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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Vol. 1021 No. 6

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Overseas Development Aid

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

77. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the extent to which Ireland's bilateral and multilateral overseas aid programme continues to meet the needs of the people in the various locations for which it is intended, with particular reference to the need to alleviate starvation and human rights abuses; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22908/22]

This question seeks to ascertain the extent to which Ireland can focus attention on worldwide hunger at various locations, some in war zones, some not, and lead that campaign in such a way as to make it embarrassing for all who cause it.

A Better World, Ireland's international development policy, focuses Irish Aid's work on meeting the needs of the furthest behind first, with an emphasis on those in the world's poorest or most climate-exposed countries, especially women and girls. Delivering on the ambition of A Better World includes a focus on food security and on upholding the rights of those we support. The allocation to official development assistance for 2022 is €1 billion, the highest ever and a 20% increase of last year's allocation.

Ireland, through the Irish Aid programme, has a long tradition of assisting those most food insecure, through humanitarian action and also through investing in developing the agrifood chain in our partner countries. This year, given the increase in hunger due to climate shocks and the invasion of Ukraine, I anticipate we will exceed the €193 million Irish Aid spent last year improving food security.  This cannot be separated from interlinked issues of climate and conflict.

Our Irish Aid interventions are augmented by our work on the Security Council on the conflict and hunger file, where Ireland is pen holder, including a high profile meeting last month in New York.

With human rights a key foreign policy priority for Ireland, governance and rights is at the heart of Irish Aid interventions.  Through the aid programme, and through our embassies, the Department supports the work of human rights defenders.  This is augmented by support to United Nations agencies and our contribution to the work of the Human Rights Council and on the Security Council.

Underpinning Irish Aid's work is a commitment to quality.  This has been internationally recognised, including in 2020, by an OECD review which found that Irish Aid "walks the talk", with Irish funding reaching the poor and poorest countries.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The respected international think tank, ODI, has consistently found Ireland to be the most principled donor country.

To what extent can Ireland, as a non-aligned country, focus such attention on the powers that be in whatever location abuses of human rights, hunger and starvation are taking place and seem to take place with impunity? The number of incidents are growing with the number of years instead of the reverse.

There used be a time when the United Nations was revered and highly respected. That is no longer the case. It needs to be born again. To what extent can Ireland influence that rebirth of the United Nations with a view to assisting directly those in greatest need?

It is important to note as a member of the Security Council we are now dealing with a situation where there are, say, 30 files in this area compared to, say, 13 when we were last on the Security Council.

As I noted in my response to the Deputy, we are a very strong contributor in terms of the United Nations, and particularly in human rights. That, I believe, is strengthened through our membership of the Security Council.

The Human Rights Council has a primary role within the United Nations system to promote and protect human rights globally and to address the situation of human rights violations. In 2021, the Human Rights Council, in addition to three regular scheduled meetings, also held five special sessions to address urgent crises right across Myanmar, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Israel, Afghanistan, Sudan and Ethiopia.

The recent 49th session of the Human Rights Council included an urgent debate on the Russian invasion of Ukraine adopting a resolution to establish a commission to investigate violations of human rights. Likewise, Ireland's membership of the United Nations Security Council provides an important opportunity to advance our foreign policy priorities, including the protection of human rights.

I thank the Minister of State for mentioning Myanmar, where the Head of State is currently in prison and will be in prison for the foreseeable future. Despite the fact that she was revered once upon a time, she has been condemned to everlasting darkness as far as is visible at this stage. There are numerous other countries - I do not propose to go through them now. There are numerous other cases, including cases where young girls are forced to travel long distances for a basic need - water. A simple thing, it does not need an international convention or anything else. It needs a determination to move in and do something about it in the short term. A small amount of money can do a great deal of good for a lot of people who cannot help themselves.

Specifically, to come back to the Deputy on that particular point, that is a key part of my work within Irish Aid. We fully recognise that. A key emphasis of what we do with our aid programme is tackling gender inequality. In promoting gender equality, particularly for young girls in access to education, one of the key aspects is to put in place systems that enable things such as the provision of water because it is not a simple equation between providing the schools or the education. If one does not provide the structural changes within society and the supports to society, one will not free up the time for young girls traditionally are the water carriers in so many of these countries. It is important to realise that right across our aid programme, which is viewed by most people as one of the most ethical aid programmes there is, we have "furthest behind first reach", and that particularly works in the area of gender equality in areas such as the Deputy mentioned.

