Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 20 October 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Foreign Affairs and Trade Issues: Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade
We meet today with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan. I extend a warm welcome to the Minister and his officials to the meeting, which is timely as a number of the issues to be discussed will have been considered at recent meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council and, I am sure, formed the central part of proceedings at the Council meeting held on Monday last. The format of the meeting is that we will hear the Minister's opening statement before going into a question and answer session with the members of the committee.
Before we begin, I remind members, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are completely switched off for the duration of the meeting as they do cause interference, even in silent mode, with the recording equipment in the Chamber.
Members are reminded 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 Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it 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. However, if witnesses are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I call the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, to address the committee.
I welcome this opportunity to address members on recent developments at the Foreign Affairs Council. A large number of issues were addressed by the Council on which I will provide an update to the committee. In addition, I will look ahead to the November Council meeting. Following that I would be happy to address any questions or issues the Chairman or the members may have and hear their perspectives on the foreign policy issues and challenges we currently face.
I will commence with the situation in Syria, which has remained a matter of constant concern at the Foreign Affairs Council over the past 12 months. The European Union has sought to play a positive role and to work with all parties in the planned negotiations which were convened by the United Nations at the commencement of this year. I very much regret that the Assad regime, with apparent backing from Russia and Iran, refused to engage in these talks and devoted its energies to undermining the talks and engineering a return to violence, without any regard for the suffering of the Syrian people.
I remain firmly of the view that there is no viable military solution in Syria. Assad’s total reliance on mass murder and torture shows that the only basis for his power is terrorising the Syrian people. He can never hope to hold authority through the support of the Syrian population. I expressed this recently in a Dáil speech and I would note that this is also the consensus view of the international community from my many discussions with my EU colleagues as well as in my recent meetings at the United Nations in New York.
I believe the only viable and sustainable way forward remains a comprehensive end to violence and a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political resolution based on a real political transition process. That remains my objective and that of the European Union, which is reflected in the conclusions adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council at its most recent meeting on Monday last in Luxembourg. EU Foreign Ministers called on Russia to demonstrate all efforts to halt indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian regime, restore a cessation of hostilities, ensure immediate humanitarian access and create the conditions for a credible and inclusive political transition. This is critical to saving the lives of the Syrian people, particularly those who remain in the city of Aleppo.
The situation in Iraq remains extremely challenging. The European Union repeatedly made clear its strong support for a democratic, non-sectarian, unified and independent Iraq. There can be no peace in Iraq while Daesh remains in control of large areas of the country, subjecting millions of Iraqis to its totalitarian and barbaric cult of hate, murder and violence. This will need major support for the victims of the conflict in Iraq, including the large numbers of Iraqis displaced by fear of Daesh, and both Ireland and the European Union are assisting the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi population. The EU is working to support the implementation of the Government of Prime Minister al-Abadi in reforming Iraq to achieve the national reconciliation which is so vital to securing the future of Iraq.
More broadly, on the matter of counter-terrorism, the Foreign Affairs Council has discussed the issue on a number of recent occasions, in particular, the need to counter Daesh. In July, in the aftermath of the horrific Bastille Day attack in Nice, the discussions highlighted ongoing support for France, most practicably with regard to Article 42.7, first invoked following the November 2015 attacks in Paris. Ireland responded to that call for aid and assistance through a commitment to increase the number of Defence Forces personnel involved in the EU training mission in Mali from ten to 18.
The earlier Foreign Affairs Council on 23 May focused on the regional strategy for Syria and Iraq and the threat of Daesh. The conclusions unreservedly condemned the actions of Daesh and committed to engage in ways to prevent indiscriminate and targeted attacks, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2249. They also outlined actions to enhance its counter-terrorism action further in a human rights compliant manner, including through high level engagement with MENA countries, Turkey and the western Balkans, reinforcing technical assistance to priority third countries in the development of national strategies to prevent and counter violent extremism, as well as strengthening measures to curb the recruitment and movement of foreign fighters, in particular through enhanced external border controls.
The past year has seen continued stasis in the Middle East peace process. It was discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council in January and again in June, and EU Foreign Ministers also discussed it with the United States Secretary of State, Mr. John Kerry, in July of this year.
Outside the Council structures, there were two developments of note. At the beginning of June, the French Government launched an initiative to inject some much-needed momentum into the Middle East peace process. I was one of ten EU foreign Ministers to be invited to attend the initial meeting in Paris, along with others, including the United States, the United Nations and important regional players such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I commend the French Government on its efforts, which are continuing. We will continue to support it in any way we can. At the beginning of July, the Quartet published a long-awaited report which focused on the impediment to the two-state solution presented by the continued expansion of the settlements in the region. While the report came in for some criticism, what is clear is that if its recommendations were implemented, it would represent a clear measure of progress.
I visited the region in mid-June and met Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including Prime Minister Netanyahu and Prime Minister Hamdallah. In all of my political meetings, I made clear my support, and the support of the Irish people, for the French initiative. In my meetings I also made clear the interest of the Members of this House and of the Irish public in the matter of the Middle East peace process.
I was at the Asia-Europe Meeting, ASEM, summit in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia when I heard of the attempted coup in Turkey on 15 July. Along with other foreign Ministers, I swiftly condemned the failed coup and the associated loss of life and violence. Since then, the situation in Turkey has been discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council as well as at a specially convened meeting of the Council of Europe with the Turkish foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuolu, on 7 September at which I made Ireland's position clear. I reiterated that the attempted coup was an attack on democracy. I expressed my concern that some of the actions taken since the coup are contrary to democratic norms.
The scale of the post-coup purge in Turkey, which has seen large numbers of people detained or suspended from their jobs, the arrests of journalists and the closure of media outlets, is very worrying. I also condemned the spate of terrorist attacks in Turkey, including those carried out by the so-called Islamic State or Daesh, the PKK or their affiliates in Turkey. Ireland supports a stable and democratic Turkey. We understand the depth of feeling that this attack on the core of democracy in Turkey has provoked. However, it is critical that legal due process is a cornerstone of the Turkish authorities' response, and in that context, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial remains essential. The human rights and basic freedoms of minorities, including the Kurdish minority, must also be upheld as core principles. It is critical for all sides to cease hostilities and return to dialogue in order that the political process to resolve the Kurdish issue can be resumed.
The EU and Turkey are working together to address the challenges of the migration crisis, where Turkey plays an invaluable role, as host to approximately 3 million refugees. Migration remains a key challenge facing the European Union. The Union has made substantial progress in addressing the migration crisis through a range of measures, including its relocation programme, the deal that EU leaders agreed with Turkey, dialogues with countries of origin and transit to tackle the root causes of migration, and Operation Sophia to deal with the problem of people smuggling in the Mediterranean.
The deal agreed with Turkey by EU Heads of State and Government in March 2016 has been a major element in the EU's migration response. The reduction in the number of lives lost in the Aegean Sea as well as the reduction in the number of migrants entering the European Union from Turkey since the deal was agreed suggests that it is achieving its aims. The need to comply with European Union and international law was at the heart of the discussions leading to the deal and this issue was a matter of deep concern to us.
We in Ireland have been playing our part. We have resettled 486 refugees from Lebanon while 69 Syrians have been relocated from Greece, a number which I expect to rise to 60 to 80 people per month soon. We can be extremely proud of the work undertaken by our Naval Service in the Mediterranean, which has rescued more than 13,000 people. We have also provided to date a sum of €62 million in humanitarian assistance to Syrians and the region since 2012 and we have also contributed to other humanitarian funds.
