Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 9 Nov 2021

Recent Meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council and the UN Security Council: Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

We will resume in public session. I very much welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, to discuss matters that arose at the recent meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council and the UN Security Council. The Minister is particularly welcome here in person this afternoon for the first time in quite a while. I also welcome his officials. I thank them and the Minister for the comprehensive briefing material supplied to our members prior to the meeting. The format of the meeting is that we will hear an opening statement from the Minister before going into a question and answer session with members of the committee.

I remind the Minister and members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located on the Leinster House complex. There are a number of members present and I assume we have members online from their offices as well, although I do not see them at present. For anybody watching this meeting online, some members and witnesses are accessing the meeting in remote format. Due to the unprecedented circumstances and the fact that members are attending remotely while some are in the committee room, I ask that everyone bear with us should technical issues arise.

I am not sure what the Proclamation is doing at our meeting, not that it is in any way unwelcome. That is Senator Ó Donnghaile's office. I am not sure if it indicates whether he is present-----

He is letting the Proclamation speak for him, Chairman.

-----but it could well be confirmation that he is attending from within this jurisdiction.

The Proclamation extends to all 32 counties, in fairness.

It does.

It is not partitionist.

I said that members can only participate if they are within the Leinster House complex which means they should be present within the jurisdiction of the State, as Deputy Brady will appreciate. However, that will be a matter for another meeting. I call the Minister to make his opening statement.

It is good to be back in meetings in person, and I look forward to many more sessions on the issues that will be raised today. I thank the committee for the invitation to the meeting. I will say a few words at the outset on a selection of significant issues which have featured on the agendas of the EU Foreign Affairs Council and the UN Security Council since I met the committee to discuss these topics last May.

In September, Ireland served as President of the UN Security Council for the first time since October 2001. This will be the only time we hold the presidency during our current term and therefore the month offered a unique opportunity to advance our priorities. First and foremost, we succeeded in adopting a groundbreaking resolution on UN peacekeeping transitions. This ensures the UN is properly prepared for the shift from peacekeeping to peacebuilding. The resolution was co-sponsored by 97 member states, including the council's five permanent members. I believe I am correct in saying this was also the first time Ireland got a thematic resolution passed at the Security Council, so it was a significant achievement. I believe it is only the second time we have got any form of resolution that Ireland authored agreed in the Security Council.

We also convened a landmark debate at the level of Heads of State and Government on the linkages between climate change and security, chaired by the Taoiseach. We have initiated negotiations on a new resolution. The council has never before adopted a resolution on the relationship between climate change and international peace and security. If we can achieve this, it will pave the way for the council to take concrete actions to address climate-related security risks for the first time. Truth be told, denying there is a risk now with what is happening in parts of the world that are deeply impacted by climate change and conflict, where climate change is an accelerator of that conflict and tension, is really not a credible position any longer, so I hope we will be able to get agreement on a wording for a resolution in this space.

In line with Ireland’s long-standing commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, we also convened and chaired a council meeting to mark the 25th anniversary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty towards the end of our month-long presidency.

The presidency was not just an opportunity to advance Ireland’s specific priorities. Our main responsibility was to manage the council’s programme of work, and we chaired discussions on Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and the Middle East peace process. I personally chaired a meeting of the Security Council on the situation in Afghanistan, and our team in New York successfully led negotiations to extend the mandate of the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan at what was a critical period. Managing the council’s work in September also allowed us to present our vision of how the international community should address peace and security issues. We set a record for the number of women civil society representatives to brief the council in a month. There were 17 briefers during the meetings we organised that month and 16 of them were women. I think those numbers are right and Ms Hyland will correct me if I am wrong. Instead of just discussing in the abstract the effects of conflict on women and girls, the council got to listen to their voices directly.

Before moving on from the presidency of the Security Council, I should point out that we have an extraordinary team in New York. The more I work with it, the more I realise its members are a mixture of experience and very smart young people. We have a team of almost 50 people who are working week-in, week-out on ensuring Ireland has an impact on the big global debates. They are led by an extraordinarily able person, but there is so much talent on that team, it is worth reflecting on it in this committee as well as thanking them for their work. They have done an extraordinary service to the State.

I will proceed to some other topical matters in which members have an interest. On the Middle East, I am attending this meeting having just returned from a week in the Middle East, after meeting political leaders from Palestine, Israel and Jordan. The escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine in May served as a reminder of why continued engagement on the Middle East peace process is vital. I addressed the UN Security Council and an emergency meeting of foreign ministers at that time and called again for the immediate cessation of hostilities, protection of civilians and compliance with international humanitarian law on all sides. The Dáil at that time also passed a motion characterising Israel’s actions of ongoing settlement expansion and the demolition of Palestinian homes and infrastructure in the West Bank as de facto annexation. Over recent months, actions on the ground continue to undermine any effort to engage meaningfully with a political resolution.

In my meetings with President Herzog of Israel and Foreign Minister Lapid, I gave the clear message that Israel must immediately halt these actions and start to take concrete and sustained confidence measures to begin to rebuild some of the trust that has been lost in recent years. Those meetings were good, direct and constructive. It is important the Irish Government seeks to build a relationship with the new Israeli Government, which has very different views and perspectives within it. There are many in the Israeli Government with whom I believe we can build a strong and positive relationship. In reflecting on my meetings in Israel, which were at times somewhat confrontational but always respectful, there is a very strong sense in Israel that there is an issue with antisemitism in Ireland. While some people might not want to hear that, it is important to say it. I do not believe Irish people are antisemitic and we have to be clear in our language if and when we criticise Israeli policy, and we do it regularly, particularly towards Palestinians as regards settlements, demolitions, forced evictions and many other issues in terms of a peace process that is not moving forward.

We must distinguish in the language we use between being critical of Israeli Government policy and giving the impression we are in some way anti-Israel or, indeed, anti-Jewish. That is something that, from my perspective, would be unacceptable. Sometimes, through the language used in the Dáil and Seanad, lines are crossed that should not be crossed. I ask people to reflect on that. We can and must be a strong, clear and consistent voice on the Middle East peace process, which advocates for international law, international humanitarian law and finding ways to move a peace process forward.

We also have to be careful in terms of the danger of sending signals. I mean that being critical of Israeli Government policy sometimes is taken as a signal of being anti-Israeli and the lines are blurred lines. If we are not careful with the language that we use that can stray into antisemitism. I have had many conversations on this issue in Israel I think are a cause for concern and we need to reflect on that.

My conversations with the Palestinian Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister were very positive and constructive. I made clear my view that democratic renewal and a clear path to elections in Palestine are essential to renewing the legitimacy and credibility of the Palestinian Authority, not least in the minds of its own people but also in the context of its relationship with the outside world. I made it very clear Ireland is there to help and support those efforts.

In both Israel and Palestine I met a wide variety of civil society, academic and media partners. In Jordan, I had detailed discussions with Foreign Minister Safadi about Jordan’s crucial role in the Middle East peace process, Syria and other regional issues. I also had an opportunity with him to formally open Ireland’s new embassy in Amman.

The prospect of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is of enormous concern. The Iranian nuclear agreement, or the JCPoA as it is called, is a vital safeguard in protecting the Middle East. I have engaged extensively with the partners to the JCPoA in the context of Ireland's role as facilitator of the relevant resolution in the UN Security Council, which is the basis for the JCPoA.

I am encouraged by the approach of the US, which has set out its clear intention to return and engage intensively in parallel talks in Vienna between March and June. I am, however, deeply concerned by Iran's continuing breaches of its commitments. I met the new Iranian foreign minister in September and urged Iran to return swiftly to talks and to full compliance with its obligations. It is positive the talks are due to begin at the end of this month in Vienna. I encourage all sides to make progress while there is still time.

I would like to say a few words about the situation in Ethiopia, which is of grave concern to me. The events of the past year in Ethiopia have resulted in a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe. While responsibility for ending the conflict rests with all of the parties, there is a moral imperative for the international community to take action. As de facto penholder on this file at the Security Council, we have worked tirelessly both in New York, with partners in the region and with parties to the conflict, to push for unhindered humanitarian access, an immediate cessation of hostilities and a negotiated solution through dialogue. Ireland led the negotiation of last Friday's UN Security Council statement that warned of incitement to violence by the use of inflammatory hate speech, and called for respect for international humanitarian law and support for the efforts of the African Union special envoy, former President Obasanjo.