International Sanctions

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Ceist:

78. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if sanctions will be imposed on the Belarusian Government for its role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22870/22]

There are many in this Chamber who found it difficult to stand and applaud a foreign dignitary when he addressed this Chamber not so long ago. I am not one of those Deputies. The majority of Deputies on the Government benches are not either. That said, will the Minister outline any additional sanctions that are likely to be considered here in relation to Belarus?

I thank the Deputy. It is important that this House focuses on Belarus's role in this war as well as Russia's because Belarus has been complicit in much of what has happened.

The EU has condemned Belarus's involvement in Russia's unprovoked and unjustified military invasion of Ukraine. In response to the invasion, since late February, the EU has adopted a wide range of sanctions measures targeting both Russia and Belarus. A sixth sanctions package is currently under discussion and is expected to be adopted in the coming days.

These sanctions measures build on separate measures introduced by the EU following the fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus in August 2020. Since October 2020, the EU has introduced a number of packages of Belarus sanctions in response to, among other things, unacceptable violence by the Belarusian authorities against peaceful protesters, the instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes and hybrid attacks at the EU's borders.

Significant restrictions have already been placed on trade between the EU and Belarus, in particular, on goods used for the production of tobacco products, mineral fuels and gaseous hydrocarbon products as well as potash, wood, cement, iron, steel and rubber products. Restrictions have also been imposed on exports to Belarus of dual-use goods and technology that might contribute to Belarus' military, technological, defence and security development.

In addition, a range of measures targets the Belarusian financial sector. Three Belarusian banks have been removed from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, SWIFT, financial messaging system and transactions with the Central Bank of Belarus are prohibited. Furthermore, limits have been placed on financial inflows from Belarus to the EU by prohibiting the acceptance of deposits exceeding €100,000 from Belarusian nationals or residents, the holding of accounts of Belarusian clients by the EU central securities depositories as well as the selling of euro-denominated securities to Belarusian clients. The provision of euro-denominated bank notes to Belarus is also prohibited. Lastly, a ban has been placed on the listing and provision of services in relation to shares of Belarusian state-owned entities on EU trading venues.

The sanctions adopted since February 2022 include asset freezes and travel bans targeting 42 Belarusian military personnel.

Belarus' actions go back to, as the Minister mentioned in his response, the fraudulent presidential election in 2020. A number of sanctions were imposed at that time. Subsequently, their involvement in the war in Ukraine has led to further sanctions.

I welcome all the measures that have been taken heretofore. I understand that we are working with our EU colleagues and partners in terms of the six packages, as the Minister mentioned. I would implore the Minister, as, in fairness, he has done in the past, to ensure that Ireland would be at the forefront in calling for those further sanctions and that those sanctions would be robust and deal severe consequences to Belarus.

I note that the G7 met a number of days ago. Out of their discussions, there was a further ban on palladium, potassium and other metals and chemicals. I would hope that we follow in a similar vein as we have heretofore. I urge the Minister that Ireland would follow-up robustly.

There are many in this House who have a knowledge and connection with Belarus - I suspect Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan is probably one of them - as have I. Since the fraudulent presidential elections, the European Union has focused on trying to support and facilitate democracy in Belarus. Certainly, the facilitation by the Belarusian authorities of a Russian military build-up in Belarus in order to facilitate the invasion of Ukraine also makes the Belarusian authorities complicit in what has happened.

What we are trying to do within the European Union is ensure that whatever sanctions we are applying to Russia are also fully replicated in the context of Belarus so that we can, as I say, create the maximum possible deterrent for the continuation of this war across both Russia and Belarus.

The Minister voiced the sentiments I was going to finish on with regard to Belarus and its conduct. I hope the role it played in facilitating this war will not be forgotten, because it has facilitated it at every corner. It has facilitated the Russian regime by giving it a base for launching attacks and so forth. I also urge that its Government's actions not be forgotten when this sorry tale is finally brought to a conclusion. I hope people here do not forget the actions of those who have facilitated propaganda on the European stage and have been an embarrassment to this country. I would liken Lukashenko's relationship with Putin to Clare Daly MEP and Mick Wallace MEP in terms of their promotion of Russian propaganda. I hope that will not be forgotten here when this is brought to a conclusion.