Last month, Ireland co-facilitated a UN summit in New York to address large movements of refugees and migrants with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and co-ordinated approach to the issue. The results of the summit, the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, will now be built on with the aim of securing international agreements on both refugees and migrants in 2018.
I wish to turn to the matter of Ukraine and the eastern neighbourhood. The Council had a discussion in January on Ukraine where the focus was on the country’s reform process. Ministers acknowledged the achievement of the government in moving forward with the reform programme in most challenging circumstances. At the same time, they stressed the need for continued implementation of key reform measures, in particular those related to the justice sector, the matter of public administration, the issue of decentralisation and the continuing fight against corruption.
Ministers underlined the significant assistance being provided for the reform efforts by the European Commission and by member states. They also agreed that the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement in place since 1 January 2016 has opened up new opportunities for Ukraine to benefit economically from closer trading links with the European Union. The Council reiterated the strong support of the European Union for sovereignty in Ukraine, the territorial integrity of its borders and its continued commitment to help end the conflict in the eastern Donbas region. The need to move forward on implementation of the Minsk agreements was also highlighted.
On Monday of this week, I met foreign Minister Klimkin at a Friends of Ukraine meeting which took place before the Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg. The Minister provided an update on the current security situation in eastern Ukraine and the important political and economic reforms that the Ukrainian Government has introduced. I assured Minister Klimkin of Ireland’s full support for Ukraine as it continues on a reform path that is difficult but necessary for the future prosperity of the country and its people.
On the matter of Russia, at the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council in March, Ministers had a comprehensive exchange on EU relations with Russia. There was broad agreement that a change in the relationship was not warranted, given Russia’s continued support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine and its role in the conflict in Syria. Ministers approved a set of five principles to guide European Union policy towards Russia, including confirmation that implementation of the Minsk agreements would be a key condition for any substantial change in the European Union’s stance. It was also agreed that the European Union would step up support for Russian civil society and strengthen people-to-people contacts.
Ministers acknowledged that selective engagement with Russia could only be pursued on foreign policy issues and specific sectoral areas of interest to the European Union. I underlined the full support of Ireland for the guiding principles and stressed the importance of continued EU unity in our dealings with Russia. On economic sanctions, there was broad agreement that the lack of progress on the Minsk implementation and Russia’s unwillingness to engage constructively in the trilateral contact group negotiations made it inevitable that the restrictive measures would remain in place.
Since the March discussion, developments have taken a turn for the worse. In June, the Council extended the European Union economic sanctions for a further six months up to and including 31 January 2017. This decision was taken in light of the deteriorating security situation in eastern Ukraine with daily firefights between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian armed forces. According to the OSCE special monitoring mission, August recorded the highest number of ceasefire violations in the past 12 months. Intensive efforts within the framework of the OSCE trilateral contact group to make progress on the security and political strands of the Minsk agreements have made little headway. The situation has improved somewhat in the past four weeks after both sides agreed to a back-to-school truce on 1 September which, I am pleased to say, is largely holding. Agreement was also reached last month on a roadmap which envisages moving forward on parallel political and security tracks. The first step involves implementation of a disengagement plan, initially at three key locations before being rolled out along the entire contact line. I believe it is vital that the disengagement plan is implemented speedily as without a secure ceasefire there is no prospect of the Ukrainian Government agreeing to move forward with legislative proposals for the holding of local elections in the Donbas region and the granting of special status to the region, two key provisions of the Minsk agreements.
It is too early to assess if this latest initiative, on which OSCE, French and German negotiators have worked so hard, will result in a secure ceasefire and the full withdrawal of weapons. Hopes have been raised before of a breakthrough only to be quickly dashed. Later today, the European Council will have a strategic discussion on relations with Russia. Given the lack of progress in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s military actions in Syria, a change in the European Union's position is not expected.
Turning to the eastern partners, an eastern partnership ministerial meeting was held prior to the Foreign Affairs Council in May and EU foreign Ministers met again with the foreign Ministers of the six eastern partner countries at the informal Foreign Affairs Council in Bratislava in September.
The Eastern Partnership will also be discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council, FAC, in November. The EU supports reform to meet the expectations of the Moldovan people and continues to press for improvements in the human rights situation in Belarus. The November FAC is expected to consider the conduct and outcome of recent elections in both countries.
In order to assist the EU to meet the challenges and opportunities posed by ongoing instability in the international context, the High Representative and Vice President, Federica Mogherini, presented a new EU global strategy on foreign and security policy to the June European Council. The preparation of this new strategy was led by Ms Mogherini. She consulted closely with the member states but presented the strategy on her own responsibility to the June European Council. Ireland was actively engaged in the consultation process for the strategy, including at the FAC. The strategy sets out a vision for the EU's foreign and security policy and commits the EU to promoting peace, prosperity, democracy and the rule of law. It aims to mobilise all aspects of the EU's external action – diplomatic, economic development, trade and peacekeeping - in pursuit of coherent policy objectives. Irish perspectives and concerns have been taken on board to a large extent in the document.
The strategy stresses the importance of promoting and protecting human rights, development co-operation, conflict resolution and global governance to address the root causes of the challenges, such as migration and extremism, currently facing the EU. Other positive elements from an Irish perspective include a focus on the Middle East peace process, disarmament, gender, the UN and the importance of multilateralism more generally.
The June European Council welcomed the presentation of the strategy and invited the High Representative, the Commission and the Council to take the work forward. These conclusions make clear that any implementation of the strategy will be negotiated and agreed with the member states. Last Monday, at the FAC, I emphasised that all strands of the strategy should be progressed to realise its stated ambition to promote “peace and security, prosperity, democracy and a rules-based global order”. I also welcomed the commitment in the strategy to continue to mainstream human rights, women, peace and security and gender equality across a range of EU policies. These two important elements were reflected in the conclusions adopted by EU foreign Ministers. An implementation plan for the security and defence strand of the strategy will be presented to foreign and defence Ministers at the November FAC meeting. This will focus on enhancing the EU's peacekeeping capacity in support of the United Nations through the further development of the Common Security and Defence Policy as defined in the Treaty of Lisbon.
The worrying situation in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was discussed at the FAC on in June. Along with our European partners, we remain concerned about the ongoing political instability, but welcome the efforts of the political parties to redress the situation and introduce a measure of reform. We are pleased that the political parties have agreed that elections can take place on 11 December. I also had a bilateral meeting with the Macedonian Foreign Minister, Mr. Poposki, en margeof the OSCE ministerial meeting at Potsdam on 1 September, at which I recognised the efforts of the political parties in implementing the July agreement and urged them to continue the commitment to reform and progress.
I welcomed the adoption of the Council conclusions on China at the FAC on 18 July, which provide the policy framework for EU engagement with China over the coming years. I also welcomed the outcomes of the EU-China summit, held in Beijing on 12 and 13 July. A number of items were discussed at the FAC in July, including the verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague on the South China Sea maritime dispute between China and the Philippines; foreign policy issues including bilateral security co-operation; the EU's China strategy and the positive prospects for enhanced EU-China co-operation; China's desire for World Trade Organization, WTO, market economy status; Brexit; and the ongoing important issue of human rights. Ireland continues to support a broad, positive approach to continuing co-operation with China and stresses the need to speak with one voice on China. This will help both sides focus on the challenges and opportunities arising from this very important relationship.
