Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Ceisteanna (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of staff employed in the Britain and Northern Ireland affairs section of his Department. [47453/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the EU and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [47642/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international division in his Department. [47832/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the EU and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [48843/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the EU and Northern Ireland affairs section of his Department. [48732/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the status of the work of the international division of his Department. [49040/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

10. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the status of the work of the international division of his Department. [50372/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 10, inclusive, together.

The international, EU and Northern Ireland division of my Department covers work on all international, EU and British-Irish and Northern Ireland affairs within the Department, including Brexit issues. There are 26 staff in total, headed by a second Secretary General. Included in this are seven staff in the British-Irish and Northern Irish affairs division headed by an assistant secretary and 19 staff in an EU and international division, also headed by an assistant secretary.

The British-Irish Northern Ireland division provides advice to me regarding Northern Ireland affairs and British-Irish relations. This includes work to advance peace, prosperity and reconciliation on the island of Ireland, including assisting me in my engagement with the British Government in institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement and on restoration of the institutions, including the Assembly and the power-sharing Executive in the North.

The EU and international division provides advice and briefing on relevant matters, including my varied international engagements, for instance, meetings of the European Council and other EU summits, bilateral engagements with Heads of Government of EU member states and other countries, and international affairs more generally. The division also works closely with other relevant Departments, notably the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Augmenting this ongoing work is the Brexit preparedness and contingency planning unit, which assists a Secretaries General group overseeing ongoing work on national Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The unit works closely with other divisions in my Department, including the economic division, and with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit.

Should the Brexit withdrawal agreement be implemented in the next two months, as is highly likely, Brexit will be nowhere near finished. The Taoiseach has accepted on a number of occasions that we are facing into a hard Brexit when it comes to 80% of our trade with the United Kingdom. There are potentially years of negotiations ahead of us with regard to European Union-United Kingdom issues and bilateral matters.

During the past year, the Government has accepted our position that there needs to be a new approach to Anglo-Irish relations to replace the connections we had in the context of shared EU membership. One of the benefits of that membership has been the familiar meetings with British politicians and between our respective civil servants for nearly 50 years. That had a tremendous impact on developing close relationships, a common agenda in Europe and, critically, the peace process in Northern Ireland. I am surprised that, even though we have had some discussions on this issue, they have not gone beyond general statements of intent and a few comments about the British-Irish Council, which is in no way structured to be able to achieve the sort of engagement we need. When will the promised proposals for new working structures be presented?

The British Home Secretary announced the other day her intention of introducing a new visa waiver system for EU citizens entering the UK. This would require a landing card system and registration similar to the one operated by the US. While we can assume that the common travel area means that this will not apply to Irish citizens, it has serious implications for EU citizens entering the UK through Ireland. Equally, it is unclear whether this is covered in the withdrawal agreement, as the special economic status for Northern Ireland relates specifically to trade and commerce. Has this matter been discussed with the British Government?

Last month, I attended the Palestinian children conference organised by the Irish trade union movement. Throughout that conference, speakers outlined in stark detail Israel's human rights abuses of Palestinian children. The conference was opened by a young Palestinian boy who, at just 17 years of age, was already a former child prisoner. I commend Ireland's trade unions on organising the conference and on their long-standing commitment to the Palestinian people.

November marked the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, yet Palestinian children continue to endure systematic and widespread violations of their rights, including their right to life. Over the past 20 years, Israel has detained more than 12,000 children. The latest figures tell us that there are 185 Palestinian children currently in Israeli jails. More are imprisoned for stone throwing. Their basic rights to, for example, legal representation and parental visits are routinely withheld. Child detainees have been blindfolded and deprived of sleep, had their hands and feet restrained and been intimidated and assaulted at the hands of the Israeli military. Children detained and prosecuted in the Israeli military court system can be as young as 12 years. In some perverse way, these children consider themselves the lucky ones. In the past year alone, more than 27 Palestinian children have been killed and 2,000 injured during Israeli air attacks.

In January of this year, the UN warned that children's access to school on the West Bank is not safe. In a statement, the UN noted threats of demolition, clashes on the way to school between students and security forces, and teachers stopped at checkpoints. It also noted that the violent actions of Israeli forces and, on some occasions, settlers presented real and imminent dangers.

Has the work of the international division of the Department of the Taoiseach included a response to these human rights abuses endured daily by Palestinian children? What engagement has the Taoiseach had with the Israeli political leaders on this matter?