My focus is to do everything we can as a country and as a member of the European Union to bring this war to an end and to promote democracy in Belarus to ensure that the people there get the government and the president they elect, as opposed to skewed election results. The only tools we have available to us for doing that for now are sanctions. Belarus is so reliant on Russia now for its security that, unfortunately, the current Belarusian regime is shackled to the decisions of the Kremlin. We have to treat both in the context of the deterrents we are putting in place for the continuation of this war. It is to be hoped we can move beyond that in time when this war comes to an end, but for now the focus has got to be on ending the violence and brutality we see in Ukraine, which has to a certain extent been facilitated through Belarus.

Northern Ireland

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

79. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the discussions that he has had recently with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about affairs in Northern Ireland; if the possibility of transferring additional powers to the Executive was discussed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22654/22]

This question relates to discussions that have taken place between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister about affairs in Northern Ireland. It also asks if there has been any consideration of giving the Executive additional powers once it is up and running, transferring sovereignty from Westminster to the sovereign people of Ireland.

I thank the Deputy for his question.

As part of the Government’s commitment to supporting the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and maintaining strong relationships, I remain in regular contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and with the parties. I met virtually with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 5 May, the day of the Assembly elections, to discuss a number of issues in that important context. Following the results of the elections in Northern Ireland, I spoke with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on Saturday to discuss the outcomes of the elections and the need for both Governments to work in support of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. We continue to remain in close contact.

The Secretary of State and I also met in person at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on 23 March, where a number of issues relating to Northern Ireland were discussed, including political stability, security co-operation, legacy, and rights and citizenship matters. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is an important institution of the Good Friday Agreement, bringing together the British and Irish Governments under strand three of the Good Friday Agreement to promote bilateral co-operation on matters of mutual interest within the competence of both Governments.

I take this opportunity to say that, in many ways, one of the most concerning developments in the last number of days has been the signal of intent from the British Government in the context of resolving the outstanding issues on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The British Prime Minister and the British Government have signalled that they intend to break international law and to introduce legislation of their own to set aside elements of the protocol. That is a complete breach of faith. It will undermine partnership, which is essential for trying to resolve these issues. It is also undemocratic, in my view. Some 53 of the 90 MLAs who were elected in the elections support the protocol and if they were to vote in the morning on the retention of the protocol, they would vote "Yes". Of course, there are issues to be resolved, and there is a large unionist community that is very concerned about the implications of the protocol and its implementation, but the way to resolve those issues is through partnership, not illegal unilateral action.

I am opposed to illegal unilateral action. That is why I was very interested when the Minister spoke about security co-operation. In that regard, there are Irish citizens who are waiting eight years for a trial in the northern part of this island. In the Minister's discussions on security co-operation, did he speak to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the total unacceptability of people anywhere having to wait eight years for a trial? Has he raised with him the fact that the security police in Northern Ireland are under Westminster and not under the local authority? If one asks the Minister for Justice there, she will say that security issues are above her pay grade. This has resulted in an inordinate amount of stop and search, people who are tagged and out on bail being searched, woken up in the middle of the night and so forth. I am interested to hear how the Minister's security co-operation discussions have been proceeding.

Generally, the security co-operation discussion revolves around the co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, and An Garda Síochána. If there are cases, and the Deputy has mentioned some to me in the past, of individuals in prison or awaiting trial that he would like me to raise with the Secretary of State to get an answer, I am happy to do that for him. At the last British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference there were no specific cases raised. As I said, the security co-operation focus is primarily on the relationship between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána, which is probably stronger than it has ever been in terms of co-operation. That is a good thing and it is something we should continue to encourage. However, if the Deputy has concerns about specific cases, I can try to inquire about them for him.

