Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

Update on EU Foreign Affairs Council: Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

10:30 am

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I extend a warm welcome to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, who is accompanied by the Secretary General of his Department, Mr. Niall Burgess, the director general of Irish Aid, Mr. Michael Gaffey, and Mr. Barrie Robinson, political director. I also welcome the other officials in attendance.

With so much happening in the world, members have many issues to discuss with the Minister. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the recent meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council. I am sure the most recent meeting of the Council will form a central part of its meeting next week. The format will be that the Minister will make an opening statement, which will be followed by a question and answer session.

Before we commence, I remind members, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery to ensure their mobile telephones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even on silent mode, with the recording equipment in committee rooms.

I remind members that this meeting is being broadcast live on Oireachtas TV.

I 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 House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her 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 joint committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, 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 are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge the work of the Chairman as Chair of this important parliamentary committee and also the work of the members of the committee who, I know, engage very positively over a wide range of issues hingeing on our foreign policy and Ireland's role in the world. That is very much appreciated by the Government, my Department and me. In that context I very much welcome the opportunity to address the committee on the recent developments at the Foreign Affairs Council.

My statement will focus on the regular, formal Foreign Affairs Council meetings held in December, January and February, along with an extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council meeting also in January. I will also look ahead to the Council meeting later this month.

I propose to address the key issues which have been discussed at the Council as follows: Ukraine, Russia, the southern neighbourhood, counter-terrorism, climate change, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Ebola. I will look ahead to the topics to be discussed at the March Council, namely, Africa, migration and the Eastern Partnership.

I understand members may wish me to refer to issues outside the Foreign Affairs Council agenda and I would be happy to do so on the basis that there are a number of issues of importance pertaining to the committee upon which I may be in a position to provide an update or indeed take the committee's advice and guidance.

In my closing I propose to update the committee briefly on the recent launch of the foreign policy review, a publication in which I know the committee has taken a strong interest. I thank the Chairman and committee members for their input in shaping the form of the final document. I would be happy to address any questions members might have.

Since I last appeared before the committee to discuss the business of the Foreign Affairs Council, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has taken a number of turns. The lead-up to Christmas saw a lull in fighting which raised hopes that progress could be made in the search for a sustainable political solution. However, in January, the Russian-backed rebels launched a series of offences aimed at pushing back Ukrainian forces and seizing additional areas of territory over which to exercise control. The intensification in fighting led to a dramatic increase in the number of casualties, particularly among the civilian population in eastern Ukraine.

In light of this rapidly deteriorating situation, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande undertook a diplomatic initiative involving President Poroschenko and President Putin. Their efforts culminated in a summit meeting of the four leaders in Minsk on 12 February at which the parties to the conflict signed an agreement undertaking to fully implement the Minsk agreements of the previous September. This deal provided for a ceasefire which came into effect on 14 February and committed both sides to withdraw heavy weapons from the front line.

After a troubled start, the 14 February ceasefire appears to have taken hold. Both sides have begun withdrawing heavy weapons and prisoner exchanges have also taken place. Despite these positive developments the situation is fragile and concerns remain in the Ukrainian Government that pro-Russian rebels are using the truce to regroup for new attacks on government positions.

The European Union has responded appropriately to these developments. At the December Foreign Affairs Council, Ministers confirmed their agreement in principle to the imposition of additional sanctions on investment, services and trade with Crimea in a further tightening of the EU’s policy of non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea. These measures were endorsed by the European Council on 18 December and entered into force on 20 December.

In response to the dramatic surge in violence during January, High Representative Mogherini called an extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council on 29 January at which Ministers agreed to extend the existing list of individuals and entities subject to European Union visa bans and asset freezes to September 2015. In addition, the Council approved a proposal to work up additional listings against separatists in eastern Ukraine and their supporters in Russia which were approved at the subsequent February Council meeting, although implementation of this decision was temporarily deferred to allow space for the aforementioned diplomatic efforts that were in train at the time.

The European External Action Service and the Commission were also tasked to undertake further preparatory work on “any appropriate action" which may include further economic sanctions to ensure the rapid and comprehensive implementation of the September Minsk agreements. This work is ongoing and is expected to be ready in advance of the European Council on 19 and 20 March where European Union leaders will have a detailed discussion on EU relations with Russia and the situation in Ukraine. The question of further economic measures against Russia will be a feature of the discussion. The conclusions of the December European Council meeting delivered a clear message that, regarding Ukraine, the EU would stay the course and stood ready to take further steps if necessary and appropriate.

The discussion on additional measures is expected to be largely influenced by developments on the ground in the period leading up to the European Council meeting and will determine the further steps the European Union will take. While recent developments on the ceasefire, including weapons withdrawal and prisoner exchanges, are a positive sign, the true test of the accord reached on 12 February will be in its full implementation.

At the January Foreign Affairs Council meeting a strategic discussion was held on the EU’s overall relations with Russia. This discussion sought to look beyond the Ukraine crisis, the prism through which our relations with Russia has been almost exclusively viewed for most of the past year, and to consider areas of shared interest and potential engagement. Ministers agreed on the advantages that lay in maintaining co-operation on important global and regional foreign policy issues such as Syria, Libya, and Iran, where engagement with Russia is considered desirable and on occasion necessary if progress is to be made in tackling these major challenges. It was also agreed that options for sectoral dialogues with Russia could also be explored at technical level in a limited number of areas, such as energy.

Ministers, however, made it very clear that this reflection on our relations with Russia should not be interpreted as a return to business as usual and that any resumption of dialogue with Russia would be selective, gradual and conditional. There was also a wide acceptance that any change in the current course of our relations with Russia could only come about if Russia altered its behaviour towards Ukraine and fully implemented its commitments under the September Minsk agreements.

I wish now to turn to the southern neighbourhood. At the December Council meeting the Council was joined by the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for the Syria crisis, Mr. Staffan di Mistura, who outlined his proposals on a graduated de-escalation of the conflict. Ministers gave him full support in his efforts and discussed possible EU measures to support implementation of his plan. Conclusions were also adopted which made public full EU backing for his plan.

We also reiterated the European Union’s support for a political end to the conflict based on the Geneva principles, condemned regime and terrorist atrocities and crimes against civilians, urged full compliance by Syria with the chemical weapons convention, and called for all parties to respect and implement international humanitarian law and UN Security Council resolutions 2139 and 2165. The conclusions also pledged the European Union’s continued support for humanitarian efforts for the victims of the conflict and committed the European Union to supporting Syria’s neighbours in meeting the exceptional challenges posed by the massive inflow of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria.

The February Foreign Affairs Council also took note of a proposed European Commission communication on a regional strategy for Syria and Iraq, which it is expected will be formally adopted at our next Council meeting in March.

We also discussed the political and security crisis in Yemen in light of the 22 January resignation of President Hadi, along with Prime Minister Bahah and his Cabinet. We adopted conclusions which expressed deep concern about terrorist attacks and violent incidents and urged all parties in Yemen to work towards a political framework through which the legitimate aspirations of the Yemeni people can be attained and realised.

