6. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his assessment of the recent election in Nicaragua. [56373/21]
Vol. 1014 No. 3
6. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his assessment of the recent election in Nicaragua. [56373/21]
The Minister will be aware that on 7 November, there were elections in Nicaragua for the office of President and to the National Assembly. The official result records that Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista Front won 76% of the vote with a turnout of 65%. No independent journalistic or public policy analysis believes those results. What is the Minister's assessment of the result?
I thank the Deputy. I know he raised the issue before the elections took place and I do not think the results are surprising. Ireland and the EU stated on numerous occasions that the elections that took place in Nicaragua on 7 November were not going to be either free or fair, and that unfortunately has been the case. No credible opposition figures were allowed to run and no election monitoring was permitted. We have witnessed in recent months a severe crackdown on journalists, opposition politicians, human rights activists, civil society and business leaders in Nicaragua. This repression has deprived Nicaraguan citizens of their human, civil and political rights, and of the right to elect their own government in fair and transparent elections. Ireland and the EU have unequivocally condemned the actions of the Nicaraguan Government and repeatedly called for the immediate and unconditional release of all opposition politicians and all other political prisoners. We have called for the authorities to allow the return of international human rights bodies and NGOs to the country. We must continue to put pressure on the Nicaraguan authorities to put an end to the crackdown and to restore full respect for human rights and democracy in the country. The current situation is deplorable.
Like multiple other countries and multilateral bodies, the EU released a strong statement on 8 November condemning the elections and stating that the presidency of Daniel Ortega lacks democratic legitimacy. The Nicaraguan Government was left in no doubt that its actions are unacceptable to all EU member states, including Ireland. That statement also noted the EU will consider further restrictive measures against the regime. The next steps in EU action on Nicaragua, if the authorities do not reverse the crackdown, are being discussed among EU member states in Brussels. The EU and Ireland have been clear that any further action must not add to the hardship of the population, and the most vulnerable sectors of society must continue to be supported. My Department will continue to engage closely at EU and international level, through our embassy in Mexico, which covers relations with Nicaragua, and with partners on the ground, including NGOs and civil society organisations.
Those of us who are not in Nicaragua depend on receiving independent reports about what happened. It is important we consider those reports. The American division of Human Rights Watch reported that the election results were a sham. The Organization of American States said the elections were neither fair, free, nor transparent. Other countries around the world that respect democratic institutions have regarded the elections as being unfair and, in effect, corrupt. To appreciate this, we have to look back at what has happened in Nicaragua since 2007, when President Ortega returned to power. As we all know, he was part of a revolutionary movement in the 1970s and 1980s that had much support in this country but something strange seems to have happened to him since he got back into power in 2007 and 2008. He has effectively turned Nicaragua into a police state. Last June, five opposition leaders were imprisoned for alleged breaches of public order. In July, others went into exile because of threats. What specifically does the Minister think the EU will do? Are we looking at further sanctions, as the Americans have implemented?
The EU is considering how it should respond and how that response can be impactful on the regime without further impoverishing the people of Nicaragua. The EU is likely to come back to this. I understand Mr. Ortega's inauguration is due to be in January. I do not expect the EU will be invited to that, and if it were to be, I am not sure EU ambassadors would attend anyway. The European Commission is looking at options for member states to consider to apply appropriate pressure, recognising the extraordinary change that has taken place over recent years in Nicaragua.
It is important the EU has a strong voice in this. People who are supportive of the Ortega regime will seek to present it as if this is merely Americans and supporters of the United States who are criticising the revolutionary movement of Daniel Ortega. That can spread regionally in South America. People who have congratulated him include the President of Venezuela and people who seek to purport there is an attack on their regime from the United States of America. The voice of the European Union is very important. The United States has imposed sanctions on individuals associated with the Ortega regime. The European Union needs to do the same. We also need to provide some independent reportage from the European Union on why we say the elections were unfair. Just uttering that the elections were unfair does not convince all people. We need the evidence to show that was the case. The European Union has the resources to complete that.
The fact the election observers were not allowed to observe the elections makes that more difficult. The evidence of credible candidates being detained and not allowed to participate in the elections is strong evidence in itself. I agree with the Deputy there is a tendency to paint this as something the USA is taking a stand on and the absence of other international actors expressing concern feeds into that. The comments I have heard from Josep Borrell and other EU leaders on this issue have been strong. The EU statements both before and after the elections have been strong. The EU is well aware of the Deputy's question.
8. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of the situation in Belarus. [56375/21]
The political crisis in Belarus continues to pose significant challenges for the European Union. It is apparently engineering a migration crisis on its border with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. The Belarusian leader, Lukashenko, appears to want to force the EU to negotiate with him and his country to ease sanctions against them. That would apparently give credibility to his status despite many European leaders talking about his illegitimacy. Will the Minister elaborate on the questions posed and the response from the European Union?
There has been a steep deterioration in the situation in Belarus since Alexander Lukashenko’s fraudulent re-election as president in August 2020. Tens of thousands of Belarusians protested in response, calling for fair elections, justice and a better future. This movement has been suppressed through state-sponsored violence, the use of arbitrary detention, and criminalisation of opposition activities, including protests. According to the Belarusian human rights group, Viasna, more than 850 political prisoners have been detained. Detainees have been tortured, including through use of sexual violence, according to the UN special rapporteur, UNSR. Reports cited by the UNSR claim that detainees have frequently been denied food, water, and access to a lawyer. Journalists have been detained, deported or had credentials removed. Access to the Internet has been restricted and some websites blocked.
I have been vocal about the need for the democratic will of the Belarusian people to be respected.
The Lukashenko regime should engage in a national dialogue leading to early elections that are free, fair and internationally monitored.
Members of the Irish Government have met with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and expressed Ireland’s support for the work of the opposition Co-ordination Council. Ireland has raised the plight of the Belarusian people at the UN Human Rights Council and the Security Council. We called for the implementation of a report by the OSCE expert investigator, Wolfgang Benedek, supported a mandated extension for the UN OHCHR to investigate human rights violations in Belarus and provided funding to projects to protect media freedom in Belarus.
As set out in my earlier response to Deputy Howlin, on Monday, EU Foreign Ministers discussed the escalation of the migrant crisis and broadened the listings criteria for sanctions. These will target individuals and entities organising or contributing to activities by the Lukashenko regime that facilitate illegal crossing of the EU's external borders.
I thank the Minister. I would welcome his opinions and impressions of the impact the Polish migration crisis is having on exacerbating the issues in regard to migration at the Belarusian borders. As we know, the Polish Government is talking tough in regard to its stance on migration. It not engaging with the tools available within the EU creates the type of stand-off that means a similar case in terms of the Belarusian issue in regard to its borders. What potential is there to address this issue? I note the Minister mentioned the UN Security Council and the statements that have been made. What workings can be initiated to ensure that progress might be forthcoming?
Deputy Howlin raised this issue earlier. We have a dual responsibility to show solidarity with Poland, but also with Lithuania and Latvia which have been targeted. We also have an international and moral obligation to ensure that the welfare of migrants is protected, as it should be under international law. That is difficult to do when migrants are being effectively bussed in a tactical way to try to create as much tension as possible, which essentially is what is happening here. Migrants are being flown from parts of the world such as Syria and Iraq into Minsk and then bussed to border areas where that process can create tension. Unfortunately, migrants are the victims of that. On Monday, I stated that the more we can internationalise this problem and have independent observers better explaining what is happening and NGOs to support migrants, the better. We also have to recognise the pressure that EU countries are under in the context of 15,000 to 20,000 migrants being bussed to a border.
I acknowledge the Minister's commitment and efforts to ensure that this is internationalised to such an extent that every help and assistance is given in the first instance to those impacted who, as rightly identified by the Minister, are the migrants. We must also ensure that behind that wall there are efforts to resolve this issue with a view to ensuring the Belarusian authorities do not gain the sort of credibility they feel they deserve, especially considering what the Minister alluded to in his initial response.
The tragic tactic here, in terms of the images of migrants on our borders not being able to get in, is to try to make the EU look bad. It is an incredibly cynical tactic. A number of migrants have died in these circumstances. This is an awful situation. From an EU perspective, we have to support EU member states in the challenges that have been effectively foisted on them by the Belarusian regime. As I said earlier, we also have to internationalise the issue. We need to ensure that the international media has access to the areas where migrants are and that there is assistance and support for migrants and their families in what is an extremely difficult situation. Ultimately, we have to try to stop this too. If we allow a precedent to be set, whereby third countries that have a quarrel with the EU can essentially use migrants in this way, that is totally unacceptable as well.
9. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on his recent visit to Lithuania. [56489/21]
I would like an update from the Minister with regard to his recent visit to Lithuania where, I understand, discussions around rule of law and issues pertaining to Hungary, Poland and Belarus took place.
I visited Lithuania on 27-28 October for a number of bilateral engagements. Ireland has a close relationship with Lithuania and I availed of the visit to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Lithuania. A number of issues were discussed during the visit, including the situation on the Lithuanian border with Belarus, the situation in Belarus, the rule of law, EU-UK relations and the Convention on the Future of Europe. I am very grateful for the solidarity of Lithuania and all of our colleague member states.
I had a meeting at the Lithuanian Parliament, The Seimas, with the European Affairs Committee and the Group for Inter-Parliamentary Relations with Ireland, which is very keen to expand its engagement with Irish parliamentarians. I also met my colleague, Vice-Minister of European Affairs, Arnoldas Pranckevičius, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We discussed the issue of migration and the current situation in Belarus, as well as the Eastern Partnership, Brexit and Lithuania’s relationship with China.
I visited the Lithuanian-Belarus border, accompanied by the Vice-Minister for the Interior, Liudvikas Abramavičius, as well as my colleague, Arnoldas Pranckevičius. As part of that visit, we viewed some migrant camps that have been established by the Lithuanian Government and met with the Lithuanian Border Guards and the Lithuanian Red Cross, which this year has received a contribution of €100,000 from Irish Aid. I also met with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarusian opposition. A range of issues were discussed and officials in my Department are following up on a number of issues raised with me by Ms Tsikhanouskaya in regard to how Ireland can be of assistance to the Belarusian people.
Along with Vice-Minister Pranckevičius, I took part in a Future of Europe event, which involved engagement from Lithuanian students on the European agenda.
I thank the Minister of State for that update. He mentioned a visit to the Belarusian border. I note the remarks made earlier by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, Deputies Cowen and Howlin and others in regard to regular migrants who, it is my understanding, are Iraqis. What is the view in Lithuania with regard to Belarus, Russia and other actors within that area? I understand that last Wednesday the Lithuanian Government declared a state of emergency along its borders with Belarus. I understand that 4,200 irregular migrants have crossed into Lithuania at this point. The Minister of State mentioned he visited the migrant camps. Do we know how have many are amassing on the border? As stated by the Minister, Deputy Covey, this is an orchestrated campaign, which is despicable.
The Lithuania Minister has been forthright in his remarks about the Lukashenko regime and the criminal measures being taken to create pressure points along the border with Europe in Lithuania, Poland and Latvia.
I have to be honest, my visit to the border was an unsettling experience. I could say the same for my Lithuanian colleagues as well. They are dealing with a new situation. They certainly are not used to this. I am very pleased that they are engaging with civil society, in particular the Red Cross. Ireland responded to the migrant crisis by providing €100,000 to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which launched an operation through the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, DREF, to help refugees in Lithuania. Ireland is a regular contributor to the DREF, to which it contributed €1 million in 2021.
As regards my Lithuanian colleagues' attitude to Belarus, they want to see the border open. They want to see Belarus as a democratic country. They would also like to see it as member of the European Union. They are sad to see a fence erected along large parts of the border.
What is happening in Belarus, in terms of the Government bringing in people and leaving them on the streets of Minsk, is tragic. That is disgraceful treatment of human beings. We are hearing that the people of Minsk are fed up with what the Government is doing. That is understandable too.
The Minister of State mentioned the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. I commend its work and swift action on this matter, as well as the Government's contribution to those efforts. It is imperative this House and the Government keep the pressure up, through the European Union and our dialogue with member states and others, to ensure we can resolve this humanitarian crisis that is being orchestrated on the EU's borders. It is a new phenomenon but I fear it will not be the last time we see it. We must be vigilant and respond as best we can in helping the people who are, in effect, pawns in a larger game along the EU border. I thank the Minister of State for his update and his work on the issue to date.