I deeply appreciate that. My difficulty is not with the Garda and PSNI relationship, which is Naomi Long's devolved Department of Justice of Northern Ireland relationship with the Department of Justice here. I am more concerned about British security in Northern Ireland, which is a serious problem and a serious impediment to getting rid of violence on this island once and for all. Instead of aiding getting rid of it, it has the opposite effect. It is my view that it is hard for somebody from outside the island to understand the nuances of history and tradition on this island.

On a second issue, Scotland has some powers, particularly powers over taxation, that Northern Ireland does not have. Has there been any discussion about extending powers that are in other devolved jurisdictions to the legislature in Northern Ireland? As I said, it is basically transferring sovereignty from Westminster back to Irish people of all colours in this island.

To be honest, the focus of the conversations has been on trying to get stability and a return to a functioning Executive and Assembly as soon as possible after the election. This has been a divisive election, and that is not a criticism of the parties. At present, there is significant work to do to get the Assembly to elect a Speaker and to function and, importantly, to get an Executive up and running so Northern Ireland can ensure that people from Northern Ireland who are directly elected by people in Northern Ireland are making political decisions on their behalf. There are obstacles to that happening. There is no justification for a refusal to enter those devolved government structures. Certainly, having a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland would assist in trying to resolve some of the outstanding issues linked to the protocol and other issues, such as legacy, that we have to deal with as well. That will be our focus in the days and weeks ahead.

Trade Relations

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

80. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if his Department has reviewed the current situation with congestion in the port of Shanghai, the implications this will have for global supply chains and ultimately its impact on the Irish economy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22968/22]

We saw how the Covid-19 restrictions disrupted supply chains and led to price increases in many scarce materials. China has severe lockdowns at present and Ireland does a great deal of trade there, at in exess of €28 billion in goods and services. What measures are being taken to minimise disruption to supply chains and to minimise price increases?

Many people here are already struggling with the cost of living and inflation.

As the question had a specific focus on congestion at the Port of Shanghai, I went to some trouble to try to get the Deputy an answer on this particular issue. The Department of Foreign Affairs, together with the embassy in Beijing and consulates general in Shanghai and Hong Kong, is closely monitoring the Covid-19 situation in China. This includes the current challenging circumstances in Shanghai, a city that has been under lockdown for more than a month. I am also aware of reports of shipping congestion at Shanghai Port attributed to the impact of public health measures there and the related impacts on global value chains. 

One of the main responsibilities of the Department is ensuring the welfare of our citizens abroad. The consulate in Shanghai is providing consular services to a number of Irish citizens and is also providing support to the Irish business community in Shanghai. The embassy in Beijing continues to liaise closely with the wider Irish team, including the consulate in Shanghai and the offices of State agencies, to ensure that the impact of this lockdown is as limited as possible on Irish businesses in China.

Despite the pandemic, bilateral trade between Ireland and China continues to grow. This reflects Ireland’s strong trading performance globally. Trade in goods was worth more than €20 billion in 2021. In 2020, total bilateral trade of goods and services was worth €28.8 billion. We continue to engage with China to ensure a strong trading relationship and one that is in line with our values.

Last month, my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, published a new Government trade and investment strategy, Value for Ireland, Values for the World. One of the seven priority actions of that strategy is the establishment of an expert group on global value chains and supply chains to identify global supply chain opportunities and threats. The group will examine themes such as economic nationalism, open strategic autonomy, and reshoring initiatives. The Department will contribute, as appropriate, to this expert group. This will include providing economic updates on key markets globally as requested, including China.

I understand the Shanghai consulate is supporting Irish citizens and the business community there. Does the Minister have a measure of how the lockdown is impacting on them, their businesses and their ability to conduct business back and forth to Europe and globally? More than €20 billion in goods is traded each year. There are now more than 500 vessels stuck in congestion outside Shanghai and other major Chinese ports. This will have an impact on the individuals and their businesses. The availability of these materials here will have a knock-on effect on the cost. How many Irish citizens are involved? Will they and their businesses be able to get through the lockdown? The very severe lockdown has already been in place for a month.