The publication of the joint report last week, by the UN Human Rights Office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, confirmed that abuses, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, have taken place in Tigray over a sustained period. EU foreign ministers will again discuss the situation next week, including the possible use of the global human rights sanctions regime in the light of the findings of the joint report.

There are a number of other important issues that have been in focus in recent months, with which members will be familiar, not least Syria, where Ireland plays a key role on the humanitarian access file; Lebanon, where our engagement on the UNIFIL mandate has been critical; and Afghanistan, where the humanitarian situation is of increasing concern. I am happy to discuss any of these issues in as much detail as members so wish when we have questions and answers.

I thank the committee members for their continued engagement on these and other foreign policy issues, and I look forward to their questions.

I thank the Minister for his opening statement and it is good to have him before the committee this evening. I concur with what he said about our staff, particularly those in New York who work for the Security Council. I, too, would like to be associated with his comments. The staff do exceptional work and are great representatives of Ireland.

First, I wish to refer to Tigray and Ethiopia. I share the Minister's concerns about the ongoing onslaught perpetrated on civilians in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. I know EU foreign ministers are due to meet again next week. I welcome the statement made by the Security Council. I know how difficult it has been in the past to get a consensus on even issuing a statement. There are serious concerns, as the Minister well knows, about the potential for famine within the region, so the eyes of the world must remain on Tigray and Ethiopia. Everything that can be done must be done, including full humanitarian access. I plead with the Minister to ensure the eyes of the world remain on Tigray and other regions such as Yemen where, unfortunately, conditions are quickly evolving into a humanitarian crisis.

I am sure the Minister will not be surprised when I say that I want to focus on discussing Palestine and Israel. I welcome his recent visit to the region and engagement. Over recent weeks there has been a serious escalation in what can only be described in a continuous onslaught, not just against Palestinians but also human rights in general. How does the Minister view the comments made by the Irish ambassador to Israel last June who stated Israel is a country "based on the rule of law, on democracy, and on respect for human rights and human dignity"? Are the ambassador's comments in line with the position of the Government? I ask because it certainly is not in line with the view of experts.

A statement made by UN experts, dated 3 November, states, "Israel settlement expansion 'tramples' on human rights law". We know that is the case because Ireland was the first EU country to state formally that the ongoing illegal, colonial settlement policy by Israel breaches international law. I want to home in on that issue first. There are real concerns given that up to 15,000 additional illegal settlement units have been given the go-ahead and as many as 3,400 of those settler homes are in the E1 area. The expansion of settlements is really concerning and the expansion of the E1 settlement is especially sensitive. In the past the EU, the US and we have said that any expansion would cross a red line. Unfortunately, there has been no follow-up at EU level nor at the Irish level following Ireland's historic decision to declare that Israel had breached international law in annexing Palestinian lands. I would like to hear the Minister's views on same.

I welcome the statement of condemnation the Minister made last week. The situation has surpassed the point of condemnation and now we need definitive action. Palestinian civil society groups has said the end game is being played out by Israel. We can see that with the settlement expansions and with what can only be described as an absurd move a fortnight ago by Israel to designate six Palestinian civil society organisations as terrorist organisations. I am sure the Minister is well aware of the situation because we, as a country, donate to two of the organisations that have been designated to be part of the list.

It is concerning that these are the eyes and ears which ensure that a spotlight is shone on violations of Palestinian human rights by Israel. These organisations have been central to gathering information and facts to bring to the International Criminal Court, ICC. Therefore, this is a move by Israel to silence criticism and to stop the work these organisations are doing on the ground.

I note that the Minister has said that no evidence has been produced. There has been a lot of talk about this dossier that Israel has produced. Has the Minister seen the contents of that dossier? Has any further evidence been put forward by Israel regarding this issue? I ask that because there is no evidence, and that is the bottom line. These groups are concerned by this designation of them as terrorist organisations, and not only in the context of their safety but that of their ongoing work for the Palestinian people.

Will we continue to provide funding to those organisations? Will the Minister assure us categorically that that money will continue to be provided, irrespective of what the Israeli authorities say? Will finance continue to be provided to support those organisations? Concerns have also been expressed that the chilling effect in this regard may cause some of the financial institutions and banks to stop the flow of money to these organisations. What actions is the Minister going to take in this regard? What communications has he initiated with the financial sector and the banks to ensure that the flow of funds will continue to these organisations to allow them to continue to do their work? It is particularly concerning that this move by Israel has been little mentioned at EU level. What actions is the Minister taking at EU level and why is this silence continuing at EU level?

We must go beyond talk. This committee carried out comprehensive work and produced a report on demolitions, settlement expansions, etc. It was published, and I hope the Minister has had an opportunity to read it. It was a damning report and made several specific recommendations. Therefore, I hope the Minister has read it and that he is prepared to look at the recommendations made by this committee, some of which are actions that should be taken immediately. I ask the Minister to comment on that aspect. Words are no longer sufficient in this context. We need action, and we must work as a unit. I am prepared to work with the Minister to move beyond words, rhetoric and condemnation to look at serious actions and measures that we can take if we are serious about standing up for human rights in this regard.

The last issue I want to touch on is Brexit. It is not part of the work we are looking at here, but it is a serious issue and I cannot let this opportunity go without raising it. Major concerns exist regarding what the British may or may not do in respect of triggering Article 16. Dog whistling is coming from 10 Downing Street and the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Unfortunately, that is being picked up on by elements within the loyalist community. We have seen the same thing in the dog whistling that came from certain political parties in the North yesterday. The result on the ground has been the hijacking and burning of buses. Cars on the Shankill Road with southern registration plates have also been hijacked and burnt out. Therefore, there are real concerns in this regard.

If the Minister can take a few seconds to address this issue, I ask him to comment in respect of outlining our continued defence of the Good Friday Agreement and our concerns around triggering Article 16. What can we say to people in this regard? Are we going to ensure that the protocol stays as it is? Are we going to ensure that there is no hard border on this island? I ask the Minister to give his views and those of his Department on these issues, and to reassure those people who are concerned about this dog whistling and the effect it is having in certain quarters in unionism and loyalism. I refer to the concerns regarding the violence which may stem from such dog whistling.

I propose to take questions from a few members and then I will ask the Minister to reply. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I have several questions, but one specific query I would like to have answered now. The Minister just made a sweeping statement regarding comments made in the Dáil and Seanad that he said would veer into anti-Semitism. It was an incredibly sweeping statement. Is he saying that has happened during this Dáil term? Does he have examples? I ask those questions because I reject the Minister's assertion. I do not think that anything said in the Dáil and Seanad has veered into the territory of anti-Semitism or of being anti-Israeli. Therefore, does the Minister have examples or anything specific he would like to point to?

I might come back to that question.

I ask the Minister to deal with that in the context of his reply. I call Deputy Berry.

I thank the Minister and his team for coming in and for his detailed opening statement. I have two questions. The first concerns the situation at the Belarusian-Polish border. Large waves of refugees are being used as political pawns, and basically being used in hybrid attacks against the European Union. There have been reports of refugees being flown in from the Middle East to Minsk and then being bussed up to the border. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has called for increased sanctions against the Lukashenko regime. Does the Minister see these additional sanctions coming in and, if so, what will they contain? How long would it take for any such additional sanctions to come into force?

My second question concerns China. Every member of the committee is well aware that an Irish citizen is being held in China against his will and without charge. It is a matter of deep concern for every member of this committee. The Chinese ambassador has declined to come before the committee and I am sure we can all draw our own conclusions as to why that would be the case. In fairness, all the committee members have maintained a dignified silence regarding the case of Richard O’Halloran to allow the diplomatic community the space and time to progress the situation. To be fair as well, however, we can see nothing that points towards progress being made. I would be grateful, therefore, if the Minister will update this committee regarding where we stand with the case of Richard O’Halloran and how he sees this issue progressing between now and Christmas. If national diplomacy is not working, do we need to escalate this matter to a higher level, for example, to the European Union Foreign Affairs Council or to the United Nations Security Council itself?