As well as the issue of Israel's abhorrent treatment of Palestinian children as described by Deputy McDonald, whose question I echo about what the Government will do to raise this ongoing and systematic denial of rights to children in breach of every sort of international law and standard, I wish to ask about what the Government is going to do to raise its voice and demand that the EU take action and impose meaningful sanctions on Israel over its continued expansion of illegal settlements, which are now spurred on by President Donald Trump's decision to throw out 20 years of US policy, never mind international law and the Geneva Conventions, by endorsing the expansion of those settlements, the most recent of which, and probably the first by-product of President Trump's dangerous shift in policy, is in the city of Hebron, where Israel is talking about a massive expansion. One young man has already been shot, which is just the start of the problems that will arise. Given that Israel flagrantly breaches the Fourth Geneva Convention on the transfer of populations and UN resolutions on the question of the expansion of settlements, where is the call from us to the EU demanding sanctions? All the words mean nothing if we continue to allow Israel to do this and breach international law and international human rights standards. Never mind refusing to imposing sanctions, Europe still extends Israel favoured trade status. What are we going to ask the EU to do loudly?

The new European Commission has been sworn in. We note that one of the Government's own Deputies is taking up a job with it despite serious questions over his use of fobbing in the House and whether the Taoiseach is standing over his appointment as an employee of a member of the Commission. Dr. von der Leyen has stated that her Commission is going to pursue an agenda of change, notwithstanding the fact that Brexit is still to be resolved. Has the Government held discussions with the Commission's incoming members, including its new President, regarding the pathway for the period after the British general election, which is less than ten days away? Does the Taoiseach foresee changes in the structure of the discussions? We have already heard that Ireland will not be particularly represented in further discussions in terms of having special access to the negotiations. A period of a further year has been set aside. What are the implications of that for relations between the North and South? What will be the impact of Brexit on the EU's agenda now that a certain amount of Brexit fatigue understandably seems to be setting in? How does the Taoiseach propose to ensure that the issues of the island of Ireland are kept foremost in the view of the incoming members of the new Commission?

Will the Taoiseach condemn the coup in Bolivia? Does he believe that any other term appropriately describes a situation where an elected president is forced to resign by the military, where the army is on the streets to protect the coup, shooting and killing protestors, where supporters of Mr. Evo Morales's party - Movement for Socialism, MAS - have been dragged out of their homes, where a MAS mayor is dragged through the streets, her hair is cut off and she is covered in paint, and where indigenous flags are torn off army uniforms and burned by crowds of the far right? The military has installed as replacement a woman, Ms Jeanine Áñez, who is a white supremacist, does not have a single indigenous person in her Cabinet, who has previously tweeted about dreaming of "a Bolivia free of indigenous satanic rights", who has said that the capital city "is not for the Indians - they belong in the high plateau or el Chaco", and who has recently signed a decree effectively giving permission for the armed forces to engage in whatever human rights abuses they want in trying to put down those protestors who are standing up against the coup. Will the Taoiseach speak out against this coup or will he effectively continue to endorse it by refusing to call it what it is?

Earlier, Deputy Martin asked about the future structure of British-Irish relations after Brexit. He rightly pointed out that after Brexit we will not be in a position to meet British Ministers in the way we do now, three or four times a year at Council of Ministers meetings in Brussels or more frequently at the European Council. One of the suggestions we are working on is to strengthen and restructure the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and use that Good Friday Agreement institution as a mechanism to ensure structured engagement between the Irish Government and the British Government. It is something I intend to pursue with the Prime Minister if he is re-elected or the new Prime Minister if there is one in the next couple of weeks. The matter of landing cards has not been discussed to my knowledge with the British Government but we will monitor any proposals as they develop.

With regard to Israel and Palestine, I have not had any engagement with the Israeli Government or Israeli politicians but I met the leadership of the Palestinian Authority when they came to Dublin. The Tánaiste is in Israel and Palestine this week and is continuing his efforts to deepen our engagement in the region and help to bring peace to the territories.

Deputy Boyd Barrett asked about meaningful EU action such as sanctions. The simple fact is that when it comes to issues such as defence and the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the EU only acts with unanimity and there will not be EU action given that the 28 countries are not unanimous in their positions on Israel. Some are very supportive of Israel and others are closer to the Palestinians. Without a move to qualified majority voting on foreign policy, I do not see EU-wide sanctions being imposed or action being taken.

I have met President von der Leyen twice and I hope she will be able to visit Dublin soon. We will be at the European Council next Thursday and Friday. I will be watching the UK results come in on Thursday and Friday at the European Council and it promises to be an interesting meeting. The next steps will really depend on the results of the UK elections. There is the possibility of a special Council in January or February to set out the EU's negotiating guidelines for the next phase of talks, which will be negotiations with the UK on the free trade agreement and security and political partnership, but that is all a few steps ahead because we do not yet know what the outcome of the UK elections will be next week. Michel Barnier will remain in the role as negotiator on behalf of the EU, and Phil Hogan as trade Commissioner will have a central role given that a huge part of the future relationship will be free trade.

With regard to Irish issues, I hope we will still have the team of me, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, in place for the next phase of discussions. It would be very much in the country's interest that this be the case, given the contacts and competencies we have built up over the past two and a half years in representing Ireland when it comes to Brexit.

I must be honest and say I have not been following the events in Bolivia closely but I absolutely condemn any military coups wherever they occur.