I have quite a lot of information on the number of citizens and so on that I can send to the Deputy afterwards if it would be helpful. He clearly has an interest in this issue. The Irish Embassy in Beijing, together with our consulates in Shanghai and Hong Kong, are working closely with State agencies to assist Irish businesses and citizens to manage the impact of the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions in China. These are challenging circumstances. Movement in and out of China has become very difficult with flights at approximately 2% of pre-pandemic levels. Ireland has continued to engage directly with the Chinese authorities to ensure positive bilateral trading relations. Our embassy in Beijing and the four Irish State agencies operating in China participated in the China International fair for Trade in Services in Beijing last September. Ireland was a country of honour at the fair. It also participated in the China International Consumer Products Expo last May. Both served as excellent opportunities to raise Ireland's profile to a wider Chinese audience and to assist Irish companies to grow their businesses in China.

I thank the Minister. Many people here are struggling with the cost of living and inflation is running at almost 7%. Energy prices are seen as a huge component of this. More and more everyday items are becoming involved. This is impacting on the cost of living and challenging people. As I said earlier, we saw how the disruption in insulation and timber impacted on construction costs after our lockdown.

This is affecting €20 billion worth of all types of goods, including machinery, electronics, dishwashers, fridges and textiles coming out of China. There is disruption in supply and subsequent price increases are expected in scarce materials here that will hit the cost of living for people and put more pressure on them. It is not exclusively an Irish problem. It is also hitting people throughout Europe and globally. Has the Minister engaged with EU colleagues on measures that could be taken and on co-operating to see whether the disruption and cost for people could be minimised?

Foreign direct investment has deeply embedded Ireland in global value supply chains and, in turn, supported Irish companies to access value chains driving productivity and innovation growth. The current geopolitical environment, coupled with the impact of Covid and the twin green and digital transitions, has placed increased focus on future global value supply chains. In this context, therefore, it is important to consider the associated risks and opportunities for Ireland. As I mentioned in my response earlier, the Government's latest trade and investment strategy has a strong focus on supply chain preparedness and risk. The establishment of an expert group on global value chains and supply chains will be an important step to move the plan forward. What the Deputy says is true. We are seeing a fundamental rethink in much global trade. The contribution of the Covid experience, whereby many companies found they simply could no longer rely on global supply chains, and war in Ukraine and countries linked to it reinforces this. This will focus a rethink of the globalised economy in this regard.

Human Rights

John Brady

Ceist:

81. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the response of the Government to reports that Israeli authorities are holding 600 Palestinians without charge under what Israel terms administrative detention; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22880/22]

Time and again we see the total disregard Israel has for international law. We have seen it again in its illegal detention of up to 600 Palestinian prisoners without charge or trial in what is described as administrative detention. What actions are being taken to hold Israel to account for its flagrant breaches of international law in this regard?

I am aware of reports of the scale of administrative detention currently in operation by the Israeli authorities. I have called on the Israeli authorities to end this practice completely.

Ireland’s position on these issues is, and will continue to be, based on international law. Detainees must have the right to be informed of the charges underlying any detention, have access to legal assistance, and receive a fair trial. Ireland has repeatedly recalled to Israel the applicability of international human rights standards and international humanitarian law in respect of detainees, in particular obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Ireland has been proactive in consistently highlighting these issues at the UN Security Council during our current term, including calling for progress on prisoners' issues and raising concerns regarding the detention of minors. At the Human Rights Council, Ireland has called on the Israeli authorities, in accordance with their obligations under Article 9 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to refrain from conducting arbitrary arrests and to follow the acceptable procedure established by law regarding arrest and detention. Ireland also made a recommendation to Israel regarding the treatment of detainees during the universal periodic review of Israel at the Human Rights Council in 2018, expressing concern at Israel’s extensive use of administrative detention in particular. I have also raised these issues myself directly with the Israeli authorities during my visits to the region. I have been there quite a few times now.

Ireland’s representative office in Ramallah continues to provide support in the monitoring of individual detainee cases. In addition, both Ireland and the EU provide financial support to Israeli and Palestinian NGOs that are active in bringing to light issues regarding the treatment of detainees. The overall human rights situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory remains a priority, and Ireland will continue to take every opportunity to raise this with all appropriate interlocutors.

As the Deputy knows, I met the Palestinian foreign minister, as did the Deputy's party, in recent days. We discussed a range of issues some of which I will raise at the Foreign Affairs Council.