Libya is another country paralysed by a political and security crisis, and it was discussed at the February Foreign Affairs Council meeting. We agreed conclusions which welcomed the convening of the United Nations-facilitated political dialogue and underlined our continuing support for the efforts of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, UNSMIL. We restated our view that there is no military solution to the Libyan crisis. Only a political settlement can achieve peace and stability for Libya and its people. The situation in Libya is expected to feature again at the March Foreign Affairs Council meeting, when we will review the situation and assess the progress of the United Nations-facilitated talks.

There has been a renewed and necessary focus on counter-terrorism in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris and more recently in Copenhagen. The January Foreign Affairs Council saw Ministers reiterate the need to co-ordinate internal and external measures and to step up efforts to prevent and counter the threat from international terrorism. Internal strategies are the preserve of the Minister for Justice and Equality and her counterparts, while foreign Ministers take the lead on external measures. In that regard I have had a number of meetings with my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, in order to ensure that matters internally and externally are co-ordinated in an appropriate manner.

The January Foreign Affairs Council also reaffirmed the need to intensify and accelerate implementation of the EU’s counter-terrorism and foreign fighters strategy on Syria and Iraq, which was agreed on 20 October 2014. This strategy is an integral contribution to the international effort to tackle the threat emanating from ISIL. It is one element of our wider foreign and security policy approach towards both Iraq and Syria which is situated within the larger political and regional context and includes support to the moderate Syrian opposition, while working with Iraq to ensure a more inclusive system of governance and addressing the humanitarian crisis.

Discussion on these issues continued at the February Foreign Affairs Council, at which Council conclusions were agreed, including on the need to mainstream counter-terrorism into foreign policy in full compliance with international law, fundamental values and international human rights standards. Measures envisaged within this framework include enhanced co-operation with and support for capacity-building in third countries to prevent radicalisation, the promotion of a counter narrative and the strengthening of legal and security measures, as well as a recognition of the need to address underlying factors, in particular the ongoing conflicts in Europe's southern neighbourhood.

The issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina was discussed at the December Foreign Affairs Council meeting following a visit to Bosnia by High Representative Mogherini and the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement, Johannes Hahn. During this visit, they met senior politicians and representatives of civil society in Bosnia to discuss ways of injecting new momentum into the stalled reform process in order to help Bosnia advance on its EU accession path.

The Council agreed conclusions which called on Bosnia’s leaders to make a written commitment on a reform agenda. This includes socio-economic reforms such as the 2013 compact for growth and jobs as well as reforms relating to the rule of law and good governance. This agenda also aims to address functionality issues, including the EU co-ordination mechanism, and the implementation of the 2009 Sedjic-Finci ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. Upon receipt of the written commitment, the Foreign Affairs Council will then decide on the entry into force of Bosnia’s stabilisation and association agreement with the EU. Following meaningful progress on the implementation of this reform agenda, Bosnia’s application to join the European Union would then be further considered.

In response, on 29 January, Bosnia’s tripartite presidency agreed and signed a joint declaration expressing their readiness to pursue the EU reform agenda. Bosnia’s Parliament endorsed the declaration on 23 February. High Representative Mogherini attended the session and welcomed the move as "a historical moment and a starting point" for the key issue of implementing reforms. Bosnia and Herzegovina will be discussed again by the Foreign Affairs Council in the near future to decide on the next steps, including the entry into force of Bosnia’s stabilisation and association agreement with the European Union. Ireland has long been a strong supporter of Bosnia and Herzegovina and I look forward to further reports on developments of a positive nature from High Representative Mogherini in that regard.

Ebola was discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council in December. With the support of the international community, the efforts of the three countries most affected by Ebola - Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - are finally beginning to show progress as transmission rates for this terrible disease show an overall rate of decline. Ireland has played a full role in the international response to the crisis through the work on the ground of our embassy in Sierra Leone, our significant financial support and the active and positive contribution of our non-governmental organisations, NGOs. It is important, however, that we see the crisis through to the end. We have the strategies to defeat Ebola and we need to focus on and implement them until the job has been completed to the satisfaction of everyone in the region and beyond. To do so, we must ensure we maintain the high level of resources which have been built up in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. That will be particularly important for Sierra Leone where transmission rates have, regrettably, begun to rise again.

A high-level international conference on Ebola was held in Brussels on 3 March. This focused both on short-term needs and on longer-term recovery and development. Ireland was represented by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock. The European Union and its member states have so far committed more than €1.2 billion to the Ebola response. In 2014, Ireland provided more than €18 million, directly and through NGOs, to the most affected countries. This included €10 million through our annual development programmes in our partner countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia, which have a particular focus on strengthening their national health systems. We have provided more than €5.6 million specifically for Ebola treatment facilities and for work on contact tracing, community mobilisation and child nutrition programmes, among other activities. We will maintain this strong focus throughout 2015.

Climate change was discussed at the January Foreign Affairs Council. As The Global Island: Ireland’s Foreign Policy for a Changing World highlights, climate change is one of the biggest global challenges of this century and demands a co-ordinated response at both national and international level. We are now at an important juncture in the run-up to the conference of parties of the United Nations framework convention on climate change taking place in Paris at the end of this year. At the Foreign Affairs Council in January, I joined my fellow Ministers in adopting an EU action plan for climate diplomacy which will use the collective leverage of member states and the EU institutions to work towards an ambitious climate change agreement in Paris this December. In support of the action plan for climate diplomacy, Ireland will prioritise engagement with the least developed countries through our mission network. We will also continue to support the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, our own Mary Robinson, in her outreach to countries before the Paris negotiations. If you did not have an opportunity already, Chairman, I hope you will invite Mrs. Robinson to join the committee in its discussions on this important issue.

The March Foreign Affairs Council, at which Ireland will be represented by the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, will see a strategic discussion on EU relations with Africa, which I very much welcome. It is my hope that this discussion will go beyond the traditional narratives of security and development aid and also address the interlinked issues of peace, prosperity and partnerships. Sustainable prosperity will not be achieved without peace, and peace itself is best achieved through partnerships that achieve a shared prosperity. Ireland has already taken steps to better integrate our political, development and economic relations with Africa through the Africa Strategy, launched in 2011. The strategy recognises that the African continent is undergoing an enormous economic and social transformation with average growth rates of 5% over the past ten years.

However, poverty persists and inequality is growing, creating the conditions for conflict, criminality and terrorism. Development aid alone cannot address these problems, more and better investments both public and private are required. From all of my contacts with African Ministers and officials, one message stands out, that Africa seeks to be fully and fairly integrated into the global economy so that sustainable domestic economic growth can overcome poverty and conflict.

I also hope the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, will have the opportunity to update our colleagues on Ireland’s role, together with Kenya, as a co-facilitator of the post-2015 discussions at the United Nations, where both Europe and Africa have a critical role to play in ensuring that we adopt a transformative framework which can address sustainable and inclusive economic growth, eliminate global hunger and ensure a peaceful and dignified life for everybody on our planet.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership policy will be discussed at the forthcoming Foreign Affairs Council and European Council in preparation for the Eastern Partnership Summit which will take place in Riga, Latvia, on 21-22 May. The summit will be an opportunity to take stock of the Eastern Partnership process, and developments since the last summit in Vilnius in 2013. It will set the path for the partnership for the next two years. In particular, it will be an opportunity to assess initial progress by Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in the implementation of their EU association agreements, with assistance from the European Union.