The strong interest shown in this House at all times, including during these questions to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and me, will be of great encouragement to people in Belarus. We are deeply cognisant of the migrant crisis and are working on the humanitarian aspects of it, which are crucial. We have also shown complete solidarity with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in terms of the crisis they are facing. This is new to them and not something they are used to dealing with. From my visit to Lithuania, I know the authorities there want to handle this in accordance with human rights principles. The engagement with human rights organisations and civil society is very important in that regard. However, nobody should make any mistake about the fact that Lukashenko is using people to further a political objective, and we cannot countenance or stand for that. I commend the work the Minister and his colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Council have done on pushing the sanctions. That is already having some effect and I hope it will be a lasting one.
10. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on his recent visit to Palestine and Israel. [56374/21]
During the Minister's recent visit to Israel and Palestine, did he meet with anyone from the Israeli Government and, if not, did he seek to do so? Does he get any sense from this trip that, because of the change of Government in Israel earlier this year, there has been any step change in the Israeli approach? Do any of the Palestinian groups with whom he met have even the slightest hope of any reset? Does he agree the recent designation by the Israeli defence ministry of six prominent and well-respected Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organisations is not encouraging?
I visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory in the first week of November. This was my fifth visit as Minister for Foreign Affairs.
In respect of Ireland's role on the UN Security Council, I had useful exchanges on peace and security issues in the wider region, including the situation in Syria and Lebanon, and on regional security. I had detailed discussions with Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors, the UN and civil society on the Middle East peace process and the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories. I undertook a range of engagements in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ramallah, as well as a field visit in the West Bank.
On the Israeli side, I met with President Herzog, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Lapid, and the Minister of Health, Mr. Horowitz. I had constructive discussions on the challenge of antisemitism, climate change, the women, peace and security agenda, and the response to Covid-19. I restated Ireland's commitment to constructive engagement on the Middle East peace process. I noted steps taken by members of the new Israeli coalition Government to reach out to Palestinian counterparts but underlined Ireland's deep concern on settlements, settler violence, demolitions and evictions in the occupied Palestinian territories. In addition, I asked the Israeli Government to cease unilateral actions such as the recent announcement on settlements, which are illegal under international law, undermine the viability of a future Palestinian state and negatively impact on human rights. In all my discussions, I emphasised the vital role played by NGOs in any democracy and expressed my concern at the recent designation of six Palestinian organisations as terrorist entities.
On the Palestinian side, I met with Prime Minister Shtayyeh and the Deputy Prime Minister, Ziad Abu Amr. I stressed the need for democratic renewal in Palestine and underlined the importance of the Palestinian Authority's role in protecting the rule of law, human rights and civil society space. I announced €2.4 million in additional support for the Palestinian people, of which €2 million will go to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, which provides essential services in very stretched and difficult circumstances.
I welcome the Minister's statement and his articulation of the issues raised. I acknowledge the delicacy with which he broaches these subjects as a member of the European Council. From the perspective of his being the Minister for Foreign Affairs of this country, I likewise acknowledge the commitment he has made in regard to the Palestinian people and the funds that have been made available to assist them.
Having spoken to both sides during his trip and in the context of a new Government having been formed and, unfortunately, in the context of the designation, as I mentioned, of prominent human rights groups as terrorist groups, does the Minister agree that things do not augur well for the new Government's approach and that we should not expect to see the sea change or reset for which we had hoped? Is that the view and opinion of those he has met from the Palestinian side?
Many people predicted the new Israeli Government would not last very long because it is a coalition of eight different parties, some of which have diametrically opposing positions on certain issues. However, it has managed to pass a budget, not only for one year but for two, and the expectation now is it may last for a period of time. That is welcome because we need stability in the area and we need an Israeli Government we can talk to as an interlocutor to try to make progress on a peace process about which Irish people care very much.
The signals in regard to the political choices the Israeli Government has made have not been particularly good. Announcements on the expansion of settlements, forced demolitions, evictions, settler violence and Israel's response to that violence are issues about which Ireland is very concerned. I was vocal on those points during my trip to Israel. However, I also think there are members of that Government with whom Ireland should be developing a relationship. They have a very similar perspective to ours.
We are over time. The Minister will have a chance to come back in on this question.
