Foreign Affairs Council: Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

I extend a warm welcome to the Minister and thank him for appearing before us with his officials, Mr. Michael Gaffey, director general of Irish Aid, and Mr. Barrie Robinson. We have many issues to discuss, some of which were discussed at the recent Foreign Affairs Council meeting. I am sure that they will play a central role in the meeting on 20 July.

As usual, the format of today's meeting will see us hearing an opening statement from the Minister followed by a questions and answers session. Before we begin, I remind members, witnesses and those seated in the Public Gallery to ensure their mobile telephones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even while on silent mode, with the recording equipment in the committee room. I also remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

We will get on with our business. I thank the Minister for appearing before us. Perhaps he will deliver his opening statement to the committee.

As always, I welcome this opportunity to address the committee on recent developments at the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels and Luxembourg. My statement will focus on meetings held in April, May and June, along with the joint meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council and Justice and Home Affairs Council, which was held in April. As the Chairman said, I will look ahead to the Council meeting later this month. During the period under review, a large number of issues have been addressed by the Council on which I will provide an update to the committee. Following that, I would be more than anxious to address any issue the committee may wish to raise and to hear members' perspectives on foreign policy matters and the many challenges we face.

The first topic I wish to address is that of migration, which was discussed by the Council at the extraordinary joint meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council and Justice and Home Affairs Council in April. The foreign policy aspects of the crisis were considered further at the Foreign Affairs Council meetings in May and June. Members of the committee are all too aware of the migrant crisis that has been unfolding in the Mediterranean. Instability and conflict across the Horn of Africa, north Africa and the Middle East have led to unprecedented numbers of people being displaced from their homes. The chaotic situation in Libya since 2012 has led to that country becoming a point of departure for migrants from several countries seeking to enter Europe by sea, often with tragic results. Almost 2,000 people have drowned so far this year attempting the crossing compared with fewer than 500 in the same period last year. The number of arrivals has also increased significantly since last year.

In light of the tragic events in the Mediterranean over the weekend of 18 and 19 April that saw more than 700 migrants drown, the High Representative convened the extraordinary joint meeting on 20 April to consider the EU's response. At that meeting, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, and I reiterated our horror at the recent events in the Mediterranean and our determination to find solutions jointly with our EU partners to address a crisis of such a large scale.

Discussions on migration continued at the May meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council. The crisis has also been discussed extensively in others formats, most notably the Justice and Home Affairs Council and meetings of the European Council on 23 April and on 25 and 26 June.

The EU recognises that the response to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean and to migration in general must be comprehensive. This is the clear message that has emerged from the European Council. In the immediate term, lives must be saved. This is happening. In the longer term, the root causes of irregular migration need to be addressed, particularly in partnership with countries of origin and transit. These issues will be addressed comprehensively at a summit between the EU and the African Union that will take place in Malta next November.

An element of the EU's comprehensive response is the common security and defence policy mission in the southern central Mediterranean. It was established at the May Foreign Affairs Council and subsequently launched at the June Foreign Affairs Council. The aim of the mission is to disrupt the business model of people smugglers and traffickers and ultimately to contribute to saving lives at sea. The mission will implement its mandate in phases. The first phase will focus on the detection and monitoring of migration networks through information gathering and patrolling on the high seas in accordance with international law. A second phase will involve the boarding, search, seizure and diversion of vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking. A third phase provides for taking measures against such vessels, including through their disposal or rendering them inoperable.

As a result of the decision by the Foreign Affairs Council in June, phase one of the mission can now commence. The Council will decide on when to make the transition between the different phases, taking into account any applicable UN Security Council resolution and the matter of consent by the coastal states concerned. Ireland has continued to highlight the importance of UN Security Council resolution support for transition to later phases of the mission.

A separate discussion on Libya took place at the April Foreign Affairs Council and was given added priority by the role that instability in Libya is playing in the ongoing migration crisis. Our discussions focused in particular on the political process within Libya. While the failure to reach agreement by the June target date set by the UN is a matter of regret, the Council expressed its hope that further negotiations under the leadership of United Nations Special Representative, Mr. Bernardino León, could lead to an element of accommodation between the parties.

I will now briefly discuss Latin America and the Caribbean. The April Foreign Affairs Council held, for the first time since 2009, a strategic discussion on relations with Latin America and the Caribbean.

The exchanges were timely in preparation for the EU-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, CELAC, summit which was held on 10 and 11 June. The Council agreed that the Latin America and Caribbean region is a key like-minded partner for the EU. Together, we hold almost one third of votes at the UN and we constitute almost half of the G20, as well as together representing the highest number of democracies in the world. At the Council, I welcomed the discussion, stressing the importance of re-energising the relationship. I welcomed the ongoing negotiations towards a political dialogue and co-operation agreement with Cuba and the fact that human rights were at the heart of these negotiations, as well as highlighting the importance of the re-engagement of the US with Cuba. I also stressed the importance of the changing development co-operation relationship which must ensure that the new approaches to development meet the current needs of the Latin American communities, particularly with regard to the post-2015 development agenda.

I remain very concerned about the worsening situation and the escalating humanitarian crisis situation in Yemen, which was also discussed at the April Council meeting. Since the beginning of the attempt to depose President Hadi, the humanitarian, political and security consequences have become draconian for the Yemeni people and threaten the stability of the Gulf region. I call on all parties inside Yemen and regional stakeholders to support the UN-led efforts for agreement on the formation of a government of national unity and an end to the violence.

At the May Foreign Affairs Council, Ministers, accompanied by defence Ministers, adopted a comprehensive set of conclusions on common security and defence policy, CSDP in advance of the June European Council at which a discussion on CSDP was to take place. The conclusions adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council were subsequently endorsed by EU Heads of State and Government at their meeting in June. At the Foreign Affairs Council, Ministers also reviewed progress to date in implementing the work programme emanating from the December 2013 European Council discussion on CSDP and identified areas where further work needs to be undertaken. The conclusions highlight the fact that the EU and its member states, through CSDP and other policy instruments, have a strong role to play in preventing and managing conflicts and addressing their causes. The aim is to enhance the effectiveness of the EU's contribution to international peace and security and ensure that the capabilities required for that purpose are provided. Ireland is a strong supporter of CSDP and we believe that it has been strengthened in the past 18 months through the implementation of the work programme emanating from the December 2013 European Council. We were satisfied with the outcome of the Foreign Affairs Council and the subsequent European Council discussions, which we believe renewed the commitment of member states to developing a more effective, visible and results-orientated CSDP. At the May Foreign Affairs Council, Ministers, in the presence of defence Ministers, received a presentation from the High Representative on her proposal to develop a new European foreign policy and security strategy in consultation with member states. Many member states, including Ireland, have in recent years conducted reviews of their own national foreign policy strategies and I believe it is timely that a similar exercise is conducted at EU level. It will be important for this exercise to look at all areas of EU external action in a coherent and comprehensive manner. We also wish to see the new foreign policy and security strategy continue to emphasise the global role of the EU and that the EU's values, such as human rights, continue to be strongly reflected in the external action of our Union.

Members will be aware of the concern I have been expressing over a long time that the Middle East peace political process has effectively been suspended since early last year. The need to urgently address a succession of crises elsewhere in the region has undoubtedly reduced recent international attention on the Middle East peace process. I have made clear my view that the deteriorating situation on the ground and the threats to the two-state solution require renewed attention and effort starting with the EU. I believe that existing EU policies have not been sufficient to advance or even protect the two-state solution and we need to seriously re-examine our positions and actions. I set out these views in detail to open a discussion on the Middle East peace process at the May Foreign Affairs Council, the first such discussion for some time on the overall issue rather than specific aspects like political talks or Gaza. That discussion will be continued at future Councils, including the upcoming meeting in July. I will not pretend that it will be an easy discussion. Many partners are concerned about the viability of any initiatives in the current unstable environment in the Middle East but I look forward to hearing the views of my colleagues and working to re-animate the peace process.