The FAC last discussed Colombia in April, when we had an opportunity to receive a briefing from the Colombian Government's High Commissioner for Peace, Mr. Sergio Jaramillo, and from the EU special envoy to the Colombian peace process, my predecessor and former Dáil Member, Mr. Eamon Gilmore. We also briefly discussed progress in the peace talks at the FAC in July. There have been significant developments in the months since then, not least the conclusion of negotiations between the Government and FARC, the signature of a peace agreement, and its subsequent unexpected narrow rejection by the people of Colombia in a plebiscite on 2 October. The message we have been stressing to our Colombian interlocutors is that the decision of the Colombian electorate to narrowly reject the peace agreement must not deter the two sides from pursuing peace. As we know from our own experience here in Ireland, peace processes are difficult, complex, complicated and can suffer unexpected setbacks. They are never linear. We are, therefore, urging all parties in Colombia to remain committed to the peace process and focused on their ultimate objective of bringing peace to their country. I am pleased to see that the various parties have begun a process of consultation in order to identify how the process might move forward. The role of the EU's special envoy, Mr. Gilmore, is of particular importance and in that regard, he has been working with both sides in Havana to encourage constructive solutions. In meetings at EU level in the weeks since the plebiscite, Ireland has been to the fore in encouraging the EU to maintain a positive approach. We have made clear Ireland’s intentions to remain fully committed to supporting the Colombian peace process, including through supporting the special envoy, Mr. Gilmore, assisting the efforts of NGOs working to promote and defend human rights and facilitating Colombian access to lessons learned from the peace process in Northern Ireland.
More broadly, developments in Latin America and the Caribbean were discussed briefly at the FAC in July and the main focus, aside from the Colombian peace process, was the humanitarian situation in Venezuela and the political dialogue and co-operation agreement with Cuba. On Venezuela, Council conclusions were agreed which called for an urgent, constructive and effective dialogue between the Venezuelan Government and the parliamentary majority to address the country’s many challenges. Ireland, along with the rest of the EU member states, remains concerned about the humanitarian situation in Venezuela and in particular issues connected with human rights defenders and civil and political rights. On Cuba, it is hoped the political dialogue and co-operation agreement between Cuba and the EU will be signed by the end of this year, and it is further anticipated that a bilateral memorandum of understanding between Cuba and Ireland will be finalised before 2017. These advances are evidence of an ongoing rapprochement between Cuba and the EU, as well as Cuba's reopening to the world in more general terms, which we warmly welcome. On the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York this September, I was pleased to have bilateral meetings with the foreign ministers of Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Argentina, as well as the vice-foreign minister of Bolivia. This is all part of a stepping up of our engagement with the region, as foreseen in the programme for partnership Government.
Ireland supported the Council conclusions for continued climate diplomacy in 2016 agreed at the FAC held in Brussels on 15 February 2016. Ireland’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is underlined by our own national response in terms of policy and legislation and the planning processes we have under way for both mitigation and adaptation. It was also demonstrated when Ireland agreed, ahead of other member states, to the EU ratifying the Paris Agreement. This contributed to the upcoming entry into force of the Paris Agreement, which will take place on 4 November 2016. We have this week started the process to ratify the Paris Agreement. At COP21 in Paris the Taoiseach committed Ireland to scaling up climate finance and announced that Ireland will provide at least €175 million in public funding, mainly for adaptation in developing countries, by 2020 and additional contributions to the least developed countries fund. In 2015, my Department provided €36 million to the poorest countries of the world for climate related redevelopment programmes and a contribution of €1 million per year is being provided to the least developed countries fund.
Ireland supported the adoption of the Sahel Council conclusions in June, which reaffirmed the commitment of the EU to the region. Support for the Malian peace process remains essential for a stable and secure Sahel.
A number of terrorist attacks across the G5 Sahel countries - Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger - continue to remind us that terrorism remains a critical issue in this region. The Council condemned attacks on civilians and members of the UN peacekeeping force in Mali. It also supported a comprehensive approach to tackling other challenges faced by the countries in the Sahel, including development, irregular migration and organised crime.
Ireland has supported the comprehensive EU position in the Sahel in a number of ways. Eighteen members of the Irish Defence Forces are participating in the EU training mission in Mali at present. The objective of the mission is to assist in the reconstruction of effective and accountable Malian armed forces. Furthermore, Ireland supports the civilian mission in Mali in its goal of ensuring constitutional and democratic order and fulfilling conditions for a lasting peace in Mali through the deployment of two advisers. To further show our commitment to security in the region, the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, will visit Mali on 25 and 26 October. Ireland has participated in technical discussions regarding the migration compacts and the proposed programme actions of the EU trust fund for Africa, to which we have committed €3 million for the 2016-20 period. In addition, Irish Aid has provided over €16 million in humanitarian and development funding to the G5 Sahel countries since 2013.
I thank members for their time and patience in allowing me to review the agenda the Foreign Affairs Council has faced in recent months. I think they will agree that it has been a varied and diverse agenda. I have focused my remarks on the Council’s deliberations, as we agreed I would do. I will be happy to address any questions or queries that members may have. I look forward to hearing their perspectives on these issues and other issues they might wish to raise in the time allocated.
I thank the Minister for his detailed presentation, which reflects the huge number of serious issues on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council. The continuing senseless loss of life, relentless bombing and inhumane attacks on civilians in Syria demand that the international community, through the UN and other international bodies, bring the horrific five-year war in that country to an end. We have all received correspondence from citizens on this island who are concerned that humanitarian assistance is not reaching areas like eastern Aleppo. The Government must continue to speak out in the strongest possible terms in reflection of the strong concerns of the Irish people about the inhumane attacks on civilians in Syria. The bombardment of civilian populations has to be stopped. An end must be brought to the humanitarian crisis. The Minister concluded the section of his speech on Syria by saying that the conclusions adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council are "critical to save the lives of the Syrian people, particularly those who remain in the city of Aleppo". Sadly, that sentence reflects the fact that we are witnessing the wipe-out of a city and its people.
I ask members to try to confine what they have to say to the asking of questions, if at all possible. If their contributions are relatively brief, it might be possible to for them to have a second round as well so that we can have a full engagement with the Minister.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I will do my level best to be brief. The Minister's statement covered a multitude.
I want to focus first and foremost on the situation in Syria. As the Chairman and the Minister have said, we condemn the ongoing military actions of the Syrian regime, aided and abetted by Russia, in the strongest possible terms. I am particularly concerned about how our Government is responding to this crisis through the Minister. When was the last time the Minister met the Russian ambassador to convey the concerns of the Government and the Irish people regarding the ongoing situation in Aleppo and the use of bunker-busting bombs on hospitals, schools and medical facilities? On 4 October last, my party leader directly asked the Taoiseach whether he or the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade had "summoned the Russian ambassador or discussed the summoning of same to convey our views and raised the matter at European Union level with a request for common action". In his reply, the Taoiseach said that "the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade called in the Russian ambassador last Tuesday and left him in no uncertain terms as to how this country feels". The Taoiseach concluded that reply by saying "I repeat that our Minister last Tuesday called in the Russian ambassador, leaving him in no uncertain position as to the way this country feels about the humanitarian catastrophe that has afflicted Syria for some time and Aleppo in particular". That did not happen. The Minister did not call in the Russian ambassador. I put it to the committee that the Taoiseach misled the House. I met the Russian ambassador to convey my party's concerns about his Government's role in what is happening in Aleppo. The Taoiseach, who is the Minister's party leader, told the House that "the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade called in the Russian ambassador", but that did not happen. When was the last time the Minister met the Russian ambassador? It was clarified in response to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Crowe that two officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade conveyed the concerns. Was that meeting specifically about Syria? Why did the Taoiseach feel it was appropriate to tell the Dáil that the Minister had called in the Russian ambassador when that had not happened? I would like to know when the Minister last met the Russian ambassador.
