Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 13 December 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Update on Brexit and Matters Considered at Meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council: Discussion
In today's meeting, we meet with An Tánaiste and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, to discuss the latest developments in Brexit and matters that have arisen at the Foreign Affairs Council and other matters relevant to foreign affairs and trade. The Tánaiste is very welcome here today, along with his officials. The format of the meeting is that the committee will hear the Tánaiste's opening statement before going into a question and answer session with members of the committee.
Before we begin, may I remind members, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even on silent mode, with the recording equipment in this committee room. I also 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 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. If they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter to only 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 they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I also welcome members of the diplomatic corps who are with us for today's meeting.
I call on the Tánaiste to make his opening remarks.
I thank the Chair for the opportunity to have a discussion with the committee members. I look forward to their questions and comments.
My initial statement will be reasonably lengthy but it will give a good overview of some of the issues with which we have been dealing at the Foreign Affairs Council at the European level as I was asked to do. Obviously, I am in the committee's hands, but I suspect there will be demands for quite a detailed discussion on Brexit, which I am happy to do.
I thank the committee members for the opportunity to address them this afternoon. I am keen to provide an update on the developments at the EU Foreign Affairs Council which most recently met this Monday. In addition, I know the committee is interested in developments related to Brexit, given fast-moving events this week, and I look forward to a discussion on this and other matters.
My Department has provided a detailed information note to the committee on the wide range of issues the Foreign Affairs Council has considered in the past few months. In the interests of maximising the time available for discussion, I propose to address the major themes of the Council discussions in my opening remarks.
As ever, developments in the Middle East featured prominently in discussions at the Council. I supported the addition of Jordan as a discussion item on the agenda in June. This took place just after I visited Jordan myself. My own view is that Jordan plays an essential role as a stabilising influence in a difficult region and I believed it was important for the EU to express, and show in a concrete way, our support. Jordan has long hosted large refugee populations of Palestine refugees, refugees from Iraq after 2003, and now hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. This places a huge strain on the Jordanian economy, and US cuts to funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, have made the situation even more difficult. As Jordan is trying to introduce economic reforms, under pressure from the IMF, I feel it is important that the EU look at the trade access that Jordan has to the EU market and see how that could be improved. I am also pleased that plans are proceeding for Ireland to establish a resident embassy in Jordan early next year.
The gravity of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen simply cannot be underestimated. The UN has warned that the country is on the brink of a major catastrophe. The need for a ceasefire is stark. At the June Council, EU ministers were briefed via video conference by UN special envoy, Mr. Martin Griffiths, on his framework for peace in Yemen.
We agreed conclusions that reiterated that there cannot be any military solution to the conflict and underlined our strong support for the UN special envoy and his efforts to bring about an inclusive political solution. In November, EU ministers reaffirmed our strong support for efforts to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. The situation in Yemen is incredibly shocking and distressing, and there has been little good news over the past four and a half years. I was very glad to hear that peace talks restarted in Sweden last week following intensive UN efforts and a number of confidence-building measures. Clearly the problems in Yemen are very complex but it is an important step that both sides have come to the table and I think everybody wishes those efforts well.
The Council has also considered the death of Jamal Khashoggi. On behalf of the EU, the High Representative has called publicly for an independent and credible investigation which Ireland fully supports and insists on. As I have said directly to the ambassador of Saudi Arabia in Dublin, we must get the facts of the case and ensure that those responsible are held to account. Ireland also specifically raised the Khashoggi case during Saudi Arabia's universal periodic review at the UN Human Rights Council in November.
The situation in Libya was discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council in July and October and conclusions were adopted this week reflecting the seriousness of the situation there and the importance it is accorded by the EU. During these meetings, my counterparts and I reiterated our united support for a Libyan-found solution to the political crisis, under the auspices of the UN political process. We also underlined the importance of elections in completing Libya's transition while recognising the need for the right conditions to be in place for free and fair elections, which is challenging.