Members will recall that these agreements were approved by the Dáil in January, after their consideration by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and a debate in the Dáil. This paves the way for their ratification by Ireland, which will be completed before the Riga Summit in May. Once again I thank the Chairman and members of the Select Committee for their valuable contributions during our discussions on the agreements. These agreements are fundamental for the three countries concerned because they provide a long-term and comprehensive framework for their relations with the European Union. Their citizens will also benefit from the wide-ranging reforms which are embodied in these agreements. The Riga Summit should also seek to confirm that the Eastern Partnership is as relevant for those partner countries that did not conclude association agreements with the European Union.

In advancing the European Union’s partnership with these eastern neighbours, the Riga Summit should convey clearly the important message that the Eastern Partnership is not directed against any third parties nor does it seek to create new dividing lines in Europe.

The March Foreign Affairs Council is also expected to have a discussion on migration. The ongoing tragedy in the Mediterranean, where thousands of would-be migrants to Europe have lost their lives at sea in recent years and months, highlights the importance of ensuring that the European Union integrates questions of migration and displacement into its external and development policies. Much work has been done on developing a European Union approach to migration that recognises not only the reality that people are moving on an unprecedented scale today but also that migration has the potential to be a positive force for global development, in both rich and poor countries. Only last week I had the opportunity to spend a day in Geneva where the matter of international migration was very much on the agenda. I would be happy to provide the committee with a written note on my discussions in that regard at an early date.

Ireland is fully supportive of the European Union’s global approach to migration and mobility and we recognise the absolute importance of addressing the challenges of migration in a spirit of partnership between receiving and sending countries. Historically, we are a country of emigration that has only become a country of immigration in our very recent past. We are confident that our experience, particularly our experience in engaging with communities and individuals of Irish origin abroad, can help us to make a meaningful contribution to tapping the positive potential of migration.

I wish to avail of the opportunity to refer briefly to Ireland’s foreign policy which the Taoiseach and I launched in January. This review entitled, The Global Island: Ireland's Foreign Policy for a Changing World, is the culmination of a wide-ranging process of consultation conducted by my Department involving civil society and members of the public as well as other Departments and Members of the Oireachtas. I believe that it offers a progressive and forward-looking vision of Ireland’s foreign policy and Ireland's place in the wider world.

The review identifies our key goals under a number of broad themes. Through its focus on “our people”, the review takes stock of the ongoing work in pursuit of peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland, as well as the provision of support for Irish citizens travelling, living and working abroad, our growing engagement with the Irish diaspora, and the promotion of Irish culture abroad. In addressing “our values”, the review sets out Ireland’s support for a fairer, more just, more secure and more sustainable world through our development programme, human rights policies, peacekeeping, disarmament and security policies and growing engagement with global issues such as climate change, while also considering the role of the European Union and United Nations in amplifying Ireland’s voice and extending its influence.

In relation to “our prosperity” the review considers the global economic background to the ongoing efforts in support of recovery, growth and job creation, in particular through trade, tourism, education, investment and the enhancement of Ireland’s reputation abroad. It is a good story that we need to tell and tell in a positive manner. The review also considers the fundamental importance for Ireland of our place in Europe and how the Government engages across the broad agenda of EU decision-making to safeguard and promote Ireland’s interests and to shape the European Union and its ongoing global engagement.

In addition, it considers how Ireland can use its influence and leverage the resources available to secure the maximum benefit for the Irish people from Ireland’s international engagement. It sets out the context for the Government’s international engagement, and in particular the work of my Department and of Ireland’s embassy network, 80 missions abroad, in the years ahead, all actively pursuing a positive agenda now in the years ahead.

The Secretary General of the Department, Mr. Niall Burgess, may meet with the committee in the near future, with the permission of the Chairman, to discuss the process leading to the “The Global Island” policy document. My primary concern of course is to ensure that the review is followed by concrete actions in the form of implementation in each of the five aforementioned strands. Some such actions are already under way. Last month I announced plans for a new passport card which will mark a significant enhancement for Irish citizens travelling overseas.

Last week I joined with the Taoiseach, and the Minister of State, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, in launching the first ever comprehensive policy for engagement with our diaspora. Work on further practical measures is ongoing and I would welcome a future opportunity to brief the committee on these issues at some point in the near future.

In the meantime I take this opportunity to thank the committee for its engagement with the development of the foreign policy review and for the considerable inputs it has provided. I always welcome the committee's views, input, advice, guidance and contribution.

I am happy to address any questions Members may have and look forward to hearing their own perspectives on these issues and others which they might wish to raise.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for such a comprehensive report on issues at home and abroad. It was an important update for the committee. On the issue of Ebola the Irish ambassador to Sierra Leone, Ms Sinead Walsh, who is appearing before the committee at the end of March, led our team in Sierra Leone on combatting the crisis. Her appearance before the committee will be very important as she was on the ground with all the main players looking at it first hand.

Before I hand over to Deputy Brendan Smith, I ask the Minister to give the committee an up date on the situation of Mr. Ibrahim Halawa, a matter in which the committee has taken a keen interest and which will probably be raised by all Members. I met the Egyptian chargé d'affaires yesterday. He is prohibited from giving an update on the welfare of Mr. Halawa given that Mr. Halawa is an Irish citizen. It is important to hear from the Minister and the Department the current position of Mr. Halawa in Egypt.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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This continues to be an issue of the highest priority for me and my Department. I thank the Chair and acknowledge the role of this committee in respect of its sustained interest and constructive engagement on the matter. Since the committee's last briefing on the case, I met last week in Geneva with the Egyptian deputy foreign Minister. I emphasised Ireland's continued concerns regarding the detention of Mr. Halawa. Minister Badr undertook to convey the Irish position to his Government, which he duly did. I am also due to speak again with foreign Minister Shoukry and I will take the opportunity to stress Ireland's ongoing concerns on this case. I met with Minister Shoukry personally on two occasions and spoke to him directly on the phone with others with the Halawa family on 12 February. My officials remain in ongoing contact with him and had a meeting with him as recently as 26 February.

Embassy officials in Cairo met with Mr. Halawa most recently last Sunday. It remains unclear whether the Egyptian authorities regard Ibrahim Halawa as eligible for release under the recently-announced presidential decree. Contacts are ongoing with the Egyptian authorities on this important point. Our ambassador in Cairo recently met with the Egyptian Prosecutor General to discuss this case and we are informed that the Office of the Prosecutor General is currently examining an application made under the presidential decree. While it must be stressed that this is only one of many ongoing and difficult consular cases in my Department, one of more than 1,600 that we dealt with last year, I assure the committee that this case and the ongoing detention of Ibrahim Halawa is a priority for me and my Department. However, it is a particularly complex case. As the Chair will appreciate given his own international engagement and travel, as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I simply cannot get Irish citizens released from foreign prisons. The decision is for the Egyptians to make, but I can certainly influence and advocate and this is a case I have been making over many months. It is an exceptional case and I will continue to ensure sustained high-level contacts with the Egyptian authorities. We will continue to take all appropriate action to ensure the release of Ibrahim Halawa and in the meantime to ensure his health and welfare are adequately catered for. We are seeking a review of the case. I am seeking his release. I am seeking a return of Ibrahim Halawa to Dublin, to his studies, to his place of education and to his family. I am happy to continue to highlight the case in every way possible. I acknowledge the Chairman's recent initiative and thank him for his own contribution in that regard.