When a democratic state arrests and detains someone, it is required to charge the person, present its evident in an open trial, allow for a full defence and try to persuade an impartial judiciary of its obligations beyond a reasonable doubt. Administrative detention, as the Minister is well aware, in contrast allows a state to arrest and detain a person without charge, without a trial, without knowing the evidence against him or her and without a fair judicial review.

In violation of international law, more than 600 Palestinians, including in excess of 160 minors, are being held by Israel based on secret evidence and are being for renewable six-month periods. In response to a previous question, the Minister said that the UN Security Council would hold any other country to account for breaking international law to the same standard as Russia. In that light, what actions are being taken by the international community, including the UN Security Council, to hold Israel to account?

I have just told the Deputy about a range of things we have been doing in terms of raising the matter. However, Ireland does not control the foreign policy decisions of other countries. We try to make arguments that can build consensus around international action on a range of things, including the Middle East peace process, be it arbitrary detention, illegal expansion of settlements, settler violence, forced evictions or terrorism against Israeli citizens by Hamas and others. We raise these issues all the time. I am probably the most vocal foreign minister on the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. I will be talking about this issue again in the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday when we will discuss the European Commission needing to release funding that is due to the Palestinian Authority from last year, which has not yet happened despite-----

The Minister is well aware that several Palestinians in administrative detention have gone on prolonged hunger strike in protest, with many developing lifelong health issues. One individual, Khalil Awawdeh, is in his 69th day of hunger strike. He was detained on 27 December 2021 and placed in administrative detention without charge or trial based on secret evidence. The international community is failing utterly in not acting in a coherent manner regarding breaches of international law and human rights, neither of which are à la carte. While the Minister cannot speak for the international community, he has a voice which, in fairness, he is not afraid to use, but we must act unilaterally to hold Israel to account. That means taking action ourselves if the international community is going to stick its head in the sand and allow these grave human rights violations to take place.

We often have these discussions in respect of acting unilaterally on the assumption that Ireland doing something on a unilateral basis will force fundamental change internationally. That is not always the way it works. From my experience of international politics, you must build consensus and coalitions around change and pressure, which is why we are putting pressure on Russia as a collective in the EU. Does the Deputy think Ireland on its own would be able to change direction? I doubt it.

As already stated, the Government has been proactive in raising the issue of Palestinian prisoners across a range of multilateral fora, as well as in our bilateral contacts with Israel. We will continue to do that. I reiterate Ireland's commitment to the rights of all detainees to a fair trial and our strong support for calls to end the practice of administrative detention. Ireland's approach to this issue as part of our overall policy relating to the Middle East peace process, which emphasises the role of international law and international humanitarian law, will remain a priority.

Passport Services

John Lahart

Ceist:

82. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of passport applications from Dublin that are currently outstanding; the planning that is being carried out to ensure that there is no repeat of the delays with applications experienced in 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22893/22]

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill

Ceist:

83. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of first-time passport applications in the Passport Office; the steps being taken to reduce and maintain the current wait time for first-time passport applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22909/22]

Dara Calleary

Ceist:

85. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the number of applications for passports from counties Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Galway and Donegal, respectively, that are currently outstanding; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22652/22]

My question concerns the number of outstanding passport applications from Dublin and the planning carried out to ensure that there is no repeat of the delays with applications experienced in 2021.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 82, 83 and 85 together.

There has been a lot about passports this evening, but I will keep talking about them if Members want me to. I will arrange to have the figures requested by the Deputies on passport applications from counties Dublin, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Galway and Donegal shared directly with them following this session.  Applications from various counties are distributed for processing across the three passport offices in Dublin and Cork on the basis of the type of application rather than county of residence of the applicant. Passport application turnaround times are the same for all citizens regardless of county or, indeed, country of residence.

The passport service recently reduced its turnaround time on first-time passports from 40 working days to 30. This is a significant reduction given the unprecedented volume of applications being received. The passport service is focused on reducing this processing time even further in the coming months.  The service is currently experiencing high demand for first time passports, particularly for children. There are currently 88,000 online first-time applications in the system. The service has issued over 400,000 passports to date in 2022. To put this number in context, 634,000 passports were issued in total in 2021. In four months, up to the end of April, the service has issued over 63% of the total number of passports issued last year. Demand for passports continues to be very high with unprecedented levels of applications continuing to be received.  Over 130,000 applications were received in April alone.