Following on from that, can the Minister confirm that Ireland will vote against Russia's election to the UN Human Rights Council? From an EU perspective, existing diplomatic efforts have not delivered a ceasefire. The Lavrov-Kerry initiative is probably the way forward. What specific pressure can the EU apply on the warring parties? As we all know, this is the most major humanitarian crisis on our borders. We could do a lot more. The very least this crisis deserves is for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to personally convey our disgust at what is happening in Syria.
I would like to ask briefly about third party or third-country arrangements, particularly the EU-Turkey arrangement. I reject fully the Minister's assertion that "substantial progress" has been made through the EU-Turkey deal. The Minister told us that 69 Syrians have been relocated to this country, but 14 months ago the Government committed to taking 4,000 people. The Minister said he hopes to increase the number of relocations to this country to between 40 and 60 per month soon. I heard that in March of this year. The position is not improving. Can the Minister confirm that none of the €20.9 million given by the Irish Government on behalf of Irish taxpayers towards the EU-Turkey arrangement is being used for security and containment measures? Can he confirm that all of the money in question is being used for the well-being and security of refugees? It is my party's belief, and my belief as my party's foreign affairs spokesperson, that these third-country arrangements completely undermine the rights of asylum seekers, migrants and refugees. The EU-Turkey arrangement is one of a number of arrangements that the EU is looking to enter into. Most recently, the EU proposed to relocate 80,000 refugees to Afghanistan. Turkey has its issues but - God almighty - Afghanistan does likewise. I would like the Minister to address these questions in the first instance. I hope to come in again in the second round.
While I will not go back over everything Deputy Darragh O'Brien has said about Syria, I want to emphasise that our efforts at the diplomatic level need to be much stronger. I refer not only to our diplomatic efforts with Russia and Iran, but also to our efforts with all the countries that are involved in the bombing of Syria. Some of those countries are members of the EU and the Foreign Affairs Council. I think the point has to be made to all of them that the indiscriminate bombing has to stop. At the very least, there should be a strong call for a lengthy ceasefire of at least a week so that medical evacuations can take place and medical facilities and food can be brought in. I would like to hear the Minister's opinion on whether we are doing enough at diplomatic level, including with the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Are our views and those of the EU as a whole about the need for this to stop being heard?
I would also like to speak about overseas development aid. Can the Minister clarify exactly where the €10 million increase went? It has been acknowledged that there has been a decrease in percentage terms. We are moving further away from the 0.7% target.
How will the Minister and Government move back towards the 0.7% target?
I was at the launch of a book last night on the work and impact of Irish missionaries through Misean Cara. It has to be acknowledged that our missionaries were Irish aid before there was Irish Aid. The work they did to ensure our reputation when it comes to providing aid is being undermined by the way in which we are buying into certain trade agreements. We are not looking at the impact of those trade agreements on the countries of the global south and beyond and their ability to feed themselves. These trade agreements can have a detrimental effect on the ability of countries to feed themselves. It is leading to rural flight. Can we do a human rights assessment, as the Danish group Arla has, of the effects of EU and Irish investments, particularly agricultural investments? They are having a bad effect on African farms and farmers. The line we are taking on trade is inconsistent with our Irish Aid policy.
My final point is on Cuba. It was good to see it included in the Minister's speech but the economic, commercial and financial blockade of Cuba continues and is having a detrimental effect on Cuban society. It is great that President Higgins will go to Cuba in February. Ireland is part of the resolution to ban the blockade but are we doing enough? Will this also bring about a real change that will see the sanctions being lifted? Will it have an impact on our banks' ability to do business with Cuba because at the moment they cannot? If there is any account in an Irish bank with the word Cuba in it, it is stopped. I would like the Minister's response to that. Are there plans for a trade mission to Cuba at some stage? How can we have one if the banking issues continue and America is telling Irish banks with whom they may do business.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for his update. It is timely given the very great concern that has been expressed and which we all share about the mounting casualties in Aleppo and Syria. I echo the words of the Chairman and colleagues on that. On the initiative of Labour Party Senators and I, there is an all-party motion before the Seanad today condemning the attacks in Syria, calling on the Government to continue to use all available diplomatic means to raise the issue and to work towards an end to the aerial bombardment and a genuine cessation of violence. It echoes the words of the EU Foreign Affairs Council earlier this week. While the Minister says it represents a consensus view of the international community, unfortunately, as we know, the consensus is not shared by Russia which is deeply complicit in the war crimes being committed in Syria, particularly in Aleppo. The Russian foreign Minister's article in the British press at the weekend expressed the very clear view of the Russia Government that it will continue the bombardment. It will continue unless we scale up diplomatic action against it.
The Minister is right that there is no military solution but we need to work harder. Ireland needs to do more and express in stronger and clearer terms our condemnation of not only the Syrian Government, but its backers, notably Russia. Last night, the French and German heads of Government, François Hollande and Angela Merkel, ramped up their language, with François Hollande calling what is happening in Aleppo a war crime and calling for maximum pressure to be placed on Russia. Will Ireland support what seems to be a French and German push for enhanced sanctions against Russia? It is up for discussion at the meeting of the European Council this afternoon. Will Ireland share that view? As Deputy O'Brien asked, will we vote against Russia's election to the United Nations Human Rights Council? Will we support the continuation of sanctions beyond 31 January 2017? Deputy O'Brien also called on the Minister to call the Russian ambassador in directly to put those questions to him and express Irish support for the French and German position. It is very important that we do so.
The Minister referred to the back-to-school truce in Ukraine, which is currently holding. Can the Minister say what the consequence will be for Russia if it does not hold? How long will the truce be tested to see if it is holding? What position will Ireland take to ensure Russia is held to account for the appalling treatment of civilians in Ukraine?
On the issue of refugees, which others have raised, the resettlement programme from Lebanon has so far led to 486 persons being admitted. That is welcome but we are still nowhere near the 4,000 that was promised. The Minister pointed out that 69 people have been relocated through the relocation programme from Greece. There have been serious problems with operating the planned relocation from Italy. Irish personnel have not been allowed to work in Italy to ensure the facilitation of admission of people from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries through Italy as was originally anticipated. The Minister says he hopes to see an increase soon. We have been hearing that for some months now. Can the Minister give a precise timeframe? Can he say whether progress has been made in ensuring that the relocation programme will operate from Italy as well as from Greece?
I welcome the Minister. We all welcome the eight-hour humanitarian corridor that has been established in Aleppo but there are already reports in the media that it has broken down. Will the Minister join me in demanding that all these allegations of war crimes are investigated? What is the view of the Irish Government on the allegations of war crimes? Are we doing, saying or proposing anything different to address the allegations of war crimes coming out of Syria and Iraq? On Saturday, 8 October, the UN Security Council highlighted its structural dysfunction, when two resolutions on Syria were defeated. The draft resolution by Russia, which did not include a bombing halt, was rejected and so too was the other motion. There is a view that sustained and repeated pressure is required to ensure the war in Syria is stopped. What proposals are coming from Ireland in this regard? What are we doing with like-minded states outside the EU? What states are we working with? There has been some suggestion that a no-fly zone be put in place to end the aerial bombing of Aleppo. Does the Irish Government have a view on that? Who would enforce it? Would it be Russia, the Turks, or the US? That is the big difficulty with that suggestion. If one talks about the human casualties in Aleppo, one must bear in mind that what is happening in Mosul is similar and there is probably a bigger population. There are difficulties with that. At the end of the day, people want to come up with resolutions that will actually work.
CETA and the proposals resulting from it were discussed yesterday. Does the Minister share my concerns that neither the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade nor the Dáil had any real input into the discussions on it? With many of these trade agreements, the only opportunity Members have to discuss the deal is at the end. Does the Minister or his Department have a view on that?
