Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 25 Jun 2014

Foreign Affairs Council: Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

The draft minutes of the meeting on 18 June have been circulated to members. Are they agreed? Agreed. I remind members, witnesses and those in the Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting, as they interfere with the recording equipment in the committee room even when in silent mode.

I extend a warm welcome to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, and his officials. The Tánaiste has attended our meetings many times in the past three years. Our proceedings have always been both cordial and productive. We look forward to hearing his views on the forthcoming Foreign Affairs Council meeting, particularly on the recent events in Iraq and the volatile situation in eastern Ukraine, and we would like to hear how Ireland and the EU plan to support stability in Ukraine. While the principle reason for his attendance today is to discuss the Foreign Affairs Council meeting he attended on Monday last, members will also be aware the Tánaiste was in Washington lobbying on behalf of the 50,000 or so undocumented Irish people living illegally in the United States. If it is at all possible we would like to hear how that went, as the committee has taken a very keen interest in the area and has visited the United States on a number of occasions to push for immigration reform. I know this has also been very high on the Minister's agenda in the past number of months.

I call on the Tánaiste to make his presentation, to be followed by questions on the important meeting that took place in Luxembourg.

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee. I welcome the opportunity to brief the joint committee on discussions at the Foreign Affairs Council for the second quarter of 2014. It has been a busy period since I attended the committee meeting at the beginning of March, not least in light of ongoing developments in Ukraine and recent developments in Iraq.

I propose to address the key issues by geographic region as follows: the eastern neighbourhood, the southern neighbourhood, Africa, and Asia, before touching briefly on one thematic issue, human rights. I look forward to discussing the details with members in due course. I will respond to the question on my visit to the United States after my main contribution.

The situation in Ukraine has been the subject of detailed discussion at the Foreign Affairs Council in the period under review. The crisis has been discussed at every Council for the past four months. The EU is resolved to do all it can to help facilitate an inclusive and negotiated settlement and has been actively engaged in efforts to promote dialogue and peace in Ukraine since the outset of the crisis.

The framework of the EU’s response to the crisis was decided at the informal meeting of EU Heads of State and Government on 6 March, where a calibrated three-stage roadmap was adopted in relation to targeted measures against the Russian Federation in the absence of a de-escalation of the situation. The Heads of State and Government endorsed, as a first phase, the suspension of talks on visa matters and on a new agreement on trade, as had been agreed at the extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council on 3 March. The Council on 17 March implemented the second phase of measures envisaged by the roadmap, namely, travel restrictions and an asset freeze against 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The March Foreign Affairs Council also discussed the so-called referendum that had been held in Crimea the previous day, which resulted in the territory’s formal annexation by the Russian Federation on 18 March. In our conclusions, EU foreign ministers rejected the poll as illegal and a clear violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

At the May Council, in light of the deteriorating security situation in Eastern Ukraine following the annexation of Crimea, Foreign Ministers agreed to the imposition of sanctions against a further 13 named individuals, bringing to 61 the total number of listed individuals subject to assets freezes and visa bans. Moreover, in a broadening of the EU’s criteria, we imposed sanctions on two entities, that is, companies based in Crimea which are deemed to have benefited from the illegal annexation. Following on from our discussion on Monday, the Council decided to prohibit the import into the European Union of goods originating from Crimea or Sevastopol with the exception of those having been granted a certificate of origin by the Government of Ukraine.

The Council has agreed to a number of concrete measures to build confidence in Ukraine and recognise its European choice as endorsed by the Ukrainian people in the presidential elections last month. In March, the Council supported the signing of the political chapters of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which were subsequently signed at the European Council later that week. At the Council on Monday, my EU colleagues and I welcomed the forthcoming signature of the remaining provisions of the association agreement, including its deep and comprehensive free trade area, at the European Council later this week. On Monday, we also agreed to establish a common security and defence policy mission to Ukraine to lend assistance to the Government in the field of civilian security sector reform. In addition, we have consistently confirmed our support for the important work of the OSCE in Ukraine.

Ireland has played its full part in the OSCE’s activities in Ukraine and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the 16 Irish members of the OSCE-ODIHR observation mission that oversaw last month’s presidential elections. There are currently five Irish members of the OSCE special monitoring mission in Ukraine, which is engaged in a close assessment of the security situation on the ground.

The EU has also contributed financial support to Ukraine in order to assist in efforts to stabilise the macroeconomic situation and encourage the implementation of structural economic reforms. The March Foreign Affairs Council approved the European Commission’s proposal to offer €1.6 billion in macro-financial assistance to Ukraine, as well as temporary tariff cuts for Ukrainian goods. I am encouraged that the Commission disbursed the first tranche of these vital funds to Ukraine last month.

At Monday’s meeting, my EU colleagues and I reflected on the positive outcome of last month’s presidential elections which, despite the difficult security situation, were characterised by a high turnout and were largely in line with international commitments. In our conclusions, we welcomed President Poroshenko’s 15-point peace plan which was announced last Friday. Despite the significant challenges that face him and his Government, we remain hopeful that President Poroshenko’s strong mandate will help advance Ukraine on the path of reform and turn it into the modern and democratic country its citizens call for. The EU will continue to be actively engaged in facilitating a resolution to the crisis and supporting Ukraine’s progress towards peace and stability. For my part, I can confirm that Ireland fully supports the peace plan proposed by President Poroshenko which we hope will lead to the negotiated peaceful solution to the crisis in Ukraine that we all wish to see.

At the May FAC, Ministers held a comprehensive discussion on the European neighbourhood policy, ENP. More than a decade since its inception, the ENP continues to play a vital role in helping to build an area of stability and shared prosperity in the EU’s wider neighbourhood. The policy was revised in 2011 to take account of the dramatic developments in the countries on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Key changes included strengthening links with civil society and a commitment by the EU to offer increased aid to partner countries prepared to embrace deeper democratic reforms.

While these elements will remain central features of the ENP, it is clear that a further review of the current policy is required in light of the crisis in Ukraine and the impact it has had on the wider region, coupled with increased instability in the southern neighbourhood. Key issues highlighted by Ministers during the FAC discussion included the need for greater flexibility in how the EU deals with individual countries under the ENP and the requirement to better tailor our approach to the differing political and economic realities faced by each of our partners. Ministers also agreed that supporting economic development and helping to address the challenges of high youth unemployment in partner countries will be crucial in building support for the ENP in the EU’s neighbourhood.

One of the key initiatives within the framework of the European neighbourhood policy has been the Eastern Partnership, EaP, a major priority for the EU since its launch in 2009. The purpose of the EaP is to create a zone of prosperity and stability to the east of the EU committed to the democratic values of human rights and rule of law. It is fundamentally in the EU’s security interests that the EaP succeed in these objectives.