Comparisons have been made to an international case involving a journalist. Some unfair comparisons have been made. Direct comparisons cannot be made between how the Egyptians acted in the case of Peter Greste and how they will act in the case of Ibrahim Halawa. Mr. Greste did not have Egyptian citizenship. He had already been sentenced at the time he was released: his case had taken place, due process had been facilitated and the sentence had been handed down. In this case, however unacceptable it might be, we are still awaiting trial, although charges have been laid. It should also be noted that the type of charges Mr. Greste faced were fundamentally different from those faced by Ibrahim Halawa. Having made that comparison, I assure the Chairman that we will continue at every level to prioritise this case and call for this man's return.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his detailed outline of the issues discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council. With regard to the Ebola outbreak, I want to put on the record our recognition of the important role played by officials in the Minister's Department and by Irish NGOs. Both Ireland and the EU have been substantial donors in regard to dealing with this outbreak. Does the Minister know what percentage of the pledges made by the international community have been honoured or realised to date in this fight against Ebola? Similarly, what percentage of such pledges of humanitarian aid for Syria has been honoured?

The Minister referred, understandably, to the terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere. It is important that the European Union gives out a clear message that we will not allow terrorist attacks to undermine our commitment and our resolve to guarantee freedom of speech and all liberties associated with liberal democracies. Member states of the EU must be very clear and must do all they can to resist political and religious extremism in all its forms, whether it comes in the guise of far-left or far-right policies or from people of whatever belief.

We spoke at this committee previously about the need for a better working-out of the Eastern Partnership. The Minister referred in his contribution to consideration being given to the overall relations with Russia. Does the Minister think an escalation or a lessening of the sanctions against Russia is being considered in the short term? It is important that the European Union has a united response to the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Initially, the European Union response was all over the place. The High Representative was going to table a plan to normalise working relations. That was not appropriate and better counsel prevailed in the European Commission and at the council. We should also recognise that it is the far left and far right who are the loudest voices against sanctions and in defence of Russia. It is important that we also recognise that there is a threat to the European Union from a neighbouring state that clearly has a policy of trying to undermine not only those who aspire to European Union membership but also some current member states. As a country that fought so long for independence and that holds dearly the idea of sovereignty, Ireland should stand strong and united against the bullying and neo-imperialist behaviour shown by Russia. There are many other EU member states with very chequered histories on self-determination which would share our view. As a country, we should be strong in that opinion because it comes from our experience of a hard struggle to win independence. We also suffered from an imposed partition, so we should appreciate the difficulties and the reprehensible behaviour of any major state in annexing part of another country.

The Minister did not mention the Middle East in his contribution. I welcome his visit to the region and some of the commentary attributed to him while he was there. When he was in Israel, he said the EU needed to up its game in regard to the Middle East peace process. Does he intend to bring forward at forthcoming council meetings specific measures that he thinks could help to advance the proposed peace process for that region? He will have seen at first hand the significant effects of the blockade on Gaza on the people of that area. The humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by the continuation of that blockade. Some months ago the Minister attended a conference at which he made a commitment on behalf of the Irish people in regard to some very substantial funds towards the rebuilding of Gaza.

My understanding is this rebuilding has not commenced and that the humanitarian aid pledged is not reaching the places where it is needed. I read some commentary recently that at the rate the building materials were reaching Gaza, it would take more than 100 years to carry out the rebuilding programme. Surely that is utterly reprehensible. If the international community is serious about helping people affected by huge humanitarian disasters to live normal lives, if at all possible, it must find the means to honour pledges when they are made to improve the lives of people in affected areas.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his address and, in particular, compliment him on the launch of the foreign policy review, to which the committee contributed. I have no doubt that it will set a very useful benchmark for Irish foreign policy.

I am not sure whether the European Union is sufficiently respected for its genuine interest in neighbourhood countries such as Ukraine. It appears Russia has taken the attitude that it will ignore the views of the Union and the United Nations and any other commentary and is hellbent on pursuing its own objectives, whatever they may be. We have read in recent times about allegations about Russian aircraft flying in airspace close to our territory. To what extent is the European Union conscious of what appears to be another Cold War developing? Have adequate steps been taken to address these issues? What steps can be taken to address them other than by imposing sanctions? How successful are sanctions likely to be? Will they lead to the Russian authorities becoming even more determined? It is fair to say they are certainly not in pursuit of democracy. The point I am emphasising is that the European Union has a huge population, as does Russia, but the diplomatic influence of and weight of opinion within the Union are not sufficiently respected, certainly not by the Russians.

The situation in the Middle East has been referred to. It is sad to see that the peace process has stalled. As far as I can see, there is no chance of anything happening. My colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, has referred to the rebuilding programme in Gaza, but it is never likely to succeed because it will take at least 20 years to complete, given the current rate of progress. The question then arises as to the extent to which the European Union can influence the Israeli authorities with a view to trying to establish some normal relations and a peace process in which the various bodies involved can make their case and have it dealt with.

My next point concerns the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I am glad to note that some attention has been paid to this issue in recent times. When attention is divided, as is the case throughout Europe, there are many competing issues, one of which is the possible exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, which is a distraction. Another is the wars in several countries surrounding Bosnia-Herzegovina. The international environment in which the European Union plays a major role is another issue to be examined. All of these issues are distractions that divert attention from the very important matter of what is happening internally in the European Union, particularly in the western Balkans. Will the Minister tell me whether it is recognised that it is necessary to continue to concentrate on ensuring the European Union we thought we knew we had in recent times is still being pursued as an objective and whether we can look forward to some progress being made in that regard?

My next point concerns the situation in Africa. I do not know whether we are achieving any progress in a series of wars which have resulted in hardship, genocide and starvation. I refer, in particular, to the activities of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the extent to which it seems to have total disregard for opinion worldwide. Global opinion does not count. We hear about young women being captured and imprisoned and it seems no action can deter this activity, which is an outrage in the modern world and a global community.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister. I also welcome his statement on Ibrahim Halawa, which was very forthright. He said he would continue to advocate and try to influence circumstances to bring about his release, which was a priority for his Department. Again, I express our collective thanks to the Irish Embassy in Cairo for its interest and advocacy on behalf of Mr. Halawa. The Minister says the eligibility of Mr. Halawa for release under a presidential decree is unclear. When will the position become a little clearer? I have a difficulty about the system of due process in Egypt. I do not think people get a fair trial when there is a mass trial, but I am not expecting the Minister to respond to this. However, I welcome his statement and hope he will use the forthcoming meeting to inform his colleagues and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, about the case.

I raised the matter of the situation in Ukraine with the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, yesterday. We know that the United Nations has stated 5,600 people have been killed, but the number is possibly far higher. There is, however, potential to find a pathway to peace. Some civic society representatives and parliamentarians visited Ireland to look at the Irish peace process. Is there anything this committee can do in that regard? We have said one of our priorities should be examining the situation in Ukraine. Would it be helpful for the committee to visit the region to give an Irish perspective on how it might be possible to move forward? One of the dangers is that military offensives in the area have always happened during the spring. The British Government has stated it will send 76 troops to train Ukrainian personnel, while the United States has spoken about sending a battalion. The lesson we have learned in Ireland is that we need demilitarisation of a conflict rather than militarisation. What is the Irish position on EU countries supporting Ukraine militarily?