There is some concern about Article 29.5.2° of the Constitution, which states: "The State shall not be bound by any international agreement involving a charge upon public funds unless the terms of the agreement shall have been approved by Dáil Éireann." CETA will introduce an investment court system for the first time in Ireland which could place significant charges on public funds. Has the Minister any concerns about that? There is some suggestion that the Government's support of the provisional application of CETA without Dáil approval violates Article 29.5.2° of the Constitution. I am interested in the Minister's response to that.
The issue of refugees has been mentioned by all contributors. Only 69 Syrians have come to Ireland from Greece. The Minister mentions in his note that the figure will increase to 80 per month very soon. What has changed to allow for this increase? Can the Minister give us a separate note on the difficulties being experienced with regard to the issue of refugees?
We are constantly being told that there are difficulties, but I have no sense of what they are. This information would be useful for us. Going through it in this format would be difficult, but I would appreciate it if we could be given a sense of the problem. There is general support across the House regarding the refugee crisis. It is important that we be informed so that we can inform our electorates, including those who have concerns.
Italy, one of the front-line states, has been mentioned. Why is no one coming from Italy? What is the difficulty? More than 6,500 people were rescued in one weekend by various international naval services. It puts the small number that we are accepting in context.
I am concerned about the situation in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition stands accused of war crimes. On a Saturday, there was an air strike on a funeral hall that killed some 150 people. There has been mention of the use of cluster bombs and so on. Does the Minister support an international and independent investigation into these suspected war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition?
I have mentioned the civilian population of Mosul in Iraq. The UN is preparing for what could be the largest man-made humanitarian crisis of recent times. How will the Department help with that response? We have been fairly good to date.
The difficulties in Turkey have been mentioned. Is the Minister aware that 60 party activists of the leftist and pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, HDP, and the Democratic Regions Party, DBP, were recently arrested? I have concerns about this. Does the Minister support the notion of a dialogue? Will he join me in calling on the Turkish Government to grant immediate access to lawyers and families for those accused? I call on the Turkish Government to end its campaign of arrests.
I will revert to the Minister with some other questions.
I welcome the Minister. This has been a wide-ranging discussion. We have spent an inordinate amount of time on Brexit but, to keep it on the agenda at every opportunity and emphasise the fact that the EU is its own peace process, I note we have an ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland. By any measure, Brexit has a destabilising effect on it.
Regarding the issue of Palestinians, settlement building and the sale of settlement goods despite all sorts of resolution at international level, will the Minister tackle it at EU level?
We have agreed to take in 4,000 refugees. Is there a target date for meeting that figure?
Regarding the issue of EU militarism, I note the Minister's statements on the Common Security and Defence Policy and peace and capacity building. I was in Rome with the Minister's current ministerial colleagues, Deputies Breen and Stanton, when the High Representative, Ms Federica Mogherini, stated that we would be scaling down Mare Nostrum because it was saving too many people in the Mediterranean. As a consequence, hundreds of people died when the weather improved the following year, so work had to be scaled up again. Ms Mogherini knew that, by scaling down Mare Nostrum and the rescue missions, people were going to die. The EU does not have much real concern about humanitarianism in any way, shape or form or in peace and capacity building.
The President of the European Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, was more honest when he stated that we had to move towards common military assets. That does not sound like peace building. Time and again, the Italians have stated that the EU needs to replace the US on our borders. We have seen much of what the US has done in the Middle East. We cannot agree that we should replicate such military adventures.
I noted something with considerable disappointment. It is amazing that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's statement of strategy 2015-17 mentions all sorts of matters - the UN, the EU, peace and capacity building and values - but it does not mention Irish neutrality. When I asked for a reply, I was told that the statement of strategy was not solely a policy document, but an articulation of how we intended to implement our programme. If neutrality is a core value of this State, one imagines that a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade statement of strategy that does not mention it says much more than anything else could. I am concerned about the EU's intentions and its aim to set up a military headquarters and increase common military assets.
I ask the Minister to keep raising the issue of Ibrahim Halawa at European level. This committee will discuss it again at another point. His legal team is to appear before us. It is an important issue, given that an Irish citizen is in jail in Egypt.
I thank the Minister for his presentation. He has been a busy man in recent months. As he knows, my role in the US is to represent the Irish undocumented and try to get legalisation for them, but I have learned that Ireland has many thousands of undocumented immigrants. The Minister might help me in trying to establish the exact number.
I wish to bring another matter to the Minister's attention. Refugees were found in a container only a couple of days ago. More than 4,000 people are in direct provision in Ireland. What moves are being made to accelerate their cases for adjudication? Families have been in one hotel in Galway for more than ten years. Their plight is diabolical and the conditions in which they are living are terrible. Their children can attend secondary school, but they cannot receive third level education. What are we doing in this regard?
My initial contribution relates to Senator Daly's comments regarding our neutrality. I am amazed that there was nothing about neutrality in the Minister's statement. I get the sense that, behind the scenes as opposed to through the Minister, there is a constant fear that we might be regarded as outsiders in Europe because of our stance on neutrality. Our neutral position is so important that we have contributed much through the UN in peacekeeping missions around the world. We should be proud of the role that the Defence Forces play in peacekeeping missions, be it a 500-person mission in Lebanon or a 20-person mission in other parts of the Middle East or elsewhere. The missions are equally important. The most important thing that this country can contribute to world peace is to continue our neutrality. While we are full members of the EU, there is no obligation on us to join in with European policy on building up a European force or anything else. Our neutrality is something we should protect very carefully. When the Minister gets the opportunity to reply, will he assure us that the independent and neutral role we play, and the importance of it, will never be undermined as long as we hold our position on neutrality?
I will deal with the questions and issues raised in a thematic way and hopefully I will reply to all of the contributors.
I will start with the Chairman's comments on the situation in Aleppo, with which I agree fully, in terms of his sentiment and concern. The current situation in Aleppo is somewhat beyond description. We know that the Assad regime has, since the beginning of the conflict, used military force against the civilian population, which is totally unacceptable. It has shelled food markets, bakeries, schools and hospitals and has used chemical weapons repeatedly and indiscriminately. The use of starvation and a denial of humanitarian relief as weapons against the Syrian people is outrageous and has killed thousands. What we are seeing is a clear escalation of the deliberate policy on the part of the Assad regime of fighting a war against its own civilians. I have discussed this matter as recently as Monday with my foreign affairs colleagues in Luxembourg and there was a clear consensus that the situation is appalling and that the action of the regime and its allies, including Russia, may well amount to war crimes. We stated that and I have said it publicly. After a four hour debate on Monday, we agreed a very strong statement.
The Russian offer of an eight hour window of respite from bombing in Aleppo is small relief to a civilian population under siege and bombardment. I do not think that the Russian offer of an eight hour ceasefire is sufficient at all. It will not even allow for the evacuation of those who wish to leave the besieged city. I have made the position of the Irish Government and people clear in repeated statements.
On the matter of the Russian ambassador, I would say to Deputy Darragh O'Brien that it is normal practice for a foreign Minister to have his or her views conveyed to an ambassador through his or her most senior officials. In this case, on two occasions, that was done, exclusively and specifically with regard to the situation in Syria. I have made my views known on the record of this House and have made them known at the Foreign Affairs Council. Indeed, I played an active role in crafting the strong statement following the meeting of the council in Luxembourg. I know that Deputy O'Brien feels very strongly about the situation in Syria, as we all do, but I am really surprised that he is focusing his attention on what is a semantic issue.