As I have said, the crisis in Ukraine has underlined the need for a more effective ENP and EaP. Even against the background of this crisis, however, we can point to tangible progress in developing our Eastern Partnership. The signing of association agreements between the EU and Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, expected to take place en marge of the European Council on 27 June, will mark an important symbolic moment for the EU’s relations with our eastern neighbours. It should also be noted that all six EaP countries, even those such as Belarus and Armenia which do not intend to conclude association agreements with the EU, are committed to the EaP and to closer co-operation with the EU.

While the focus in the EaP will necessarily be on the implementation of the association agreement, the EU will also consider how best to further develop its relations with all of the partner countries ahead of the next EaP summit in Riga in May 2015. This will be vital to the strengthening of our European neighbourhood policy, which in turn will be a priority task for the new Commission and High Representative when they take up office.

At the 14 April Council, I participated in a strategic discussion on Bosnia and Herzegovina where we agreed to broaden the EU agenda and engagement with the country. Member states urged Bosnia’s leaders to focus on addressing the socioeconomic issues highlighted by their citizens during the wave of public protests earlier this spring. We supported the development of a compact for growth and jobs that would engage local stakeholders in identifying concrete structural reforms to reinvigorate the economy. Ahead of the general elections due to take place in October 2014, we urged Bosnia’s leaders to reach out actively to civil society and to tackle issues such as the very high levels of unemployment in the country. Ireland remains a strong supporter of Bosnia’s EU perspective and I very much supported the EU in taking this broader and more active role.

The Balkan region, including Bosnia, was recently affected by some of the worst flooding since records began. Ireland responded by providing €50,000 to the NGO World Vision, as well as relief supplies such as tents and blankets, worth €220,000, to help victims of the flooding.

While it is not strictly an item for the Foreign Affairs Council, I would like none the less to say a few words about Albania in the context of the wider eastern neighbourhood. I welcome the agreement of the General Affairs Council yesterday to grant candidate status to Albania, subject to the endorsement of the European Council later this week. This is a positive decision that Ireland very much supported. Of course, candidate status is just the beginning of the process and much work remains for Albania before accession negotiations can begin. It is clear, for example, that there will have to be further progress in the fight against corruption and organised crime and in judicial reform.

Turning to the Middle East, attention is very much focused at present on the grave situation in Iraq, arising from the offensive launched earlier this month by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or al-Sham, which has resulted in the capture of Mosul and several other major cities in northern Iraq. There can be no doubt about the seriousness of the threat posed by ISIS and its affiliated militias, not just to Iraq and its people but indeed to the wider region. I have resolutely condemned the violence and terror that ISIS has inflicted on ordinary Iraqis in pursuing its offensive. Unfortunately, we already know well from Syria the depths to which ISIS can plunge in seeking to impose its extremist views on others, including, for example, threats to execute Christians unwilling to convert in the Syrian city of Raqqa. The international community therefore needs to support the Iraqi authorities in confronting this serious challenge to the security and territorial integrity of Iraq. However, as I and many others, including EU and Arab League foreign ministers at the meeting in Athens on 11 June, have made clear, any security response also needs to be combined with strong political efforts on the part of the Iraqi Government and all its political leaders to promote national unity and reconciliation and involve all sectors of Iraq’s divided society in governing the country.

While the links with the crisis in Syria, where ISIS also poses a grave threat, are evident, the fact is that Iraq has just successfully conducted national elections at the end of April which have demonstrated the strong commitment of the Iraqi people to their democratic constitution. It is telling of the partisan manner in which the Maliki government has regrettably governed in recent years that a request by Prime Minister Maliki for the new parliament to convene in order to confer emergency powers to confront the current situation has been blithely ignored by non-government political representatives. I welcome the more recent signs of accommodation among Iraq’s political leaders which we have seen subsequently in recent days.

The EU and the UN remain fully committed to jointly assisting Iraq and its leaders in confronting the serious challenges the country faces and promoting greater inclusivity and power sharing among Iraq’s different communities. The Council this week had a useful meeting with the UN Special Representative in Iraq, the former Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Nikolai Mladenov, to discuss the crisis, including stepped up international efforts to confront the serious humanitarian situation. Committee members will be aware that I was pleased to announce an initial contribution of €200,000 from the Irish Aid budget last week to GOAL to assist the vital humanitarian operations it is undertaking in northern Iraq.

The Council on Monday also addressed the continuing crisis in Syria, where regrettably there has been very little progress of any sort to report over the past three months. Earlier this month, we observed the spectacle of Bashar al-Assad being re-elected President for a further seven-year term in an election whose legitimacy could only be questioned by any impartial observer, given the many millions of Syrians in opposition-held areas who were unable to vote. As the Council noted in the conclusions it adopted in April, any election organised outside the framework of the Geneva communiqué and principles could have no credibility whatsoever and will only undermine efforts to reach a political solution.

Efforts to promote a political settlement are currently at a standstill following Joint Special Representative Brahimi’s decision to stand down last month. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, is currently reflecting on how best to promote a political process and will appoint a successor to Mr. Brahimi once this process of reflection is complete.

Clearly, all relevant regional stakeholders need to be engaged in the search for a political solution, as the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or, more accurately, its return to Iraq has graphically underlined the broader threats which the wider region now faces. While the Geneva talks process may be suspended, the principles underlying the original Geneva communiqué providing for some form of political transition are still likely to prove relevant in the continuing search for peace in Syria.

In the meantime, the humanitarian situation arising from the crisis continues to worsen, with little progress in improving vital humanitarian access evident since the United Nations Security Council adoption of Resolution 2139 last February. Work is continuing within the council on a possible follow-up resolution which will aim at compelling greater compliance on the part of all sides in Syria, particularly the regime, in facilitating humanitarian actors and access. Such a resolution is clearly necessary given the limited compliance with Resolution 2139 to date. Syria’s neighbours, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, continue to face a serious burden in coping with the influx of Syrian refugees. The committee will be aware that the Taoiseach visited Lebanon on 16 June where, prior to visiting our UNIFIL contingent, he met Prime Minister Salam and was able to announce a further substantial contribution of €2 million from the Irish Aid budget to assist Syrian refugees and the host communities accommodating them in Lebanon. This latest contribution brings Ireland’s total humanitarian assistance to date since the inception of the Syria crisis to over €28 million, firmly putting Ireland among the front rank of contributors on a per capita basis.

The Middle East peace process is due to figure on the agenda for the July Council. Ireland has been one of several countries calling for an early substantive discussion by the Council of the Middle East peace process and the EU’s role following the suspension of the US-led peace talks at the end of April and the announcement of the formation of a Palestinian unity government earlier this month. Clearly, the priority must be to continue to work for the earliest possible resumption of substantive negotiations which address all the core issues. Ireland and the EU have been fully supportive and appreciative of the immense efforts expended by the US Secretary of State, Mr. Kerry, and the US Administration in recent months in trying to create a framework for substantive peace talks. As the conclusions adopted by the Council in May made clear, these extensive efforts must be built upon and not allowed go to waste. However, the reality at the moment is that the situation is rapidly deteriorating and there seems little likelihood of direct talks resuming in the near future.

