Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Ceisteanna (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16)

Joan Burton

Ceist:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the foreign visits he has undertaken or will undertake in the period from December 2018 to February 2019. [52850/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

6. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the meetings he has planned with Heads of Government and Heads of State over the next six months. [52851/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Mali; the persons he met in the Defence Forces; the other meetings that he attended; and the issues that were discussed. [1214/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his planned visits abroad in the next six months. [1291/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Mali and Ethiopia. [1383/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Mali and the discussions he had with the Defence Forces. [1430/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

11. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Ethiopia and the meetings he attended. [1431/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

12. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Mali and Ethiopia and the UNHCR refugee camp for Eritrean refugees. [1548/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

13. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the meetings he has planned with Heads of State over the next six months. [1551/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

14. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Africa. [1702/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

15. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the foreign visits he plans to undertake to the end of June 2019. [1705/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

16. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Mali and Ethiopia. [1707/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (12 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 16, inclusive, together because almost all of them relate exclusively to my recent visit to Africa.

There are two groupings here.

One relates to the Africa visit and the other to the Taoiseach's proposed visits for the next six months. They are quite different.

Which are we taking?

Questions Nos. 5 to 16.

The Deputy is correct. I will raise that with my office when I get back. There are 12 questions here which could be broken into two groups, one about Africa, which is in the past, and the other about future meetings.

There are maybe four different questions so we should be able to get through them if we are concise.

I take the Deputy's point. I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 16, inclusive, together. I travelled to Mali and Ethiopia from 6 to 11 January to see at first hand the work being done by our Defence Forces, by Irish Aid and by our diplomatic and other representatives. My visit also allowed me to get the perspective of African leaders on Ireland's contribution to the deepening partnership between Africa and Europe, which focuses on sustainable development, peace and security, trade, economic growth and job creation. In Mali, I met the President and discussed the peace and security challenges facing his country as the Government seeks to regain control of Mali and how UN and EU missions can help. He thanked me strongly for Ireland's contribution to the EU training mission, EUTM. I met the mission commander of the EU training mission, Brigadier General Mirow. I was accompanied by the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces and the Secretary General of the Department of Defence. I also visited the EUTM training camp in Koulikoro, where Irish troops are training the Malian armed forces.

In Ethiopia, I had meetings with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, President Sahle-Work Zewde and the African Union acting chair, Commissioner Elfadil. The Prime Minister and I discussed his programme of reform, including improving the conditions for foreign direct investment and economic growth in his country, where Irish experience and expertise may be useful. My discussions with the President focused on the need to drive economic development in the country, including through the advancement of education, especially education of girls. In my meeting with Commissioner Elfadil of the African Union, we discussed how the European Union and Africa can work together on combatting our shared challenges. In Addis Ababa, I met Irish NGOs working in Ethiopia, including GOAL, Concern, Trócaire, Self-Help and Vita. I attended a community reception at the Irish embassy, where I launched the Ethio-Irish Alumni Association.

I visited a number of heritage sites, including the UNESCO world heritage site in Lalibela, where I launched a new partnership initiative on cultural heritage and rural job creation. I also announced the "greening" of the iconic Church of St. George for the first time on St. Patrick’s Day. I visited Irish Aid funded projects in Tigray, where Irish funding is dramatically improving the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. I visited a UNHCR camp close to the Eritrean border which is home to 18,000 refugees. One in seven refugees in the camp are unaccompanied minors and I saw the work being done to ensure that children in these camps can continue their education.

With regard to my travel intentions for the coming six months, later in January, I expect to travel to Davos for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. I also plan to attend scheduled meetings of the European Council on 21 and 22 March and 20 and 21 June, as well as an informal meeting in Sibiu, Romania on 9 May. Other EU engagements may also arise, and I will give full consideration to attendance in due course. I look forward to travelling to the United States in March for the annual St. Patrick's Day celebrations. The details of this visit are still under consideration and I will provide further information in due course. Other international visits and engagements with political leaders are also being given consideration but at present none are confirmed.