We all condemn Russia's military involvement, but direct military intervention, particularly by NATO states, is counterproductive. I refer to a statement from the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, that the EU should establish its own army to show Russia that it is serious about defending European values. I do not think this is helpful to the situation. The German defence Minister stated that there would be a European army in the future. Does the Minister agree with the wishes of Mr. Juncker, or has Ireland a different view? During the discussion on Russia at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting, will the Minister affirm Ireland's opposition to joining any EU army?

I welcome the Minister's visit to Gaza and the Middle East. Not one single house has been rebuilt. I recently met a woman who has been traumatised by her visits to the region. She spoke about the health situation resulting from the conflict. For example, unknown microbes have been identified in people's bodies and people were dying from simple cuts. She had seen people who had lost limbs who could not reach their apartments on upper floors. The most basic elements are not available, such as electricity for the lifts or wheelchairs. Electricity is only available for four hours a day. There is a lack of clean water and there are food shortages. The people have no work and there is a lack of hope. The Minister said the EU must step up to the plate and make concrete proposals. I ask him to outline Ireland's proposals for resolving the conflict and lifting the siege on the people of Gaza. The main concern for many of us is that the conflict will resume. The basic requirements such as food are not getting into Gaza. There is nothing happening to arrive at a peace agreement on this side of the elections. The situation in the region is getting worse.

The motion to recognise Palestine was passed in both the Dáil and the Seanad. Will the Minister bring this suggestion to his colleagues in the Foreign Affairs Council? I refer to the ban on goods from the illegal settlements, but these goods are coming to the EU. In our view, such a ban could provide the potential for movement in the area. New settlements are being proposed and constructed in the occupied territories.

I welcome the announcement of €18 million in direct and indirect aid to be provided to deal with Ebola. The crisis seems to be under some form of control but the big worry is food insecurity. Is the Department monitoring this situation? I refer to newspaper reports about food shortages resulting from the fact that people are unable to go to the fields to cultivate crops.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his presentation. I echo the remarks by other Deputies about the blockade in Gaza. The problem in the Middle East is so intractable that it is easy to despair and for a certain ennui to set in. We should not be blind to the situation. I know the Minister was shocked when he visited Gaza at the nature and extent of the humanitarian crisis. The Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, will raise the issue of the blockade at European level in an effort to get the blockade eased if not lifted.

I wish to raise the issue of migration in particular, because the Minister has dealt comprehensively with the majority of the issues. The Minister referred to Africa and the importance of integrating the African countries into the global economy. He highlighted the fact that many African countries are experiencing phenomenal growth rates but there has been an increase in the number of conflicts, in the levels of poverty and in population numbers. The vast majority of the expected increase in population over the next 20 to 25 years will be in Africa. Migration is a fact and it will become a more significant issue, but Europe is not dealing with it. I refer to the daily catastrophic deaths of people who are trying to cross the Mediterranean. Thousands of people are dying every year. The Mare Nostrum programme has been abandoned for various reasons, partly because the burden on Italy and Malta was so great, and as a result of the British claims that the programme was in some way increasing the number of immigrants because it was saving lives. The programme was definitely incentivising the traffickers to dump people into the sea in the expectation that they would be rescued. For whatever reason, the programme has ceased, and it has been replaced by a more modest Frontex programme called the Trident programme. I understand this programme only covers an area up to 30 miles from the Italian coast, so it is not comprehensive. The result has been more deaths in the sea.

I have heard of a suggestion that may have emanated from the Commission that all European countries should share the burden and that they should use their embassies in the countries of origin or in the transit countries in Africa to process applications by asylum seekers or others. Will this approach be discussed at the Council? What is Ireland's view on this suggestion? I am not sure what the approach would achieve, but it may prevent people from being drowned in the sea. It is not a solution to migration but it may be a solution to the drownings.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I was in Abuja in Nigeria. The Department of Justice and Equality has a team there which processes the visas locally and this is of great assistance in getting the proper people into our country.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for his presentation and I apologise for my late arrival. I hope to be present for the replies to my questions but I will read them in the transcript of the proceedings.

My first question is about the situation in Syria. We have a commitment to take in 300 refugees, which is much better than some other EU countries. The EU has taken in 1000% fewer refugees than Lebanon. Can the Minister push the EU to do more? What is the progress on taking in the 300 refugees?

The Chairman and I visited the area of the Turkish border with Syria. We saw extremely poor Syrian refugees. Do those people get a look in when it comes to countries taking in refugees or are the better off or more educated people considered first?

I have a question about the humanitarian summit.

How are we going to ensure a role for the private sector? Its role in western Africa and Siberia has been negligible. Can we pursue that at the humanitarian summit?

At the last periodic review at the United Nations Human Rights Council on Iran, a number of recommendations regarding human rights were made. More than 12 countries at the meeting referred to state-led pressure on the 300,000 Baha'i people in Iran. The head of the Iranian delegation sought to make out that there were no problems for the Baha'i in Iran. This is an issue that we brought up when we were in that country. Independent reports tell us that there is persecution of Baha'i in Iran due to their religion, including reports from the Secretary General of the UN and the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran. I ask that Ireland pursue this matter and raise questions at the upcoming periodic review of Iran.

We had a recent event with the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa on tax evasion in Africa. We discussed a recent African Union report claiming that some €60 billion is lost to African countries annually due to very pressurised lobbying by financial institutions. Liberalised capital flows, debt conditionalities and tax breaks for multinationals are issues that are being highlighted and pursued by development campaigners, but they are way down the agenda. I have tried to ask the Minister about this in the Dáil but I keep being pushed to the Minister for Finance. If we are talking about development aid and the effects of these tax issues for developing countries, why does the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade not have a more proactive role? What is its role? We talk about policy coherence, but I have to wonder - and I mean no disrespect to the Minster of State, Deputy Dara Murphy - why the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, is not attending. If we are concerned about sustainable development, attending would have come under the latter's role, especially with the Addis Ababa conference coming up.

I will not repeat what other people have said but I share their concerns about Gaza, the lack of reconstruction and the continuing building of settlements.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his report. The integrity of borders, particularly the Ukrainian border, is something Irish people strongly support, given our own sad history. Our own borders were breached and they still are breached. I was recently at a dinner in Dushanbe with a member of the Duma whom I know. He provided an interesting perspective on Ukraine. We talked about it and he agreed it was a pity the February agreement was not honoured. It was a major mistake on the part of the EU to fail to bring much more pressure to bear once the protest morphed into anarchy and the President was overthrown, given that an election was already agreed for November. That mistake should be acknowledged and recognised; otherwise, it will be repeated. The member talked about his grandparents who were reared and lived near Kiev and of the connection between his family and Ukraine. He is only one of many Russians who have a connection with Ukraine. The connection between Ukraine and Russia raises a question as to why this whole issue was not anticipated. There is a very close connection. He spoke about Crimea, and I did not get any sense that Crimea will be handed back by the Russians any time soon. That is one perspective I relate to the Minister.

