Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 25 November 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Business of Joint Committee
There are two motions before the joint committee. Motion No. 5 concerns the appointment of honorary consulates in Australia. Senator Daly has submitted two motions. Before calling on Senator Daly to move the motions, I should say to him this may be a question the Senator could ask the Minister today, rather than tabling a motion on it. The Minister will answer the matter for the Senator and perhaps could give an instant answer on the whole thing, which I cannot do. Perhaps a better way to present the Senator's question might be to ask the Minister directly whether he intends to appoint honorary consulates in Australia for the two regions. Does the Senator wish to comment in this regard?
Yes, this pertains to Melbourne and Brisbane specifically but I note Ireland has a large number of honorary consulates in Canada, as the ambassador obviously cannot cover the entire territory and the system works very well. However, in Australia, in a place like Melbourne that has a huge Irish population, both those newly arrived and those who have been there for generations, in some instances, the ambassadors have not visited Melbourne for one or two years and an honorary consul would do that. I will ask the Minister about that.
The second one concerns a problem I am sure many members have encountered. There are dedicated sections to deal with Oireachtas Members in agriculture, health and elsewhere and I must state-----
Very well, that motion then is not moved.
The next motion for members, which I also received from Senator Daly, is to provide direct contact numbers for Irish embassies and staff throughout the world to enable Members to better help citizens. Members are provided with direct numbers for divisions in other Departments and a similar system should be in place for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This again might be a matter about which the Senator could ask the Minister directly today. However, the Senator may also wish to speak on it now.
I am sure members often have been contacted by families who are bereaved and are trying to repatriate remains or about other issues that happen abroad and to be given the switchboard for the embassies in Australia or Spain while trying to get through to some of the Irish foreign affairs staff in some of these countries is, to put it mildly, quite difficult. That is the best way I could put it. In situations where this arises and Oireachtas Members need it, a list of numbers should be provided, be it to members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade or to all Members of the Oireachtas, but such a facility is in place in other Departments. However, when I ring the Irish abroad unit and ask for a contact number in Spain, I am given the switchboard and this simply is not good enough.
I merely am stating there is a duty officer on duty all the time in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on a 24-7 basis. If an emergency crops up, he or she can be called and that duty officer has a link person at each embassy around the world who is on duty 24-7. I have done it that way and have found it to be robust and quick. I got through and the people concerned got back to me very quickly. From my inquiries, I understand this system has worked fairly well but again, this is a matter the Senator can put to the Department. Perhaps other members may wish to comment on this issue. Have they perhaps used the service?
In general, I have found the system to be highly responsive and quick to respond. I have not had any issues, either in opposition or in government. I have had reason, in both circumstances, to make contact with the relevant authorities and always have been given a rapid response. Moreover, all efforts that could be made to respond were made and this has applied over the past ten, 15 or 20 years and more, covering all shades of Government.
One reason this system is easier is because, given that people are getting up in the morning or going to bed at night in different time zones, it is much easier for the Department to have a person who is on duty in each embassy on a 24-7 basis throughout the world. The duty officer in Dublin can then contact this person and ask him or her to revert to one immediately. Has the Senator encountered problems or something?
It was like getting the third secret of Fatima. Were a note to be provided to the joint committee from the Department stating what is the process, members could work from there but at present, it is ad hoc. I recall getting a response from somebody asking what did I expect that person to do about it. This was from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in respect of a bereavement.
Because of my position, people are aware that I am associated with foreign affairs and trade. I have found that any time I have rung that number or any embassy, I never have had any problem. I have found people to be most co-operative and helpful and that they came back to me immediately. I have dealt with deaths abroad, as well as people who have been involved in accidents abroad. I even have received letters from the families of those involved thanking the embassy or asking me to thank the ambassador and the embassy for the marvellous work they have done while the person was sick.
In the case of a simple issue of getting a query answered regarding a passport in England, I asked the Irish abroad unit here to provide me with the number of somebody to whom I could talk in the embassy in England and I got the switchboard for the Irish Embassy in London, where it was a case of "press 3 for this" and "press 2 for that".
No, there was a message on the answering machine stating they were busy at present and I should ring back later. This was with the number I was given by the Irish abroad unit and that is not satisfactory. While it was not an emergency, in such cases I wish to talk to a person and not to an automated answering machine.