Last week during a Topical Issue debate, the Government set out its position on the current Palestinian hunger strikes and the practice of administration detention which has given rise to this protest. I condemn the recent abduction of three young Israelis in the occupied territories and add my voice to those calling for their urgent release and return to their families. No possible good can be served by such a reprehensible act. These developments as well as the stringent security measures which Israel has taken in response to the kidnapping are contributing to heightened political tensions and posing obstacles to the formation of the unity government announced on 2 June, which I have warmly welcomed as a positive development in the overall efforts to achieve a two-state solution. Against this background, I believe it would be timely for the EU to review its overall role in respect of the Middle East peace process and consider whether it should play a more active role in confronting the obstacles which increasingly impede a negotiated two-state solution, not least Israel’s continued expansion of settlements. In particular, I hope a substantive discussion in July would allow the Council to consider whether several initiatives that the EU has previously contemplated in pursuance of its long-standing position on settlements, such as the labelling of settlement produce and the issuing of advice to businesses on the dangers of commercial interaction with the settlements, might now be progressed. If we are really serious about pursuing the two-state solution then the EU needs to actively consider how it can best use its not inconsiderable leverage to persuade Israel to desist from unrelenting expansion of settlements which ultimately can only be injurious to any prospects for peace and a viable two-state solution.

Last Monday, the Council also reviewed developments in Egypt and Libya, two countries that are continuing to experience a difficult transition to democracy. In both countries there continues to be a need for greater inclusivity and accommodation of political differences. The recent violence and instability in Libya is particularly regrettable and it is to be hoped that the parliamentary elections being held today will afford an opening for an inclusive and transparent national dialogue within Libya, which is so urgently needed.

Meanwhile in Egypt, President el-Sisi and his new Government have taken up office following the elections in May. Ireland, together with our EU partners, wishes President el-Sisi well, especially in confronting the many serious challenges that Egypt continues to face in promoting sustainable prosperity. We will continue to press strongly for greater respect for human rights and the rule of law. In this regard I join with many others in condemning the severe sentences imposed on several al-Jazeera journalists earlier this week for doing no more than their job.

The committee will also be aware of the case of Ibrahim Halawa, who is in detention in Egypt. From the beginning of this case my Department has been liaising actively with this man’s family. I raised my concerns regarding the case of Ibrahim with the EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton, as recently as Monday at the Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg. I raised my concerns at his continued detention without trial with the then Egyptian Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmy, on 11 November and 23 December 2013. I followed up these telephone calls with a letter to Minister Fahmy in January expressing my continued concern at his detention. As Ibrahim’s case is still before the judicial system in Egypt, we are precluded from getting involved in the judicial process. However, I assure the committee that I continue to remain seriously concerned at his continued detention and I have directed that the Irish Embassy in Cairo and the consular assistance section in my Department continue to provide all appropriate consular assistance.

The security situation in Nigeria, including the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in April, was discussed by EU colleagues at the Foreign Affairs Council on 12 May. The Council adopted conclusions, supported by Ireland, strongly condemning the indiscriminate killing of civilians and the abduction of the schoolgirls, calling for their immediate and unconditional release and for those responsible to be brought to justice. With effect from 29 May the EU added Boko Haram to the lists of persons, groups and entities covered by the freezing of funds and economic resources in line with the decision by the United Nations to add Boko to its list of individuals and entities subject to targeted financial sanctions and an arms embargo. I know that the members of this committee recently invited the then Nigerian ambassador, Mr. Felix Yusufu Pwol, to update the committee on this ongoing situation. I am aware that in his statement, Ambassador Pwol highlighted the multi-track strategy the Nigerian Government is pursuing in response to the ongoing security issues. We will continue to support efforts being undertaken by the Nigerian Government, and those EU and international partners providing additional support, to recover the missing schoolgirls and counter radicalisation and terrorism within its borders.

I am deeply concerned about current developments in Thailand. My Department is monitoring the situation closely. Following months of pro-and anti-government protests, the Royal Thai Army took control of the government last month and suspended the constitution. On 23 May I called on the military leadership to restore the democratic process and the constitution, uphold international human rights standards and hold credible and inclusive elections as soon as possible. The EU adopted conclusions at the June Council expressing great concern at these developments and called on the military leadership to restore the legitimate democratic process and the constitution through credible and inclusive elections. The conclusions stated that the roadmap falls short of what is required for a return to constitutional rule. The EU also called on all parties to exercise the utmost restraint and urged military authorities to free all political detainees, to refrain from any further arrests for political reasons and to remove censorship. Official visits between the EU and Thailand have been suspended. The EU and its member states will not sign the partnership and co-operation agreement with Thailand until a democratically elected government is in place.

Ireland supports the efforts being made by the EU and wider international community to help Afghanistan to become a peaceful democratic state, based on respect for human rights and the rule of law. We are heartened by the conduct of the two rounds of the presidential election and salute the courage of the Afghan people who have come out to vote, risking their lives, in great numbers to cast their democratic ballot. We remind Afghanistan, however, that it must implement the commitments it entered into at the Tokyo conference last year to improve economic and political governance. I remain concerned about Afghan women’s rights. There is a clear risk of significant deterioration in the position of Afghan women post-2014. The gains made for Afghan women to date are fragile and we must protect them. This will be an urgent challenge for Afghanistan’s new president. While I support a national reconciliation process in Afghanistan, we must guard against the Taliban returning to previous unacceptable practices. We need to see a democratic process which fully respects the rights of all to full participation in Afghan society. I welcome the Council conclusions on Afghanistan agreed by EU Foreign Ministers on Monday.

Finally, I take this opportunity to briefly update the committee on Foreign Affairs Council related developments in the field of human rights. On 12 May 2014, the FAC adopted new EU guidelines on freedom of expression online and offline. The guidelines will be an important resource for officials and staff of EU institutions and EU member states in the work of the EU to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression. Ireland is a consistent supporter of freedom of expression and we have prioritised this through our activities at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and in our engagement in the development of these guidelines. Ireland was actively involved in the development and elaboration of the guidelines.

Challenges to the right to freedom of expression, including the growing threat to the safety of journalists and actions being taken to excessively restrict information flow on the Internet, is one aspect of concern. So too is the shrinking space for civil society in many countries. Improving the operating environment for civil society actors is a critical element in the protection of human rights defenders. I am pleased therefore that the FAC on 23 June adopted Council conclusions to mark the tenth anniversary of the EU guidelines on human rights defenders, reiterating its support for human rights defenders across the world.