Libya and Syria also featured in the October Council discussion on the external aspects of migration with the UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, and the director general of the International Organization for Migration, António Vitorino. Ireland wants to find a consensus on migration based on a balance of responsibility and solidarity. We support efforts to tackle root causes and are supportive of the UN global compact on migration which has unfortunately become controversial in some parts of the world, and in our view represents a balanced approach for co-operation between countries and regions with very different perspectives on and experiences of migration.
My colleagues and I discussed the situation in Iran in November and again at the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday. We discussed the implications of the re-imposition of US sanctions in November, and reconfirmed our support for the joint comprehensive plan of action, the nuclear agreement. Our objectives are to support the continued implementation of this agreement which has been successful and continues to deliver, and to support EU business in continuing to trade with Iran to the benefit of both sides. However, we also expressed our concerns about Iran's recent ballistic missile tests as well as the destabilising role which Iran plays in many countries across the region. The EU believes that we must face these issues head on and deal with them. However, we believe that keeping faith with the agreement we have already reached on nuclear issues is an important first step in bringing Iran back into the international fold as hopefully, eventually, a responsible and constructive partner. These are challenging issues and I expect we will return to them many times but there is a high degree of unity among member states in what we are trying to do.
On Monday, the Foreign Affairs Council discussed preparations for the upcoming EU–African Union ministerial meeting in January. This will be the first annual Joint Ministerial meeting since the AU-EU summit in Abidjan last November. We agreed that the meeting agenda will be developed around three themes: peace, security and governance; investment, trade and skills; and multilateralism. Ireland remains committed to supporting countries in Africa in meeting the challenges they face, both bilaterally and through our membership of the EU. We must continue to strengthen co-operation between the African Union and the EU, including on trade and development. The proposal for an Africa-Europe alliance for sustainable investment and jobs sets out a comprehensive economic agenda with job creation at its core. The Foreign Affairs Council also discussed developments in Africa more generally, including in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea in June, and in the Central African Republic in October. We will have an opportunity to attend an EU-Africa summit on Tuesday next week, in Vienna.
In November and December, the Council discussed Ukraine. On Monday, Ministers expressed deep concern about tensions in the Sea of Azov. The EU expects Russia to ensure unhindered and free passage through the Kerch Strait to and from the Sea of Azov in accordance with international law. Ministers met with the Ukrainian foreign minister and reaffirmed the EU's unwavering support for Ukraine's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. In November, ministers condemned the so-called elections in the separatist Donbass region of Ukraine on 11 November as running contrary to the letter and spirit of the Minsk agreements. Ministers also welcomed progress on reforms in Ukraine while noting that much more still needs to be done.
The Council discussed developments in the western Balkans, Eastern Partnership and Central Asia. Ministerial meetings with the Eastern Partnership and Central Asian countries took place in October and November. On Monday the Council had a wide-ranging discussion on the western Balkans, touching on progress in 2018 and expectations for 2019.
A very difficult situation is unfolding in Venezuela. In October and again on Monday, ministers discussed the situation in Venezuela, which appears to be worsening. There is an acute humanitarian crisis with the potential for regional instability due to the strain being put on neighbouring countries by mass migration. Ministers agreed to explore the idea of establishing an international contact group to bring together the EU and other actors with influence on both sides in Venezuela to facilitate negotiation. It is expected a decision on this will be made at the January Foreign Affairs Council. Ministers also discussed the EU reaction to the upcoming inauguration of President Maduro on 10 January following elections that were neither free, fair, nor credible.
With regard to the EU global strategy implementation, the Council has been discussing how the EU can promote a rules-based international order with multilateralism as its key principle and the United Nations at its heart. This is very much in line with Ireland's vision which I articulated at the UN General Assembly in September. The EU global strategy commits the Union to promoting peace, prosperity, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The Council continued to monitor progress on the implementation of the strategy. This includes strengthening the EU's peacekeeping capacity in support of the United Nations. We have also made progress on implementing a strategic approach to strengthening the resilience of states and societies in our neighbourhood and developing an integrated approach to conflicts and crises. Unfortunately there are far too many in our neighbourhood.