Passport service figures show that of the total number of passport applications in the system, 61% are fully complete and are being processed by the service. The other 39% of applications are incomplete, which means the service is waiting for the applicant to submit the necessary documentation required. While the service 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. Applications that are incomplete cannot be processed within the average turnaround times.

The Irish passport was recently ranked fifth in the Henley Global Passport Index because it provides our citizens with visa-free access to 187 countries. This is something we can all be proud of. However, in order to maintain this ranking and to protect the integrity of the Irish passport, the passport service must validate the true identity of the applicant and take measures to confirm the applicant's entitlement to Irish citizenship. This is particularly important in the case of first-time applicants.

The resourcing of the service to respond to current demand for passports is a priority for my Department, which has been working with the Public Appointments Service on a major recruitment drive. Since June 2021, more than 300 members of staff at all grades have been assigned to the passport service. In addition, the service is running its own recruitment competition for temporary clerical officers with a view to assigning additional staff. Interviews have concluded and candidates are currently undergoing Garda vetting. Following the clearance process, the service will appoint 150 temporary clerical officers and will see staffing numbers increase to more than 900. This represents a doubling of staff numbers since last summer.  These increased staffing levels will be maintained right throughout the year to ensure that demand for passports, particularly first-time applications, is met.

There is an ongoing process of reform within the passport service. This process has delivered a number of transformational improvements for citizens at home and abroad, in particular the roll-out of the Passport Online service. Over 90% of all passport applications, including first-time applications, are now being made through Passport Online. Passport Online is the priority channel for applications as there are many efficiencies built into the system for both the applicant and the passport service. All Irish citizens, including children, can use the online system to renew their passports from anywhere in the world.  Passport Online can be accessed by all first-time applicants, both children and adults, in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Great Britain, all EU member states and most other countries in Europe, as well as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. The Passport Online service recently expanded for first-time applicants in South Africa, Singapore, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mauritius, Lesotho, Colombia, Panama, Chile, Peru and Ecuador. The Passport Online service offers Irish citizens the ability to apply online for their passport 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is a user-friendly, efficient service that consistently offers processing times up to four times faster than paper-based passport renewal applications.

The next major reform under way is the replacement of the core technology underpinning the passport service. The current system, which was launched in 2004, will be replaced by a more modern and integrated system. This complex project is currently at an early stage and officials from my Department are actively working with the vendor to outline the high-level design of the new system. Extensive detailed design, testing and phased implementation is to follow over the remainder of this year and much of 2023. It is intended that the new system will be substantially operational by the end of 2023. This will ensure the passport service benefits from a standard, scalable and resilient technical platform capable of handling increased application volumes while maintaining the high standards of security that constitute the hallmark of the Irish passport. I know this is a long reply but I am trying to give as much information as possible to the House regarding the complexity of the system. I am happy to take any further questions Deputies may have.

We have five supplementary questions, at a minute each, starting with Deputy Lahart.

I appreciate the Minister's reply and I want to acknowledge the sterling work being done by officials in the Department, under immense pressure, to deal with the conveyor belt of applications coming in. The Minister referred to 88,000 first-time applications this year, which is a pretty phenomenal figure. The fact that 400,000 passport applications have been made in the year to date when the total for the whole of last year was 650,000 is also highly significant.

I particularly welcome the fact that the Department is going to double the number of staff in the Passport Office. However, one figure stands out in that context. Staff numbers will be doubled in comparison to last year but based on the statistics the Minister has given, there will be three times the number of applications this year. I ask the Minister to deal with that.

The second issue I want to raise is the WebChat facility. I have a list, just from today-----

I am afraid the Deputy is nearly out of time.

I have a list, just from today, of criticisms, the main one being that the facility is simply unavailable. Again, I appreciate the pressure staff and officials are under but I ask the Minister to address that matter too.