The next perspective relates to the fact that Tajikistan has suffered economically as a consequence of the sanctions. While I support the sanctions, as it is necessary to take some peaceful action to have issues redressed, 30% of that country's income comes from its emigrants. Is there a recognition at EU level that many of these former Soviet states, some of which, including Tajikistan, are quite poor, are suffering as a consequence of this? Is there an effort to at least have dialogue and see what can be done to alleviate the particular and indirect consequences for them of what is going on?

I refer to the displacement of 10 million Syrians, which is an alarming situation. The Minister has been to the region, as have many members of the committee, and seen the direct consequences of displacement in refugee camps. I noted a couple of months ago that the UN World Food Programme's food voucher scheme, directly targeting a couple of million Syrians, was suspended due to lack of funds. The Minister might comment on that. This is the type of thing it is important to anticipate and avoid if at all possible. I noted an article in Forbesmagazine which estimated that ISIS had an income in the region of €2 billion to €3 billion. That can only help it to export its terror across the globe. In his consultations and dialogue with the US and UK authorities, has the Minister got a sense that they accept some responsibility for creating the climate in which this was allowed to happen in the Middle East because of the invasion of Iraq? If there is such a recognition, what specifically do they see themselves doing to remedy what now looks like a disastrous consequence of an error of judgment?

While I am referring to the Middle East, I note the sense of abandonment Christians there in particular feel from the Western world. There is a whole litany of things that have happened, including the recent discovery of mass graves of Yazidi people by Kurds and Iraqis, which demonstrates the inhumanity of ISIS terrorist groups and the number of people who have been killed. We can only make conservative estimates as to how many at the moment. Assyrian Christians have been taken hostage, with the consequent effects on them. I understand from reports by Aid to the Church in Need a few weeks ago that up to 15 Assyrian Christians have been murdered. There is the question of Coptic Christians being beheaded in Libya. In the towns of Al-Shaddadeh and Al-Hasakah, 30 young Christian women were taken by ISIS with the intention of distributing them as concubines to serve the terrorists. I note from www.walkfree.org, which campaigns on this issue, specific instances of families which have been affected by captivity and sexual slavery. It is campaigning at UN Security Council level and targeting in particular Spain and New Zealand, which are new members. What are we doing specifically at the UN to raise awareness and ensure the most effective action is taken to tackle, to coin a phrase of the Minister's predecessor but without making the superficial comparison he did, the human rights issue of our day - the persecution of Christians and others across that region? It is absolutely appalling to any right-thinking person.

On 10 December 2014, the Dáil passed a motion similar to the one passed by the Seanad on 26 October 2014 on the recognition of Palestine based on the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital. Will the Government act on these motions, which were passed unanimously in both Houses, and will Ireland recognise the state of Palestine in the near future? I join with my colleague Deputy Seán Crowe in his comments on imports from Israeli settlement areas. The committee asked for those to be banned quite some time ago. Many of us would welcome action on that.

Are efforts being made to persuade Egypt to reduce its restrictions on Gaza? My colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, raised the issue of what was happening in Gaza. These are fertile breeding grounds for the terrorists of the future, unless we address the issues arising.

It is sad that 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed we are still seeing political manoeuvring and game playing in Northern Ireland. The issue is too important for this.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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We are discussing the Foreign Affairs Council, not the situation in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I have spoken to the Minister about this subject. I compliment him on his contribution to reaching agreement on the outstanding Haass issues. Why is clarity not being brought to the detail to avoid these issues coming back to haunt us? Would the Minister like to comment on the BIPA report which highlighted diesel laundering and tobacco smuggling in the Border area.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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We are discussing the Foreign Affairs Council.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I join my colleagues in welcoming the Minister and thank him for the comprehensive report he has given to the committee.

I appreciate the update on the Ibrahim Halawa case, an issue I have raised on a number of occasions. I commend the Minister for taking the initiative to meet Egyptian Government representatives and thank our diplomatic staff in Egypt for their ongoing efforts in this regard. I hope we will soon see a satisfactory outcome to the case and that Ibrahim will be back safely with his family in Dublin.

I welcome the positive initiatives being taken on Bosnia-Herzegovina, including the joint declaration of 29 January expressing readiness to pursue the EU reform agenda. It has been referred to as an historical starting point and I hope we will see significant movement towards a stabilisation and association agreement between Bosnia and the European Union.

The situation in Syria is an ongoing source of concern for the committee. Prior to Christmas the Minister wrote an excellent piece for the Irish Independenton the terrorism and violence that threatened Syria and the Middle East, in which he called for an end to the Syrian conflict and a political transition to end President Assad's reign of terror. Is there any indication that a political solution is likely to be found to end this reign of terror? Hopes are being placed in a proposed peace plan, but any potential solution is jeopardised by the fact that the Assad regime continues to barrel bomb innocent people with impunity. The conflict will hit its fourth anniversary on 15 March. Given the number of people who have been displaced, I support Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's suggestions on Ireland taking in more refugees or doing more in this area. Too many innocent children are being starved or bombed. Are there discussions taking place at EU level on war crimes and the apparent immunity the Assad regime appears to enjoy? What is the United Nations doing to charge some of the people involved with war crimes? Ireland has been generous in the humanitarian aid we have contributed, but reports on the ground indicate that organisations which are trying to deliver aid to the worst affected areas are being prevented from doing so. We need to highlight this problem at every opportunity. Given the numbers displaced and the level of poverty evident on the ground, this must be the worst humanitarian crisis of our times. Politicians need to redouble their efforts at national, European and international level to bring the Syrian conflict to an end at the earliest date. I ask the Minister to comment on the issues of refugees and the delivery aid to the worst affected areas.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I will allow Senator Mark Daly to make a brief intervention.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for updating us on the case of Ibrahim Halawa. Will the case be raised at the Council meeting? I understand the Minister is in contact with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Does he think it appropriate to follow the example of the Australian Prime Minister who, by becoming involved in a case, facilitated a successful outcome for one of his country's citizens?

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I have already dealt with that matter.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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In respect of the European Union, if we do not have satisfaction, will we be considering trade sanctions in the light of what Amnesty International has stated about Ibrahim Halawa and the fact that he has no charges to answer?

I am aware that we will be discussing the Irish overseas and the diaspora on another occasion, but perhaps the Minister might refer to the undocumented Irish and the progress, or lack thereof, on Capitol Hill on the issue of immigration reform.

The Irish position on neutrality is very clear, but the President of the European Commission has recently suggested having an army would solve the European Union's problems on foreign policy. I hope the Minister will make a clear statement at the Council that the President's comment was disgraceful. The suggestion was made by somebody from Luxembourg. If there was an EU army, there would not be many people from that country in it. For Germany to row in behind such a proposal is a step in the wrong direction. I recently attended a foreign affairs meeting in Rome at which the Italians stated they wanted to see the European Union replace the Americans in spheres of influence on our borders. Ireland and other neutral states need to be forceful on this issue. When we see a slow but incremental drift towards an EU army by bigger states which want to save money by pooling resources and dragging the rest of us along, we should reiterate our opposition at every step. If the President of the European Commission can suggest an EU army would be a solution to a problem, he obviously does not know what the problem is. Does he think he can send our lads to Ukraine to sort out that problem?