I did call in the Russian ambassador. That is exactly what the Taoiseach informed the Dáil, namely, that I had called in the Russian ambassador. The latter was told in no uncertain terms how I, the Taoiseach and the people of this country feel about the ongoing human catastrophe unfolding in Syria and particularly in Aleppo. That is exactly what the Taoiseach said and that is correct. On my direct instructions, the ambassador was called into my Department and my concerns were fully and clearly communicated to him by two of my most senior officials. I am very happy to meet the Russian ambassador but I believe the Irish public would rather see a constructive discussion on the substantive issues at play in the horrific conflict in Aleppo and Syria rather than time being spent in the Dáil and at this committee on an attempt by the Opposition to embarrass the Government.
The reality is that the Irish Government's foreign policy is focused on doing what Ireland can to address the humanitarian crisis by a sustained release of humanitarian funding. We have released €62 million since the conflict began and we are using our influence in the United Nations and the European Union to support a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
I am happy to meet the Russian ambassador. I have discussed the crisis in Syria and Aleppo with the US Secretary of State, Mr. John Kerry, the UN Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ms Frederica Mogherini, and with all of my EU foreign ministerial colleagues. The bottom line is that there is no doubt as to Ireland's views on Syria and Aleppo. We will continue to raise this issue at every level. I have referred to the humanitarian support. There are currently 13.5 million people in Syria in need of critical humanitarian assistance. Our voice will continue to be heard and we will continue to do all we can to influence what is an appalling situation in Aleppo.
A number of Deputies raised the issues of Turkey and migration. Deputy O'Brien referred to Turkey, migration and the matter of aid. Activities funded in Turkey to date have been primarily in the areas of humanitarian assistance, health and education. Of particular note are contracts for direct grants worth a total of €600 million, approximately €300 million of which is for education and the remainder for health. Deputy O'Brien stated that he has some concern about the manner in which this money is being expended. I would be very happy to hear from him if he has evidence of any abuse of spending.
It is important that moneys expended in Turkey or anywhere else are used directly and exclusively for humanitarian aid and the relief of suffering.
Deputy O'Brien also mentioned Afghanistan. At a recent conference in Brussels, participating states, including Ireland, pledged the sum of €13.6 billion in support of Afghanistan over a four year period from 2017 to 2020. EU-Afghanistan co-operation on migration is addressed in the strategy, Joint Way Forward on migration issues between Afghanistan and the EU, which was signed in Kabul on 2 October. The strategy aims to provide a smooth, dignified and orderly return of Afghan nationals who do not fulfil conditions for remaining within the European Union, provided all relevant international law and legal procedures are fully considered. The strategy document provides for re-integration assistance with specific humanitarian consideration for vulnerable groups, including women and children. I am happy to keep the House fully informed of developments in the implementation of that strategy.
Senator Ivan Bacik mentioned Ukraine and she is right in arguing that the situation there is most fragile. It is important that due consideration is given by all parties to the provisions of the Minsk agreement. Senator Bacik mentioned the current situation with regard to sanctions over Ukraine and asked whether sanctions should also be applied in response to Russian activities in Syria. This is an issue that may well be under consideration but I have not seen any proposals as such. I note the Senator's comments regarding initiatives on the part of France and Germany but without having seen firm proposals, it would be unwise of me to speculate on any measures at this stage. The situation is currently under review.
I believe there is an urgent and overwhelming need for legal accountability for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and what can be described as genocide in Syria. The referral of the conflict in Syria to the International Criminal Court is not only appropriate but is in fact overdue. I will support efforts in that regard.
Senator Bacik raised Ireland's contribution to dealing with the migration crisis and the progress on the settlement of asylum seekers and refugees. Members will be aware from previous discussions that the Government has agreed to accept 4,000 asylum seekers. We have now settled 486 out of a target of 520 people under the refugee protection programme. I agree with members that progress on the relocation programme has been slow in Ireland, as well as in all our partner EU member states. To date a total of 69 Syrians have come to Ireland from Greece. We are actively engaged to ensure that these numbers are increased. The situation in regard to Italy is problematic. I have been speaking about these difficulties to my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, who attended a meeting of the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council recently. We are concerned at the bureaucratic nature of the delays in dealing with the situation in Italy. We hope the issues can be dealt with early but I share Senator Bacik's concern. In regard to the humanitarian response, it is important that we acknowledge the work of our Defence Forces and the Naval Service personnel who have rescued more than 13,000 people in the Mediterranean since last year. As Deputy Seán Barrett, a former Minister for Defence, noted, we are all very proud of the role of our personnel in that region. If we can do more, we certainly will. I agree with Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's comments on the appalling situation in Aleppo.
On the matter of overseas development aid, ODA, I was pleased that a further €10 million was allocated to our budget in the recent budget which means we have been given an extra €50 million in the past two budgets. I share Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's concern regarding the need to ensure that we can reach the target of 0.7% GNP by the target date of 2030. As our economic fortunes improve, I hope we will make every effort to ensure that we might be able to reach that sum prior to the target date of 2030. Obviously this will depend on our economic growth and resources. The Government remains committed to that target. Based on the Department of Finance's forecast of GNP for 2017, the allocation of €651 million is estimated to deliver an overseas development aid GNP percentage in the region of 0.3%. It is important that we continue to make every effort to increase that ratio. I acknowledge that we are in a position to provide an extra €10 million this year.
I agree with Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's comments on Cuba. I acknowledge that the blockade remains a matter of serious concern and hope every effort could be made by all parties involved to ensure the situation can improve for the benefit of the people in the region. I note her comment regarding a trade mission and I hope we will be in a position to announce a high-level visit to Cuba early in the new year. I am happy to keep the Deputy informed on that. It is important that the negotiations on political dialogue and co-operation with Cuba would continue. We will continue to play our part in voicing our concern about the embargo, which we have been doing for many years. Our position on the blockade is both clear and long-standing.
Deputy Crowe, let me repeat my comments on the situation in Syria. Ireland will continue to speak out on these issues. I strongly support the efforts to end military flights as a means of protecting civilians. The enormous suffering inflicted on civilians because of the airstrikes is contributing significantly to the unacceptable level of suffering in the region. I am not calling however, for the setting up of a no-fly zone as this would require a mandate of the UN Security Council. I think it is clear that cannot be agreed, given the existing divisions between Russia and other Security Council members. I do not think that is something that can happen under the current make up of the council. Enforcing a no-fly zone requires the credible threat of the use of force against planes which violate its conditions. I hope that the efforts to which Senator Bacik and other referred will ensure there will be an opportunity and a window for talks. Ireland will continue to play its part in so far as possible.
Deputy Crowe mentioned in particular the Saudi intervention in the war in Yemen. This was discussed recently and we are very concerned by the situation in Yemen. My primary concern is for the civilian population and the longer the conflict continues the more suffering is imposed on the people of Yemen. We share the concern of our EU colleagues, which was noted in the conclusions of a recent meeting. I strongly echo the appeal to all parties to respect international humanitarian law and human rights law. I will have an opportunity between now and the end of the year to visit the Gulf and I will be happy to convey the concern expressed by members
Deputy Crowe referred to talks with the Kurds and Ireland continues to be a strong supporter of the peace talks between the Turkish Government and the PKK through the work of the conflict resolution unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We have provided financial assistance through an international NGO, which has facilitated study visits to Ireland by Turkish and Kurdish MPs and by journalists and advisers who continue to work for peace. It is important that all sides move towards ceasing hostilities and return to political dialogue so that a peaceful resolution can be reached in that regard.
Senator Daly mentioned Brexit. I agree this remains an absolute priority. We have embarked on the implementation of the plan.