In the Minister's discussions with Israeli Government representatives, was there reference to the motion that was passed by the Dáil stating Israel's action in the West Bank is a de facto annexation? Are there any moves of a similar nature from other European countries conveying the same sentiment?
The answer to the Deputy's second question is "No". I am not aware of any such moves even though I have spoken to quite a number of foreign ministers in regard to Ireland's rationale for passing that motion. For now, I do not see any momentum behind that particular approach. I certainly stand over the decision we made, collectively as a Parliament, that the strategic nature of the expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory should now be considered as a de facto annexation. However, what we have done is not something other EU states, as of yet, are willing to replicate. That does not mean it will not happen but it is important to be honest about it. I certainly think this Israeli Government sees Ireland as arguably its most vocal critic internationally and certainly the most vocal within the European Union in terms of our approach to Palestinians and the occupied Palestinian territories. We need to be consistent, respectful and firm. We must ensure everything we say is consistent with international law, which is my job.
11. Deputy Martin Browne asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the average length of time it is currently taking to process passport applications and issue passports; when he plans to increase the number of representations Oireachtas Members can make per week on behalf of persons; his views on requests for further information being issued to applicants in close proximity to the estimated date of issue on the passport tracker; his views on the level of demand the Passport Office will face over the coming year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56466/21]
14. Deputy James O'Connor asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if there will be a reduction surrounding first-time passport applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56562/21]
17. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if his attention has been drawn to the delay in processing passport applications for first-time passports for children and new citizens; the steps his Department is taking to alleviate this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56351/21]
Given the inconvenience people have been experiencing in regard to passport applications, it would be remiss of me not to get clarity on the changing situation. I have four quick questions for the Minister in this regard.
Will the Minister tell us the average length of time it is now taking to process passport applications? Is he aware of requests for further information being issued to applicants near to the estimated time of issue? What is the expected level of demand the Passport Office will face in the coming 12 months? While I appreciate the Minister is increasing the number of representations a Deputy can make to 15, why was it previously limited to five? We all knew there would be a massive increase and that only included 800.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11, 14 and 17 together.
Passport service operations have been severely disrupted by Covid-19, as were many Government services. Notwithstanding this, the passport service has issued more than half a million passports to date in 2021 and 45% of simple adult renewals issue within one business week. Current passport processing times are ten working days for simple adult online renewals, 15 working days for complex or child online renewals, 40 working days for first-time applicants on passport online, and eight weeks for the an An Post mail-in service
The aforementioned passport processing times are based on current average application turnaround times and relate to passport applications submitted to the Passport Office with required supporting documentation. When passport applicants do not provided all of the requisite documentation to the passport service, it takes much longer to process the application and issue a passport. Currently, there are 108,000 passport applications on hand at the Passport Office. Of the online applications on hand, 34,000 or 35% of applications, are incomplete and the onus is on the applicant to submit the required documents to the service. The passport service contacts applicants who have not submitted the requisite documentation.
However, the passport service must wait in those 34,000 cases until the applicants submit the outstanding documentation that is required. While it makes every effort to contact applicants in such circumstances, its experience is that many applicants take weeks and sometimes months to send in the necessary documents. The passport service is attaching particular priority to the nearly 7% of online applications that have not been issued on or before the estimated issue date indicated to the applicant. Intensive work is under way to eliminate this problem and these delays are regretted very much by the service.
I will respond directly to all four of the Deputy's questions to make sure I get to them all. I have answered the question on the timelines. The requests for further information are predominantly about ensuring we combat against fraud, because fraudulent applications to the Passport Office happen all the time and we need to isolate and deal with them. That is why paperwork and its accuracy are important.
As many people did not travel and therefore did not look at their passports for 18 months, we anticipate there will be a much higher demand than normal for passports next year. It could be somewhere between 1.3 million and 1.7 million passport applications. That is why we are effectively doubling the numbers in the Passport Office and working with the Office of Public Works, OPW, to increase significantly the space within it.
Why did we start off with a cap on Oireachtas Members of no more than five per week? The reason is we wanted this to be a service specifically for emergency passports, not a general call line for Oireachtas Members for all passport applications. We wanted to make sure we could fast-track emergency passports quickly for Oireachtas Members and felt it was unlikely they would have to deal with more than five emergency passports per week. We got very negative feedback on that and have increased that number to 15. The whole point is we want normal passport applications to go through the normal processes. However, if there is an emergency, rather than having to look for the Minister or his office to solve it, we wanted to put what is in effect a call centre in place that could solve emergency cases quickly for Oireachtas Members. That was the thinking behind putting a cap on it.