I will go to the Minister for a response now in recognition of the large number of issues raised by Deputy Brady, the specific question from Deputy Gannon and the two questions from Deputy Berry. I will then resume questioning with Senators Joe O’Reilly and Craughwell.

I will respond to the question from Deputy Gannon first, because it was specific. In that regard, I met with the Jewish community in Ireland on this issue. For me, if Ireland is to be credible and effective internationally in respect of being critical of the policy of the Israeli Government towards Palestinians, then we must be clear concerning how that is seen and interpreted by other countries and by Jewish people. Jewish people living in Ireland should not be made uncomfortable or be targeted because of their association with Israel due to the strong political views held in Ireland concerning the relationship between Israel and Palestinians. Many examples, unfortunately, have been given to me of Jewish people who have been targeted online because of who they are. We must be careful, therefore, regarding how we speak and the language that we use to voice our frustrations.

In particular, when I used strong and emotive language in May, I believe I was on the right side of that line but I know many other people who were speaking passionately used highly emotive language as well. When we start referring to racist, colonial settlement enterprises and so on, that can be interpreted by some as a reflection on a people rather than a Government policy-----

Sorry, Chair-----

Sorry, I was asked a question.

I made reference to illegal colonial settlements and if the Minister is trying to infer-----

No, I am not-----

----- that in some way I am anti-Semitic because of my commentary, that should be withdrawn.

I did not quote what the Deputy said.

The Deputy is being defensive at present. He had a considerable amount of time for his questions and submissions. The Minister, without interruption please. He has to deal with the many issues that have been raised.

The point I am making is I would like Ireland to be an influential country in this space. I visited Israel and Palestine for the fifth time in four years last week. Had it not been for Covid, I probably would have been there for the eighth time. I am investing on behalf of the members, because I know many people in this room and in the Dáil and Seanad care deeply about this issue. I am investing in building relationships with political leaders in the Palestinian Authority, PA, and the new Israeli Government, because, I want Ireland to be a positive influence on trying to create the conditions for a peace negotiation, which is the only way a Palestinian state can emerge on the basis of agreement. The language we use is listened to and covered closely in Israel. Many Israelis see that blurred boundary between being a critic of Israeli foreign policy and anti-Semitism as an area I am concerned about in terms of my effectiveness to be internationally influential in this space. We should think about that.

Unfortunately, while there is a famine and extraordinary human suffering in parts of the Tigray region in Ethiopia, this is not confined to Tigray any longer. There is a real risk that a country of more than 115 million people could fracture, in a part of Africa that would be thrust into extraordinary uncertainty and instability should that happen. Ethiopia is on the verge of civil war. We, along with a number of other countries, are trying to do everything we can to ensure that does not happen. The immediate challenge is to try to get an agreed ceasefire and a negotiation process under way and of course, a massive humanitarian effort to bring supplies of food, medicines and many other things into parts of Ethiopia that need them, especially northern Ethiopia and not just Tigray. However, this is on a knife edge and the international community needs to be active in this space and we are trying to be part of that.

I met the new UN special representative to Yemen while I was in Jordan and got a good briefing on the challenges there. This is very complex. We will not see a huge step forward overnight but he is an impressive person and is working closely with both parties and other countries in the region that are involved in this conflict, in terms of funding, arms and so on, to try to bring about the basis of a ceasefire and safe humanitarian access.

I know Deputy Brady has strong views on the Middle East peace process. I have publicly challenged the designation of the six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organisations or as supporting such organisations both in Israel and on international media. I have said we need to see the proof of these organisations being terrorist organisations, because, we fund, albeit modestly, two of the six organisations. One of them is Al-Haq and the other is Addameer. One works with prisoners and the other works in advocacy and taking legal cases for people who probably would not otherwise be able to afford to do so.

Our view is the role of NGOs, especially in somewhere such as the occupied Palestinian territories are hugely important in representing vulnerable people. I have certainly seen no evidence to suggest any of the six organisations have links to terrorism. Of course, if that evidence emerges and exists, we will look at it. We will ensure no organisation gets Irish money if it is supporting terrorism or inciting violence. I must add, however, that my senior officials met and had a good meeting with representatives of both Al-Haq and Addameer while we were in Ramallah to discuss how we can continue to support them through the difficulties they clearly now face because of this designation. We will continue to support them until we see evidence we should not. I do not know whether that evidence exists but we have certainly not seen it and we have asked for it. If that changes, I will update the committee.

The role of NGOs and civil society is extremely important in any functioning democracy but even more important somewhere like the West Bank, where that voice is badly needed, even if that creates tension and difficulties for governments such as that of Israel. We do not fund NGOs because they tell us what we want to hear. They always push governments; that is the role of NGOs in society. This decision needs to be questioned and that is why I have done so. By the way, so has the EU. The Deputy stated the EU has been quiet on this issue but it has not. The EU has been quite public in questioning this decision, asking for the evidence and not being convinced by what was provided to it. This is an issue which will continue to be under discussion. In terms of-----

The question of whether banks will stop dealing with or handling any funding for these organisations is of serious concern, especially with regard to foreign funding coming from the Irish Government.

To be honest, I am not sure the Irish Government will be able to influence banks in either Israel or Palestine. We have spoken and will continue to speak directly to the two organisations involved to understand how we can be helpful in practice, in terms of protecting the work they do. That includes how they are financed. Being designated as illegal because of links to terrorism is very worrying for an organisation in terms of its ability to be able to work at all. It is important to be upfront about that. This is not simply a label. It is a designation in law or at least has a legal effect, which is hugely problematic. That is why I was so direct in raising it.

We spent more than half a day in the West Bank, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, looking at settlement expansion and the impact that is having on many Palestinian communities. It is a real worry. My commentary on settlement and settlement expansion has been pretty consistent, both on and off the record. We regard it as illegal. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power on somebody else's land is prohibited from transferring its populations into occupied territory, which is exactly what settlement expansion is all about.

There are close to 700,000 Israelis now living in different parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That is making the ambition of a two-state solution as a basis for a negotiated peaceful outcome to a conflict increasingly difficult. In this regard, I am referring to the future viability of a Palestinian state. I continue to be very direct and blunt about the illegality of what is occurring, and also about its counterproductive nature if one is serious about negotiating a peace settlement in the future.

I strongly defend our ambassador's commentary. Israel, as a country, sees itself as a democracy based on the rule of law. That does not mean I am not very critical of actions of the Israeli Government in occupied territory. I am not afraid to call out the illegality of that, but the two are-----

It is one thing for Israel to say it, but the ambassador-----

The Deputy has asked a question and I have answered it.

-----has said that he sees it as a country based on the rule of law. There is a distinct difference there.

The Deputy has asked a question and I have answered it.

If time permits, I hope to have time for brief supplementary questions to allow us to go back over the issues raised. I have indicated that to Deputy Gannon and am now indicating it to Deputy Brady. Other members wish to contribute. I am aware that the Minister is very keen to provide the comprehensive replies that this committee would expect.

I hear what the Deputy is saying but I also believe the ambassador made a clear distinction between the two things.

I will come to Brexit last because I would like to deal with Belarus and the Richard O'Halloran case first.

On Belarus, we are very much involved in the discussion, as the committee would expect. Irish people have solidarity with the plight of Belarusian people and what they are trying to bring about in their country, namely democratic legitimacy whereby they choose political leaders rather than having what is effectively a dictatorship that will not accept the will of the people as expressed in an election, which is what is currently in place. In the context of the relationship between Belarus and the EU, there has been a deliberate attempt by the Lukashenko regime to create tension with the EU effectively by bringing in vulnerable migrants from other parts of the world and bussing them to the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The regime is deliberately causing significant unrest at the borders, which is putting migrants in danger. It is creating genuine tension among the countries involved, both politically and socially. It is causing a lot of tension within the European Union. There has been a very deliberate effort by Belarus to destabilise political relationships within the countries that border it. This is reckless and puts some very vulnerable people in harm's way. Some of the refugees have lost their lives on the border. Belarus is also looking to try to paint the EU in a bad light as efforts are made to try to seal off borders in the region and try to manage the number of refugees crossing. What is occurring is effectively the state-sponsored use of vulnerable migrants to create political tension as a negotiating influencer. It is incredibly irresponsible. We are working to try to target new sanctions to respond to that. Members will see a fifth round of sanctions coming forward. Ireland has been very much involved in trying to shape them to send a very clear signal to Belarus that this is not acceptable.