I warmly welcome the Taoiseach's visit to Africa. It is an important statement of Ireland's support for the development agenda and it is in keeping with our strong record of non-partisan, non-aligned development and promotion, which I welcome. The Taoiseach will recall that I raised on many occasions the need for what is called a new Marshall Plan or development plan for Africa and also for our own neighbourhood in the Middle East. We will be faced with growing pressure because of climate change and population increase, with stress on migration to the European Continent, radicalisation in those countries which might in future present security threats, and also the contamination of European politics.

We see more and more fundamentalist parties across the Continent with a narrow nationalist, xenophobic agenda, gaining traction and gaining ground. The main way to tackle this is to have a new Marshall Plan so that we can devote significant resources as a Continent to developing the economies of countries that need not only mitigation of climate change impact but real development. Ireland could be a leader in that regard. I welcome the Taoiseach's comment on that. That should be one of the cornerstone propositions that Ireland makes as part of its Security Council bid. I also welcome the Taoiseach's general view of increasing Ireland's footprint. I ask him to spell out in clear detail how broadening Ireland's international footprint might be achieved and how he would envisage that both in formal representations and in bilateral visits so that we could provide other nations with a stronger vision and understanding of Ireland, of our history, our record and our future.

I also warmly welcome the visit to Mali and Ethiopia. As a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have been to Ethiopia and witnessed at first hand the very impactful work of Irish Aid across Africa, especially relating to educational attainment and health. There are some good health projects in Ethiopia funded by Irish Aid. There are projects relating to agricultural practices and such too. The Taoiseach met with the Defence Forces, which are playing an essential part in training the Malian army to deal with its challenges. It highlights and illustrates the contribution that the Irish Army and Defence Forces generally make to the international reputation of Ireland. In some respects, that is not reflected, in my view, here at home in Government policy, attitude and demeanour to the Defence Forces.

The figures from last November show that the Defence Forces are down to 9,022 personnel. They have an approved establishment strength of 9,500 but they have not reached that for seven years. There is a significant retention crisis in our Defence Forces. I recently met with the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO. The Defence Forces are losing expertise across the board, such as in communications, sometimes to other Government agencies and Departments that can pay much more for the same people. The Army bomb disposal unit was significantly undermined last year or the year before by people leaving. I know this was not the Taoiseach's intention but the Army is not about photo opportunities. Considering the great work it does, we need to analyse seriously how the crisis in retention and low morale in the Defence Forces are being dealt with by official Government policy. The ongoing loss of expertise and experience is a big worry. I think the Taoiseach accepts there are issues in the Defence Forces. Will he indicate when he expects the awaited report on the Defence Forces from the Public Service Pay Commission?

Did the Taoiseach discuss what is going on in Sudan in any of his meetings? A popular revolution is happening against the al-Bashir Government in Sudan, triggered by a brutal, murderous response by the al-Bashir regime to protests over bread price increases. There have been mass arrests of students, schools and universities have been closed down, and 24 people have been killed, yet the protests continue which shows how serious they are. There has been vast mobilisation of the poor and working people. I am interested to know the Taoiseach's thoughts. The al-Bashir regime is in receipt of EU money. It is part of the set-up where Europe pays to keep people out of Europe. Is that why it is so silent on a popular revolution being brutally attacked by the Sudanese Government?

I have absolutely no doubt about the bravery, commitment and determination of the Irish Defence Forces, those involved in the training mission in Mali and the rangers who might be deployed there. However, I have very serious questions as to whether the Government should be sending them there. This is a counter-terrorism operation. It is not peacekeeping. It is a dangerous mission in a very messy conflict in which there are no real good guys. The Malian Government has even itself acknowledged that it has killed innocent civilians in its counter-terrorism operations; there are ethnic complexities involved; and the French have a colonial history and an agenda there. Our deployment there potentially causes very serious reputational damage to Ireland's high standing as a neutral country that does not back or side with imperial powers, big powers, in very messy situations. Perhaps the Taoiseach could comment on that as well.