In June, the Foreign Affairs Council had a strategic debate on Asia focusing on promoting multilateral security structures, especially in the context of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN; the strategic partnership with China; and better connectivity with Asia. Ireland is supportive of stepping up engagement with multilateral Asia, particularly ASEAN. On security, I said that it would make sense for the EU to continue to deepen its security co-operation with the countries of the region, encouraging reconciliation and the peaceful resolution of all territorial disputes in the region in accordance with international law. The EU should also focus on clear and consistent advocacy in non-traditional security challenges such as climate, energy and migration. On the EU-China relationship, I said that Ireland is supportive of regular review of priorities to ensure they take account of developments in China and its rapidly growing global profile. Ireland supports exploring synergies between European networks policies and China's One Belt, One Road initiative, advancing our investment agreement and market access agenda and fostering convergence on views on global challenges, as well as promoting human rights. On connectivity, I emphasised that improvements in this are key to the next stage of development in the Asian region. Infrastructure could be transformative for the achievement of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda as well as poverty reduction. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as well as ambitious ASEAN plans for improving regional connectivity, could make a useful contribution in that regard. The Council also adopted conclusions on the forthcoming elections in Myanmar-Burma and on EU-ASEAN relations, welcoming the new momentum in EU-ASEAN relations and underlining the EU's commitment to supporting ASEAN regional integration and to further deepening relations.

The June Council meeting also saw an exchange of views with UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon on EU-UN co-operation. This year marks both the 60th anniversary of Ireland's membership of the UN and the 70th anniversary of the UN itself. I was particularly pleased to welcome the Secretary-General to Ireland in May to celebrate these milestones with us and to reaffirm once more Ireland's commitment to a strong and effective United Nations. At the Council, the UN Secretary-General spoke in very warm terms regarding the current level of EU-UN cooperation, highlighting in particular this year's financing for development post-2015 and climate change negotiations.

In June, the Council held a discussion with Commissioner Maroš Šefovi focused on the EU's energy union and the increased inter-linkage between the EU's energy and foreign policies. The overall objective of the discussion was to consider how foreign policy actions can support and advance EU energy priorities. One example of this relates to the diversification of EU energy supplies which can be advanced through the development of strategic partnerships with key international partners. I believe there is a compelling case for greater international co-operation to respond to the challenges associated with energy. Global energy demand will continue to increase during the next decade and supply is likely to continue to be concentrated in regions afflicted by political instability and uncertainty.

The worrying situation in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council in June. The discussion continued the next day at the General Affairs Council, which adopted Council conclusions on the subject. Along with our European partners, we have been concerned about the political instability in the country for some time. We have consistently said that it is the responsibility of both government and opposition to ensure that political debate takes place primarily in parliament and have called for a full investigation into allegations of wrongdoing.

We have called on the leaders of the political parties to work to find a resolution to the political crisis and we welcome all efforts, including those of Commissioner Hahn and a number of Members of the European Parliament, to redress the situation and restore stability in the country. In this regard, we were pleased to see the agreement reached on 2 June, brokered by the EU. We believe that this is a first step on the path to addressing the political crisis.

I wish to deal now with the upcoming July Council meeting, which, in addition to the Middle East peace process, will discuss the post-2015 agenda, Iran and climate change. The situation in Tunisia is also expected to be discussed. The timing of the July Council is very opportune for a discussion on the post-2015 agenda, as the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, which is to be held in Addis Ababa and which will be the first of the three major interlinked processes that will define the new global development agenda for the next 15 years, will have just concluded. Following the conference in Addis Ababa, the new sustainable development goals, SDGs, which are at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda, will be agreed at the September summit in New York and a new agreement on climate will be concluded at Paris in December. Success in Addis Ababa is critical to success in the other two processes.

As members are aware, Ireland was honoured to be appointed, along with Kenya, to co-lead the intergovernmental negotiating team on the SDGs at the UN. Negotiations on financing for development and on the SDGs are ongoing and making progress. We remain optimistic that there will be a successful outcome in the financing for development track, which aims to establish the means of implementation for the new sustainable development goals. The contours of an agreement on the means of implementing the SDGs will need to be broad, going very significantly beyond official development assistance and focusing strongly on domestic resource mobilisation for development, improving tax-raising capacity, curbing illicit financial flows and tax evasion and the role of the private sector. In advance of the Addis Ababa conference, Ireland has helped broker the agreement reached by EU development Ministers at their May meeting to reconfirm the European Union's collective commitment to reaching the 0.7% target within the timeframe of the post-2015 development agenda, that is, 2030, and on the need to direct more aid to the least developed countries, especially to the poorest African countries. Agreement in Addis Ababa is very important in order to finalise the agreement on the SDGs. We will then have to agree on how to fit the Addis Ababa agreement in with the agreement on post-2015 goals. July will be a good opportunity to ensure the highest possible level of political participation by the European Union and its member states at the summit in September. I am pleased that the Taoiseach will lead the Irish delegation and will deliver the national statement on the first day, 25 September next, and that the President, Michael D. Higgins, has agreed to participate in events on 26 and 27 September.

Preparations for the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties, or COP 21 which will be taking place in Paris later this year and at which climate change will be discussed will also be discussed at the forthcoming July Council. This is the third element of the interlinked processes leading to a new global development agenda. COP21 is charged with agreeing a "protocol, legally-binding agreement or other outcome with legal force, applicable to all parties". The European Union negotiates as a bloc in these discussions and Ireland inputs at EU level through a national delegation, which is led by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and which includes a range of Departments and agencies. Ireland will play its role as part of the European Union contribution to the global effort. The European Union has submitted a joint intended national determined contributions, or INDC, for all 28 member states, which commits to a binding target of at least 40% domestic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared with 1990 to be fulfilled jointly, as set out in the European Council conclusions of October 2014. Ireland encourages all countries to submit ambitious INDCs as a crucial means of allowing all to see what is on the table before we go to Paris. Support for developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change continues to be a key issue in the negotiations.

In light of the recent tragic events in Tunisia and the appalling attack on tourists, which took the lives of three Irish holidaymakers, it is expected that the forthcoming July Council meeting of Foreign Ministers will consider what actions the EU can take. Tunisia has made real progress towards democracy since the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime in 2011. ISIS is trying to undermine the emergence of a pluralistic society in Tunisia and by killing tourists, to undermine the Tunisian economy in the hope of creating hardship and instability. We need to strengthen Tunisia's democracy and security and ensure that the safety of our citizens is not at risk from further terrorism. Our discussion will also clearly have to address how best the European Union can support the appropriate balance between the competing needs of security, and democracy and openness.

Finally, the July Council is expected to reflect on the outcome of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, which we very much hope will be positive in nature. As members know, the deadline for the negotiations was extended for a week to yesterday, 7 July, and another very short extension has now been granted to next weekend. As US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has said, the negotiations are clearly on a knife edge: very close to success but also teetering on failure if Iran cannot make the final steps to secure the agreement. We all know the potential importance of this agreement for removing a source of serious danger and instability in the Middle East and we encourage all parties to persevere with a view towards succeeding.

I thank the Chairman and members for their time and patience in allowing me to review what I think they will agree has been the very varied and diverse agenda with which the Foreign Affairs Council has dealt in recent months. I would be happy to address any questions members may wish to pose and I look forward to hearing their views on the issues to which I have referred and any others they may wish to raise. I reiterate the importance of the parliamentary tier in the context of foreign affairs policy and related issues. I acknowledge the work the Chairman and members of the committee undertake on an ongoing basis in terms of their bilateral engagement with their counterparts in other states and in the context of their contribution regarding many of the important international challenges we face. I also acknowledge the committee's contribution to seeking to alleviate hardship and difficulty in many of the crisis areas across the globe.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive report on the recent Council meeting. We look forward to his participation at the next meeting as well. The Minister has outlined the huge challenges to be faced and there is no doubt that the past few months have been difficult. Before handing over to members for questions, will the Minister update the committee on the Ibrahim Halawa case? This is an issue which has been raised at the committee from time to time and all members are very interested in Ibrahim Halawa's welfare. I am aware that the Minister and his Department have remained on top of this issue. Perhaps the Minister will provide an update on the current situation and comment on reports in the national media this morning to the effect that the Government could make a formal request for Ibrahim Halawa's transfer to Ireland. We do not know for sure but it appears that it might be possible to facilitate such a transfer under Egyptian law. Would the Minister mind providing an update?

As the Chairman is aware, this consular case is a matter that continues to be treated with the utmost priority by me, as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and by officials in my Department. As the committee will be aware, from previous briefings and recent correspondence, we have a very clear strategy in place which is focused on achieving a positive outcome within the earliest timeframe possible. That strategy is based on two clear objectives: first, to see the release of Ibrahim Halawa by the Egyptian authorities in order that he can return home to his family and his studies in Ireland; and, second, to provide consular support and ensure his welfare while he remains in detention. During the past 12 months I have intensively engaged with the Egyptian authorities, the European Union and international partners at a very high level in respect of this case. We continue to review our approach in line with developments and we retain the flexibility to adjust our approach, as and when that may be required.