With regard to Richard O'Halloran, I do not want to say too much because this is a consular case. It is probably the consular case that has been accorded more priority and taken up more time than any other over recent years. I am personally very involved in it by way of conversations and correspondence with my counterpart in China. Our embassy and representation in Shanghai are very much involved and speak to Richard regularly. We are keeping his family, including Tara, his wife, up to speed on the work we are doing. I am not sure it is helpful for me to get into all the legal detail on how we are trying to facilitate Richard's coming home, but we will continue to work with the Chinese authorities to get him home as soon as possible. The lack of public commentary from me on this issue should not be confused with a lack of political priority to get Richard O'Halloran back to his family in Dublin. In fact, the opposite is the case. We are deliberately not saying a lot publicly in an effort to ensure that we have an effective strategy to get Richard home as quickly as possible. For Richard's family, this matter has been a weight, and it has gone on and on.

The court case is complicated but I believe we are moving towards the end of the process. I do not want to give any direct timelines, however, because I cannot stand over them definitively just yet. I reassure people that there is an enormous effort under way to ensure that Richard will be allowed to come owing to the removal of the exit ban applying to him. He has been in China for a very long time and his children are growing up without him, which is something we are trying to correct as quickly as we can.

On Brexit, I am conscious that I do not want to turn this meeting into a Brexit meeting because, if I do, we could end up spending all the time on it. I do not want to give a monologue on Brexit either. We are at a really serious point now in the context of the Northern Ireland protocol. There is a serious risk that the British Government may choose to trigger Article 16. I hope it will not. We are working as hard as we can, as is the EU, to ensure that it will not. The EU, through Vice-President Šefčovič, has for many months been in deal-making mode. It has been compromising and looking for ways to introduce flexibility in respect of how the protocol is implemented. Maroš Šefčovič came to Belfast, met political leaders, business leaders and civil society leaders and promised them that he would go back to Brussels to try to design a package of measures that would respond to their key concerns. I believe he followed through on that promise when he responded to the four key issues people raised with him.

There has been concern for some time that medicines may be prevented from getting from Great Britain into Northern Ireland somehow because of the protocol. Given that we are still living through a global pandemic, this was completely unacceptable to people in Northern Ireland. I understand that. Mr. Šefčovič has essentially agreed to change EU law to ensure there are no barriers to the entry to Northern Ireland of medicines approved in Great Britain, despite the fact that Northern Ireland effectively functions as an extension of the EU Single Market for goods under the protocol. That clear commitment to ensuring there would be no disruption of the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland from Great Britain was the first part of the package.

Second, business leaders and politicians want a significant reduction in checks and goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Mr. Šefčovič has essentially proposed a way of reducing sanitary and phytosanitary checks on food products that are staying in Northern Ireland by up to 80%. This represents a massive change from where the European Commission was at the start of the year, or even in the middle of the year.

I think Maroš Šefčovič has looked to push all the legal and regulatory boundaries within the confines of the protocol to allow for SPS checks largely not to apply to products coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland that we can show are staying in Northern Ireland by improved labelling, better data sharing and so on. The approach is the same for customs checks. Maroš Šefčovič claims that the EU can propose solutions that can reduce customs checks by 50% - in other words, halve them.

In the fourth area, governance, many unionist politicians in particular, but not only unionist politicians, have said to me that if the UK is to operate under the rules of the Single Market for goods, the UK must have improved structures of communication and governance as to how that will work and how it will plan for responding to that in Northern Ireland. Again, Maroš Šefčovič has tried to respond to that concern by proposing new governance arrangements for direct dialogue and input from business and political leaders in Northern Ireland.

Taking all four of those things together, on top of some of the other concessions and flexibilities that have been shown over the past six months or so from the EU side, it has to be seen as a very genuine effort on the part of the Commission to try to solve these problems and settle people's concerns about the implementation of the protocol in the context of trying to deal with the Irish issues and the complexity of those that are forced by Brexit, or certainly forced by the kind of Brexit this British Government insisted on in Westminster. Unfortunately, the British Government has responded to those efforts by effectively banking concessions and flexibilities and looking for more, giving very little recognition of the extent to which the European Commission has moved in an effort to try to respond to the issues and concerns in Northern Ireland. The issue of the ECJ is in many ways one that is being prioritised in Westminster. It has not at all been an issue of priority in any of the discussions I have had or the Commission has had in Northern Ireland in the context of the implementation of the protocol.

Discussions are still under way this week. Maroš Šefčovič and Lord Frost will meet again on Friday in London. I certainly hope they will find a way to move forward on the basis of discussion and partnership, as opposed to the British Government side deciding to trigger Article 16 at some point post COP, in the next few weeks, which I think will trigger a very robust response from the EU side. If the British Government decides to set aside formally elements of the protocol using Article 16 as a facilitator for that, I believe the EU will see that as an act of bad faith and it will impact negatively the relationship between the EU and the UK and put a lot of pressure on the relationship between the UK and Ireland. That is not what we need. It is not what Northern Ireland needs or deserves and, from the Irish Government's perspective, we will look to try to find a way forward. However, as long as the British Government keeps asking for the EU to deliver the impossible - every time a concession or a flexibility is shown, the British Government looks for more and more - and if that continues to be the approach, I think this negotiation will run out of road. While there is a window for compromise, certainly from the EU side, I hope the British Government will see the sense in negotiating in a way that is robust but which will not trigger Article 16, instead looking to settle on a sensible agreement and a way forward. The parties in Northern Ireland could do with that as opposed to the alternative, which is tension between Dublin and London, tension between London and Brussels and the unfortunately polarising impact of that on politics in Northern Ireland, where there is already significant tension within the Executive and the Assembly as we lead into elections next year.

There is a lot at stake. I listened with interest to former Prime Minister John Major expressing his concern in a very forthright way over the weekend. I do not disagree with anything he said. When the British and Irish Governments do not act in partnership, it generally results in bad outcomes impacting Northern Ireland. Whether on legacy or on the protocol, I hope the British Government will seek a partnership approach rather than an alternative to that, which is not good for anybody. The British Government should not underestimate the EU's resolve or the EU solidarity in the context of the impact on Ireland of the decisions the British Government makes. That is much as I will say about the matter.

We will come back to Deputy Brady before the end of the meeting, but I am keen to allow members to make brief observations and to ask questions on issues arising from the Minister's opening statement. With that in mind, the next speaker is Senator Joe O'Reilly, to be followed by Senator Craughwell, then back to Deputy Gannon.

Thank you, Chair, for the opportunity. Since this is one of our first hybrid meetings, on a personal level I wish to welcome to our team Ms Emma McCarron. She worked with me on the Council of Europe, highly satisfactorily so, and worked on the Irish team there with great effect and great impact. It is wonderful that we have somebody with that experience and ability on our team now.

I welcome the Minister and his officials to the meeting. The handling of the UN role is extraordinarily satisfactory. I will not repeat all the detail the Minister has given. He is doing an extremely good job, as is Ireland generally. He graciously recognised the role of our 50 young civil servants over there. That is all good, and I wish to recognise that. I am delighted with the Minister's passionate commitment to the Middle East, his continual visits there and his pursuing of matters in the region. That is of great importance to me, as it is important, as the Minister said, to every Irish person.

I will run through a few specific questions. I understand that Afghanistan, to which the Minister referred in his presentation, is going through extraordinary economic turmoil at the moment and is an almost dysfunctional economy at a certain level. That is my understanding. I will stand corrected if I am wrong. What opportunity might that present for the international community to insist on and enhance women's rights there? Since Afghanistan is no longer a big issue in the news as the news keeps changing, as we in this room all understand, I would like to hear what the Minister would say are the current issues in Afghanistan and how he sees the state of the country generally. I would like a comment on that.