The adoption of the EU guidelines on human rights defenders in 2004 was one of the key priorities of the Irish Presidency of the EU in the field of human rights. The guidelines have brought more coherence to the EU’s policy in this area. In line with the priority that Ireland places gives to the issues of civil society space and protecting human rights defenders, our permanent representation in Brussels hosted an event on 17 June marking the tenth anniversary of the EU guidelines. The Minister of State with responsibility for trade and development, Deputy Joe Costello, addressed the event, which was very well attended, and reaffirmed the Government’s support for the work of human rights defenders.

That concludes my overview of discussions at the most recent Council meetings. As always, I would be more than happy to address any questions you may have, and look forward to hearing the committee's perspectives on the many foreign policy challenges we face.

I thank the Tánaiste for his very comprehensive overview and presentation of what transpired at the meeting last Monday. Could the Tánaiste please give us a synopsis of his visit to the United States last week, particularly on the window of opportunity for immigration reform for the undocumented Irish?

I visited Washington D.C. from last Tuesday evening until Thursday evening. In the course of that visit I had a meeting with the various organisations lobbying on the immigration issue on behalf of the 50,000 or so undocumented Irish in the US and who have been working with other groups for comprehensive immigration reform. Following that I had a series of meetings on Capitol Hill with representatives from both sides of the House of Congress. I met the leader of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and the leadership of the Republican group, including Paul Ryan. There was a leadership election taking place on the Republican side, following the unexpected defeat of the leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, Congressman Eric Cantor, in his primary. I also met Cecilia Muñoz, the adviser on domestic policy to President Obama.

Prior to my visit, a degree of momentum had been building towards comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate passed a Bill on this issue last year, which would have addressed the Irish problem and provided a path to legalisation for the 50,000 or so undocumented Irish and would also have provided for an E3 visa for new Irish immigrants. Members of the House of Representatives took the view that they wanted to pursue their own legislation. That has been under discussion for some time, particularly on the Republican side, which has a majority in the House of Representatives. It was the assessment of our embassy that progress was being made along those lines. When we planned the visit to Washington D.C. the expectation was that it would be a visit to try to give added impetus to that momentum and in particular to ensure that the issues of Irish interest would be addressed in any legislation.

The press reportage of the unexpected defeat of Eric Cantor speculated that this was related to the immigration issue. In my discussions the general view emerged that this was not an immigration related defeat, there were other factors involved. His defeat could, however, have an implication for the progress of the immigration issue.

When I was there last week it was difficult to read just how extensive that implication would be. I got the sense from people I talked to that there is a wish to advance immigration reform. Everybody accepts that there is a certain political imperative to getting an immigration Bill passed. It is a difficult political issue in the US, as we know. Congressional mid-term elections are coming up in November. It is a question, therefore of timing. There is a window in July when I hope something can be done. If it goes past the summer it will be more difficult in the run-in to the November elections, which will then leave the possibility of something being done in what is known as the "lame duck" period or in early 2015. If it does not happen in that period, the danger is that it will become enmeshed in the lead-in to the presidential election in 2016.

In a nutshell, when my visit was planned some weeks ago we were seeing momentum. The Eric Cantor defeat put that on pause, but I came away from Washington more optimistic of progress than I was when I went there. It seems to me that if it were put to a straight vote in the House of Representatives now there would probably be a majority for approving immigration legislation but it is not as simple as that because a range of political factors come into play. While I was there an issue very much to the fore of public consciousness was the movement of children across the Mexican border, as many as 50,000, in many cases unaccompanied. That was playing into the discussion too.

I thank the Tánaiste for making the visit. It was an important visit. It is always difficult to time these visits to fit the domestic political situation. We will continue to take a keen interest in immigration reform.

I thank the Tánaiste for his very detailed report on the meetings of the FAC. I commend him too on his ongoing efforts in regard to the immigration reform legislation which we have discussed at question time in the Dáil and at the committee. It is very important to many families throughout our island.

In my limited time as a member of this committee the list of conflict areas seems to have grown. The Tánaiste's report on meetings over the past three months indicates that. Unfortunately, the intensity of conflict grows too. My colleagues will take up issues relating to other areas but with regard to Ukraine I understand that hundreds of people have lost their lives over the past two months. Decisions were made at the weekend when President Putin cancelled the ruling that allowed Russian soldiers cross the border. The separatist leaders agreed to a ceasefire proposed by Kiev. That ceasefire was agreed on Monday evening.

Unfortunately, a Ukrainian helicopter was shot down on Tuesday evening, resulting in the loss of nine lives. In that context, further questions now arise in regard to the possibility of ending the conflict.

With regard to the Council meeting on Monday, I understand President Putin spoke by telephone to the authorities in the United States, Germany and France. Did the Tánaiste detect among the Germans and French any sense of confidence regarding the making of progress on ending the conflict? There were indications that the European Union and United States would move on the basis of a common sanctions option. It was indicated that those sanctions might be announced at the Council meeting at the end of this week. Is that likely to happen? Is the Union moving away from the idea of imposing more sanctions on Russia that would reduce the amount of commerce and business between both blocs? Has the imposition of sanctions by the United States and European Union on entities and individuals been effective in any way?

With regard to Palestine and Israel, I welcome the fact that the Tánaiste has condemned very strongly the abduction of three young Israelis in the occupied territories. It is a desperate deed. The Tánaiste referred in his contribution to the rapid deterioration of circumstances on the ground. I welcome his clear statement that the European Union needs to play a more active role in confronting the obstacles impeding a negotiated two-state solution. A predecessor of the Tánaiste many decades ago, Mr. Brian Lenihan, was a great advocate of the two-state solution.

With regard to the expansion of settlements, to my knowledge there has been little, if any, progress in regard to the labelling of products from the settlement areas. There are options for labelling requirements, be they imposed at EU level or within our own national competence. Some commentators and advocates, particularly the non-governmental organisations, welcome the labelling requirements that have been imposed by the British and Dutch. This affects not only products coming from the settlement areas but the general business and commerce between the settlement areas and their own countries. Is the Government supporting the Tánaiste on expanding or following the British and Dutch model of sanctioning? Is there EU-wide agreement to the imposition of such sanctions at EU level?

Once again, unfortunately, there have been mass killings over the past few weeks in Iraq. There has been considerable loss of life and hardship imposed on so many people. I understand the militant extremists extended their control to the country's entire western frontier. Is it accurate to suggest that most of the official border crossings with Syria - there is only one to Jordan - have been secured by the militants? If so, I presume it ties in with their stated intention of creating a new independent state in the region. If this is the case, it is a further worrying and dangerous development.

With regard to South Sudan, some Irish non-governmental organisations made a presentation here recently on the desperate humanitarian situation in the region. There has been considerable loss of life in the conflict which erupted in December 2013. I believe 1.4 million people have been displaced, and 5 million people are in urgent need of assistance. I believe 5 million is nearly 50% of the entire population. I am open to correction on that. If I am correct, it is a significant humanitarian issue that requires further attention on the part of the international community.

