee on 21 June. EU foreign ministers will discuss Ethiopia again in July. I continue to engage with key interlocutors on the situation, including in the region; in the Gulf, where I met a number of counterparts last week; and in the African Union. I plan to visit Ethiopia during a visit to the Horn of Africa next month. My Department, through Irish Aid, has provided over €3.2 million to support the humanitarian response in Tigray and the refugee response in neighbouring Sudan through our UN and NGO partners on the ground. Further humanitarian support is under active consideration.
As the Minister is well aware, the UN recently released a report which estimated that 350,000 people are already facing famine conditions in Tigray, some 2 million more are close to that point and another 2 million are facing severe food shortages. We must continue to keep the focus on the situation in Tigray. It is unfortunate that the statement from the UN Security Council, while welcome, did not go far enough. It did not demand that Eritrean troops withdraw from the Tigray region. It did not mention the Amhara influence and involvement in ethnic cleansing in the Tigray region. A number of things must happen now. We must have all war crimes independently investigated. That is something that must happen immediately. Those who perpetrate such war crimes must be held to account. We also need full humanitarian access to the region as well.
It is helpful to put some facts on the record, or certainly as they are understood. Food insecurity continues to be of serious concern. Over 5.2 million people are in need of emergency food aid right now. Alarmingly, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNOCHA, has confirmed that 350,000 people are in imminent danger of famine. There are grave concerns about levels of malnutrition, particularly among young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women. The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, has warned that at least 33,000 severely malnourished children face death by starvation if there is no intervention. I repeat that we are talking about 33,000 children. We continue to hear disturbing reports of the use of starvation as a weapon of war. One such report came from UNOCHA chief, Mr. Mark Lowcock, at the Security Council discussion on Tigray called by Ireland on 15 June. Ireland has also highlighted the issue of severe food insecurity in Tigray during recent Security Council discussions on hunger and conflict.
There is a real crisis on the ground. We need to shine a light on it, and we are doing so. People need to be held to account. It is a highly complex situation in Tigray. There are no easy answers in the context of the overall political challenges for Ethiopia. Consequently, we are treading carefully here but we are also strong in our language in highlighting the plight of people on the ground. This desperate situation involves potential famine and starvation. The use of sexual violence as a tool of war has been documented also. We will continue to focus on this until we get - we hope - a permanent ceasefire and a political dialogue, which is what is needed.
I thank the Minister. There is indeed continued mass rape, summary execution of youths and men and deliberate destruction of economic, social and religious infrastructure. All of this is continuing at an accelerated pace. We must move beyond the words of condemnation and must now use our influence. We are probably one of the countries that hold the most influence in the region, given our long-standing ties, and we must put that pressure on the Ethiopian Government. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about our engagement with the Ethiopian Government on the issue. We must also move beyond sanctions.
The position is grave and in our engagement with the Ethiopian Government we must apply pressure for full humanitarian access to the region. We must also consider an international arms embargo on Ethiopia. Would the Minister support or advocate for such action at EU and UN Security Council level?
I would like to think we have been one of the most if not the most active country on this matter at the UN Security Council and within the EU. What we understand happened yesterday will increase even more the need for international intervention here. A crowded market seems to have been targeted with an air strike, and where we think up to 60 people have been killed, with hundreds of people injured. There seems to be evidence that ambulances travelling to the scene from a nearby hospital were deliberately prevented from getting there for a period. These are really worrying accounts of what may well turn out to be war crimes and undoubted breaches of international and humanitarian law.
The challenge is first to get a ceasefire and, second, to get humanitarian assistance to people who need it. Third, we need to ensure we have a credible reporting mechanism that is independent and accepted internationally when it comes to establishing facts on the ground. Fourth, the Eritrean troops in Ethiopia and Tigray should go home and not be there. They are either invited to be there or they have invaded; it is one or the other but, either way, they should not be there. Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments have confirmed at UN level that those troops will return to Eritrea but that does not seem to have happened.
We must work with the Ethiopian Government and insist on shining a light on atrocities if and when they are happening. We are trying to get that balance right. I will visit Ethiopia and, I hope, the Tigray region in a few weeks.
94. Deputy Cathal Berry asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the position regarding the situation in Belarus and the status of persons (details supplied). [33991/21]
I will focus my questions on the worrying case in Belarus, particularly the welfare of the Ryanair passengers forcefully removed from a flight in Minsk at the end of May. I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on the most recent developments at European and international level.
The repression carried out by the Lukashenko regime in Belarus has intensified over recent months with widespread crackdowns against political dissidents, human rights defenders, journalists and media outlets, civil society organisations and minority groups.