I will not repeat the points the Minister made about the Middle East. It is great that it is a priority for him. I agree with him: I do not think the Irish people are antisemitic, nor does the Minister, I know. However, I certainly agree with him about the targeting of people online. Our Jewish community should not feel any sense of insecurity - on the contrary - yet we can be very honest with them. I suspect that many among the Jewish diaspora or Jewish people living here or elsewhere, outside of Israel, are quite embarrassed about a lot of the issues we discuss here. I agree with the Minister about the non-governmental organisations. That is terrible, and it is important we stay with them until, as he himself says, there is evidence to the contrary, and there clearly is not, so it is important we go on funding and working with the non-governmental bodies in the region. He referred in his presentation to the elections in Palestine and the hope to get elections there. He might comment a little more on what is happening there. The last thing I will ask him about the Middle East is this: does he detect within the current Israeli Government, because of its complex and disparate nature, a lack of willingness or a lack of priority when it comes to the peace process?

If so, can we change that? If not, when would he see hope there?

We are all interested in the Iranian nuclear deal. The Minister alluded to it. He is following it very closely. There is not a lot we can say, other than that we hope it works. The Minister might speak about his instincts around it at the moment.

I ask the Minister to comment on access for humanitarian aid in Ethiopia. It is depressing to hear him say that Ethiopia is at the point of civil war.

Again, we are involved in access in Syria. The Minister might comment on that.

I will finish with a couple of quick points. The Minister referenced China. I will not go into the individual case that Deputy Berry dealt with and that the Minister responded to. The media reports about the Uighur Muslim people in China are concerning to all of us here. I do not know what information the Department has on this topic. If the media reports are true, we are back in a dreadful situation. Future generations will talk about what we did not do about this.

Of course, I agree with the Minister and with everyone who referenced Belarus. As he said, there is a fifth round of sanctions. That is all to the good. I was watching the television coverage last night - all of us probably were - on the Polish border. It is distressing.

Lastly, as a Border person, I would like to say that I welcome the Minister’s clear statement on Brexit. The British Government, and indeed many politicians in the North of Ireland, are out of kilter with the business community there and with the ordinary people on the topic of Brexit. There is a divergence there. The ordinary people feel differently about this question, as does the business community and civil society. In fact, politicians are way behind the curve on this topic. Anybody who is rational in Northern Ireland wants a normal trading relationship and wants to have the advantage of the greatly increased North-South trade that we are delighted about. They want to be fit to trade east-west in a smooth fashion. I welcome what the Minister has said there. Certainly, it would be a nightmare scenario for the part of Ireland I come from if we were to go back to open hostilities, to a breakdown of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and to a breakdown of the protocol on Article 16.

I find the report encouraging in that Ireland is so proactive, and the Minister is too. However, the report is disturbing insofar as it sets out where we are at on a number of questions. I am interested in the Minister’s responses.

I thank the Senator and call on Senator Craughwell.

The Minister is welcome to the House. At the outset, I want to say that our officials throughout the world, anywhere I have ever been, have been amazing people doing an amazing job. The Minister, and indeed his forerunners as Minister for Foreign Affairs, have had high profiles internationally and have served the country well.

However, let us start with Iran. I cannot understand why, when we decided to go back to Iran, we did not open an embassy there. It strikes me that sometimes when we look at foreign policy in this country, we do so while being afraid of two nations. These are, to our west, the US, and to our east, China. We should open an embassy in Iran. We should be treating both the United States and China as partners, not as dominant powers we are careful not to upset in any way. I know there are problems with Iran. I know that issues need to be sorted out there. The only way to sort these things out is by being on the ground and engaging with the people. I would like some idea of the timeline for the opening of a full embassy in Iran.

With respect to China, I will not go back over the subject of Richard O’Halloran other than to put it into the same mix that I have just outlined. It seems as though we are afraid to upset China in any way. China is either a partner of this country or it is not. If it is not a partner of this country, we should get tough with them at the end of the day.

Similarly, with regard to Taiwan, most European countries now have a representative in Taipei. Why are we so afraid to go there, especially given how responsive Taiwan was to our needs with respect to personal protective equipment, PPE, and the like when the pandemic hit. Taiwan was a tremendous partner to Ireland. It sent PPE over to nursing homes. It was just wonderful in its response. I cannot understand why we do not have somebody on the ground there. The European Union has people on the ground. Most of the European countries have people on the ground. We do not have to open an embassy. All we have to do is have a representative there that would be able to talk directly to the Taiwanese Government.

I was never enthusiastic about the presidency of the United Nations Security Council. I am mindful of the words of Greta Thunberg last night on the news, “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah”. Very shortly-----

It think that is unfair, Senator.

Well that is okay, Chair.

It is certainly not a view that is shared by this committee.

Certainly, I would agree with you wholeheartedly. However, I am talking about the public perception. People think the Security Council is just a talking shop. I looked at resolutions going before the Security Council between 1946 and 2011. I think those were the dates. There were something like 11 pages of resolutions that had been vetoed by the big five. It makes people wonder what exactly the Security Council does. As Afghanistan fell apart, we made a statement that Ireland stands with the women of Afghanistan. What does that mean? What practical steps have we taken to ensure the women of Afghanistan have been able to access education, for example? I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for a teenage girl who has had a number of years of education suddenly to be told that she cannot attend education, or for a young woman who was attending university to be told that her education is over and she is not going any further.

We talk about the shift from peacekeeping to peacebuilding. I would love the Minister to tell me precisely what that means. With respect to his forthcoming negotiations for a new resolution with the Security Council, will he publish that resolution before it goes to the Security Council? It is my understanding that the way----

Which resolution?

It is the second or third paragraph-----

It is on climate.

This is the one on climate. I understand the way we get around the problem of having resolutions vetoed is that we do not publish the resolution until we are sure we have everybody on side. If that is the way the Security Council works, it is really only a talking shop. We have to be brave and we have to publish whatever resolutions we want. We should let them veto it if they want. However, let them face the world and explain why they vetoed something that was going to benefit all of humanity. I admire the Minister for bringing this forward. I think it is a great idea, but I would like us to bring it forward without fear or favour and actually publish it and be damned. I will leave it at that.

Before I take a brief supplementary from Deputy Gannon, I would like to say to the Minister and to members of the committee that the format of the meeting is somewhat disjointed insofar as from the Minister’s point of view it is a bit of a pick-and-mix. I wonder if future engagements of this nature should be divided into sections dealing with the Middle East or with external relations, etc., rather than having repetition and a kind of a pick-and-mix which makes it difficult for the Minister.

I did not get to ask about our mission in Western Sahara in my opening contribution, as I had planned to do, because a specific question arose about comments that had taken me by surprise.

I will go back to Deputy Brady again.

We have withdrawn our two Irish officers who were in Western Sahara. Have we effectively given up, or washed our hands of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, MINURSO, as a consequence of that? Will our officers be back in? What will be our role in the MINURSO mission in Western Sahara? For me, Western Sahara represents another example of why we should be passing the occupied territories Bill. This is first because it is right and just to do so, but second, because it would remove some of those accusations that were made against us previously.

I also want to touch on an issue about our application of Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, OPCAT, which is in the programme for Government.

We often talk about the human rights record of other countries here. The ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, OPCAT, is long overdue. It is not specifically a role of the Minister's Department but it is in the programme for Government. We often talk about torture and human rights in the context of other nations. We should not fear to hold the gaze against ourselves.

A brief reference was made in the opening statement to the situation in the Lebanon. It is one of grave proportions and I hope the Minister and his European colleagues will engage in ensuring, insofar as they can, that monitored elections are held at the earliest opportunity next year and that the issue of humanitarian aid to Lebanon is on the agenda. The situation there from the political, economic, financial and social points of view is one of crisis. The task the Government has is overwhelming. I ask that consideration be given at an early date for the European Union to follow through on sanctions that have been promised in respect of a political elite, some of which has clear links with terrorist organisations.