With regard to Syria, there is a need for the international community to step up to the plate on the commitments made to provide much-needed additional humanitarian assistance. I acknowledge that the Tánaiste has raised this consistently at EU level. Is the issue given the attention it merits by the European Union and international community? There is concern, including in respect of Syria and South Sudan, that the most needy, deprived people are still not getting any humanitarian aid. It is not reaching those areas most in need.

I thank the Tánaiste for his very detailed contribution.

I welcome the Tánaiste. He referred to Ukraine and the sanctions. The mood music coming out of Ukraine has been somewhat positive. A temporary truce has been established. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has spoken about formally taking Russian military intervention in eastern Europe off the table as separatist leaders agree to a ceasefire. The Russian Parliament is talking about revoking its ruling in March stating that Russia could deploy troops in Ukrainian territory. Does the Tánaiste believe there is now potential for a peace process in the region? Does he believe the sanctions have actually helped? There has been talk of strengthening the sanctions. Would this help conditions on the ground in regard to the mood music I am talking about?

Does the Tánaiste believe that the rushing of the EU–Ukraine trade agreement, which is due to be signed on Friday, will have a negative or positive impact on potential talks? The austerity of the agreement will probably put more vulnerable and less well-off people under pressure. Will this have an impact on the Ukrainian Government?

The Tánaiste mentioned the rise of ISIS in Iraq. There is concern about the additional financial and military resources it has after taking over many cities. In Britain, the focus has been on the number of people from that jurisdiction who have joined ISIS. There was concern over the number of Irish involved in the conflict. Does the Tánaiste have a sense of how many Irish are involved? There is talk of the radicalisation of many young men and the consequences on their return to Europe. Is this a concern of the Irish Government?

The main concern is the impact on neighbouring countries. In this regard, reference was made to the border crossings to Jordan and Lebanon. What is the position on this? What can the European Union and Irish Government do about this? I presume there will be considerable additional pressure, if that is possible, on these regions. What extra assistance can the Irish Government provide? Are there concerns about the potential for movement across the border into countries such as Jordan, thereby spreading the conflict?

Mention was made of the Israel-Palestine problem. There is now talk of a potential end to the hunger strike. Has the Tánaiste any information on that? He mentioned the kidnapping of the three young Israeli settlers. We hope they will be released. The collective punishment of the Palestinian people in the occupied territory continues. There has already been a search of 1,150 locations by the Israeli military. We have noted the killing of three Palestinians, one of whom was a 14 year old child, Mohammed Jihad Dodeen. He was shot with live bullets.

The Deputy should ask questions, if possible, because time is limited.

Ireland clearly needs to be standing on the side of human rights and equality.

Is the Tánaiste concerned about the hunger strikes and their implications? There have been talks suggesting that they might be called off for the month of Ramadan. Will the issue of the collective punishment of Palestinians be raised? It has been suggested that water is being denied to farmers. There is a wider issue beyond the kidnappings.

Could the Tánaiste give his views on the fact that Meriam Ibrahim was released and re-arrested yesterday at the airport? She was to travel to the US with her husband and many of us welcomed her release but this is a setback.

News from Nigeria is that 60 women and girls and 30 young boys were abducted by the Boko Haram group. Is the Irish Government providing assistance to the Nigerian Government on this?

I have one quick point before I ask some questions. I have noted the elections in Afghanistan and Iraq and I have been struck by how people go to such lengths and put themselves at risk to vote. Ireland has a low turnout at elections and I am struck by the contrast with other countries.

One can link the issues in Ukraine and Palestine. The report referred to European Union sanctions imposed on entities based in Crimea but such strong moves have not been made relating to Israeli settlements in Palestine. The UK published an overseas business risk report and the Dutch and Norwegian Governments give examples of good practice. Hitting people in their pockets is the most effective way of dealing with these issues. It seems that a great deal has been done on one issue but only lip service has been paid to another. There have been reports of air strikes in the Golan Heights region and I wonder about the safety of our troops there.

The BBC reported this morning that the Prime Minister of Iraq, Mr. Nouri al-Maliki, has rejected a call for a national unity government. Given the current situation, how can this lead to a just, stable and inclusive Iraq?

On Thailand and Burma, I am aware that we are opening an embassy and have a new ambassador, Mr. Brendan Rogers. If official visits to Thailand are suspended, will Mr. Rogers travel to the country or will we wait until democracy returns? There are serious issues relating to the Rohingya people and I have raised this before. The situation is worsening.

Last week, there was a presentation here on the transatlantic trade and investment partnership, TTIP, and there seems to be blind faith in this agreement. What is the Tánaiste's opinion on this? We need an open debate with independent economic analysis of the implications. There are dangers for Irish industry and threats to human rights so we must ensure this is not dominated by corporate interests. It links to the proposed EU free trade agreement with Colombia and Peru. Will there be an opportunity to debate this because it has wider implications? It goes back to the economic partnership agreement. When the President of Ireland, Mr. Michael D. Higgins, was here as a Deputy in 2010 he demanded these partnership agreements should be fully debated. There must be a debate on these free trade agreements and TTIP.

I welcome the Tánaiste and his officials and I will not go back over what has been covered. I welcome the discussions that have taken place on Bosnia and Herzegovina as a renewed effort has been made to assist the country in preparing for possible EU membership. Is the Tánaiste satisfied with progress there on tackling high unemployment and the other issues that might impact on qualification for EU membership? When does he feel Bosnia and Herzegovina will take the next significant step towards membership?

We are all appalled by the deepening crisis in Syria and the consequent refugee problem there and in Lebanon and Jordan. There is a concern that humanitarian aid is not reaching those most in need. Has consideration been given to the idea of Ireland deploying its aid through the United Nations, UN? The UK Government mostly channels its aid through non-governmental organisations, NGOs. Should we consider this, given that our aid does not seem to reach those most in need, especially those in areas controlled by opposition groups? This is a major concern for human rights activists, particularly Human Rights Watch.

Is it likely the schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria will be located and reunited with their families in the near future? What more can the Irish Government do to assist the Nigerian Government on this?

I thank the Tánaiste for his contribution and for updating us on the growing list of conflicts around the world that Deputy Smith alluded to. I will focus on the issue of the 50,000 undocumented Irish in the US and the meetings the Tánaiste has had on this matter. Congressman Kevin McCarthy has been promoted and I hope he may be elevated further in the US House of Representatives after the election in November. The Tánaiste correctly pointed out that the opportunity still exists to assist the 50,000 still living in the shadows. The members of this joint committee have proposed to travel to the US to lend our weight to the effort, if appropriate.

Thousands of Irish graduates have benefited from the intern work and travel, IWT, programme in the US in recent years. The programme was initiated in 2008 but is to cease in October 2014. Can the Tánaiste update the joint committee on the Government's attempts to ensure the IWT programme will be extended? Universities have contacted me on this issue.