I understand that, but people should be able to rely on the Passport Office to communicate effectively with them, answer their questions and give them confidence that they have a reasonable prospect of getting their passport either on time or at least by the target issue date. They have been told that right throughout the online tracking system.
Some people for whom I have been making representations have found themselves in a situation in which they submitted their application, received their estimated delivery date and went about making their travel plans, as they would be expected to do. Days before the issue date, however, and in one case the day before, they were contacted for a picture. I appreciate fraud is possibility and does go on, but it was brought up to that date. People had applied 40 days before only to be told the day before the passport was due to be issued that their picture was not right or some other stuff was done. It is unfair on people who submit their application on time.
I know where the Minister is coming from with the five passport query limit, but no one comes to us unless there is an emergency.
The Deputy will get a chance to come back in.
We know, because of the number of people who contact me in this House from all parties, that many people have had difficulty in getting their passports in the timelines they need or want. Approximately 7% of passport applications that have been given a delivery date can go beyond such a date. We are working intensively to correct that to make sure that if a date is given on the system, the Passport Office delivers before or on that date in order that people can get more certainty on their travel arrangements and so on. By the start of February, we will have gone from approximately 460 people working in the Passport Office to approximately 920 people. That is effectively a doubling of the staffing throughout the Passport Office. Some of those staff are temporary and some are permanent. We are trying to get on top of many of the issues the Deputy has raised.
Deputy O'Connor is in on this question. His contribution will be taken after Deputy Browne.
The case of first-time passports has been a particular problem. I am aware of a case in which a mother had applied for her child's passport, only to be told more than nine weeks later there was no guarantee the child's passport would be issued. That warning came three days before they were supposed to go on holidays. Three other children were involved and there was much crying. This is way outside an acceptable turnaround time. I am not asking for miracles from the Department, but can we at least expect to see the eight-week maximum guideline adhered to now the additional staff are coming on board? Will the Minister let us know the number and timescale of the backlog in the system? When are the backlogs likely to be dealt with?
I apologise; I am coming directly from the Committee of Public Accounts. This an important issue. I do not, for one second, underestimate the challenges that have faced the Department of Foreign Affairs and the passport unit. Between Brexit and Covid, it has not been nice and we need to acknowledge that in the House. An important issue is there will be enormous growth in the number of passports which will be issued next year - just shy of 2 million. That is approximately double what we have issued this year. With the benefit of knowing that, we have to try to find a more efficient manner of allocating passports, if possible, whether that be a public information campaign, promoting people or getting it renewed on time, which will be crucial as well. The last thing any of us want to be doing is chasing up Ministers and officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs trying to get emergency passports sorted. We should try to pre-empt that by having a more efficient system, if possible, and perhaps a public advertising campaign, if that is okay.
Before the Minister comes in, Deputy McNamara wanted to come in on this question.
Yes, it was on this issue of the numbers. I appreciate the difficulty the Passport Office is in and that it and the Minister are doing their best. I also appreciate that having to answer calls from constituency offices distracts people from work they would otherwise be doing and it is a vicious cycle. However, the ability of parliamentarians to ask questions on behalf of their constituents is being limited, especially when it is for people who have been told their passport will be available by a particular date and make plans on that basis. It is then not available and an emergency arises when they have booked a family holiday or trip has been booked for a certain date and were told the passport would be available two days ago. It still says the passport was available two days ago, but it is not and then we cannot contact the office.
When we contact the Passport Office, or our offices contact the Passport Office, we are told by the officials that they will make their best efforts. I appreciate that they are making their best efforts. If one follows up again because the passport has not arrived two days before the travel date, one is told that it constitutes a second inquiry even though it is an inquiry about the same passport. I would worry about limiting this. The permanent government has to be held to account. The only way that it can be done in certain instances is via Deputies.
We are over time. The Minister to conclude.