I am aware of various submissions that have been made to the Department and the committee by NGOs and law firms advocating a more adversarial and legalistic approach. My Department has always been cognisant of the international legal framework that may be relevant to this case but surely the key question is what stands the best chance of securing Ibrahim's release. It is the Government's considered view, supported by decades of diplomatic experience in other consular cases and extensive consultation with states which have had citizens in similar circumstances, that the firm and measured diplomatic approach we are taking remains the best hope to secure the release of Ibrahim Halawa and his return to Ireland at the earliest possible date. In this context, members will appreciate how important it is that we continue to maintain positive bilateral relations with Egypt.

The Government has formally supported applications by Ibrahim Halawa’s legal team for both release on bail and release under the presidential decree on foreign prisoners. However, any decision to release Ibrahim Halawa or any other prisoner will ultimately be taken by the Egyptian authorities. Based on our consultations with other international partners, the available information suggests that it is unlikely there will any decision to release Ibrahim, either under the presidential decree or on bail, until after the trial process has concluded.

There is a lot of public and media interest in this case but, as I hope the committee will appreciate, it is not always appropriate or helpful to play out in public everything that we are doing on any particular consular case. Most of the work of my Department's consular team takes place away from the public glare and outside the media spotlight. These officials frequently deal with citizens experiencing extraordinary difficulties. They do so in a professional, compassionate and diligent manner, not only in this case but also in the recent handling of crises in Nepal, Berkeley in California and Sousse in Tunisia. My consular officials in Dublin and embassy staff in Cairo are working in challenging circumstances and are dedicated to their work. I am disappointed, therefore, by the personalised nature of some of the criticism of Department officials in regard to this case.

My Department’s consular resources are finite and they often have to operate on several fronts at once. I ask for the committee's understanding for our efforts to ensure that limited resources are deployed primarily in protecting our citizens rather than explaining each course of action taken in individual cases on an individual day in an individual city. Concerted and targeted work is ongoing behind the scenes with a view to ensuring that we are best placed to take advantage of any opportunity that arises to achieve progress towards a positive outcome for Ibrahim Halawa.

I share the committee’s concern about the length of time that Ibrahim Halawa has now spent in detention, and I have raised these concerns at the highest level with the Egyptian authorities and will continue to do so. I am also concerned by reports about the prison conditions and, where allegations of mistreatment have been made, my Department has taken the appropriate action. Since his arrest in Cairo in 2013, Ibrahim has been visited a total of 42 times by embassy officials. This unprecedented level of consular visitation indicates clearly the priority we are placing on doing all that we can to carefully monitor his welfare in detention and to advocate strongly on his behalf to the Egyptian authorities. In some very complex and challenging cases, the considered view of the Department of what is in the best interests of the citizen does not always coincide with the immediate demands for action being made by the citizen or his family. However, even in such difficult cases we endeavour to do all we can to engage with the family and to explain to them why we are pursuing a certain course of action in what we judge to be the best interest of their loved one.

I think it is timely for us to remember that we are all on the same side here, seeking the best for an Irish citizen in difficult and challenging circumstances. In recent weeks, officials in my Department's consular section have been publicly commended for their efforts to assist the Irish citizens and families caught up in the tragedies of Berkeley and Tunisia. It is the same small number of officials who are working to assist Ibrahim Halawa and his family and they bring the same level of commitment and compassion to his case as they do to all cases within the Department's framework. My officials are due to meet with the Halawa family once again tomorrow to discuss this case and I am happy to keep the committee fully informed of developments. I will undertake a briefing session for spokespersons if that is deemed appropriate.

I will address the specific question on the presidential decree. Legal submissions and an article in The Irish Times this morning appear to be based on an incorrect belief that the Government has thus far not taken any action with regard to the presidential decree. In fact, the Government has already formally supported the application that has been made for Ibrahim's return to Ireland under the presidential decree. A number of other countries have had their convicted citizens returned to their country under the presidential decree. We have followed the exact same procedures as those countries, with an application made by the lawyer and formally supported by the relevant Government. Once the correct procedure was clarified to the embassy, officials made contact with the family's lawyer on 27 January 2015 relating to a request for Ibrahim's transfer to Ireland under the November 2014 presidential decree. He stated that making such an application would require Ibrahim to give a power of attorney. On 1 February 2015, on a consular visit to Ibrahim, consular officials were able to obtain an official document, signed by Ibrahim, giving power of attorney to the team of the lawyer for the Halawa family. The embassy provided a letter to the lawyers to accompany the application, confirming Ibrahim's Irish citizenship and, with the assistance of the family, obtained an original of his birth certificate to accompany the application. On 4 February, embassy officials held a meeting with a member of the family via a phonelink with its lawyer to clarify the process. The application was made by Ibrahim's lawyer on 7 February this year. The Government's formal support for the application was recorded in a third party note from the Embassy of Ireland in Cairo to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dated 10 February 2015. What is being urged in the legal submission given to the newspapers and referred to in The Irish times today is nothing new. It was done months ago.

The submission also notes that the wording of the decree applies to both accused and convicted persons. However, at a meeting specifically to discuss this key issue in February, the embassy was told by the former prosecutor general himself that this law would not be applied by his office where an individual was in the course of a trial process. This tallies with what has happened in other cases where the decree is deemed to have been successfully applied. Peter Greste's initial trial had concluded and his retrial had not begun so, strictly speaking, he was not in the course of a trial process when he was returned. In the case of the American citizen transferred, his initial trial had been concluded and, again, he was not in the course of a trial process. Based on what we have been told, Ibrahim Halawa's citizenship status under Egyptian law may well be a further complicating factor. This is an issue I discussed with the Chairman some months ago, though the issue is glossed over in the most recent legal submission.

Ultimately, while I have the greatest of sympathy with Ibrahim Halawa, his family and his friends, it is the Egyptians who will decide how the application of the presidential decree is worked.

We have followed the exact same procedure and I have spoken to representatives at the highest level in other jurisdictions where a similar set of circumstances seemed to apply. Based on what we have been told by the Egyptian authorities and our international partners, we will await the conclusion of the trial. The case has been adjourned yet again, a development which I very much regret. It must be noted the recent adjournment was based on an application by the defence legal team. It felt there were witnesses who were not available but whose evidence was important to the trial. The judge acceded to this and he adjourned the case until 2 August.

I hope the case will be dealt with at that time. In the meantime, the welfare and the prison conditions of Ibrahim Halawa are being monitored by visits of an unprecedented nature by our consular team. I assure the committee that these visits will continue and we will continue to offer all the support available and possible between now and the trial. It is our hope that the trial will be concluded and we will then move to the next stage of the procedure.

I thank the Minister for such a comprehensive update on this situation. He has clarified many issues for me. He has given the committee a clear understanding of where we stand and of the Government’s commitment on this issue. It is important to acknowledge the work done by David Cooney, Secretary General, and our consular teams, not just in this case but in dealing with the recent events in Berkeley and Tunisia. On behalf of the committee, I commend our consular teams for their work abroad and the sensitive way in which they deal with such tragedies.

I know how passionate the Minister is about the Ibrahim Halawa case. It was one of the first issues he dealt with when he became Minister. All members will be happy with his comprehensive overview and report on this case. I know he and his consular team will continue to monitor the situation over the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister for his detailed outline of his participation at the recent Foreign Affairs Council meeting. The committee had an opportunity to express its outrage at the recent events in Tunisia and to pass on its sympathies to the families of the victims. We witnessed the carnage and the appalling murders of innocent people by fundamentalists. Europe and the civilised world need to deal collectively with the security issues arising from such terror.

I assume protocols and advice given by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to Irish travellers are updated regularly, particularly advice for those travelling outside of the European Union. The Department advises people to register with it if they go to countries or regions outside of Europe in which there are difficulties. Do many people adhere to the particular advice? Could this message be better got across to the public?