I thank the Tánaiste for the work he has done to assist those who discover their passports are out of date shortly before they are due to travel. This has been beneficial for Members of the Houses. The Tánaiste has helped ensure travel plans are not disrupted.

Members of the Oireachtas often must contact Irish embassies abroad but are told the mobile telephone number of the relevant ambassador or consul cannot be provided.

I was recently obliged to contact the Irish consulate in Perth, Australia. We do not contact embassies or consulates because we want to have a chat with the ambassador or the consul in order to discover how things are going. We need direct contact but we are informed that it is not possible for us to be given the mobile numbers of ambassadors or consuls. The Tánaiste, other members and I have the numbers of various such individuals because we asked for them directly. I do not believe it is too much to ask that when members contact the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in order to obtain the mobile numbers and other contact details of duty officers, etc., these should be supplied. Given the time differences which often apply and the fact that we might be trying to contact someone out of hours, it makes our job in following up on representations we have received from people who are in dire circumstances that bit more difficult. In such circumstances, I request that the Department put in place a system whereby Oireachtas Members might be given direct access to our consulates and embassies abroad.

I apologise for my late arrival. Unfortunately, I was detained elsewhere.

As I stated earlier, members should confine themselves to asking questions rather than making statements.

I will take the Chairman's lead on that matter and I will try to be a good boy in so far as is possible. I am sure he will understand if I deviate slightly from time to time.

I have no doubt the Chairman will keep the Deputy in line.

I wish to draw attention to the seemingly ever-growing global problem of human rights abuses in various war zones. The number of such zones - in countries such as Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan, Egypt and Syria - appears to be increasing. The degree to which human rights abuses continue to take place as a result of either war or a lack of democratic structures is a matter of concern. To what extent does the international community have influence in respect of the situations to which I refer, particularly when those who perpetrate human rights abuses are under the impression that they can act with impunity because there will be no retribution against them? To what extent can the European Union, which is a fairly powerful body, bring some meaningful influence to bear, be it in the form of sanctions or whatever, in respect of these perpetrators? The list of conflicts appears to be growing and the type of atrocities committed appear to becoming worse. Once perpetrators realise that no action will ever be taken against them, that they will not be charged with war crimes and that they will not be subjected to retribution, they are prepared to continue with their activities. It must be extremely frustrating for the Tánaiste and his colleagues throughout the European Union that this seems to be the case.

Has a policy review taken place, or is one likely to be carried out, as a result of the failure to satisfactorily close the gap with regard to the position in Ukraine and other eastern neighbourhood countries? Have any lessons been learned in this regard and is it possible that in the future the European Union will not be treated as it was in this instance?

My final point relates to Boko Haram. The intentions of that group seem to be quite clear. It is obvious that Boko Haram intends to continue with its nefarious activities, including the abuse and abduction of women and children. The international community seems to be powerless in the context of making any positive intervention to deter this group from continuing with its activities. Effectively, Boko Haram is treating the European Union and the wider global community with contempt. As long as this continues to be the case, there will be further outbursts of violence and human rights abuses literally on a daily basis. What can the European Union do about this matter?

I apologise for my late arrival. I was obliged to visit a psychiatrist in respect of constituency matters.

And the Deputy will be obliged to visit another one when he leaves this meeting.

Are things that bad in the Labour Party?

I wish to ask the Tánaiste some direct questions. In the context of his role as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I wish him to provide us with an overview of his attitude to what is happening in the world today in respect of a number of issues.

In the first instance, will the Tánaiste indicate whether a there is a war taking place between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims and will he indicate whether it is religious, ideological, tribal or economic in nature? Tragically, millions of people - Christians, Jews, and the members of minority groups in various parts of the world - are caught up in the conflict to which I refer. Could it be said that this war is being fuelled by two major powers, that is, Iran, which takes the side of the Shi'ites, and Saudi Arabia, which takes the side of the Sunnis? I accept that I might be completely misreading the struggles that are taking place and the consequential slaughter of frightening barbarity of human beings on one side or the other. That slaughter includes the dropping of barrel bombs on civilians and the massacre of Sunni troops in Iraq. Kenya is extremely close to our hearts, particularly as we are opening an embassy there, and we are all aware that the son of the former Kenyan ambassador was slaughtered by so-called Muslim extremists. There are struggles in so many countries, including Sudan and the Central African Republic, between Christians and Muslims and terrorist groups are operating out of Mali, Mauritania and elsewhere.

Will the Tánaiste outline his views on what is destabilising global society? Is it overly simplistic to suggest that there is a worldwide struggle for religious supremacy or that both sides in this struggle are supported by a world power? What are the ramifications for Africa in the context of the struggle between the Muslim north and the Christian south in countries such as Nigeria and Niger and elsewhere? I would welcome the Tánaiste's opinion on this matter.

The final member offering is Senator Walsh. I would appreciate it if he would limit himself to asking questions.

I welcome the Tánaiste's very comprehensive and enlightening report. He referred to the OSCE's activities in Ukraine and the fact that five Irish personnel are serving on the observer mission there, which is good. Will the Tánaiste comment on the Helsinki+40 process, which obviously may be a factor in resolving issues, and on the role of our ambassador, Philip McDonagh, who is well equipped to provide effectiveness and efficiency in the context of Ireland's permanent mission to the OSCE? I am of the view that Mr. McDonagh could have a positive impact on the process.

How many refugees will Ireland be accepting from the Syrian conflict? In the context of ISIS, the Tánaiste referred to the threat, which is probably real, to both Lebanon and Jordan. ISIS forces seem to be continuing to gain footholds. There was speculation about a threat to Europe and Spain was mentioned in that regard.

What preparatory discussions are taking place within Europe to protect itself from such organisations ultimately breaching European Union borders? I refer in particular to countries where there are not sufficient armies to protect the frontiers? I would like to hear what is being done in that regard. There is a danger that Europe has been reacting rather than being proactive in response to the Ukrainian issue in particular.

On Palestine, I am pleased to note the decision on the three prisoners. Six Palestinians, including two children, were killed by the Israeli military within the past ten days. Such incidents seem to continue without much reaction from the international community to any great extent. I note what has been said about banning goods produced in settlements, which was an issue the committee discussed. I also note that such an approach is being applied in the Crimea, which is a recent conflict. I hope the approach will be effective. I do not understand why we do not take a similar approach to the occupied Palestinian areas. Europe is failing in that regard. Will the Tánaiste comment on the unity government within Palestine? I have seen the Israeli reaction to it. Given our experience with the peace process in Northern Ireland, I would have thought the involvement of Hamas with President Abbas creates a foundation upon which a sustainable peace could be achieved through negotiation. Could the Tánaiste please comment in that regard?

