Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Ceisteanna (48)

Seán Haughey


48. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the reason for making public the efforts to assist the return of persons (details supplied) prior to them being safely returned here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46433/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Foreign)

The situation with regard to the case of Lisa Smith has continued to evolve since I submitted this question last week. I ask the Tánaiste to explain the rationale for making public the efforts to assist the return of Lisa Smith prior to the individuals in question being safely returned to Ireland. I think the House would welcome an update on this case. Obviously, it is in all the news bulletins at the moment. Anything the Tánaiste might have to say to update the House on this matter would be appreciated.

The Deputy is referring to a very complex and sensitive consular case, which is taking place in a highly unstable and dangerous region. Given the circumstances, it would not be helpful to comment on recent media speculation regarding plans that may or may not be under consideration. Any such comment would be inappropriate and would not be in the best interests of individuals involved. The Taoiseach and I have always been clear that the adult in question, as an Irish citizen, is entitled to consular assistance and has the right to return to Ireland. We have a particular concern for the safety and welfare of her child, who is also an Irish citizen. As the Deputy is aware, we have been working for some time with a range of partners with a view to exploring and assessing options for returning both citizens to Ireland. In light of developments in the region, it was agreed to send a small assistance team for a short period to reinforce the consular capabilities of our embassy in Ankara. The deployment of military personnel in such circumstances as part of a civilian assistance team is not unusual. This has been done before. We will continue to work with partners at home and overseas with a view to making progress with this case, which involves an Irish citizen and, more importantly, a vulnerable child. I will not go into further detail about this ongoing work and I will not comment on media speculation. I do not think it would be appropriate to do so in the circumstances. The Taoiseach and I have been quite careful in our responses to questions on this case. There has been a great deal of ongoing speculation. As the case develops, I hope we will be in a position to provide more details.

Last Sunday week, it was revealed in television news bulletins that the Army Ranger Wing has been deployed to assist in the operation to repatriate Lisa Smith and her child. It was reported in the public domain that this operation is being led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Given that this is a very sensitive case, how did that get into the public domain? We are where we are. Details have been made public. It is important for the House to be updated on the situation. I presume we can confirm that a small team of Irish officials, supported by members of the Army Ranger Wing, have been in Turkey for several weeks. There was some criticism on the public airwaves today. It was suggested that the Government should have introduced new legislation to make it a specific crime to join Islamic State, particularly in a foreign country. I know the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005 is in place.

I acknowledge it is not within the remit of his Department but, as Minister he may wish to comment on what will happen to Lisa Smith when she returns to Ireland. Will she be questioned by the Garda? Is she a person of interest? Will she be under 24-hour surveillance? All these issues have been raised in the media today. Any information the Tánaiste could provide would be welcome. It has been suggested that she will be given travel documents and identity papers. The House would appreciate more information on the case. Although it is sensitive, details have been leaked for one reason or another and, as such, the position should be clarified.

I urge the Deputy not to take everything he reads or hears about the case as fact. Much of the commentary is speculative, although some has a basis in fact. We sent Defence Forces personnel to Turkey to support our embassy team there mainly because of an ongoing conversation between our embassy in Ankara and the Turkish military. It makes sense to have military personnel speaking to military personnel. Although some people suggested we were sending Defence Forces personnel to extract Lisa Smith from north-east Syria, that was not the case. They are providing an important support security and communication role to the ambassador and her team in Ankara. That is not unusual. Defence Forces personnel have previously supplemented our embassy teams in other parts of the world and that is what they are doing in Turkey. Like all sensitive consular cases, the focus must be on the individuals and their family, rather than making it a public story. Of course, there will be a time to answer all questions on the case but, first and foremost, we need to continue to talk to the Turkish authorities to get the job done.

I agree that Ireland should abide by its obligations to its citizens as determined by national and international law. People need to be better informed about our obligations and this case may inform debate. It raises certain questions. Is the Minister aware of any other Irish citizens who travelled to an area controlled by Islamic State and are seeking repatriation? What steps or general efforts has the Government undertaken to prevent or circumvent Irish citizens becoming radicalised? It is beyond doubt that in this case an Irish citizen was radicalised. This is an issue of concern for many people.

Those are fair questions. The Turkish Government has made clear that when it finds and picks up people who have been radicalised or are supportive of ISIS in north-eastern Turkey, it intends to deport or repatriate them and it expects their home countries to accept them back. From our perspective, only two people are the subject of our current conversations with the Turkish authorities. One of them is a young and vulnerable child who is my primary concern in this situation. We have obligations in that regard. There are all sorts of questions relating to radicalisation, questioning and the role of An Garda Síochána if or when Lisa Smith comes home. We must deal with those questions comprehensively across multiple Departments, particularly my Department and the Department of Justice and Equality. We are working closely together to make sure we do what is appropriate in this situation. My primary concern is the two-year-old girl. We have an obligation to protect her as an Irish citizen and that is what is driving all of this. As events unfold, we will be able to offer more detailed analysis of the thinking behind the decisions we have made.