Wednesday, 31 March 2004

Ceisteanna (2, 3, 4)

Gay Mitchell

Ceist:

2 Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the agenda for the upcoming EU-US summit meeting in June 2004; the matters of concerns that the Government will be raising with President Bush; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10192/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

John Gormley

Ceist:

4 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on his meeting in early March 2004 with the Bush administration on plans for the EU-US summit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10189/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael D. Higgins

Ceist:

6 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if details have been confirmed for the planned EU-US summit to be attended by President Bush at the end of June 2004; if a location has been agreed; the likely agenda; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10191/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (38 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Foreign)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2, 4 and 6 together.

The Government attaches considerable importance to the European Union's relationship with the United States. As the holder of the EU Presidency, it looks forward to continuing its work to enhance that close transatlantic partnership. It fully acknowledges that the relationship has been through a difficult period, not least as a result of differences in policy on Iraq. However, it is significant that there has been a noticeable improvement in the relationship in recent months. As the holder of the EU Presidency, the Government is building on that improvement. It aims to hold a summit in June that restores stability and vitality to the EU-US relationship and reconfirms the importance of the partnership.

The EU-US partnership is central to addressing many of the issues on the international agenda. As the holder of the EU Presidency, the Government believes that the best way to restore confidence in the relationship is to focus on pragmatic co-operation on specific issues and to consult regularly and honestly on an ongoing basis. In this context, the Minister, Deputy Cowen, led an EU troika to Washington on 1 March last to meet the US Secretary of State, Mr. Colin Powell, and the US national security adviser, Dr. Condoleezza Rice. The outcome of the meeting was positive. A large number of foreign policy issues were covered during frank and constructive discussions. The meeting provided a strong foundation on which to build when the EU-US summit takes place in Ireland in June.

The Taoiseach took advantage of his St. Patrick's Day visit to the White House to exchange views on a number of international issues on the EU and US agenda, such as the need for counter-terrorism following the terrorist attacks in Madrid, as well as Middle East and Iraq matters. It is not possible to have full agreement on all issues, of course, but it is important that both sides consult and explain their approaches to the various issues on the shared agenda and manage any differences in a way that avoids damaging the overall relationship.

The summit will take place in Ireland on 26 June next. As the holder of the EU Presidency, the Government is working closely with its EU partners and the US authorities on the preparations for the important meeting. While it is too early to indicate in detail the topics for discussion during the summit, we expect that issues relating to foreign policy, economic and trade relations and other areas of shared interest will arise for consideration. Following the recent appalling act of terrorism perpetrated against innocent people in Madrid, we anticipate that counter-terrorism will be a key area of co-operation to be discussed with the US at the June summit. We anticipate that the Arab-Israeli peace process, wider relations with the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea and non-proliferation are some of the international issues that might feature in our discussions.

The media's focus on economic and trade issues too often tends to be on disputes rather than on areas of co-operation. It is important, therefore, that such differences are put into perspective. During its Presidency, Ireland is concentrating on the positive EU-US economic agenda, while seeking to manage effectively the limited number of outstanding disputes, which account for less than 3% of overall trade. It is expected that the EU-US summit will recognise the need to strengthen and widen the transatlantic economic relationship to include many aspects which affect our investment relationship and trade in goods and services. The summit is also likely to highlight the continued commitment and leadership of the EU and the US in the global fight against HIV-AIDS.

A close EU-US partnership is essential for prosperity and growth on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in the broader international community. As the holder of the EU Presidency, the Government is working to reaffirm the strength, depth and significance of such relationships in a sprit of partnership, with the aim of delivering a successful summit in June.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I am pleased to hear that the global HIV-AIDS issue is on the agenda. I urge the Minister to do everything he can to put the issue, which is of great concern to people in Ireland, elsewhere in Europe and the US, as high on the agenda as possible.

Who will be in charge of security for the visit of President Bush? Has the Government received a request for immunity from prosecution of US secret service agents in the event of somebody being injured or killed as a result of the discharge of their weapons here? Will the Minister of State confirm that Iraq will be on the agenda as part of the discussion on the general Middle East region? Regarding EU-US transatlantic relationships, will the Minister, Deputy Cowen, raise the possibility of an EU-US transatlantic foundation in Ireland, preferably in Shannon, which I have mentioned in the House on a number of occasions? Is the Minister prepared to mention this important issue, given that I have set out a policy document and I have raised the matter in the House on many occasions?