I note what has been said about Boko Haram in Nigeria. The group became a big issue approximately one month ago when the abductions took place. Surprisingly, the media only focused properly on the incident about three weeks after it occurred and it seems to have gone into the background now. The international community must address what is happening. The conflict has been ongoing for up to five years and many atrocities have taken place, including other abductions since the horrendous abduction of the schoolgirls. Effective action must be taken. There is a view that the Nigerian Government needs some support. Has any consideration been given to such an approach?

I note that the Tánaiste has received a communication from Ireland Stand Up on the Vatican Embassy being located in Villa Spada for the historic reasons the group outlined. What is the Tánaiste's reaction to that given that we have re-opened the embassy which we should never have closed in the first place?

I thank Senator Walsh. I apologise to the Tánaiste for putting all the questions to him together. I expected many of the questions to focus on the Middle East peace process, Ukraine and Iraq. I wished him to have time to digest all the questions. I know he will do the best in the limited time – approximately 20 minutes – that he has.

What I will do is try to answer the questions thematically. If I miss individual questions I will happily follow them up if members wish.

The general theme referred to by Deputies Smith, O’Sullivan, Durkan and Byrne was the growing number of conflicts in the world at present. Deputy O’Sullivan drew an analogy between the enthusiasm of people in countries that have been long deprived of democratic rights to exercise their vote with the complacency we are beginning to see not just in this country but in many democratic countries where there is an attitude that democracy can be taken for granted, that somebody else will decide, and that there is no responsibility on citizenship.

First, we must reflect on the fact that we are fortunate to live in a part of the world where we have democratic governance, where we can elect and change governments by exercising the will of the people. We live in societies where we have fundamental, democratic civil rights, where human rights are protected by law, where the rule of law prevails and compared with the appalling poverty we see in many parts of the world we have relatively good living standards. Let us contrast that with what we now see, namely, the situation right across north Africa, the Middle East, Ukraine and what is happening in central Africa, which has been taking place over a period, where there is a growing number of conflicts. What is happening in Syria is astonishing in terms of its scale. The worst humanitarian crisis we have seen in modern times is occurring in Syria and it has disappeared off the media radar. It is no longer a news item. We are talking about a situation in Syria for example where deliberate attempts are being made by the regime to starve people out of cities, to close the cities down and force people to surrender through starvation, yet what is happening in Syria has disappeared off the radar.

Discussion is taking place on a period of commemoration of the events that happened 100 years ago. Arguably, this time 100 years ago, before the First World War started, the world was a more peaceful place than it is today. We have lived through a period of relative peace, certainly in this part of the world, in recent decades but that is at risk. When one looks at the range of conflicts that is taking place and the interlocking nature of some of the conflicts – probably the most dramatic example of that is Iraq and Syria at the moment - it is correct to say that, for the most part, the border posts between Iraq and Syria are now under the control of ISIS. Of note is the scale of the displacement of people, the suffering, the killings that are taking place and the fact that those conflicts are either being engineered, orchestrated or exploited by forces who have a deeply anti-democratic, fundamentalist, reactionary agenda that will drive society backwards.

The nature of conflict now is very different from 100 years ago. Young people from various countries are participating in the conflicts of other countries and taking their skills home with them. That is happening in Kenya, for example. When I was in Kenya I spoke to people there about the extent to which for example, young people from poor areas of Nairobi are recruited by al-Shabab. They do their bit in Somalia and then go back home bringing their terrorist trade home with them. There is a degree of complacency about what is going on. We are going through a period in our history that is extremely dangerous, which has the potential to cause conflict on a scale that we have not known in our lifetime that will have an impact on the lives of people who live in comfort in western societies such as Ireland that is far deeper, longer and worse than the cost of petrol rising in forecourts of petrol stations.

The frustrating aspect is the inability of the international community in many respects to deal with it. The structures of the United Nations, particularly the structures of the Security Council, are not fit for purpose in the modern world. I refer to the idea that a number of large states could have inherited a veto from the end of the Second World War and apply that now in circumstances where we need international institutions to be able to respond quickly and effectively. That is the kind of environment in which we are operating.

On the issue of Ukraine, the questions asked were on our position with regard to sanctions. The Foreign Minister of Ukraine, Minister Klimkin, came to the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday and gave us a comprehensive briefing on the 15-point peace plan proposed by President Poroshenko. We have to take some positives from some of the actions taken by Russia including the fact that there has been some change in the decisions with regard to troops and the mandate given for, effectively, invasion of Ukraine; the fact that there is some dialogue between President Putin and President Poroshenko; the three-way discussions taking place between Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE; and the important role the OSCE is playing in that area.

In that context, the European Union is continuing to provide the financial supports it has committed to Ukraine to help with its economy. The decision has been made to go ahead with the remaining parts of the association agreement, including the trade agreement element of that, and we expect that will be signed at the European Council meeting later this week. There is also the agreement to send out a Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, mission on civilian security.

Work is continuing on the preparation of the third phase of sanctions. It was always envisaged that this third phase of sanctions would be exercised if the situation deteriorated, and that remains the position. We want to see progress made, and there is potential and some positive signs in that regard, and we will encourage that. The European Union will be ready with the third phase of sanctions if that becomes necessary.

Some Deputies asked about the position on ISIS and people from different countries becoming involved in ISIS. While I am sorting my notes on that I will refer to the Middle East peace process. In reply to Deputy Crowe, my understanding is that the hunger strike is ending. My information on that is relatively fresh. The intention is that the Middle East peace process will be discussed at the July meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council. The approach the European Union has taken was very much to support the initiative taken by Secretary of State John Kerry and the United States Administration in seeking to get an agreed settlement. There were very high hopes that this would succeed. We had a discussion in Vilnius last September with Secretary of State Kerry at the beginning of that process where the approach taken by the European Union was to support what Secretary of State Kerry was doing, work very closely with him, as we have done, and try to get that to work. Those discussions have now stalled. That is a pity. Now that they have stalled the European Union has to consider the steps it needs to take to assert its own position on the Middle East peace process.

I have been pressing for a comprehensive discussion on the Middle East peace process at the Foreign Affairs Council for some time. That will now take place in July. It is my view that we have to take very firm action with regard to the spread of settlements. The continuing spread of settlements will make the two-state solution physically impossible. In terms of the response required, earlier this year the European Union issued guidelines on research activity. That had a significant impact. We have to take a very robust position on business activity in the settlement areas, discouraging European companies from engaging in business activity in the occupied territories. The plan was that there would be a European Union-wide guidelines on labelling. We will support that. That would be very effective if it is done across the European Union. I have always said that if it was not possible to get agreement at European Union level, Ireland would consider doing that independently as a state. That remains the position but I am reasonably confident that agreement can be secured at European Union level on a labelling regime, and I hope that will be the outcome of the July meeting.

Various other issues were raised. The humanitarian situation in south Sudan is very serious. There are concerns about food security. Our information is that as of 9 April, there were 803,200 internally displaced persons, IDPs, reported. This issue is receiving a good deal of attention from Ireland.