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Members have asked a considerable number of questions, but some of them overlap and could be addressed together.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I will deal with them by topic rather than by member, if that is agreeable.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I think so because they overlap.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I reiterate that I greatly value this engagement and the contribution Parliament and parliamentarians make in our international affairs.

I thank members for this.

Without dwelling on the matter, I wish to deal with the individual case of Ibrahim Halawa. I regret that Senator Mark Daly was not present when I dealt with it earlier.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Senator Michael Mullins also raised the issue.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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As did Deputy Seán Crowe, whom I thank for his positive comments. I will be happy to keep him fully informed of developments. I also thank the other members for their comments.

In the circumstances direct comparisons with other cases of individuals are often unfair to everybody involved and I ask members to bear this in mind. Senator Mark Daly should note that I have been in direct contact with EU colleagues. I spoke to High Representative Catherine Ashton during the course of her tenure and renewed very strong representations to High Representative Mogherini during the course of the winter. I also spoke to the chairman of the influential Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament. I am familiar with the work of the Chairman of this committee. We are all most concerned about the issue and anxious that there be a satisfactory resolution. The only outcome that will be satisfactory will be the return home, at a very early date, of the teenager involved. With my officials, both here and in Cairo, I will continue to prioritise the case and make representations at every level to achieve a successful outcome. I will continue to keep the Chairman informed in that regard.

Deputy Brendan Smith referred to Ebola, as did others. Ireland has delivered in full on its pledges, in addition on its pledges regarding the situation in Syria. The Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, is due to attend the next Syria pledging conference in Kuwait in March. We have provided in excess of €30 million since 2011. The European Union is also continuing to deliver on its pledges to deal with the issue of Ebola. The onus is on all donors to deliver because we still have a strong programme to complete. Also to be considered are the delivery of humanitarian aid in the form of monetary donations and the purchase of humanitarian aid relief materials. We have a very strong presence on the ground, not just in our full-time embassy in Freetown. I am very pleased about the meeting held with the ambassador. Members of the Defence Forces are assisting and will continue to assist. That is acknowledged here in Ireland and elsewhere.

I want to deal with the situation in the Middle East. I thank Deputies Brendan Smith and Seán Crowe, Senator Mark Daly and others for their ongoing interest in this issue. I was very pleased to have an opportunity to visit the region some weeks ago. My objective was not so much to engage in detailed political talks but to hear from all sides and see what was happening. I did this and recounted some of my meetings in the Dáil. I met Foreign Minister Lieberman, President Abbas, Prime Minister Hamdallah and Labour Party leader Mr. Isaac Herzog. I visited Gaza and the West Bank. I share the concern of members about the circumstances in Gaza and the unacceptable humanitarian crisis that continues to obtain there. There is a sense of hopelessness among the people. I urged everybody involved in the region to help to relieve what was a most difficult crisis.

I also visited various villages in the neighbourhood of Gaza. I noted at first hand that the people faced daily the continuing Hamas threat from within. In the circumstances, this is most unhelpful. I agree with Senator Jim Walsh and Deputy Brendan Smith that the European Union should play a greater role in supporting the peace process. That is a reason I visited. The reason I did not make reference to this in my opening address was that it had not been discussed in any meaningful way at Foreign Affairs Council level in recent times. I regret this. I am satisfied, however, that High Representative Mogherini has prioritised the issue and I expect a comprehensive debate on it in the near future. There is much more the European Union could do to influence and assist in what will have to be a negotiated settlement. Obviously, there is an election campaign in the region and I do not expect dramatic initiatives of a political nature during the course of an election campaign.

I raised the issue of the blockade directly with Foreign Minister Lieberman. I visited the settlements and expressed my dissatisfaction at them. I believe I was representing the strong views of the Irish people in that regard. The United Nations has advised that some reconstruction materials are getting through and that some work has been done. There have been reports on materials, particularly construction materials such as concrete and cement, being diverted for tunnel activity. I certainly understand the concerns of the Israelis in that regard, but I would like to see more progress being made on the ground. People need houses and shelter. I had the opportunity to say this directly to Foreign Minister Lieberman. I hope circumstances can be improved in so far as the transmission of aid in the form of reconstruction materials can be facilitated by Israel, in particular. I acknowledge the role played by the United Nations.

Let me respond to Deputy Brendan Smith. In Cairo in October we pledged the sum of €2.5 million in immediate aid. It is disappointing that there has not been progress on reconstruction work. I hope it will be prioritised, particularly after the Israeli elections. There are elections also due to be held in the Palestinian territories. I had an opportunity to discuss this issue directly with President Abbas and Prime Minister Hamdallah.

Deputy Seán Crowe referred to the settlements. I saw at first hand the plans and the ground being prepared for construction following clearance. The settlements continue to represent a major barrier to peace in the region. Their ongoing expansion is incompatible with a genuine commitment towards a peaceful resolution and a viable two-state solution. This continues to represent a main plank of Irish policy. I take the points made by Senator Jim Walsh and Deputy Seán Crowe about settlement products. The real problem, of course, is the settlements and their expansion and that will continue to be the major focus.

Members will be aware that in 2014 Ireland and other EU countries published advice warning citizens against investing in the settlements. That advice continues to obtain. I certainly foresee circumstances in which, in the context of further initiatives on the part of the European Union, both the settlements and our attitude to settlement products will be very much on the agenda.

I refer to the matter of recognition, raised by Senators Mark Daly and Jim Walsh and Deputies Seán Crowe and Brendan Smith, among others.

I wish to acknowledge the vote of the Seanad and of the Dáil in that regard and I wish to reiterate that for many years Ireland has supported the full achievement of the Palestinian state. We said that we believed it should happen, but we want it to be achieved in reality, not just in theory and not just on paper. I believe our view is that a formal recognition of a Palestinian state should come about as a comprehensive peace agreement. This remains the position of the Government and it also remains the position of almost all our European Union partners. Sweden is taking a different view and I have discussed the matter with my European colleagues and with the Swedish foreign minister. EU foreign ministers will continue to exchange views on this issue, as we do on a very regular basis, so this matter will be advanced up the EU foreign affairs council agenda. There is an election currently in Israel and it is generally held, and it is my view, that it would be impractical to pursue this matter further until after the forthcoming election and until there is an opportunity for the new government in Israel to bed down.

I will turn to Ukraine and Russia. Let me assure Deputy Durkan that Ireland fully supports the right of independent countries to decide freely on their policies and their external relationships. This was something we discussed in the context of the association agreements and on the matter of Ukraine and its territory and its sovereignty. I agree with Deputy Crowe and Senator Mullins when they speak about lethal weapons being provided to Ukraine. Ireland seeks a non-military solution to this crisis and we are engaging at both political and diplomatic levels with our EU partners and beyond to ensure the crisis can be resolved without resorting to a military solution. We do not believe that would be in the best interests of anybody in the region. Providing lethal military equipment to Ukraine actually risks undermining the political and diplomatic efforts which are under way.