It is reassuring to hear of the work that is under way to deliver efficiencies and to provide a more resilient passport service. I also want to acknowledge the staff in the Department and the Passport Office and thank them for their sterling work. I wish to raise an issue relating to the 39% of applications that are incomplete, namely the frustration of parents with the action that occurs with the estimated due date within the eight-week period. It is causing huge frustration when, at the eleventh hour, parents have to adapt or react to incomplete witness consent forms or additional photos. This is driving an increase in the waiting time of an additional three weeks, which is causing a lot of concern. The public needs to be properly advised by the Passport Office regarding the tracker not being accurate in that period. I would like that issue resolved.

We are all dealing with the same issues here, the main one being the waiting times. The Minister spoke previously about streamlining the process, particularly for first-time applications for children, although I accept the necessary due diligence must be done. We all accept that there is a need for additional resources, including staff and technology, to make sure we can deal with the large numbers of applications going through the system.

There is a particular issue with consent forms. Sometimes they are signed by a member of An Garda Síochána and contact must be made by the Passport Office with gardaí to verify same. The Passport Office must make three attempts to make contact but sometimes gardaí cannot find the particular book, the form cannot be signed off and people have to go through the process again. That is a difficulty and we need to find a solution. I accept that the process should be improved by the gardaí themselves but we need to find a solution.

I also have huge concerns. At the moment, 438 applications from County Carlow on the system have been flagged for documents that the applicant has yet to submit. That is only Carlow itself and with that is the problem of the timescale. People can be waiting weeks to hear from the Passport Office that their documents are not fully complete and that is really unacceptable. I do not like to criticise the Passport Office but we knew this was going to happen. The staff are totally overworked and the waiting time to get an answer on the phone is just not acceptable. This week alone, I had one family who did not make their holiday because they did not get a passport. I have another case where some family members got away but others did not.

The big question I want to ask is about the plans to establish an online portal service in January 2022 that would allow queries for all application types to be submitted directly to the Passport Office by Oireachtas Members to provide additional assistance to citizens. I ask the Minister for an update on that.

The time it takes to get a passport is causing a lot of stress for people who are planning to travel. There are particular issues with regard to first-time applications and the guardianship form that is signed in a Garda station. When the Passport Office is not able to verify the form, the application is sent back and this causes huge stress for families. I have raised this at joint policing committee meetings and also directly with An Garda Síochána. Gardaí are getting a large volume of calls from the Passport Office to verify these forms. One not particularly busy

Garda station was getting up to 13 calls per hour to verify a form that had been stamped and signed. There are huge difficulties if a particular Garda station is closed because the call is then forwarded to the district headquarters but the daybook will not be available there to verify the form, so more calls are needed as a result. Is there a way of streamlining this process? When I raised it at the joint policing committee meeting, it was suggested that an email with a list of the people verified in a station each day could be sent to avoid the repeated calls.

The Deputies have asked a lot of very fair questions and I will try to respond to them all. First, there was never a suggestion of a system for Oireachtas Members where they could apply for passports on behalf of the public.

No, only for information-----

We cannot turn Deputies' offices into a passport service. What we do have is an Oireachtas phone line that handles queries. It is not perfect but so far this year more than 10,000 calls have been taken on that line and the customer service hub has handled 95,000 queries this year. It is really busy and sometimes there are interruptions in the system, as there have been over the past few days and when that happens and the public cannot get through on the lines, they contact their local Deputy, understandably, because they need to find out what is happening with their passport application. We are trying to keep those interruptions to a minimum, where possible.

There is an issue with improving the verification process between the Passport Office and Garda stations. It is a particular issue in rural communities where Garda stations are not open for many hours a day. That is an issue the Department discussed today because a number of people have raised it. That said, I must emphasise that we are not doing this for the sake of it. There is a fraud issue relating to passports and there are risks around child abduction. We have to make sure that when we issue a passport for a child, we know who the parents are and we have verification of that from An Garda Síochána. It is really important. When the passport system is under pressure, that is when there will be fraud and criminal activity, with people trying to get passports inappropriately. We have a really good anti-fraud system but it does take time and verification is necessary.

The final point relates to parents correcting applications when they have made a mistake. Approximately 43% of the first-time applications for children that are stuck in the system are stuck because we are awaiting documentation. We have given a commitment that when the documentation is corrected, we will fast-track those applications and get them finalised within 15 days. Previously, the frustration for parents was that the clock started all over again when they made the correction. We are trying to respond to people's genuine queries.

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