The Minister referred to the drowning of 2,000 migrants in the Mediterranean so far this year. It is an appalling loss of life of so many innocent people. Is that figure accepted as an accurate estimate? He referred to the forthcoming EU-African Union summit in November. Will the main subject matter of that summit be the migration issue? I know a summit cannot be arranged overnight. However, the fact that this summit is not until November does not give the impression that much urgency is attached to this issue. Is there expected to be a separate summit at which decisions will be made to deal with it?

In his statement the Minister outlined, “The aim of the mission [EU NAVFOR MED] is to disrupt the business model of people smugglers and traffickers”. The word “disrupt” is rather diplomatic. I would hope the European Union, along with other members of the international community, will be aiming to smash, eliminate, minimise or end this horrible practice that imposes so much suffering on so many innocent and destitute people. The Minister said he would like to see a UN Security Council Resolution that would pull together the different aspects of the means of achieving a worthwhile solution. Has he any idea how soon such a resolution could be expected?

Today is the first anniversary of the Israeli military operation against Gaza, when we witnessed for 50 days devastation on the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, 1,400 Palestinian civilians were killed, as well as six Israeli civilians. Subsequently, there was a pledging conference at which Europe again was the major contributor and donor. I welcome the fact the Minister participated in it. However, not a single destroyed house has been rebuilt in the meantime and up to 100,000 people still remain displaced. The situation is deteriorating. I welcome the fact that following discussions at the European Council meeting, the European Union agreed to step up its engagement. Will the Minister take the opportunity at the forthcoming Council meeting to call on Israelis and Palestinians to fully comply with their obligations under international law? This is a call that should go out from the European Union.

Relations between the European Union and Israel should be made conditional on progress towards adherence to international law. The Minister, along with 15 other EU foreign Ministers, wrote to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on the labelling of products from Israeli settlements in store chains throughout Europe. Has there been any progress on this, as well as the implementation of a ban on trade and investment with Israeli settlements?

Recently, the plans to forcibly transfer the Palestinian inhabitants of the village of Susiya have been brought to the committee’s attention. The European Union should unanimously call for an immediate halt to those plans. The forcible transfer of people and the destruction of private property must be in breach of the Geneva Convention. I hope there would be a clear statement at the council meeting on the need to halt such plans.

With regard to the post-2015 development agenda, I welcome the senior political representation that will attend the forthcoming Addis Ababa conference. Will the Minister take the opportunity at the conference, or will the Taoiseach on behalf of the Government and the State, to recommit to the 0.7% of gross national income target for overseas development aid? Will particular steps be outlined as to how that target can be met?

During the recent visit by the UN Secretary General to Ireland and the European Union, did he give any indication that the UN is serious about modernising its structures? The committee has often discussed this matter. The UN’s structures were put in place after the Second World War but the geopolitical scene across the world has changed dramatically in the meantime. The composition of the Security Council needs to be revisited.

I hope a constant theme running through EU proposals tackling the multifaceted issues associated with climate change, and Irish proposals in particular, will be the need to promote and defend the sustainable food production systems that we have in Europe but which unfortunately do not exist elsewhere. Our sustainable food production systems can contribute and are environmentally friendly. It is very important that this theme be strongly carried through in all resolutions and policies.

I do not believe there was any reference in the Minister's report to EU-Russia relations. When sanctions are renewed, is it the Foreign Affairs Council or the Heads of State who renew them? Although they might not be having a very direct impact on Irish exports, they are having an indirect impact because of the displacement of markets for other competitors. Is there any improvement in relations with Russia? Is the issue off the agenda or subject matter for discussion at the forthcoming Council meeting?

I compliment the Minister on his very comprehensive address to the members this morning. I compliment him and his consular staff and other officials, both here and abroad, for the great work they have done in engaging in the various life-threatening and other circumstances that have presented themselves over recent months. This occasion should not pass without special mention of the demands that are being made and which we all have had to make recently because of circumstances in various trouble spots. I do not propose to elaborate on these. I would like the Minister to convey my remarks to his officials on behalf of the committee.

With regard to the rescue of the unfortunate people who are being transported and trafficked on the high seas at present, the important point we should try to recognise is the need for the European Union and United Nations to dovetail their work in so far as possible to try to ensure there is a broad policy to accommodate them. I compliment the Irish Navy on its work in rescuing people over recent weeks, and particularly for rescuing a very large number of people who might otherwise be statistics only.

We welcome the development regarding Cuba and the United States. This opens up new opportunities for the Cuban people and their interaction with other people globally. We hope this theme can continue to their benefit. I compliment all concerned.

The humanitarian situation in Yemen is a matter that the Minister might refer to. I do not know the extent to which the humanitarian efforts are successful because it is not possible to determine. There are so many developments and life-threatening challenges emerging daily that it is virtually impossible to monitor the conflict. The United Nations, with its resources and personnel, is the most likely body to deal with the matter. Is there anything more that could be done in this area?

The Chairman will be glad to know I will not go on indefinitely, other than to refer to the Middle East peace process.

If I could remind members-----

I promise not to get carried away.

I remind members to ask questions rather than make statements.

These are questions

Many members want to speak.

These are questions.

I remind members that, in future, they should ask questions.

The Minister stated the Middle East peace process has suspended or stalled. Would it be possible to at least attempt to restore some kind of platform for discussion at the necessary level? The vacuum that follows in the wake of a suspended peace process, no matter where it is, always leads to difficulty.

My last point is on climate change and the need for a Europe-wide policy thereon that is supported by all member states. The Chairman will be glad to know I will not touch on the rest of the areas that I could comment on. Again, I compliment the Minister on his comprehensive statement to the committee.

I thank Deputy Bernard Durkan. Members should confine their remarks to questions rather than statements. Everyone wants to contribute. If every member keeps his or her contribution short, we might be able to allow a second set of questions. I am not referring to Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan specifically.

I know. We need more women on this committee because they are much more to the point.

I will start with Syria. We know that Iran and Russia are key players and the nuclear talks with Iran are taking place. All negotiations are about give and take. Has there been any representation in the negotiations on ensuring there can be some give on Syria, particularly on barrel bombing? There is targeting of children, hospitals and markets.

Ireland's record on taking refugees is not good. After the Vietnam and Bosnian conflicts, we developed very strong Vietnamese and Bosnian communities in Ireland who are playing a real role in our society. Why are we not doing the same for Syrian refugees?

On the Palestinian issue, I read the correspondence from the Israeli ambassador. I agree with him on the points he is making about ISIS, its destabilising effect in the Middle East and the brutality of its activity. However, I was struck by the irony of his concern for international law in regard to the issue of the village, yet international law has been broken so many times. The UN Secretary General has said that what is happening in this regard is in breach of the fourth Geneva Convention. What engagement will Ireland have on this issue?

The Minister referred to Addis Ababa. Success in Addis Ababa is critical to success in the other two processes. I cannot but be struck by the fact that the President and Taoiseach are going to New York. While I very much support the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, I believe he is at a totally different level going to the conference in Addis Ababa. We all know that unless Addis Ababa gets it right, the next two conferences will not mean anything.

The Minister referred to illicit financial flows and tax corruption. This has to be addressed. What will Ireland's voice be in this regard? Our tax policies must not infringe on the developing world in respect of tax. Those in the developing world are losing more in tax avoidance and evasion than they are receiving in aid. Will Ireland commit to the proposal by many NGOs for a UN intergovernmental body that would reflect all interests rather than the OECD's interest?

My next question is on Cuba and the blockade. Human rights is part of the question but that works both ways. Certainly, the human rights of Cuban people had been very much infringed upon as a result of the American blockade. The people were deprived of medical supplies in particular and other items that they needed. Having signed a memorandum of understanding, will we encourage or support a trade mission or the opening of an embassy in Cuba?

My last question is on the rate of 0.7%. Do we have a timeline for meeting that by 2020?

The Chairman has a difficult task so I will confine my remarks to one question for the Minister, whose presence is very welcome. It is 67 years since the United Nations recognised, by a substantial majority, the right of the State of Israel to exist. There are still countries, many of which are neighbours of the European Union or close neighbours in the Middle East, that deny to this very day the right of Israel to exist or of the Jewish people to have a homeland. Given the turmoil that is now in the region, the failure of successive attempts to broker a two-state deal acceptable to people living in the area and the ongoing hardship being caused, particularly to people living in Gaza, can a new initiative be launched by the European Union to deal in the first instance with those Arab states that refuse to recognise the State of Israel? Their refusal is without precedent.