As far as Ireland's engagement with Lebanon is concerned and having regard to what the Minister said, we welcome the opening of the embassy in Amman, Jordan. Is there a plan for us to increase our engagement with Lebanon and Beirut? Is it envisaged that capacity might be built upon? The ambassador in Cairo, Egypt, used to have and perhaps still has a remit in respect of Lebanon. There is a distance issue there but I hope, having regard to the crisis in Lebanon, that we continue to take an active interest and build capacity in our consulate or look at a resident embassy in Beirut.

I note with alarm in recent times the arbitrary deportation of a number of Syrian refugees back to a situation of danger in Damascus and other parts of Syria. I ask that that issue be taken on board. The situation in Syria has faded from our front pages but it is still in crisis. I refer specifically to thousands of prisoners detained in Damascus and other prison camps in horrific conditions. Many of them have been detained without charges having been preferred. I ask that the European Union continue to look at that. Are we moving towards a situation, which I would warn against, where there is a recognition on the part of some European Union states of the Assad regime? How is this being dealt with at Foreign Affairs Council? I would regard such recognition with alarm and trepidation.

The Minister can drop me a note on the following issue if it is not to hand. Our relationship with Australia is good and has been for many decades. That will continue but, having regard to our diaspora in Western Australia and the economic relationship between Ireland and Western Australia, will consideration be given towards the establishment of a consulate in Perth?

The Minister mentioned the UN Security Council. I disagree with Senator Craughwell's remarks. I express my appreciation and that of the committee for the role the UN council team played and the role our team in New York continues to play in political developments across the world. I acknowledge the role the Minister's team played in the recent repatriation of Irish citizens from Afghanistan. That was hugely important and very successful. It was expertly done and we appreciate that, as do the Irish people.

I will respond to Senator Joe O'Reilly's questions. He spoke on Afghanistan. I will follow up on what the Chair has just said and give an update on the number of Irish citizens, as well as Irish residents who may be Afghan citizens still in Afghanistan but who want to come home. So far, 106 Irish citizens, that is, Irish passport-holders, have managed to get out. We have helped them do that. There are 14 remaining and 12 would like to get out. The other two want to stay. Some people are extremely committed to the work they do with humanitarian organisations and want to stay and make a contribution. I have extraordinary admiration for people in those situations.

We have had some success in recent weeks in getting places on planes organised by Qatar out of Kabul airport. The Qataris have been helpful partners in terms of making, normally, 14 to 30 seats available, depending on the numbers, the size of the plane and so on. We have 12 who want to leave and 106 out so we have made good progress. Hopefully, we will get the remaining dozen people out soon. I have made it clear to our team that I want Irish residents who may be Afghan citizens but who effectively live in Ireland and want to come home to their families, to be treated as Irish citizens in terms of helping them to get out. Twenty Irish residents are out and about 12 remain. We will do what we can to get them out.

Then there are the refugee visa waiver cases. Just under 500 people have been given refugee status to come to Ireland. Some 300 of those are either on their way or already here. Another 190 still need to get out. It is often much more complicated to get Afghan refugees out of Afghanistan because it is difficult to get them on planes out of Kabul and many will cross the border into Pakistan. We have a good relationship and agreement with Pakistan to get them on planes to Ireland under the visa waiver programme.

The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, has been remarkably helpful through this period. His team and Department have turned around applications for visas quickly on the advice and recommendation of NGOs we trust. If we had chosen to go through a long interview process structure, which some countries do and which we normally do, many of the 300 people now out of Afghanistan would still be there and many of them would be in real danger.

Ireland has received a significant amount of international recognition for the pace at which we have turned around refugee applications, specifically those of vulnerable groups such as journalists or teachers. They are mostly women who were working, some of whom may have been translators in the past for western forces or NATO forces in Afghanistan, but all of whom have good reason to get out and cannot do so unless there is a country willing to accept them. That is why we have done as much as we can there and will do more. The biggest challenge for us is accommodation once they come to Ireland. I would like to see us working more with communities and organisations, and potentially with employers, because many of these people have real skills and speak fluent English. Some of them are nurses, surgeons, teachers or journalists who could make a very positive contribution here and we should be doing everything we can to help them.

To give members a sense of the scale of the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, I am gravely concerned in respect of the potentially catastrophic humanitarian situation. The food crisis in Afghanistan has reached unprecedented levels, with more than half the population, or 22.8 million people, expected to face acute food insecurity by the end of the year. We can expect that figure to increase due to prolonged drought, continuing conflict and the possibility of near-total economic collapse. In September, Ireland confirmed an additional €2 million to UNICEF and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, humanitarian funds for Afghanistan, bringing our funding this year to more than €4 million. I suspect we will end up doing a lot again next year. Irish Aid is supporting the work in Afghanistan of some long-standing NGO partners such as Concern and the HALO Trust. Irish Aid will discuss with our NGO partners their plans for continuing engagement in the country. It has a large population, 50% of whom are suffering significant food insecurity and, unfortunately, more and more of them are facing the potential for famine-type conditions. It is in that context that the international community is engaging with the Taliban. It is not recognising the Taliban as a government but it is certainly engaging with it in order to get aid in there and take a pragmatic approach towards-----

May I interrupt the Minister? Has anything been achieved in respect of women's rights as a quid pro quo?

The international community is trying but it has limited leverage with the Taliban, to tell the truth. Of course, we want to advocate for a more inclusive government, and we are doing so. We want to advocate for women's rights and particularly the rights of girls in terms of education and employment and so on, and we are doing so. However, are we being successful in protecting women's rights in Afghanistan? Only to a very limited extent. There are many anecdotal stories that, unfortunately, are very depressing and worrying. We will have to wait and see how that relationship develops, but the international community does need to use all the leverage it has to try to ensure the Taliban is held to account in terms of adherence to international law and human rights standards. We have also got to get enormous volumes of aid into the country, otherwise there will be mass movement of people, starvation and the collapse of an economy that is already collapsing, in truth, because there is no functioning financial or banking system.

As regards Palestinian elections, there are local elections planned across Palestinian territories next year. There are elections within the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO, as well. Of course, we would like to see the setting out of a roadmap to elections to the Palestinian Authority and presidential elections at some point. Whether it makes sense to have an interim government in the meantime or a continuation of the current Palestinian Authority structures is something that is under debate within Palestinian politics right now.

On the issue of the Israeli Government, the truth is that it is a Government with eight coalition partners that have very different perspectives on the Middle East peace process. Some are Israeli Arab parties, while others are parties that, in effect, represent the interests of settler communities. It is not an easy thing for that Government to agree on a pathway forward on a peace settlement, or even the conditions to start peace negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. That said, there are people in that Government who would like to do a lot more in that direction, while there are others who have a very different perspective to that shared by those in this room. We will have to wait and see. It is early days. The Israeli Government has only just passed its budget. Many people predicted it would not get the budget passed but it has passed a budget not only for one year, but for two years. I think this Israeli Government will be in place for some time. At an EU level and on a bilateral level, it makes sense to develop a relationship based on straight talking in an effort to try to encourage a peace dialogue with Palestinian leaders.

As regards Ethiopia and humanitarian access, the humanitarian situation in northern Ethiopia is dire. At the moment, it is not safe to get humanitarian aid in and there are blockages to that aid. The situation is changing literally by the day. Members may well see Tigrayan forces and other troops with whom they are working actually opening up new supply routes into Tigray and other parts of northern Ethiopia, but that obviously has to be discussed and negotiated with the international community in terms of how that would be done. Those are the kinds of conversations that are taking place right now. It is a country with approximately 115 million people and there really needs to be an international focus to ensure it does not collapse and splinter into different tribal perspectives, which would be a disaster for the Horn of Africa.

As regards China and the Uighurs, Ireland has been quite vocal on this issue not only in our Parliament, particularly the Seanad, but we have also spoken at the UN Human Rights Council on this issue. We have raised these issues on several occasions along with our partners in the EU and the wider international community, including, most recently, at the 48th UN Human Rights Council in September and at the UN Third Committee on human rights in October.