Regarding Irish support to south Sudan in 2015, Irish Aid disbursed €2.5 million to the common humanitarian fund for south Sudan. We have also provided a further €1.5 million this year to that fund. In addition, since January, 45 tonnes of emergency supplies worth approximately €400,000 have been supplied, and a further 36 tonnes worth €370,000 have been supplied. A further €1.3 million has been provided to non-governmental organisations, NGOs, in the area.

On the arrest of Ibrahim Ishag, I welcome the release of Ms Ishag and her children from prison in Sudan on Monday. I understand the family were detained at Sudan Airport yesterday and that there are some issues to be resolved before the family is free to travel. We will keep a very close eye on that situation.

Deputy O'Sullivan asked about the free trade agreements. With regard to the position on the Colombia and Peru-EU free trade agreement, the intention is that this will be brought to the Dáil for approval. There will be debate and a vote on it. My understanding is that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, will bring that to the Dáil some time in the course of the year. I should add that a standard feature of trade agreements between the European Union and other states is a robust human rights clause. Furthermore, the Government agreed this week to the adoption of a national plan here for dealing with the issue of human rights and business activity. The United Nations adopted guidelines to address the interface between human rights and business activity in 2011.

This became part of the European Union's framework document on human rights and this week, the Irish Government agreed there will be an Irish national plan to give effect to that and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will be the lead Department in its development.

On the opening of the Irish Embassy in Bangkok, members are aware that last January, as part of its decision to open eight missions, the Government decided that Bangkok would be one of those. This of course was before the military takeover in Thailand. While the Government must consider this again in light of what has happened there, the number of Irish visitors to Thailand is very high, at approximately 65,000 per year. There is a high demand, for example, for consular services. The existence of diplomatic relations and the location of embassies are not based on whether one does or does not like a particular government or regime in a country. The Government must address this on the basis of what is the need for services. The current position is that Ireland has proposed an ambassador for Thailand, which requires the agreement of the Thai Government. We are awaiting its response on that and obviously, in the meantime we are considering the practical arrangements for it.

On the issue regarding the Golan Heights region raised by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, there was a series of Israeli air strikes on Syrian army targets in the Golan Heights area earlier this week, following the killing of an Israeli teenager. My information is that all the necessary precautions were taken by the Irish contingent in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, on the Golan Heights and that all the personnel are safe. I will take this opportunity to convey to all our troops who are working in peacekeeping missions abroad my best wishes and support. I am sure I echo the position of the joint committee regarding those who serve for Ireland on missions abroad such as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, UNDOF, as well as many missions in Africa, training missions and so on and it is opportune to send them our best wishes. On the issue of the embassy to the Vatican, the Villa Spada now is the embassy and residence of Ireland's embassy to Italy. The arrangement for the embassy to the Holy See will be that rented premises will be obtained for it. Ireland recently has appointed an ambassador to the Holy See, namely, Ambassador Emma Madigan and I am sure the joint committee will wish her well in her new posting.

The question was raised on what is the information with regard to Irish people participating in fighting in Syria. This is a matter that is being monitored closely by the Department of Justice and Equality and the Garda. It is a matter of grave concern to Ireland and to all European Union member states that citizens or people from European states are involved. My understanding is the estimate of Irish nationals who have gone to fight in Syria is somewhere between 30 and 40. The Garda Síochána has been engaged proactively in outreach to the Muslim community in Ireland for more than a decade with a view to enlisting its co-operation, which has been secured, in countering radicalisation. This programme is widely admired internationally as best practice and the Garda has been asked to share its experience on that matter with other European Union member states.

May I ask whether there is a particular matter on which I have not picked up?

What of the reports regarding the threat of invasion to Europe from ISIS?

I am not in a position to give an assessment of that. One point of which members should be aware is that what happened in Iraq caused a considerable degree of surprise. My understanding of what has happened in Iraq is there is a loose coalition of ISIS, former Ba'athist Party people and those who simply are opposed the government there for one reason or another. While it is not just ISIS, that organisation is at the core of it and the lesson to be drawn from this is that where one has a well-organised and tight revolutionary organisation in a fragile situation, it can seize control very quickly and pose a threat both in the country involved and, in particular, to neighbouring countries. I think I will leave it at that because I think the Chairman stated I am on the time allotted.

Briefly, there was a question from Senator Mullins on Bosnia.

I wanted to know about the civil war between Sunnis and Shi'ites and the role of Iran-----

The Tánaiste has covered that at the beginning of his statement.

-----and Saudi Arabia in perpetrating this conflict across the world.

I do not believe any conflict can be reduced to a simple "one side and the other" situation. There is no doubt but that there is a strong sectarian dimension to the conflict. Moreover, agendas undoubtedly are being pursued both by actors in the conflict itself and by those who seek to influence them. There undoubtedly are strategic issues involved, as well as economic issues that come into play. Clearly, however, the sectarian dimension certainly is at the heart of the conflict there.

Senator Daly asked a question on the intern work and travel programme.

I will be obliged to revert directly to Senator Daly as I do not have a note on this issue to hand. However, I will get back to him with a direct reply.

That is fine.

Can the Tánaiste comment on the difficulties of getting aid to Syria?

I attended a separate informal dinner meeting on the evening before the Foreign Affairs Council that was arranged by my colleague, the Foreign Minister of Luxembourg. We had the opportunity to have a discussion with the representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who spoke to us in considerable detail about the practical difficulties in getting aid through. The Government is deeply aware of this from its own involvement with NGOs and UN agencies working on the ground. The problem is the United Nations Security Council resolution that should have allowed for access for aid is not being implemented. The regret is that the aforementioned UN resolution did not contain a means for enforcing it and again, that comes back to the point I made earlier about the way in which the veto is being used at the Security Council. While the Security Council resolution that was adopted was the best that could be achieved in the circumstances and was the one for which agreement was reached, it did not provide a means. Efforts are being made to try to get a more robust resolution that is enforceable and obviously, that is something Ireland is pursuing. As the issue of accountability was raised, I might add that Ireland has argued consistently that those who are responsible for the atrocities in Syria should be brought before the International Criminal Court and we continue to pursue that.

I thank the Tánaiste for engaging with the joint committee in an open and constructive way. While I am sorry that so many questions were fired at him, a lot of them overlapped. This is probably the joint committee's last meeting with the Tánaiste in that role and in his role as leader of the Labour Party.

We wish him well and hope that he continues in his role as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade or whatever. We thank him for being so open and forthright with the committee in recent years. I wish our ambassador designates well, Ambassador Anne Barrington who will take up her position in Japan in the near future and Ambassador Patrick Kelly who will take up his position in Slovenia. I welcome political director Barry Robinson here also.

I thank everyone for their co-operation this afternoon.

The joint committee went into private session at 1.40 p.m. and adjourned at 1.45 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 2 July 2014.