This brings me to Senator Walsh's, Senator Daly's and Deputy Crowe's points about the European army. I read the views of President Juncker in his interview over the weekend. There is no European army chair, as members well know, nor are there any plans for one. We have only to look back to the Lisbon treaty and our protocol which clearly states that the Lisbon treaty does not provide for the creation of a European army. There has been no discussion on this at foreign affairs level. Ireland pursues a policy of military neutrality which I believe is quite clear. It is in accordance with the wishes of the Parliament, the Government and the people. It has most recently been highlighted in our foreign policy review update. Ireland's participation in European common defence is prohibited by our Constitution, Articles 29 and 49 in particular, which position is reinforced by the Irish protocol to the Lisbon treaty. Any change in that position can only take place with the approval of the people in a referendum. While a number of referenda are planned during the tenure of this Government, let me assure the committee that this is most definitely not one of them. Deputy Durkan made specific reference to the Russian overflight, but as he is not here I will communicate directly with him.

Deputy Mitchell, and others, raised the important issue of the EU migration policy, with particular reference to the very challenging situation in the Mediterranean. The European Union is focused on the matter of the Mediterranean where there have been a number of tragic incidents. Migrants seeking to enter Europe by sea have lost their lives and have been abandoned to their fates by unscrupulous dealers and human traffickers from the region and beyond. We recognise however that the matter of illegal migration can only be tackled successfully by moving beyond border control issues and into partnerships for development to address the root causes of irregular and illegal migration. I acknowledge the contribution of Deputy O'Sullivan on this issue, here at this committee and beyond. I impress upon members the importance of the two EU-Africa initiatives which address a partnership approach to the main migration routes into Europe from Africa and the migration route from West Africa and the Horn of Africa. The Rabat Process and the Khartoum Process bring together representatives of foreign affairs and interior Ministries from both sides of the Mediterranean Sea to focus primarily on tackling the smuggling of migrants and the unacceptable commercial activity of human trafficking. It is an issue also for the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Ms Frederica Mogherini with her own experience as a Minister in the Italian government. She, and other states in the region, are anxious that a positive set of policies are advanced, particularly in relation to the current unacceptable situation.

Deputy Durkan I believe was the only one who mentioned Bosnia. I will probably hold that reply until his return. Senator Walsh, Deputy Smith and Deputy Durkan raised the issue of Christian communities in the Middle East. Senator Mullins also continues to raise this issue and I acknowledge his interest in this. Senator Walsh also has addressed this issue with me by private correspondence. The spread of violence and extremism in Syria and Iraq is a most serious concern. The attacks against civilians, especially religious minority communities, are utterly unacceptable. I had the opportunity to include reference to this in my address to the United Nations in the autumn of 2014. We are appalled by the atrocities committed by ISIS as it wages its campaign, not only across northern Iraq, but into Syria also. There needs to be accountability for these atrocities, including referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, as mentioned by Senator Mullins. I highlighted the issue again in Geneva last week when I addressed the UN Human Rights Council. We will continue to raise the matter of protection of minority communities through our official bilateral contacts with many countries and stress the responsibility of governments to protect their citizens and minorities.

We have raised the possibility, indeed the reality as it is now, of providing protection for a limited number of refugees from the region. I am in close contact with my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald. This is being advanced between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Justice and Equality. Ireland is accepting 110 refugees in 2015 through the refugee resettlement programme with the UN High Commission for Refugees. I discussed this last week in Geneva. We accepted 90 from Syria in the 2014 programme. Senator Walsh spoke about humanitarian aid in the form of money to Syria for the relief of the humanitarian crisis there. Let me reiterate that more than €30 million has been provided by Ireland since the onset of the crisis. The EU has given €3.2 billion.

I reiterate that more than €30 million has been provided by Ireland since the onset of the crisis. The EU has given a sum of €3.2 billion. However, the overall appeal by the United Nations continues. The needs continue to be enormous. I acknowledge that, in spite of a very challenging economic climate here, the Government has been in a position to ensure that Ireland is very much to the fore in terms of our monetary contributions. That has been acknowledged at home and abroad.

I note that Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan has left. If she returns I can address the issues she raised, with particular reference to the national plan for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. We had a conference recently that covered this area; some of the members attended it, and the Chairman may also have attended. It is an area on which our Department is actively engaged.

Senator Walsh and Deputy Smith mentioned the issue of ISIS and its funding. I reiterate that the UK, Ireland, all other EU member states and the United States have signed up to UN Security Council Resolutions 2170 and 2178 setting out a comprehensive strategy which includes disrupting the flow of finances to ISIS and disrupting its fundraising. We agreed to tackle the underlying factors as well as combating terrorism. The EU strategy is in line with the UN resolutions condemning the appalling attacks.

Deputies mentioned counter-terrorism and asked what has the EU has done since the Paris and Copenhagen attacks. It is important that we continue to be focused on combating terrorism. As well as the meetings upon which I have given a report, there have been an unprecedented number of emergency meetings during the past six months since I became Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. We have had a number of meetings with very packed agendas, often with competing crises. We endorsed the counter-terrorism strategy on foreign fighters in October and at a January meeting we agreed to make a summary copy of the strategy available to the public.

It is our belief that there must be a comprehensive human-rights-compliant approach to preventing counter-terrorism in accordance with international law. I have discussed this issue with my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, who has a role to play in ensuring that communities can be dissuaded from the type of radicalisation we have seen not so much in Ireland but in the UK and in other European countries, particularly France and Belgium. We need to engage in communities with a focus on integration and communication. We will continue to have that as a priority in strengthening partnerships with key countries in the region and assisting them in building their capacity to tackle aspects of terrorism in the region. Justice Ministers have met separately and will continue to do so.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for comprehensively answering those questions. There were quite a number of them. It is great to have the Minister before the committee, and we would like see him here more often. We know he has a very busy schedule and it is hard to track him down at times, but we wish him well.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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It certainly should not be.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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It is difficult. The Minister has a very busy diary and it is difficult to get everybody to match up with it. I thank the Minister, and we look forward to-----

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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In that regard, I was pleased with the recent visit of the EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, to Dublin. At my invitation, Ireland was one of the first countries she visited in her capacity as the High Representative. She and I discussed having a meeting with this committee. I come from the same school. I am anxious to engage with parliamentarians at every level. I assure the Chairman that, subject to diary commitments, I will engage with this committee in whatever manner or means the members consider to be most appropriate. I thank the members for their contributions.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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That is great. Hopefully, we will have the Minister back in after Easter, because it is important to have him here as regularly as possible.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Oftentimes the members of the committee are abroad. They are talking about going to Ukraine. Sometimes it is hard to-----

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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That involves a limited number. The Minister could not generalise on that.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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May I raise a point with the Minister?

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Yes, Deputy.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I presume the Minister is travelling to the Unites States next week and I hope he can again raise the proposed immigration reform legislation. Pessimism is setting in again among families who have family members in the United States who are hoping to be beneficiaries of the proposed legislation. We need to send out a message to our communities and families throughout the country that every effort is being pursued to try to get this legislation enhanced.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for that reminder, and I will do so next week in New York.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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That issue will more than likely be on the Taoiseach's agenda in Washington. I thank the Minister and we wish him well in his mission next week. I understand he is travelling to Canada and New York. We wish all the Ministers well in their travels for St. Patrick's Day. It is a glorious opportunity for Ireland to sell itself in that special week and an opportunity we get only once a year.

I propose that we go into private session for the remainder of the meeting. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The joint committee went into private session at 12.26 p.m. and adjourned at 12.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 March 2015.