I can think of no other country that is denied recognition by the international community of its very existence. Whatever about the boundaries or the borders, can an initiative be taken by the European Union with the intention of breaking the logjam, and it is clear there is a logjam, and asking those Arab states, first, to recognise the right of a state of Israel to exist and, second, to stop funding fundamentalist organisations that constantly attack the State of Israel in its current configuration from both southern Lebanon and Gaza?

A vote has been called in the Dáil but I will call Deputy Ó Snodaigh. We will break then for the vote during which the Minister will have time to digest all the questions.

I will try to be brief, but if needs be I will speak again later. The Minister mentioned the case of Ibrahim Halawa, who is being held in prison in Egypt. I understand what the Minister said, and I congratulate and thank the consular service for its hard work and diligence, not only in that case but in many other cases, and there are complications. Is it intended in the forthcoming Council meeting to examine the situation generally in Egypt, and not just in this specific case? On the size of the conference, has the Minister raised in the past or does he intend to raise with his counterparts the specific case of this Irish citizen? That would be important to ensure all the other EU countries would be made aware of it, some of which may be able to give the extra support that is required.

With regard to Israel, and Palestine in particular, the Dáil and the Seanad voted unanimously to recognise the state of Palestine. Do we ever intend to act on those motions which were passed in the Seanad earlier?

Gaza was mentioned. Another boat on its way to Gaza was intercepted recently in the Mediterranean. My question relates to the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, EUROMED, which ties in to the question of the refugees. Are there plans to examine the EUROMED agreements and whether they have been delivering, and will deliver, for countries in Africa and the Middle East which have made agreements? Some have broken them and flaunted them while others have not benefited from EU trade agreements. I will leave the remainder of my questions until we resume.

I will suspend the meeting and we will return immediately after the vote when I will ask the Minister to respond to the questions asked. Following that I will call the other members.

Sitting suspended at 11.13 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.

We will resume in public session. I remind members that we have to vacate the committee room by 12.45 p.m. as it has been booked for that time. That means we have one and a quarter hours for this discussion. I ask members to be brief in their questioning.

In that regard, it is nonsensical that members have to leave the meeting to vote in the Houses. The Government is pre-programmed to win the vote in any event. Why are members not paired for these meetings?

We will not deal with that now-----

No, but I want to register it in the Chairman's mind.

-----as I want to get down to today's business, but the Senator can raise that matter again if he wishes.

We have raised it at several meetings, but I do not want to go into that matter now.

I would strongly support the Chairman on that matter in the position that he holds.

I thank the Senator for voicing his concern on that. I will hand over to the Minister first, as we have two or three other speakers. I remind everybody again that we must vacate the committee room by 12.45 p.m.

I thank members for their comments and questions, the particulars of which I will endeavour to address. I might not address them in the particular order in which they were put to me.


Deputy A

Apologies, Chairman.

I should have reminded everyone at the start of the meeting to ensure their mobile phones were turned off. I ask the Minister to proceed without interruption.

I might not address the questions in the order in which they were put to me on the basis that there is an element of duplication. I would like to regionalise the questions or address them under the various headings. I thank Deputy Smith for his comments, especially his comments on the recent atrocity in Tunisia, with particular reference to the work of our consular team. It is an important issue and he raised specifically the matter of the travel advice. The country-specific travel advice is updated and modified in accordance with the prevailing conditions in the country or the region on a regular basis on the Department's website, with particular reference to emergency events that may adversely affect Irish citizens or tourists. In the context of Tunisia and other areas where there have been instances of terrorist activity or where there are dangers, we encourage all citizens to register with the Department online. Obviously we cannot make this a compulsory registration, but it is very helpful as it gives us knowledge of the number of Irish people present and it also means that we can make contact very quickly both with a citizen in the event of an emergency and with members of his or her family here. We publicise the travel advice updates and we have social media updates and broadcasting updates. The travel advice for Tunisia is that members of the public, would-be holidaymakers or tourists should exercise extreme caution, that they should register and that they should keep in close contact with their tour operators. We are in contact with the tour operators as well.

Deputies Smith and Durkan mentioned Ireland's response to the migrant crisis. I note that Deputy Smith rather euphemistically labelled the attempt on the part of the EU to disrupt the boats in the region, but Ireland continues to make a real contribution to addressing the root causes of the irregular migrant flows. Often it is difficult to get precise figures in terms of numbers. We know that the LE Eithne has already been directly involved in the rescue of between 3,000 and 3,500 people. It is estimated that tens of thousands of people are attempting to cross the Mediterranean in very difficult circumstances. We have the immediate problem of search and rescue and the longer-term problem of addressing the root causes through humanitarian assistance. By the end of this year we will have provided €41 million in assistance for the Syrian crisis. We have provided €36 million to Somalia since 2008 and, to date in 2015, €1 million has been approved for the United Nations common humanitarian fund in Somalia, with a further €1.7 million to be provided to non-governmental organisation partners. We are also contributing to the search and rescue. Of the three phases, phase one has already been agreed and is under operation. I would expect at the next meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council that consideration will be given to further phases.

The prospect of a UN Security Council resolution was mentioned by Deputy Smith and others, and I am hopeful that we can make progress on this issue. From Ireland's perspective, we will only participate and act in these missions in certain circumstances, one of which is with the consent of the inviting state, which, in the case of Libya, is unlikely to be forthcoming in the immediate future because of the fact that the attempts to form a unity government have not been as successful as many of us would have wished. However, in default of such consent, we will be seeking a United Nations Security Council resolution. Progress is being made on this issue on an ongoing basis, but I expect that we will have progress on it by the time of the Foreign Affairs Council meeting, which is the week after next.

Deputy Smith mentioned the EU-Africa summit and migration in November. I accept what he said, namely, that November, in the context of an emergency, seems to be in the distant future. That will take place in Malta and will focus on the migration crisis. However, there will be an opportunity in Addis Ababa next week at the Financing for Development Conference to focus on these issues. We will have an opportunity in that forum to hold bilateral and other meetings with African leaders. The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, will lead the delegation, and there will be opportunities to discuss the migration crisis. I understand that high-level representatives from many of the African states will be present, and I would be happy to raise Deputy Smith's concern directly with the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, in advance of his attendance.

Deputies Smith, Durkan and Ó Snodaigh mentioned the current position regarding the Middle East peace process. As I stated in my address, I am very anxious that this issue receives a greater level of attention and priority at EU level than has been the case in the past. The talks broke down a year ago and there is no immediate prospect of resumption. The basic problem is a lack of trust and absence of confidence among the parties with respect to each other's intentions, as well as a reluctance on the part of the Israelis to accept that the occupation must end and that peace, as we know from our experience on this island, will involve an element of compromise. The EU continues to support the resumption of the talks because it is our belief that it is only through talks that negotiations can commence and it is only through negotiations that agreement can be reached.

I look forward to a greater level of discussion. We had a discussion at the Foreign Affairs Council in May, and I am anxious that it would continue into July. On the matter of the settlement goods and products, that is an issue on which, again, I would be anxious that we would have something of an advance at EU level. It is important to remember that most of the settlements do not export anything. In the context of what we are doing, it is important that a focus on the settlement products is a relatively minor part of the overall issue. The strongest measure against the settlement products is that they must pay high tariffs on entering the European Union while other suppliers enjoy a reduced rate. The EU ruled in 2013 that no EU funding grants can be spent in the settlement areas and we, like other EU member states, published advice warning citizens against investing in the settlements. I am anxious that we would start work on the guidelines for the labelling of settlement products. We agreed at the Foreign Affairs Council in April that we would act on that.

I visited the West Bank at the beginning of the year and I saw the impact of settlements first hand. I had the opportunity to raise the issue directly with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and I continue to raise it at every opportunity. Deputy Ó Snodaigh is correct when he refers to the motions passed in the Dáil and Seanad calling on the Government to recognise formally the state of Palestine. Similar motions have been passed elsewhere. I continue to give this matter active and careful consideration. The timing is important in the context of ensuring that early recognition by Ireland would play a useful role rather than just acknowledging the motion and ticking the box.

It is not exactly early.

Members should speak through the Chair, please.