I take Senator Joe O'Reilly's point regarding the pragmatism of business leaders in Northern Ireland, who now just want to accept a protocol that works with the maximum flexibility possible. That is something towards which I hope we can work.

Senator Craughwell raised the issue of Iran. First of all, we have agreed to open an embassy in Iran but I needed to get a person on the ground quickly because Ireland has a responsibility in that regard as facilitator for the resolution which is the basis for the joint comprehensive plan of action, JCPOA. As such, I needed to have a senior diplomat on the ground. We have a chargé d'affaires, Mr. Justin Ryan, in place there. He is experienced and good at what he does. We agreed to partner with the German Embassy to get a team on the ground quickly. That was the pragmatic thing to do. If we had sought to open an embassy, we would still be messing around trying to find the right location. As the Chairman will know having previously been in my role, it takes many months to get an embassy secured legally and from a communication point of view and all the rest of it. We got a team on the ground quickly by working in partnership with a really good EU partner that has a big presence there. Actually, we share information with it, which gives us a really good insight because the German foreign office has deep roots around the world. On the issue of China and it being time to get tough with China on Richard O'Halloran, all I can say is that my only motivation in this regard is to get Richard O'Halloran home. We are pursuing a strategy to do that and it is about maximising his chances of getting home. I do not believe China responds to strong-arming or pressure. My objective is getting a result, not getting profile out of this case or getting column inches on it or anything else.

I have spoken to Richard O'Halloran's wife many times. I feel a personal responsibility to get him home. That is what we are focusing on and I believe we will succeed, but I cannot give an exact timeline as to when.

On the UN Security Council, from my experience, I am aware of the perceptions about the UN Security Council because the veto is used often in an irresponsible way that prevents the Security Council intervening at times when it should. Just because that happens - and it should not - it does not mean the Security Council still does not do extraordinarily valuable work, which I have seen since we became a member of the council, in terms of interventions and applying pressure at the right time. Sometimes the Security Council fails in a shocking way to intervene to prevent conflict, but it has successes too. It is effectively one of the few legitimate multilateral fora that can intervene on war and peace issues in a way that is consistent with international law. While it is not perfect, and I would like to see it reformed, what we are trying to do on the Security Council is to work in a streetwise manner to get as much done as we possibly can on new resolutions. I can share the resolution on peace transitions with the Deputy. I assure members that it is a practical resolution. It requires the Secretary General of the UN to produce a report on how we move from peacekeeping missions, of which there are many around the world, and how we transition into peace support over time. Peacekeeping missions should not have a permanent presence. Unfortunately, they have become that in many parts of the world that rely on peacekeeping missions to keep the peace. We should be able to invest in diplomacy and in capacity building within states to safely make the transition from peacekeeping to peace support to peace building over time. Our resolution requires the Secretary General to put a roadmap in place in terms of how that can be done, and to tailor that to individual peacekeeping missions and the mandates around them. It is very pragmatic and comes from a country that has much experience in peacekeeping - that is to say Ireland - and has worked with many other countries that do as well. I am happy to share the resolution with the Deputy, who has an interest in and much knowledge of peacekeeping.

I will give an example of the UN Security Council functioning despite tension and politics. We spent six months working with countries in the council, particularly the five permanent members, P5, trying to protect a mandate to get humanitarian assistance into Idlib, in north-western Syria, to support a population of close to 3 million people who are almost entirely reliant on the cross-border aid programme that is transparent and delivered through UN organisations. That came to a head in midsummer, but we managed to get it across the line by helping to broker an agreement between the United States, Russia and Turkey. As a result, that aid continues to flow. If it had not been for the Security Council, there would be no such resolution and no such border crossing supporting vulnerable populations. It can therefore work. It is not always easy. Believe me: the Security Council has its flaws. It is predominately a force for good most of the time.

I refer to Deputy Gannon's questions on the mission to Western Sahara and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. I did not recognise the acronym used; I bow to the Deputy's expertise on that one. On the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, MINURSO, I know a bit about Western Sahara from my time in the European Parliament. In July, the Defence Forces withdrew two personnel from MINURSO. The decision arose from the need to consolidate operational deployments in the context of recent significant additional commitments to arrange a peace keeping operations, including the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, MINUSMA, the European Union Training Mission in Mali, EUTM Mali, in addition to maintaining the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL. The withdrawal does not represent a reduction in our commitment to the mission's mandates and we have spoken on that mandate quite strongly in the Security Council. Our long standing position is one of full support for MINURSO, the UN lead process and the Secretary General's efforts to bring about a definitive and mutually acceptable political settle on this issue. What is happening in Western Sahara continues to be tragic. Just because we do not have peacekeepers in a mission, it does not mean we are not completely committed to the mandate. Sometimes we have to make practical decisions on where we deploy personnel in order to make a maximum and positive impact. We made a practical decision on the advice of the Defence Forces in regard to that, and it does not undermine our political commitment at all.

On the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, legislation to allow for ratification of the optional protocol is currently being drafted and will be brought to Government shortly, subject to approval of the Dáil and Government. This legislation will create a new office of inspector of places of detention. We are committed to it. I am not sure if I will be responsible for debating it in the Dáil. I suspect the Department of Justice will be. This legislation is on the way.

I refer to the Chairman's comments on Lebanon. I was in Lebanon a number of months ago and I hope to return before Christmas. This is a country that should be a wealthy country but is virtually bankrupt because of very bad politics. The EU had been pushing for the formation of a new Government, which has now happened. We are unlikely to see EU sanctions being used now. The sanctions were there as a tool to force the formation of a government that could actually make decisions on the reform agenda that needs to be progressed. The EU does not want to sanction Lebanon; it wants to be help it. This country has survived in this extraordinary environment - domestically and in terms of the countries that surround it. There has been a political class in Lebanon that has not brought about the reform needed and, as a result, we have effectively seen this country move into national bankruptcy, or close to it. That is one of the reasons that over the summer we insisted on amending and changing the UNIFIL mandate to allow UNIFIL to play a more pragmatic assistance role to the Lebanese Armed Forces, LAF, which is one of the strong stabilising forces within Lebanon and has the respect of the population there. UNIFIL can now, in a practical way, assist the LAF in a way it would not have been able to before, with things like basic supplies and fuel, etc. There were real financial problems in funding the Lebanese Armed Forces to work with UNIFIL to keep the peace in southern Lebanon, particularly in the context of tension with Hezbollah. It was an important change and was led by Ireland.

We need to watch Lebanon closely. When we decided to set up an embassy in Jordan, in Amman, it was a toss-up between opening in Beirut or Amman. In some ways, due to our presence in UNIFIL for so long, it would have made sense to set up an embassy in Beirut because at present it is served from Egypt which is a long distance away. We felt we were developing a strong and positive relationship with Jordan at the time. Jordan is a central player in the context of the Middle East peace process, particularly on the holy sites in Jerusalem. We also believed there were real trade opportunities there as well. We will be looking at Lebanon in the future, in terms of increasing our representation there, and hopefully we will have much more political and economic stability by the time we do that.

I have expressed my concern about the forced deportation of Syrian refugees. Refugees should not be forced back into areas of conflict where they are not safe, despite the extraordinary pressures Lebanon is under in regard to the enormous population of refugees. It is a bit like Jordan. Some 30% of its population are refugees, between Palestinians and Syrians. That puts extraordinary pressure on the system, particularly at a time when public money is not there.

That is obviously not a justification for returning refugees in a way that is not safe.

I do not think we are moving towards recognition of the Assad regime in Syria. I will give the official position on that in the context of normalisation and reconstruction. The conflict in Syria is far from over even though it has now been ongoing for over 11 years. The EU remains resolute and continues to demand an end to repression, the release of detainees and that the Syrian regime and its allies engage meaningfully in the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Given the failure of the Syrian authorities to engage in a meaningful way on the provisions set out in Resolution 2254, it is premature, in our view, to have any normalisation of political relations with the regime. We have to continue to support humanitarian assistance and the vital infrastructure within Syria. It is difficult to get the balance right. I think the international contribution to humanitarian support in Syria is between $5 billion and $6 billion a year. We do that with no recognition from and no relationship with the Assad regime. We have to ask ourselves if that is sustainable indefinitely but we also have to ensure that we hold people to account for war crimes and for the treatment of their own people.