I take the point. It is important to make a distinction between the facility that we have set up for Oireachtas Members, which is for emergency passports, and the general call centre in the Passport Office that can be contacted by the general public and by Members’ offices. This service did not exist at all until we set it up. Many people had been coming directly to me and my office to say that a family has to travel on Friday, but it does not look like the passport will have arrived until Monday or Tuesday. They asked us to intervene in an emergency way. We set up a special service on a temporary basis to deal with the fact that many emergency cases need addressing. I want to make sure everybody knows that every time an emergency passport is taken out of the system, it slows the system down for everybody else. The staff have to stop the machine and pull a passport out. Hundreds of other passports are slowed down every time that happens. We are trying to keep that facility to genuine emergencies, as much as possible. That is not to say that the other information, whether it is on the online portal or on the phone, is not still there and available, as it always would be. We are not trying to limit Oireachtas Members. We are trying to put an efficient system in place for emergency cases that can effectively bypass all other cases and get dealt with quickly.
I thank the Minister. We are over time.
If we turn that into the normal practice for following up passports, we will undermine the whole system. I am asking for some co-operation in that regard.
We are way over time. Caithfimid bogadh ar aghaidh.
12. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will provide an update on the ongoing issues regarding implementation of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56288/21]
13. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of discussions in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56372/21]
35. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he expects the United Kingdom to invoke Article 16 in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. [56511/21]
40. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the preparatory measures that have been taken in the event Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol being triggered by the UK; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56467/21]
57. Deputy Patrick Costello asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the preparations the Government is making for the potential triggering of Article 16 by the British Government. [56580/21]
65. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the likely status of international agreements such as Brexit in the future given the stated intention of one of the signatories to set its principles aside with obvious consequences; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56455/21]
70. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will provide an update on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56287/21]
I ask the Minister if he could provide an update on the EU-UK withdrawal agreement.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 12, 13, 35, 40, 57, 65 and 70 together. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle might give me a bit of latitude with time.
I will. Will the Minister use the time efficiently?
Talks are ongoing between the EU and the UK on the implementation of the protocol on Northern Ireland, which is part of the withdrawal agreement between the EU and the UK. The European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič and David Frost met most recently on Friday last. They agreed to continue and intensify talks at official level. They will meet again tomorrow. Following last week's meeting, Vice President Šefčovič noted the need to make serious headway this week, particularly on the supply of medicines.
I met with Vice President Šefčovič in Brussels on Tuesday. We agreed to maintain close contact as the European Commission continues its discussions. I strongly welcome the continuation of talks between the EU and the UK. We need to give these discussions every chance to succeed. To recall, the protocol is the joint EU-UK solution to mitigate the disruption Brexit causes for citizens and businesses on the island of Ireland. While concerns have been expressed about how the protocol is operating, it is important to note that support for the protocol remains strong in Northern Ireland. Recent polling in attitudes to the protocol in Northern Ireland show that a majority of people view the protocol as a good thing for Northern Ireland. People across communities support ongoing efforts to seek solutions and a pragmatic and flexible approach.
I remain in regular contact with business, civil society and political stakeholders in Northern Ireland. I am very aware of their views about the opportunities the protocol offers to Northern Ireland, giving them access to both the UK and EU internal markets. Surveys show that two thirds of Northern Ireland businesses see the opportunity here. We are seeing historically high foreign direct investment interest in Northern Ireland. We need to use the protocol to deliver on a prosperity agenda for the people of Northern Ireland. Realising these opportunities should be the focus of our energy at this time.
The European Commission has listened carefully to the views of Northern Ireland. The Commission has brought forward a package of proposals, published on 13 October, which addressed the issues that matter most to people in Northern Ireland. The Commission's engagement with people in Northern Ireland is continuing. Last week, Vice President Šefčovič held two round-table meetings with businesses and civil society to ensure their voices continue to be heard as talks with the UK progress.
Ensuring the uninterrupted long-term supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is a key protocol-related priority. The European Union has committed to doing whatever it takes to address this issue. It has clearly signalled a willingness to amend EU law to ensure that the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland is fully safeguarded. The European Commission has also brought forward proposals regarding the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Its proposals could reduce sanitary and phytosanitary checks and controls by about 80%. It would cut in half the checks, controls and documentation currently needed for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. This would make it easier for Northern Irish businesses to move goods into Northern Ireland, while at the same time continuing to benefit from all the advantages of full access to the EU Single Market. The EU is also proposing an unprecedented role for Northern Ireland political representatives and stakeholders in the protocol, ensuring that the voices of the people of Northern Ireland are better heard and understood. As Vice President Šefčovič has underlined, this package represents a significant move by the EU.