Senator Norris will have an opportunity to speak later. He was not present when I referred to the matter earlier. I spoke about my visit to the region, the current debate, and debates in the Oireachtas and at European Union level which are all factors to be taken into consideration. I fully support, as previous Governments have, the full achievement of Palestinian statehood. We believe that should happen soon but I would like that it would be achieved in reality and not just in theory or on paper. I am anxious that, at bilateral level and through my colleagues in the European Union at plenary session of the Foreign Affairs Council, we could speak with one voice on the basis that a voice representing 28 states and in excess of 500 million people is of great influence and consequence. I continue to keep the issue under review.

I agree with what Deputy Smith said about the situation in Gaza, that the pace of reconstruction has been too slow. On behalf of the Government, I attended the Gaza reconstruction conference in Cairo at which we pledged the sum of €2.5 million, much of which will go towards the reconstruction, and all of which will be applied to the alleviation of hardship, suffering and difficulty in the region. I announced a further €500,000 when I visited Gaza earlier this year. I had an opportunity to attend meetings and I witnessed the fairly horrific experience being perpetrated on the vulnerable people of Gaza in particular, especially women and children. It is important that the process of reconstruction would be allowed to commence. I regard it as totally unacceptable that 100,000 people remain internally displaced and that 120,000 are still waiting to be reconnected to the city water supply. I am anxious to continue to raise the matter directly with the authorities. Last week the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution which was proposed by the Palestinians and supported by this country, wherein we reaffirmed our assurances that respect for international law would continue to be maintained at every level. That is a core issue for this country.

In the context of prioritising the Middle East peace process at EU level, we will take into consideration the very valid points raised by Deputy Quinn in respect of ensuring the regional actors and the other Arab states in the region in particular are mindful of the need to ensure their participation is crucial to the achievement of an overall settlement.

I assure Deputy Ó Snodaigh that we will continue to keep matters under review and that I am fully supportive of the objective of achieving a two-state solution with a fully recognised Palestinian state. Deputy Smith made particular reference in this context to the Bedouin communities and the Susiya village. I am very concerned for the residents of that town. Irish Aid has provided a practical level of support to threatened villages in the area south of the Hebron Hills, such as water filtration equipment. Our representative in Ramallah has supported the position of the villagers. I note the work of the committee in this regard. You are indicating a vote, Chairman.

I am conscious that another vote has been called.

This is utterly ridiculous.

Yes, democracy is terrible.

It is not democracy; it is a charade.

Has the Minister finished responding to most of the questions from members?

I could continue, but there is the matter of the vote. Other issues were raised.

I will suspend the meeting. When we recommence I will bring in the other members immediately and then the Minister can make a final response to the questions.

I wish to deal with Cuba and issues about Latin America raised by Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan.

Yes, that is fine. When we return I will call Deputy Olivia Mitchell and Senators Mark Daly, David Norris and Michael Mullins. Then I will call on the Minister to respond.

I would appreciate it if I could ask my questions first.

Yes. I will suspend the meeting until after the vote.

Sitting suspended at 11.50 a.m. and resumed at 12.05 p.m.
Deputy Olivia Mitchell took the Chair.

I will be the next questioner. I add my words of congratulations to the Minister and departmental officials who have had a difficult time dealing with awful events one after another. They did so not just efficiently but also with great compassion. They did Ireland proud. Many members of the public have remarked on this and the Minister can take some pride in it. I would like to make reference to a number of issues he raised. First, the meeting in-----

I understood that before other questions would be taken, we would come back to my colleagues' questions. That is what the Chairman said.

That could be correct. I beg the Senator's pardon.

A number of issues were raised by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan which I did not address in my initial response. The first is the 0.7% of GDP commitment. As the economic position permits, this is constantly under review, but the commitment stands that we will reach the target by 2030. There is an ongoing debate in that regard.

The Deputy was anxious that the matter of tax be taken into consideration in the context of development. This is exclusively a matter for the Minister for Finance, but the Government is aware of the importance of ensuring the involvement of the developing world in these processes. The Minister previously publicly called on countries to undertake a spillover analysis of how their taxation regimes impacted on the developing world and I understand the results will be presented shortly. I would be happy to engage with the Minister on behalf of the committee on the basis that the importance of taxation to development was also fully recognised by Irish Aid. We provide financial support through many of our programmes for the African Tax Administration Forum, an important self-learning initiative, which allows African administrators to articulate their tax priorities and engage in capacity building in tax policy and administration.

The Deputy mentioned the level of representation at the forthcoming Addis Ababa conference. Ireland will be represented at the same level as virtually all other EU states. Heads of delegation will, in general terms, be the Minister with responsibility for development, in this case, the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock.

I will come back to the situation in Cuba.

I refer to the issue of SDGs. The Minister has mentioned how crucial the meeting in Addis Ababa will be to their successful conclusion. I am delighted that the Taoiseach will attend the summit in New York, probably underlining how important it will be for the world for the next 15 years and beyond. I have a concern - this issue was also raised with me - about the European response to the draft declaration by the United Nations which was watered down from its previous conclusions, leaving out a specific reference to the importance of sexual and reproductive health. SDGs Nos. 3 and 5 deal with health and gender equality and are fundamental to achieving the other goals because impoverished women who have too many children whom they cannot feed perpetuate hunger, poverty and migration. All of these issue are, therefore, very much related.

I ask the Minister to revert to me on that issue. I understand the reference to sexual and reproductive health was left out on the insistence of Malta. If the Minister has information on the issue, I ask him to indicate whether that is correct. I am anxious to ensure the joint committee's statement is as strong as possible.

I am pleased that the European Union is at least beginning to take seriously the issue of migration. Two weeks ago I visited the Turkish-Syrian border in my capacity as a member of the Council of Europe. The only certainties are that migration from Syria into Turkey which already accommodates more than 2 million Syrian refugees will increase and that these refugees will not stay in Turkey but will seek to enter the European Union. While I am in favour of Ireland taking as many refugees as possible and picking up refugees at sea, these measures will not solve the problem. If a solution to the political chaos in Libya is found, it may cause a temporary halt to the flight of refugees, but the European Union will continue to have an enormous pull for poor Africans and refugees will continue to make the journey. While tackling the smugglers' network will have some impact, in the light of our failure to have a significant impact on drug networks and smugglers, I am not hopeful in that regard. It is welcome, however, that the European Union is beginning to wake up to the fact that this problem is not temporary and will grow. I will be interested in learning what action will be taken on this matter at the next Council meeting.

It is unfortunate that the issue of Palestine arises at every meeting with the Minister. The Palestinian problem has festered for years and simply gets worse as we move further from a solution. Deputy Brendan Smith has referred to the residents of a village whose homes are being threatened with destruction, not for the first or second time. The joint committee has received representations from both sides on the issue. The Israelis maintain that this is simply a planning issue. However, planning for the area in question is carried out by a military planning committee, the purpose of which is political. While only a few hundred people are affected in this case, the decision is part of the larger picture in which the possibility of achieving a two-state solution is being destroyed. I am pleased to note the Minister's strong statement of displeasure about the issue in which he expresses the view that current policies are not sufficient and that our position should be reviewed.

On a completely different but related issue, I was upset to learn that a radical political group, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, had taken action that resulted in the abandonment of plans to have the first Israeli feis. I understand the use of intimidation and threatening remarks to those-----

That is absolute nonsense. The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign is a highly respectable group with which I am associated. The Acting Chairman should withdraw the slanderous remarks she has directed at the organisation.

Regardless of what the Senator may say - I was speaking at the time - the result has been the cancellation of the feis.

It was cancelled as a result of perfectly legitimate lobbying.

I understand it was cancelled because members were afraid to travel to Israel. This is not the first cultural event that has had to be cancelled as a result of letters sent by the group to people who intended to travel.

Were they frightened off by a letter?

If people want to boycott, that is their business, but boycotts must be voluntary and cannot be the result of intimidation.

Will the Acting Chairman specify how the people in question were intimidated?

May I continue without interruption, please? The Senator will have an opportunity to speak.

The Acting Chairman should give grounds.

For what should I give grounds?

You stated the individuals in question had been threatened. I would like to know how they were threatened.

They were verbally threatened.

I see; they were threatened in a letter.

The bottom line is that the feis has been cancelled and it is not the first event that has been cancelled. The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign does not speak for me or many others. I am a supporter of the Palestinian cause, as the Senator is aware, but this does not help the Palestinian cause or encourage Irish people to support it. I ask the Minister to outline his views on the issue.