I agree with Deputy Gay Mitchell that HIV-AIDS is an important issue. As the Deputy is aware, I chaired a recent conference on HIV-AIDS in the central Europe and central Asia regions. I consider the conference, which led to a Dublin declaration and a Dublin action plan, to have been very successful. The Minister, Deputy Cowen, and I are anxious that the issue of HIV-AIDS should be on the agenda following the conference, so that we can tackle this global pandemic. I am as anxious as Deputy Mitchell to see that the issue is given priority.

As the host of the June summit, Ireland will provide security for all visitors. The Deputy will appreciate that many Heads of State and Ministers have been arriving in this country on a regular basis during our Presidency. The Garda has been organising the security arrangements in all such cases. We have done it before and we will do it on this occasion. The Deputy mentioned specific arrangements, such as immunity from prosecution. As such issues have not been dealt with to date, I presume that they will be dealt with in due course.

Has the question been asked? Did they ask for immunity?

As I understand it, no, not at this stage. Such issues may arise before 26 June. We envisage that Iraq will definitely be on the agenda. I am aware that the Deputy has raised the possibility of an EU-US foundation in the past. The Minister, Deputy Cowen, has not ruled out the possibility of such a foundation, as far as I recall. He has referred to the fact that the Institute of European Affairs and other organisations are examining such a concept. I certainly think we should consider it.

Was the Irish Government thanked by the Bush Administration for allowing US forces to use Shannon Airport — in breach of Irish neutrality — for its illegal, stupid and counterproductive war in Iraq? Did the Minister tell his American counterparts that he was, to use the Taoiseach's phrase, "dead against" the war, or was it the usual fawning, forelock-tugging display?

I listened carefully to what the Minister said to Deputy Gay Mitchell about security arrangements. As someone who was a participant in the demonstrations during the visit of Ronald Reagan, I can tell the House that the American secret service ruled the roost on that occasion. We experienced it firsthand. What permission, if any, has been granted to the US Air Force to patrol above Ireland in fighter aircraft and helicopters?

That is a security matter and should be addressed to a different Minister.

Perhaps the Minister of State can enlighten us. The Czech Government was obliged to pass special legislation on this issue. We will probably not be required to do that, given that the US Administration seems to have free access to this country in any case.

A question to the appropriate Minister would be more correct.

I am discussing the matter of security arrangements on which the Leas-Cheann Comhairle allowed Deputy Mitchell to ask a question.

I allowed him to ask a general question in the area. I do not want this to develop into a discussion of security matters.

Has a sterile zone been specifically requested by the US Administration? Was this matter raised at the meeting?

I also recall the security provisions surrounding the visit of Mr. Reagan, so I am conscious of the Deputy's concerns. To follow up on what I said to Deputy Mitchell, the provision of security for visiting Heads of State is decided on a case by case basis. It is customary that certain Heads of State are permitted to have available, on an exceptional basis and by arrangement with Irish authorities, supplementary measures for their security. The arrangements for the visit of Mr. Bush have yet to be finalised and I would not consider it productive to speculate on the details. We are at an early stage in the preparations.

No requests for overflights by US military aircraft have been received. I do not consider it prudent to speculate on matters of security. However, the Government is taking a responsible and realistic attitude to the question of providing security for the visit of Mr. Bush. Members will have heard the comments of the Garda Commissioner in this regard. It is Deputy Gormley's prerogative to speculate in an academic way on what might happen. He referred to visits of previous Presidents. We have a good police force with a good Commissioner who is conscious of the need to provide security. I have outlined the special circumstances for visiting Heads of State. We will be vigilant in managing this.

What about Iraq?

The Minister's replies sounded like an introductory chapter from a marriage guidance book. He talked about restoring relationships that have been through a rocky period. We all join in wishing him stability and vitality in these relationships in the future. In the meantime, he might answer my question about whether a location has been agreed for the visit. To take up the point raised by Deputy Gormley, I too was part of the protests against Mr. Reagan, as the Minister of State might remember. At that time US security services sought permission to put snipers in the attics of houses in Galway and were refused. The Minister of State suggested this was an academic matter; it is far from that. Either the Government has already been asked about security arrangements or it is waiting to have them imposed upon us, as happened the last time. Will the same thing happen again?

What message will the Government convey to its US counterpart about the war on Iraq? Which of the Taoiseach's versions will it offer — the one in which he was really against the war all along, or the one in which he decided it would be a breach of our friendship with the USA if we did not allow planes to land in Shannon carrying armaments and soldiers which were going on to kill civilians in Iraq?