At our meeting on 21 June, EU foreign ministers adopted a fourth package of targeted sanctions against 78 individuals and eight entities. These measures target those behind the repression, those responsible for the forced landing of the Ryanair flight in Minsk on 23 May and several prominent business figures who support and benefit from the Lukashenko regime. Ministers also agreed on sectors to be targeted by economic sanctions and work is under way to implement that agreement. Although there have been some signs of willingness from the Belarusian authorities to move the two individuals arrested on 23 May, Mr. Roman Protasevich and Ms Sofia Sapega, to a less onerous form of detention, Ireland will continue to insist on their immediate and unconditional release.
Ireland, the EU and our like-minded international partners are united in calling for the regime to end the repression against its own people and for the Belarusian authorities to co-operate fully with international investigations into the forced landing of the Ryanair aircraft. Ireland played a constructive role in the successful adoption of an EU-led resolution at the Human Rights Council that gave the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights a mandate to investigate human rights violations in Belarus. Her team is scrutinising more than 2,000 reports of human rights violations and we support this work.
The EU will also seek a mandate renewal for the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus during the 47th session of the Human Rights Council. Ensuring accountability will remain a key priority for Ireland.
It is reassuring that the welfare of the two Ryanair passengers are uppermost in our minds at both the national and EU level. I very much welcome the targeted sanctions, asset freezing and travel bans for the 86 people and entities associated with the Lukashenko regime. It is a very positive development. I also welcome that the Belarusian national airline is banned from EU airspace and it is likely that more targeted economic sanctions are coming down the track, perhaps even as early as this weekend.
How does the Minister see this playing out over the next couple of months? We are all aware that the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organisation was tasked with formally investigating the Ryanair incident, with a report to be submitted by 26 June, which is only two days away. Does the Minister see that deadline sticking and the report being submitted? Does he expect the report will be published and, if so, when is that likely to happen so we can all read exactly what happened?
I do not have a date for when the report will be finalised but I expect it to be public. This incident has, in many ways, galvanised the EU in its response to the Lukashenko regime. A Ryanair plane, registered in Poland but flying from Athens to Vilnius, was effectively hijacked in the sky - that is what happened - and the pilot was told there was potentially a bomb on the plane and it had to turn around and fly to land in Minsk. It was escorted by a military aircraft and when the plane landed, the passengers were kept on it for quite a period while military police came on and took certain passengers off before arresting them forcefully. That is not acceptable and really focused the EU's attention on the intervention that is necessary in the context of what is happening in Belarus.
I suspect there will be much pressure for the report to be accurately concluded and be made public. I do not have exact dates around that and Ireland does not control it. I am sure the Ryanair airline will contribute fully to the investigation.
More broadly with respect to Belarus, I suspect the ongoing repression in the country will continue for some time. The EU is certainly resolute and united in the action and position we must take to change those facts on the ground and to allow the people of Belarus to choose their own political leadership.
I thank the Minister again for outlining the European and international dimension. Is there anything we can do at a national level to demonstrate our solidarity with and support for the people of Belarus and the political opposition in exile? I would be grateful for the Minister's thoughts on whether we should invite the opposition leader here to address the Houses of the Oireachtas, whether at a committee or in plenary session, either in person or remotely. He met her in Brussels recently and she appears to be very principled and capable. I would be grateful for his thoughts on whether that would be possible. I know she has a very busy schedule but we could at least extend an invitation and leave it up to her to decide whether to accept or decline it.
We had the opportunity, as foreign ministers, to meet Ms Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is one of the key opposition leaders in the democratic movement for, and in, Belarus. Of course, she is living in Lithuania now for her own protection. She is planning to come to Ireland and we have extended an open invitation to her. We expect she will be here next month and I look forward to welcoming her here. She knows Ireland well, by the way. As a young girl she lived with a family for different periods in County Tipperary.
She learned how to speak English here and is very familiar with Ireland. Ms Tsikhanouskaya has a lot of affection towards this country. I believe that Ms Tsikhanouskaya will get a very strong welcome and a lot of solidarity when she comes here, in the context of the dangerous, difficult and challenging work she is trying to do for her country, her own personal circumstances and those of her husband and children given their vulnerabilities, and so on. I hope that when she comes to Ireland, Ms Tsikhanouskaya will have an opportunity to meet not just with me and with Government figures, but also with Opposition spokespersons and perhaps the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence. Ms Tsikhanouskaya has a lot to say and we should listen.
Shannon Airport Facilities
95. Deputy Richard O'Donoghue asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has been in contact with the new US Administration under President Joe Biden in relation to the continued use of Shannon Airport for the facilitation of carriage of ammunition (details supplied). [33684/21]
Has the Minister been in contact with the new US Administration under President Joe Biden with regard to the continued use of Shannon Airport for the facilitation of the carriage of ammunition? I believe that in 2020, arms were transferred through the airport on 285 occasions. Is this set to continue?