Deputy Pat Breen took the Chair.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive presentation. I share the concerns expressed about the Bedouin village in the occupied territories. I am pleased to have received a note on the issue from the Department. When we discussed the matter in the Seanad, I emphasised that this was a classic example of the policy of eviction, dispossession and demolition that was being relentlessly pursued as part of the Israeli occupation. In many cases, albeit not all, its purpose is to allow for the expansion of Israeli settlements. I am glad that the Department has put this in writing. We have tabled a motion asking the Minister to contact his Israeli counterpart about the issue and to write to the Israeli military's chief-of-staff to oppose the measure. There is no point in the joint committee discussing the issue if we do not let the Israelis know what the Irish point of view is. While our view may not be shared by the rest of the European Union, we should not to worry about it acting in unison as it takes some time for it to do anything in unison.

The Government has taken a very important case involving the United Kingdom's treatment of the so-called hooded men to the European court. The Minister has spoken about this issue. Will he outline the current position in the case and when he expects a determination to be made? The case is about more than the 14 men involved. In 1978 the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg overturned a previous decision in the men's case and this decision was interpreted aggressively by the former US President, George Bush, to use his description. As a result, countries that we consider to be democracies are using the 1978 ruling on the so-called five techniques - subjecting prisoners to noise, depriving them of sleep, food and fluid and using stress positions - as grounds for permitting torture. It is incumbent on Ireland to ensure this decision is overturned.

Despite the significant improvement in relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom, the British Government has not handed over the files on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. I am not sure if the Government has formally requested the files. The files on the Birmingham Six will remain sealed and unavailable to the general public until 2069. What are the British authorities hiding in these files? Anne Cadwallader's excellent book, Lethal Allies, shows the collusion in which the British state engaged and the murder gangs it had in operation.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply on the case of Ibrahim Halawa. Concerns have been raised about the torture of Mr. Halawa and the Irish ambassador to Egypt saw bruising on his back which had been caused in beatings received in prison. Doughty Street Chambers and Amal Clooney, who are involved in the case, have written an opinion on the torture, to which Mr. Halawa has been subjected. Ms Clooney is also involved in the hooded men case which, in some senses, brings me full circle. Reprieve, a human rights organisation, has also concluded that Mr. Halawa has been subject to torture and has listed some of the things done to him. They include the use of whips, chains, blindfolds and electric shocks, the denial of medical treatment, psychological torture by prison guards, being held in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions and solitary confinement, the provision of inadequate food and the denial of access to a lawyer. The Taoiseach recently stated in the Dáil that Mr. Halawa was facing lesser charges. Mr. Halawa's legal team has confirmed to me that he is still facing the death sentence and that the charges against him have not been reduced. The Taoiseach's statement was tantamount to misleading the Dáil.

The Taoiseach did not mislead the Dáil in that regard. I ask the Senator to withdraw that.

Sorry, the Taoiseach did mislead the Dáil.

No, he did not.

I can only go by the word of his legal team. According to his legal team-----

The Senator is going to his own sources, but was he listening to the Minister today?

I was listening to the Minister. The Taoiseach misled the Dáil, not because he wanted to do so deliberately, but because the information he had was inaccurate.

That is Senator Daly's opinion. That is not misleading the Dáil. The Senator should be very careful about what he says here.

Sorry Chairman.

There is no use saying sorry to me. I ask the Senator to observe the rules here.

Must we have these partisan rows?

His legal team in Egypt, who passed on the information to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, subject to the statement being made in the Dáil, stated categorically that he still faces the death sentence and that the charges have not been reduced. That is a fact.

That is from one legal team.

It is from the only legal team he has got. Could we get some clarification on this, because it is an important issue? If he faces lesser charges, the Egyptian court should have released him last February, because a person can only be held in detention for 18 months. Therefore, we would be quite within our rights to ask for him to be released on bail. However, if he still faces the death penalty, the more important issue of the presidential decree comes into play.

We had various briefings from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about Peter Greste, and his case is the precedent we have focused on. His trial had finished and he had been convicted and sentenced. It was only when that initial judicial process had been concluded that the Egyptian authorities were in a position to release him, according to the briefing note we got from the Department. That is technically misleading. The Doughty Street Chambers's opinion, which has been received by the Department, states that when applied in practice, law 140 supports the conclusion that the final judgment is not required prior to transfer. The Australian journalist Peter Greste, who for a time shared a cell with Ibrahim Halawa, was transferred to Australia pursuant to the decree. He had been convicted in 2014 on charges of falsifying news reports.

Can I have a question from the Senator, please? We must be conscious of the time.

On 1 January, the Egyptian court set aside the conviction and ordered a retrial of the charges and Mr. Greste was then transferred to Australia. Mr. Greste was in the same position as Ibrahim is today. The conviction had been set aside and he was now awaiting a retrial. Ibrahim Halawa is in the same position today.

There are many UN and international procedures we could pursue, such as the International Court of Justice in this case. Are we going to pursue this issue through the UN conventions regarding a fair trial, the rights of the child and freedom from torture conventions that Egypt is part of? I believe we are all agreed that we want the same result. I am concerned with what works. I know that when the Prime Ministers of Australia and Canada became involved, that worked. It is simple to see it worked, because we see that in the newspapers and their citizens are now on bail or have been transferred back to their home countries.

There are important issues in regard to the charges Ibrahim Halawa faces now and as to whether he is in the same position today as Peter Greste was when he benefited from the presidential decree. There is significant information and misinformation out there. We need to get the situation clarified because Ibrahim is now approaching his 700th day in prison. This is unacceptable for an Irish citizen, who was a child of 17 when arrested. We need to do all we can to get him released. I appreciate the efforts made by the Minister to date to get him released.

I welcome the Minister and thank him for his comprehensive outline to the meeting of all the developments at the Foreign Affairs Council over the past number of months. I thank him in particular for the update on the Ibrahim Halawa case. The Minister is aware that everybody on this committee wants the same result. We want to see him back safely with his family and continuing his education as soon as possible. However, we all appreciate this is a matter best left to the professionals. I have every confidence that our professional diplomatic team, who have made 42 visits to him over the past year and a half, know what they are doing. I know the Minister and his officials are pursuing every avenue. Hopefully, we will soon have a satisfactory outcome and Ibrahim Halawa will be back in Dublin before too long.

In regard to the Mediterranean crisis and the rescue of the unfortunate people who are fleeing war-torn areas, a report on RTE a few evenings ago was highly critical of Ireland and the European Union generally. It suggested we are not doing enough and have been slow to react to the crisis. I pay tribute to the personnel on the LE Eithne who have done Trojan work in recent weeks in rescuing hundreds of refugees. However, I am conscious of the criticisms made by the UN appointee on migrant issues, Mr. Peter Sutherland. When will we know the numbers of refugees the Government plans to place in Ireland on resettlement programmes? Has this issue been discussed yet by Cabinet?

I attended a very moving ceremony yesterday organised by the Bosnian people in Dublin to mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, which is something we hope we will not see a repeat of in our time. However, in Syria, some 6,500 people have been killed in May alone. The issue of barrel bombs was referred to earlier. Has the issue of barrel bombs been discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council and what action is proposed to deal with the situation? Not alone are people being killed, maimed and starved, they now face these barrel bombs. The Assad regime is the only power in a position to carry out these aerial bombardments.

A few weeks ago this committee held an informal meeting to discuss the freedom charter with some Syrian representatives of civil society organisations. Has the freedom charter, which has the support of a significant number of political religious organisations and civil society organisations, been discussed or what status has it as far as the Minister and his colleagues at the Foreign Affairs Council are concerned?

I compliment the Minister and his officials on the outstanding assistance they provided to the families of those who lost their lives in Berkeley, California and of those who were killed in Tunisia recently. What is the up to date advice in regard to travel to Tunisia?

I welcome the Minister. With regard to Ibrahim Halawa, I believe he was an innocent bystander who was caught up in a whirlwind of events. The strongest possible representation should be made to the Egyptian Government, adhering in particular to the position that Ibrahim Halawa is an Irish citizen.

The Egyptians are resisting this and claiming him willy-nilly as an Egyptian citizen. We should challenge that as hard as we can.

The Minister referred to how I was not present when he made certain statements. I regret that, but I was in the Seanad taking a Commencement matter with Senator Leyden about the village of Susiya.

Regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state, I am not sure that Ireland is early. Quite a number of European countries have already recognised Palestine. It seems an appropriate measure. The Palestinians have been there for a couple of thousand years, whereas the majority of Israeli citizens have only been there since 1948.