We are working closely with our EU partners and the USA on the arrangements for the summit. For security reasons, it is not appropriate to be specific about the location until arrangements have been finalised. Deputies will hear about this in due course.

My position on the war in Iraq, as somebody who has been involved on the humanitarian side as Minister of State with responsibility for development, is well known. I am conscious of the debates that have taken place in the House in which my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Cowen, has clearly spelled out the position of the Government——

No, he did not. The questions remain the same. We are all interested in the future, but I would like an answer to the questions asked.

I heard the debate and I have the copies of the transcript.

The United States is obviously an important ally for Europe. The summit is the continuation of a dialogue that was established some time ago. Its location alternates between the US and the country that holds the EU Presidency. People have suggested that it should be happening in Brussels, but that has never been the case. Under the Greek Presidency it took place in Washington and now it is the turn of the Irish Presidency.

It is important for Ireland, as the country which holds the Presidency of the EU, to consider the war in Iraq. The UN special representative, Mr. Brahimi, recently said that Iraq is at a crossroads. He did not underestimate the scale of the challenges ahead but he clearly believes the UN can play a useful role. There will be a new UN resolution on Iraq in May. Transfer of sovereignty will take place in June and there will be a more central role for the UN. There will also be elections next year. I recently witnessed the reconstruction that is taking place after the horrific conflict in Liberia. Elections are being held and they are rebuilding democracy. That is the challenge facing us.

When will there be elections in Iraq?

Politics is about moving forward.

What is the Minister of State's position? What did the Government representatives say in Washington?

We have heard very good academic debates about what has happened.

They are not academic.

That was then and this is now.

Is it the case that during the visit of Mr. Reagan, members of the Army guard of honour were obliged to remove the firing pins from their weapons?

That is true.

Will the Minister of State confirm to the House — he should be upfront about this — that security will be taken over by the American secret service? Does he expect that the Minister for Foreign Affairs or any member of the Government will receive a request from the US Administration for immunity from prosecution for secret service officers who discharge their weapons and injure or kill somebody?

No official request has been received from the US authorities for the carrying of weapons by security staff accompanying the President on his forthcoming visit. It is likely that any such request will be received closer to the visit. The final decision on these issues rests with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. There are specific procedures involved and Deputies may be sure they will be followed as they have been in the past. The Garda Commissioner has made it clear that the Garda Síochána will be in charge. There will be consultation closer to the event.

This is all very clandestine. Clearly, the request will go in when the Dáil is in recess and we will know very little about it. This is most unsatisfactory.

The original question I asked, to which I received no reply, was about the Irish position in Washington. Did the Government representatives tell the US Administration we were against the war? When the Minister of State and I were on the radio together, he said that the 100,000 people who marched against the war in Iraq were marching in support of the Government's position and that the Government supported them. What was the position of the Government in Washington?

If the Deputy listened carefully to what I said, I outlined the various issues that were raised, first by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, who led a meeting with the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and the US National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and by the Taoiseach in his meeting with President Bush. I would not be privy to the specific comments that were made but——

For or against the war?

The US Administration is very much aware of our view and of the debates in this Chamber through the US Embassy here.

The Minister of State says one thing here and another thing over there.

No. As current holders of the EU Presidency, we have a important responsibility to try to move the debate on Iraq forward. This is a unique opportunity and Ireland is well positioned to do that. We have seen how the Taoiseach has given leadership on the EU constitution, which the Deputy has acknowledged, and leadership can also be provided on this issue. I am not privy to the specific details of the Taoiseach's conversations with President Bush but the Deputy knows precisely what the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Cowen, have said about the war in Iraq. My main concern now is how we can move forward together and make some progress in a very difficult conflict situation.

Clarity would be useful before leadership is offered. The question is a reasonable one: will the Taoiseach be encouraging the United States to move back within the ambit of international law? Will he be asking the US to accept multilateralism? In their deepened and vital relationship, will Ireland and the USA be reflecting upon the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Does the Minister of State have any assessment of the number of civilian deaths in Iraq? He was not in a position to provide such information on the last two occasions on which the House dealt with foreign affairs questions.

We will be supporting greater UN involvement. The policy position, as articulated by the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Cowen, on many occasions, is that we will be supporting a greater multilateral approach to that particular conflict. It is a very difficult situation and, as we speak, people are being killed in Iraq. There is a process, however, as I have outlined. We strongly support the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, but we want to see developments moving towards a proper government and a proper election system in Iraq, just as we have seen in other parts of the world. We will support that clearly defined, multilateral approach that entails a more central involvement of the United Nations.