If the Deputy allows me to give the regulations around this, then I will answer the direct question. The Air Navigation (Carriage of Munitions of War, Weapons and Dangerous Goods) Order 1973 prohibits the carriage of munitions of war through Irish airspace or through Irish airports on civilian aircraft unless an exemption has been granted by the Minister for Transport. Statistics on such exemptions are published on the Department of Transport’s website. The process in place around the granting of such permission by the Minister for Transport is robust and includes seeking the advice of my Department on any implications for Ireland's policy of military neutrality. Permissions are only granted where no such concerns arise. With regard to foreign military aircraft, permission must be sought from me in advance for landings. Such flights are routinely required to meet strict conditions to ensure compatibility with Ireland’s policy of military neutrality: that the aircraft is unarmed, carries no arms, ammunition or explosives, must not engage in intelligence gathering and does not form part of any military operation or exercise.
The Deputy refers to more than 220 occasions in 2020 when arms were transferred through the airport. That is not quite the case. These exemptions are sometimes for a personal protection detail where light arms are carried on the person. For example, we met the Secretary of State Blinken a number of weeks ago and he came through Shannon Airport. Jake Sullivan came through Shannon Airport also when we met him. They would have had security around them, including bodyguards that were armed. In order for that to happen they need to get an exemption for each member of their security personnel who carries a pistol on his or her person. That is the exemption space we are talking about. Those exemptions are not about carrying large volumes of munitions or arms through Shannon Airport. The exemptions refer to light arms on the person, whether that is security personnel or whoever. This is just to put it into context. I checked this with our team before answering this question because I want to be accurate. When exemptions are applied for, the only exemptions that are granted are, effectively, for light arms that are carried on a person. This is obviously not the same as carrying large arms and munitions into a war setting. That is not what is being facilitated.
"Munitions of war" is a fancy term thought up by civil servants. It is, basically, another term for military weapons or munitions. Why is neutral Ireland facilitating weapons of war going through Shannon Airport from the United States of America? The Minister has just clarified that the exemptions must go through the Minister for Transport, if they go through. Nearly 300 such missions were facilitated by Shannon Airport in 2020. The Minister has said it was light arms. How many are being facilitated in 2021? Must the Minister for Transport personally sign off on each facilitation of arms, or is it the civil servants? Who is it? I believe there is a huge amount of weapons going through Shannon Airport.
It is important that we deal with facts here rather than what people believe. In order for a civilian aircraft that is carrying US military personnel to travel through Shannon Airport, if any of them are carrying arms on their person there needs to be an exemption for that. There is no exemption to carry large munitions or arms for military operations or war. There is not. The only exemptions here are for light arms that are carried on a person. If a senior US official comes through Shannon Airport on a military aircraft, he or she will have a personal security detail. There will be other cases where light arms are justified and carried, but this is different from using Shannon Airport as a stopover to carry munitions or arms to a theatre of war. That does not happen. I want to reassure people that this does not happen. It is certainly the information on the brief I have anyway. This is about light arms that are on a person where there is a justifiable reason for it. It is no more and no less than that. They are the exemptions that are considered by the Minister for Transport, in consultation with my Department. Those exemptions are given when appropriate.
Flights with military personnel on board would also have their own military weapons on board, so a full flight of military personnel involves a large volume of military weapons coming through an airport. Has there been any recent review of any possible international threat to Shannon Airport by those who may be enemies of the United States of America? We currently have Defence Forces troops in the Sahel region of Africa where there is a serious ongoing conflict. Will the Minister offer sincere guarantees on the safety of these personnel? Why exactly are they there? Do our troops need to be there if there is a greater danger to their safety than in more proven peacekeeping missions?
The Deputy has asked two very different questions. I have answered the first question: there are no large-scale stocks of weapons travelling through Shannon Airport. There are not. The US sometimes uses Shannon Airport for refuelling to bring personnel from one part of the world to another, and not with their weapons. When the US seeks exemptions, we are talking about light weapons that are for personal security reasons and so on, and not about soldiers with their weaponry heading for parts of the Middle East or wherever. That is not how it is.
On the mission in Mali, peacekeeping is dangerous. As Minister for Defence, of course it is my job to ensure that we look after the safety of our own personnel and our peacekeepers, that they are trained and equipped, and that they are not put into a theatre of conflict where the risk profile has not been fully examined first. Mali is a dangerous part of the world. It is a very complex country and we are there to try to help to bring stability to the Sahel region and to Mali in particular. We are involved in two missions there: a UN mission and an EU mission. The EU mission is a training mission where our Defence Forces personnel are training Malian troops to protect themselves and their people. Our UN mission has an Army Ranger Wing element because it is a complex mission. I understand that they are doing an excellent job and are managing the risk appropriately.