Regarding the situation in At-Tuwani, the village was demolished after being there for 200 years because it was supposedly on an archaeological site. That did not present the Israelis from moving in and building a settlement on it. That is an astonishing contradiction.

At the beginning of the Commencement debate, I made five points on, for example, co-ordinated diplomatic presence. I welcome the Minister's statement that our representative in Ramallah has visited Susiya. This is in the tradition of Ms Isolde Moylan in Ramallah. We should co-ordinate this work and ensure a constant presence from among European and other donors. We should ask that demolition orders and legal papers be deposited with the donors. These should cite the legal reasons for the demolitions and these should be examined. If necessary, we should challenge them and seek reparations. How often are we to invest money only to have the Israelis destroy something? They confiscated and destroyed emergency shelters. They confiscated and destroyed a child's slide. This is intimidation. The Secretary General has indicated that two sections of the Geneva Convention have been violated. What is happening with the EUROMED agreement? What is the status of its human rights protocols? We should insist that there be a Palestinian role in planning. It is absurd for the military authorities to be given exclusive control of planning.

Regarding the feis in Israel, I deprecate the suggestions that threats of any kind were made. I challenge Deputy Mitchell to produce evidence of any threat. Were people threatened with violence? Were they threatened with being attacked? They were requested to observe a cultural boycott. I am against an academic boycott, but I am fully in favour of a cultural one. Writing a letter asking that people observe a cultural boycott is not a threat. Certainly, I have received much more threatening material than that in the post.

I am conscious that there is a vote in the Seanad, so if the Minister could answer the Senators' questions first, it would help us.

I have not heard a vote called yet.

I will answer their questions first, but I wish to address the points raised by Deputy Mitchell and some of the issues raised by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, although I might drop the latter a note, as she is not present.

I apologise, but there is a vote in the Seanad and I am caught. I will read the Minister's reply. I thank him, although it may be a waste of time.

I will deal with the question of the feis, as it is important. Senator Norris has left. Reverting to the matter of Ibrahim Halawa, I apologise to the committee if it appears that I am taking an inordinate amount of time with this, but it is a serious issue. It appears in the newspapers on a daily basis. It is an issue to which much political consideration has been given in recent times. Regarding Senator Daly's comments on the charges, there is no question of the Taoiseach having misled the Dáil. When reading reports or listening to comments from Members of these Houses, I resent that I must form the view that there may be an element of political partisanship. I reiterate the fact that we are all working with the same objective, namely, seeking the return home of an Irish citizen.

To address the matter of the charges, during the trial hearing on 26 April, a lawyer acting on behalf of Ibrahim Halawa told our embassy officials that Mr. Halawa was facing different and lesser charges than other defendants in the case. The Department wished to confirm this, given its importance. A subsequent meeting was organised with Mr. Halawa's legal team for 20 May. At that, it was confirmed to the embassy that the most serious charges applied to some members of the group were not applicable to Ibrahim Halawa. This came from his lawyers. In respect-----


Only members can speak at this session. If interruptions continue, I will have to clear the Public Gallery.

In respect of the charges and as in any court case, we are reliant on the information given to us by the lawyers. They are the local legal advisers. They are the closest to the proceedings. They are involved on a daily basis in the subject matter of the detail of this case. Notwithstanding that, we have been circumspect in public references to the charges, as this is a serious situation for all Irish citizens, particularly the one who is facing the charges. This is not an issue that we have treated in anything less than the most serious way. We want to make a positive progression leading to a positive outcome.

I will make a further brief point. Senator Daly was incorrect to state that Peter Greste was in the same position as Ibrahim Halawa is today. I have stated this on the record of the Dáil and this committee. Unfortunately, it does not suit some people to read the situation as is. Regarding the presidential decree, Ibrahim Halawa is facing charges and is on trial, but the trial has not yet been concluded in the manner that we would all like. He is in the process of a court case. Peter Greste's initial trial had been completed, as admitted by Senator Daly, and his retrial had yet to start. He was not in the course of court proceedings. A conviction had been obtained by the court and a sentence had been handed down by it. This fundamental difference is of importance in the context of what we are discussing. The presidential decree and its terms will not be applied when an individual is in the course of a court process.

Through the Chair, I ask Senator Daly to retract his statement that the Department was misleading people. It was not and it does not. My officials have given a considerable level of commitment. I resent having their professionalism called into question, given the fact that there have been 42 consular visits. These will continue until this matter is disposed of, as we are anxious to ensure the welfare and return home of Ibrahim Halawa.

It has been claimed that this is a matter of lifting the telephone. I have heard it stated that if certain senior politicians lifted the telephone, Ibrahim would be immediately sprung from prison. That is an overly simplistic view of the process. The Egyptian authorities will make the decision and we will work towards that.

I wish to address US-Cuba relations, as mentioned by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. Like all members of the committee, we welcome the historic decision by Presidents Obama and Castro on the restoration of diplomatic relations. Ireland's long-standing concerns regarding the US embargo were set out at the UN last October when our support for the appropriate resolution of the General Assembly was manifest.

We are firmly of the view that lifting the embargo would facilitate Cuba's economy to the benefit of the people. As in other areas of Latin America, we will continue to raise concerns regarding the governance and the human rights situation.

Senator Daly raised the matter of collusion. In view of the time constraint on this meeting I will write to Senator Daly. It is not an issue that involves the Foreign Affairs Council but I have been reasonably broad in my replies to questions on issues that are not strictly speaking matters for the Council. Please forgive me if I do not open a debate on Northern Ireland because it is not possible within the time constraints. I have raised some of Senator Daly's concerns and I will continue to do so.

On the matter of migration as raised by Deputy Mitchell, I agree with her that this is an issue that needs a comprehensive response rather than an immediate response, although the immediate response in terms of search, rescue, resettlement and relocation, is important. Ireland has received 124 Syrian refugees under the UN resettlement programme. In recent times we had resettled 200 originally and we increased that number by a further 300 to a total of 520. Some of these people are already in Ireland. I wish to make it clear that we believe an approach based on solidarity and responsibility is essential. I would expect that this issue will be the subject of further consideration at the Foreign Affairs Council and at the European Council. We did have issues with any form of mandatory quota system but that is now off the table so we need to look at the type of consideration we can give by way of once-off and emergency measures and, over the coming weeks the final shape of the package and the level of participation will become clear.

Deputy Mitchell raised the matter of the millennium development goals with particular reference to women's health. We would hope, notwithstanding the concern expressed by Deputy Mitchell, that we can reach a common EU position in that regard. I am mindful of the point she makes. Deputy Mitchell and Senator Norris have raised the issue of the feis. I am deeply disappointed that the organisers of this cultural event felt compelled and under pressure to cancel it. I condemn any form of intimidation. There is no doubt whatsoever but that the organisers of this feis, a festival of what we do best, a festival of Irish culture and dance, felt intimidated at a very serious level. In response to Senator Norris, I wish to inform him that our consulate in Chicago was contacted by one of the Irish dancing schools who had planned to take part in the feis but they had been subjected to very serious abuse themselves on social media. The consulate duly contacted the school and made clear, as I reiterate this morning, that the Government does not support a cultural boycott of Israel. Indeed, it is counter-productive and I believe that there is always a place for cultural engagement and in particular with regard to Irish dancing. It is most disappointing that the organisers felt under threat of intimidation. I would hope that it could be reviewed, if not this year, certainly on another occasion.

If there are other issues which the Minister has been unable deal with directly now I ask if he would write to the committee members or to the committee as we are under a time constraint. I will allow Senator Daly in briefly but I do not want a Second Stage speech.

I thank the Minister for his reply. We are all working for the same objective. I know we are focusing on the Peter Greste case to use as a mechanism but that original trial was set aside. I would prefer if the Minister were representing Ibrahim Halawa by having a presence there. Peter Greste's conviction was set aside and a retrial arranged while he was still in prison, therefore, he was in the same position as Ibrahim is today. Of course, that is where lawyers come into play but my understanding is that it has been communicated that he is still facing the serious charges.

There seems to be a lot of misinformation and I am not fully informed as to the current circumstances. Does the Minister wish to make a final reply on that matter?

I thank the Minister for his attendance. There was great interest in this meeting. Any time the Minister attends our meetings it creates much interest. It is good to have him attend as often as possible and I know he does his best to do so for which I thank him.