The new Cabinet committee, which is chaired by the Taoiseach and will involve representatives of almost all Departments, met again yesterday. We have augmented our team in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The new second Secretary General in the Department of the Taoiseach is leading a new integrated division in that Department which will be responsible for Brexit matters. The all-island conversation regarding Brexit is continuing. As members of the committee will be aware, the first meeting of the civic dialogue will take place on 2 November in Dublin. I urge all interested parties across all political divides to get involved in and assist that forum.
We are working closely with the State agencies. I chaired a meeting of the Export Trade Council earlier this week involving representatives of agencies, heads of Departments and a number of Ministers. We will continue to ensure we are fully prepared for this most serious challenge across a range of Departments. I am engaging with my colleagues in the EU, the UK and Northern Ireland. I will have a number of direct meetings with stakeholders in Derry tomorrow. I acknowledge the assistance and advocacy of Members of the Oireachtas. I know the Taoiseach will continue his engagement with all party leaders. It is important for us to continue to prepare the ground as best we can before the negotiations commence at the end of March.
I share Senator Mark Daly's concern that the recent court hearing in the case of Ibrahim Halawa did not take place. Since that date, I have had an opportunity to discuss the matter further and to relay once again the concern of the Oireachtas and the Irish people in this regard to a number of my EU colleagues and directly to my Egyptian counterpart, Mr. Shoukry. I will be happy to keep the committee fully informed of developments. The Government's priority is to secure the early release of Mr. Halawa from custody and, in the meantime, to make every effort to ensure his health and welfare are looked after.
I welcome Senator Lawless to this committee and to the Seanad. I know he has an important agenda as he deals with the ongoing issues of the undocumented Irish in the US and the health, welfare and circumstances of all our diaspora across that country. The appointment of Senator Lawless to the Upper House was an important one. I acknowledge the work he has already undertaken in that regard. I do not believe significant progress will be made on this issue between now and 8 November. I assure the committee that as soon as the new US Administration is settled, I will be happy to commence a further round of high-level contacts on this issue. I acknowledge the assistance and influence of Senator Lawless in that regard.
Senator Lawless also raised a number of issues regarding direct provision and undocumented immigrants in this country. I would be happy to discuss these issues with my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, who is responsible for them. It might be appropriate for Senator Lawless and the Tánaiste to have a bilateral engagement on the issues raised by the Senator this morning. I would be happy to convey his comments and concerns directly to the Tánaiste following this meeting.
I acknowledge the remarks of Deputies Darragh O'Brien and Sean Barrett and Senator Mark Daly regarding the statement of strategy on Irish neutrality. There is not and should not be any doubt about the position of Irish neutrality. The long-standing policy of Irish neutrality is continuing. It is acknowledged in the European treaties, particularly the Lisbon treaty, that there can be no European army. Some people inside and outside this House have suggested that there could be such an army. I acknowledge the role of our peacekeepers and the importance of our membership of the UN. I agree fully with Deputy Barrett's comments. As far as our neutrality is concerned, Ireland continues to exercise a large measure of influence on the international stage, particularly at UN level, precisely because of our objectivity and neutrality. That is the view of the Government and this Parliament. It is certainly my view. I do not see any circumstances under which that might change.
I will be very brief. I do not deny in any way, shape or form the disgust of the Department and the Minister at what is happening in Syria. I do not question their commitment to this issue. I merely put it to the Minister that I find it strange and confusing that he has not spoken directly to the Russian Government's representative in this country. He mentioned that he has spoken to everyone else on this issue, including the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. The Russian embassy is down the road in Rathgar. I would have thought that the Minister would have made it his business to convey personally the Irish Government's concerns to the ambassador. I am not engaging in semantics when I put the very clear statement we heard on 4 October last, and what it led us to believe, to the Minister again. I have the transcript and I will read what it says again. The Taoiseach told the Dáil that "the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade called in the Russian ambassador last Tuesday". In fact, the Minister did not meet the ambassador. The Taoiseach said that the Minister "left him in no uncertain terms", but how can that be the case when he did not meet him? I ask again: when has the Minister met the Russian ambassador?
I am aware that Russia is not the only party to the problems in Syria. I accept that US intervention in that region has also been detrimental. No country has more influence than Russia over the Syrian Government and the Assad regime. It is not semantics to say it is inexplicable that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has not sat down to meet the Russian ambassador on this issue. My clear view is that the Minister should be doing his job. I asked the Minister to confirm that Ireland will vote against Russia's election to the UN Human Rights Council, but he did not answer that question. I appreciate that the Minister covered a great deal of ground in his statement here today and that he has a lot on his plate. Our job is to put forward our views on issues. I agree with the Minister's stance on many other issues and I applaud the work he is doing, but my job is to let him know when I do not agree with him. I would expect the Minister to do likewise.
I also asked the Minister about the €20.9 million that this country has given towards the third country arrangement between the EU and Turkey. The committee has written to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to confirm that all of that money is being spent exclusively on humanitarian aid. I am not producing evidence in this regard and I did not suggest that I would. I am asking the Minister to confirm that this is the case. If it is, things are absolutely fine. I reiterate that from the perspective of my party and my own perspective as Opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs and trade, these third party arrangements undermine the basic rights that refugees and asylum seekers deserve under international law. They do not represent the way forward we should be taking. I thank the Minister for his comprehensive and detailed statement.
I will conclude by asking about Brexit matters. I welcome the opportunity to attend the forum on 2 November. I would like to hear the Government's view on the fact that the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has not seen fit to afford the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, a permanent seat at the Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit in London. While I appreciate that this is a decision of a sovereign Government, I suggest it speaks volumes about the views of the Prime Minister and the London Government about their priorities with regard to Northern Ireland. I welcome the Minister's engagement in the North of Ireland and his visit to Derry to meet stakeholders.
I, too, have spent time in the North over the past few months. The Government should approach Brexit from a position of strength. Ireland is a big market for Britain and we have a €10 billion trade deficit with Britain. In terms of our market, Britain doing business with us is as important, if not more important, than our dealings and business relationship with Britain. We should be careful that we are not used by the British to forward their position with our European partners.
I would like a response from the Department on the activities in Mosul, Iraq and the humanitarian crisis that is coming down the track.
The Minister mentioned war crimes in Syria and said he supported the referral to the international court. What role can the Irish Government play in this matter? He did not mention the war crimes in Yemen. Would he similarly support a referral to the international court of the war crimes in Yemen?
The Minister mentioned that there is funding for the peace process in Colombia. Is the offer still on the table? Does he view as positive the fact that negotiations have opened up with the guerrilla group called the ELN?
I ask the Minister for an explanatory note on the hurdles and roadblocks in terms of refugees.
An all-party motion was passed in this House and showed that there is unanimous support for the official recognition of the state of Palestine. Has the Minister thought any more about the matter? Does he view it as a positive step?
I welcome the Minister's positive comments on Cuba. The continuation of the relic that is the Cold War has had a detrimental effect on the Cuban people. President Obama has acknowledged the harm that has been done and been progressive about other aspects. The US Congress is the stumbling block. It has made time for legislation to continue the sanctions but not for the Congress men and women who want the blockade ended. I ask that Ireland, whatever opportunities it has, in discussions with the United State acts as a voice for Cuba and indicates its support for the lifting of the blockade. As we know, 98% of UN countries will vote to have the blockade lifted yet it continues.