Regarding Australia, I am familiar with the Irish diaspora in Perth. One of them is my brother. He is a doctor there, like many other young Irish people and their families. The Department is assessing where the next phase of expansion will go. We have opened many new representations in the last years, from Chile to Colombia, from Toronto to Auckland, with a range in the United States, Manchester, Cardiff, Frankfurt, Lyon, Kyiv, Rabat and Liberia. It is a long list. We are trying to finalise the next phase of areas where we think enhancing Ireland's footprint makes sense politically, economically and with regard to the diaspora. We need to think about Western Australia. I do not want to pre-announce anything. A recommendation will come to me and we will take it from there. It might be interesting to come back to the committee and get members' views on those choices. I would certainly welcome a broadening of perspective.

Have I answered the Chair's question on Afghanistan?

Yes, I think that is it. I thank the Minister.

Every time the Minister is here, when we talk about the Palestinian issue, the human rights violations, and the expansion of illegal settlements, we hear the words "negotiated peaceful outcome". How realistic is that? We all hope to get to that point but with the continued expansion of settlement units and the onslaught against human rights, with the designation of the six groupings, how long can we wait until that peace process kicks in, if ever? Hopefully it does. All the time, a two-state solution is being completely undermined. As I see it, there is no serious attempt by Israel to get back around the negotiating table. Unless definitive actions are taken to force Israel to the table, it will continue to act with impunity. We talk about Syria and Belarus, and about the swift actions being taken by the EU, not normalising relationships with different regimes, standing up for human rights and so on, but there are no parallel actions by the EU or Irish Government, even though we have said that Israel has breached international law by annexing occupied Palestinian land. When are we going to say that enough is enough and that we need to take a stand, to work in unison with the EU or to take unilateral action and take measures ourselves?

I want the views of the Minister and Department on another matter. The Minister is aware of the ongoing hunger strike of seven prisoners who are being illegally detained in administrative detention. There is classified evidence and there has been no trial or evidence whatsoever. One of those prisoners, Kayed Al-Fasous, has been on hunger strike for 117 days. The silence from the international community is deafening. What are the views of the Minister and the Department? Will he call for the immediate release of Kayed Al-Fasous from detention, along with his six fellow prisoners who are currently on hunger strike?

In fairness, no Minister has invested as much time and energy into the Middle East peace process as the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has in recent years. He recently had the opportunity to visit again. He indicated that he met with the new, reshaped Israeli Government and he indicated a certain level of change, which we would all agree about. I accept the questions that the Deputy asked but they need to be framed in the context of a most challenging situation, in which Ireland has invested considerably and will continue to do so.

I am aware of the Palestinian prisoners currently engaged in a hunger strike, including the concerns raised by the International Committee of the Red Cross regarding the health of two detainees. I also note the statement from the UN special rapporteur on 21 October, calling on Israel to either release or charge the prisoners and to completely end the practice of administrative detention. Irish officials are monitoring this matter closely in co-operation with partners on the ground. Ireland has repeatedly called on Israel both directly and through the Human Rights Council to ensure that its treatment of detainees adheres to international humanitarian rights standards and international humanitarian law. Ireland also provides financial support to NGOs in the region which are active in bringing issues regarding treatment of detainees to light. We mentioned Addameer earlier. It works in that space.

The Deputy constantly paints me as someone who is not fully committed on these issues. Where we differ is about the mechanisms that should be used to bring about change. I believe in engagement and in relationships. I believe in blunt diplomacy and building relationships with people who I believe can be instrumental in bringing about change in the future. I do not believe that, in this instance, boycotts and isolation are the way to bring about change in the Middle East peace process. The Deputy believes that we should do that. Many people believe that we should expel the Israeli ambassador to Ireland. I do not believe that we should do that. Severing our ties with Israel will not advance a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians in my view. I believe that Ireland needs to be as influential as it possibly can be in EU and UN debates and in the bilateral relations that we have with both Israel and Palestine. That is what I am focusing on because I believe that we can be a player to a certain extent.

Maybe that is something that will not happen, but the conversations I had last week in Israel, throughout the Palestinian territories and in Jordan suggest to me that people take our views seriously. We are often described as the most vocal country on the planet, not just in the European Union, on this issue. We will continue to try to influence outcomes as best we can. Many people are trying to get their heads around this new Israeli Government. Clearly, there has been a strategic decision not to engage seriously with a new peace initiative, for now, because of the diversity of opinion within the eight different parties of its coalition Government. I know that does not solve the problem tomorrow. I accept that, but I have been pretty vocal in trying to stop the situation getting any worse in terms of settlement expansions, their strategic nature, demolitions, forced evictions, humanitarian conditions in Gaza, and many other issues linked to east Jerusalem, such as holy sites and so on.

I will continue to be vocal, but I have got to remain relevant and listened to by people who can bring about change and influence in the region. If we took the approach that is sometimes suggested I should take, I do not believe we would be in a position to do that. When the Deputy said that words are only words and we need actions, I am not sure what actions he is suggesting would add to Ireland's influence on the Middle East peace process in the multilateral fora we operate in and need to stay credible in. It is an honest answer to his question. I hope to have an opportunity to continue to engage in this space. We have an opportunity over the next year or so, while we remain on the Security Council, to be part of some new thinking and initiatives in the Middle East peace process. One of the things we are certainly thinking a lot about is how we can use our position on the Security Council to advance some new thinking in this space. That is the way to do it, rather than taking unilateral action as a country on our own that isolates Ireland from mainstream thinking in this area.

We are up against the clock but Senator Craughwell indicated he had, unusually, a very brief question.

I want to put two things on the record. One is the Minister's responsiveness when I have called on him for assistance outside this forum. I recall contacting him during the Kabul evacuation and within moments he came back to me. I know he did everything he could for the individual involved.

The other matter relates to the Security Council. My concern is more about the frustration the Minister must feel about the big five on it that can veto anything that comes along. I was encouraged to hear him say the council needs modernisation and to look at itself again. We are living in a world where democracy is under attack all the time and we should try to democratise the United Nations Security Council far more. I do not want the Minister to go away feeling that I thought everything about it was negative. I feel the frustration he must feel, if he is trying to bring something forward.

Ireland is all for reform of the Security Council. We would like to see the veto either not used or limited to use in specific areas. France, in particular, has made efforts to try to limit the use of the veto in certain areas, especially in respect of war crimes, accusations of war crimes and when humanitarian law is being breached, by the use of chemical weapons, for example. The idea that a veto could be used to prevent an investigation into the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent in many ways. We support France's efforts and we will work to try to bring about more reform.

We also think there should be more permanent members on the Security Council. Some very large countries that are very influential in global affairs are not part of permanent representation on the Security Council. We also do not believe Africa has sufficient representation. We have made our views known in those areas but if, during our time on the Security Council, we were to focus solely on reform of it, we would try but we might not achieve a whole lot. These are powerful countries. The Security Council is not a democracy. There are five permanent members that have powers the other ten do not.

The Security Council is a place of negotiation, relationships and lots of tension. We are trying to be a broker for agreement in areas where we can see opportunities to make a positive impact. So far, we have managed to do that in some strategic areas, especially around humanitarian assistance for Syria and shining a spotlight on Ethiopia, going right back to February when Ireland started talking about that issue. We have managed to do it through a resolution on peacekeeping transitions and we have also managed to do it around disarmament. We have been a very strong voice in trying to pull people together on Afghanistan. We are relevant and that is what a small country on the Security Council needs to aspire to be.

I very much thank the Minister for his opening statement, for being here with us and for the manner he dealt with the comprehensive issues that were the subject of our questions. I again thank his officials for the briefing we received. I propose to adjourn until 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 16 November, when we will meet with representatives of the Defence Forces' veterans' associations, the Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel, ONE, and the Irish United Nations Veterans Association, IUNVA.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.56 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 16 November 2021.