Of course, the reason there is such a recruitment and retention crisis in the Defence Forces is, frankly, because people cannot live on the poverty wages they are being paid. Not just members of the Defence Forces, but more directly their families have, as we all now know, long protested and campaigned on this issue. It is a disgrace to us as an Oireachtas if we praise the blue helmets and our peacekeepers and bask in their reflected glory and then, when they return home, pay them poverty wages. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The Tánaiste has been in the Middle East a number of times since becoming Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I was in Palestine in the West Bank just before Christmas. I made extensive visits; met a wide range of groups and individuals; met each of the political parties or factions on the Palestinian side; saw at first hand the outrage and the breach of international law that the illegal settlements represent; spoke to families, children and young people who had first-hand daily experience of the harassment and brutalisation at the hands of the Israeli defence forces; reflected that Oslo, it now seems, might be dead; despaired at the fact that the international community sits on its hands and allows the Israeli state to act with absolute impunity; reflected on the fact that there is actually an answer to all this, that there is, if the international community were so minded, still one last chance to deliver a two-state solution; and then wondered - and I ask the Taoiseach the question today - will he visit Palestine? It would be extremely important if he did so. Furthermore, can we and can the Government move to recognition of the state of Palestine, as mandated by this Oireachtas? When the occupied territories Bill comes before us in the Dáil, will the Taoiseach please change position and do the right thing, in accordance with the spirit and the letter of international law, and support that legislation?

I acknowledge that all Deputies welcomed my visit to Africa. It was a real privilege to have the opportunity to visit Africa and represent the country there. It was the first official visit by a Taoiseach, I believe, in more than ten years and reflects our increasing and deepening engagement with Africa, through the European Union and the UN; bilaterally; through our Defence Forces, which is the security aspect of it; through international development - the budget for international development will increase by over €100 million this year; and through our membership of the African Development Bank and the fact that we have recently become an observer of la Francophonie. We are also upgrading diplomatic missions in Africa. The Liberia office has been upgraded to an embassy, and we are examining whether we should open a new mission in Francophone West Africa. I very much agree with Deputy Howlin's assessment about having a Marshall plan for Africa. Whether or not we choose to call it that is a different matter, but the concept is the correct one, that is, the approach taken by America to rebuilding western Europe and its economies and ensuring there were democratic institutions that worked and ensuring there was security. Thinking about many of the major problems we now face in Europe, whether human trafficking and illegal migration, terrorism, drug trafficking or climate change, all of them have origins or sources in other parts of the world, including parts of Africa. If the West and western countries spent as much on international development and genuine security operations in Africa as they do on military operations in places such as Syria, we would not have half the problems that are causing populists to be on the rise in Europe.

The budget for this year provides for an increase of just over €50 million for the Defence Forces. I assure Deputy Micheál Martin that this is not for photo ops. The extra €50 million for the Defence Forces this year is for aircraft, vessels, equipment, improvements to barracks, increases in pay and pensions. Joining the Defence Forces is a very good career option. One can join at 18 or 19 years of age, within two or two and a half years become a three-star private, and be paid €35,000 a year at a time when many of one's peers would be on Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants or still in college. One can also get new skills, represent one's country and travel the world. It is a career option that young people might consider, particularly if they do not want to go to college or down the apprenticeship route.

I acknowledge, however, that pay is an issue and we need to do something about it. The first thing, of course, is the public sector pay deal. This will provide for further pay increases this year and a special increase for new entrants in March, provided we can finalise agreement with ICTU on that. This would be very significant for the Defence Forces because so many have been recruited since 2012. Then there is the work of the Public Service Pay Commission. We expect the commission to report in March or April. It is looking particularly at the issue of specialists, the fact that pilots, air traffic controllers, engineers and many others now have such good opportunities in the private sector that we are losing them from the Defence Forces. We are also now allowing people to return to the Defence Forces, and it is really good to see people who have left coming back. They were not able to do so before now. The pay commission will also look at some allowances that are specific to the Defence Forces, reflecting the very specific type of work they do. I look forward to that report being received in March or April.