The European Commission has acted in good faith. We now need a good faith response from the UK. I call on the UK Government to engage seriously and constructively in talks with the EU, so that we can provide stability and predictability for Northern Ireland. This is a point that I continue to make in my contacts internationally on the issue, including with my EU counterparts, whom I met in Brussels earlier this week - they have shown extraordinary solidarity and will continue to do so - and also in my contacts with the US Administration. I look forward to the Deputy's comments.
There are three Members who each have one minute. Then the Minister is to conclude.
No problem. I might even try and complete my contribution in under a minute. I want to thank the Minister, as ever, for a fulsome reply on the post-Brexit situation, which is an ever-changing, but in some ways never-changing, situation that we are faced with. I have a supplementary question. We have talked at length about the generous package of proposals that the European Commission has made on foot of engagement with Northern Irish civic, business and political leaders over the summer. Perhaps the response to that from certain people has not been as appreciative as it should have been. However, it has gone down very well, most importantly, in Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister, based on his discussions with Vice President Šefčovič or with Lord Frost himself, to set out what proposals the British Government has made. Where are we with this situation?
It may be the case that this British Government is coming to a place that it has never been before, namely, its senses. Looking back ten days ago, it was clearly the case that the British media and the British political establishment had been forewarned that this was the time when Article 16 was going to be triggered. Fortunately, they pulled back from the brink. The intervention of the Irish Government and Irish diplomats played a significant part in that. The British Government ultimately recognises that if it triggers Article 16, the EU will not then require this country to implement a hard border on the island of Ireland in order to protect the Single Market of goods. What would have happened is that trade tariffs would have been put on UK goods coming into the European Union. That clear message was sent by Ireland and by the European Union to Britain. It forced the UK authorities to concentrate their minds. However, I urge the Minister to keep going with these negotiations. The protocol is potentially a wonderful achievement for the people of Northern Ireland, if the political leaders use it effectively.
The Northern Ireland protocol was key in avoiding a hard border. Of course, the threat of triggering Article 16 is causing great concern to people now. This has eased off a little bit more recently. However, the way it is being used as leverage, and pretty much as a pawn, is very much a concern from the point of view of the threat of a hard border, and every social, political and economic impact that there would be from that. The way that Article 16 is being used as leverage in this whole situation is also a concern. The instability and uncertainty that surrounds Article 16 is not where we need to be. There needs to be greater clarity on it. To what extent has the Minister been able to communicate these concerns to the parties involved? He sounds more optimistic about the continuing talks. Has he a clear view on what kind of timeframe might be involved in that?
The Minister to conclude.
On Deputy Richmond's questions, the UK position is outlined in what is known as a command paper, which it published during the summer. There is much in that command paper that the EU simply cannot facilitate but there are certainly elements that can be the basis of agreement. That is particularly the case as regards goods coming from Great Britain that we can show are staying in Northern Ireland, in terms of the removal of the vast majority of checks that are currently required on those goods. It is important that we try to give space for the negotiating teams to make progress now. Lord Frost and Vice President Šefčovič meet again tomorrow in Brussels and there is hope that the change in tone in those negotiations that was evident last Friday will have continued into this week in our efforts to try to find compromise and a way forward.
On Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's question, of course we have to prepare for a triggering of Article 16 and a setting aside of significant elements of the protocol should the British Government decide to do that. However, I hope that is not the direction it chooses to take. It would be very damaging to relations with the EU and Ireland but it would also strain relationships with Washington. I do not believe the triggering of Article 16 is necessary and I think we can resolve the outstanding issues on the implementation of the protocol through dialogue and discussion. It is also worth noting that the EU is willing to put into law, or into legal agreement, what it claims it can do to reduce the checks burden. There has been some scepticism on the British side that what Vice President Šefčovič has said the EU wants to facilitate can actually be delivered and I think the EU wants to be tested on that, which is very useful.
As regards the leverage issue and the instability issue, we are working as best we can on that through dialogue.