I welcome what the Minister said about Ireland's commitment to a 0.7% overseas development aid target. I also acknowledge Ireland's role in the sustainable development goals. Has there been any more done with them? At a recent AWEPA event Mr. Michael O'Brien from Trócaire was in attendance. On that occasion it was suggested that we arrange an Oireachtas debate, for which I would like the Minister's support, on how Ireland can progress the sustainable development goals because there are issues about financing them. Ireland, in its policy document entitled One Work, One Future, has committed to a biennial report on policy coherence. We need to follow through on that commitment so that we can see the effect policy coherence has on trade agreements.
In respect of the Middle East and Palestine, we talk about peace and there are talks about peace but settlements continue to be built. Can there be a strong voice that at the very least the settlement building stops while we move towards peace?
In terms of Syria, we need to do more at a diplomatic level, not just with Russia and Iran. We know the role that they have played but there are other countries involved in the bombing, including the United States. They all have to be brought to task if there is to be a ceasefire and a lasting peace.
I was glad to hear the Minister's comments on neutrality. I know that he will give a response on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA. I should have raised the matter given that a motion on CETA was passed in the Seanad at the behest of our colleague, Senator Higgins. I ask him for an update on the Government's response to the motion.
I thank the Minister for his full answers to my questions on Syria. Does he have the timeframe for the relocation? He has said that we are close to the original resettlement target for Lebanese refugees. Given what he called the bureaucratic obstacles in Italy, can he say for sure if there is a timeframe for reaching relocation targets even though he expects to soon see numbers increase?
On the Palestine issue, I echo the words of others on the recognition of the state of Palestine. Can the Minister comment on the reports raised in the media about the closure of a bank account in respect of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign? My colleague, Senator Norris, has raised the matter in the Seanad.
Finally, members have talked about Turkey. The Minister mentioned in his statement that there is a need to ensure, among other things, "that the political process to resolve the Kurdish issue can be resumed". All of us share a concern about the rights of Kurdish minorities, particularly since the repressive crackdown by the Turkish Government following an attempted coup. Can the Minister state Ireland's position on the recognition of the rights for the Kurdish minority? Does it extend to support for an autonomous Kurdistan, an independent state or autonomy within Turkey?
Apologies to Deputy Crowe and Senator Bacik for omitting to deal with the issue of CETA in my earlier response. Senator Bacik referred to the CETA motion in the Seanad but it was also the subject of a Dáil debate last week when my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills outlined the national approach by Ireland.
We are fully satisfied that the provisional application of the CETA agreement will in no way conflict with Ireland's legal or constitutional requirements. I want to add that an agreement between Canada and the European Union would be good for trade, Europe, Ireland, our people and our people seeking employment. It will help Ireland continue what is a very fragile but positive road to economic recovery. I am happy to keep the House informed of further developments. It was an issue that I had the opportunity to discuss with some colleagues in Europe on Monday.
Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned Colombia. It is important that Ireland continues to play a strong role as far as its influence and experience is concerned. I am in regular contact with my former colleague, the EU Special Envoy for the Peace Process in Colombia, Mr. Eamon Gilmore. As soon as the result was announced efforts were made to ensure that dialogue continued. As the Deputy has said, it is important that Ireland and the international community continues to rally around the people of Colombia. Since the plebiscite the Nobel peace prize has been awarded to President Santos. The award should act as a further act of encouragement to all who continue to strive for peace. There is an EU trust fund to which Ireland has made a contribution and I have encouraged some of my EU colleagues to participate in what will be an important arrangement. I am happy to keep the House fully informed of developments.
On the status of Palestine, members will be aware that the Dáil has on two occasions, in October and December 2014, passed motions on the matter of recognition as has the Upper House. I refer members to the programme for Government in which we stated that the Government is committed to recognising the state of Palestine as part of a lasting settlement of the conflict in the region. I keep this issue under continuous and constant review. Whether the immediate recognition by Ireland of a state of Palestine, prior to its real and lasting achievement on the ground, could be helpful is something to which we must at all times give consideration. Will it help resolve the conflict in the region that has bedevilled the citizenry over a long number of years? I was in the region in June when I had an opportunity to meet President Netanyahu and Prime Minister Hamdallah. The matter is part of Ireland's ongoing consideration. I know that the members opposite have been present and I refer them to the importance of the French initiative. I expect that there will be further developments on the initiative between now and the end of the year. I am committed to ensuring that Ireland makes every effort to influence what is a serious conflict in the region.
As for the bank accounts, this is a commercial matter for the banks. I do not have evidence for why this act took place, but I have written to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, in general terms because this concern was brought to my attention. I hope these issues can be resolved but, really, they are outside of my control. They are commercial decisions taken by the banks.
I agree with Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan on the ongoing issue of the settlements. They are not only illegal but also an obstacle to peace in the region. I had the opportunity to say that directly to the Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, in June last and also to the chairman of the Israeli foreign affairs committee, Mr. Avi Dichter, who was here recently and also met members of the committee and the Chairman, Deputy Smith. I hope the Middle East peace process will remain high on the agenda at European level, notwithstanding the huge challenges and crises around the world. I will continue to raise these issues.
In response to Deputy Darragh O'Brien on Brexit, I acknowledge his support on this issue, and particularly the support of his party leader. I do not wish to comment on the involvement or membership of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in any committee under the UK Government. The Secretary of State was appointed in mid-summer and I have spoken to him on at least four occasions in the time since then. I assure the committee that I will continue high-level engagement with both the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Mr. Davis, who was here in September at my invitation. I had a constructive meeting with him. I have also spoken to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr. Johnson, on a number of occasions and I expect that he will visit Dublin early next year, if not towards the end of this year. There is constant high-level engagement in London, Belfast and Dublin on the part of senior officials.
I am sure there will be a further opportunity on Question Time next week to comment in detail on the priorities of the Government on the matter of Brexit. Those priorities are the economy and trade, the situation in Northern Ireland and the peace process, the preservation and maintenance of the common travel area between our respective jurisdictions and Ireland's position within the European Union, with Ireland firmly remaining an active, positive and constructive member of the Union at the negotiating table with our 26 EU colleagues discussing and negotiating the withdrawal of the United Kingdom.
Yes, I will provide a note on that. With regard to our position on migration, I can inform the committee, on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, that every effort will be made to ensure that our targets are met. It is not possible to put a firm timeframe on it. Ireland is not the country of choice of many suffering refugees. We have undertaken to receive a total of 4,000. I am anxious that the appropriate details can be worked out to facilitate their reception in Ireland. Irish people would welcome the alleviation of suffering. Obviously we will play our part as far as the reception of refugees is concerned, but our priority must be addressing the root causes of migration and the fact that so many millions of people are displaced in the first instance. This is also something I am sure we will return to on Question Time next Tuesday.
Like my party colleague, Deputy O'Brien, I welcome the fact that the Minister will be in Derry before the end of the week to engage with civic society in regard to Brexit. I was in Enniskillen last Monday evening to meet people from Fermanagh and Tyrone who are involved in business and politics. There is a genuine concern in those communities about the urgent need to ensure their interests are advocated very strongly by the Irish Government. Unfortunately, the two parties in the Northern Ireland Executive took opposing views in the referendum. The fact that it took the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, ten weeks to respond to a letter from the First Minister and deputy First Minister regarding concerns they outlined about Brexit would not fill one with confidence about the interest there will be in Northern Ireland when Britain is negotiating. There is a huge onus on the Government and, indeed, on all of us in public life in this country to ensure that the interests of all of the island are strongly advocated in the future talks. I hope the Minister will have a good engagement with civic society. The people are anxious to have that communication and engagement with the Government and with the Oireachtas.
We will adjourn until Thursday, 3 November 2016, when we will hear a presentation from the National Union of Journalists in regard to media freedom and particularly concerns about Turkey.