The Council discussed security and defence issues in the context of the EU global strategy in November. Ministers adopted a new civilian common security and defence policy, CSDP, a compact that will make civilian CSDP more capable, flexible and responsive, and will strengthen the EU's external engagement in the rule of law, policing and civil administration. It will also enhance the capacity of the EU to respond to new and emerging challenges in our neighbourhood. Ireland was a leading promoter of the compact.
Ireland supports ongoing cooperation between the EU and the UN on peacekeeping operations and crisis management. We were pleased that the EU endorsed the updated shared priorities of the UN-EU Partnership on Peace Operations and Crisis Management in September. The Council also welcomed an Irish paper, introduced by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, on how EU member states can better co-operate under the auspices of the EU in support of UN peacekeeping operations.
I do not propose to read out a dissertation on Brexit.
Essentially, our approach to Brexit is to prepare for all eventualities but to continue to try to influence what we can where we can to maximise the chances of the deal, which was negotiated over a nearly two-year period, holding and taking effect. We now have a withdrawal agreement that is a compromise on both sides. The EU and the UK have had to compromise. The core Irish interests and vulnerabilities have been responded to in the withdrawal agreement in as effective a way as could have happened. The Good Friday Agreement and the common travel area are protected. The guarantees that were given politically this time last year have been followed through on and delivered in a legal text to ensure people do not have to worry about future border infrastructure re-emerging between our two jurisdictions.
Other issues in the withdrawal agreement are citizens' rights more generally. The approximately 3.5 million EU citizens living in the UK and the approximately 1.5 million UK citizens living around the EU will have certainty. The financial settlement issue in terms of the UK's contribution to the EU's budgets up until the end of 2020 is largely settled. Perhaps most importantly for businesses, there is the facilitation in the legal text of a transition period for an initial 21 months until the end of 2020 and then the option for the UK, if it wants to take it, of extending the transition for a further one or two years if it is necessary to finalise the detail of the future relationship agreement between the UK and the EU.
On the issues that have caused so much political controversy and debate in Westminster, in particular with regard to the backstop, it is important to say that the factual position, rather than the case being made by some, is the backstop does not represent a threat to anybody. It is about preventing the threat to the normality, stability and peaceful relations that have built up over the past two decades on the island of Ireland and ensuring we do not have the corrosive impact in the future of enforced border infrastructure between the two jurisdictions. Some people in this room will know only too well why we have been so firm and clear, across all political parties, on this request and on the insistence it is accommodated in a withdrawal agreement.
There has not been enough focus on the context of the backstop. The only reason a conversation around the backstop began at all was that people wanted to protect the peace process and ensure the trade and movement of goods, services, people and capital on the island of Ireland, which has reinforced good relations, can sustain into the future. It is also important to say the backstop is a fall-back, last resort, insurance mechanism. Nobody wants to have to use it. Last December, the UK and EU negotiating team agreed we would try to solve the Border concerns on the island of Ireland through a future relationship agreement that would be comprehensive enough to do it. If it was not possible, the second option would be that the UK would offer bespoke solutions recognising the unique challenges the Border presented on the island of Ireland. Let us not forget it is not just a border between two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland but will become a border between the United Kingdom and the EU. It is the EU's external border. If it is not possible to get agreement on bespoke solutions, the default, fall-back position was the UK would maintain full alignment with the rules of the customs union and Single Market in the areas necessary to protect North-South co-operation and an all-island economy and to protect the peace process. Many people seem to talk about the backstop as if it is the basis of the future relationship, which it is not. We are all committed to ensuring the backstop never takes effect. Should it take effect, we are committed to trying to ensure it is only temporary so it can be replaced with something more permanent. For the moment there is not another credible fall-back solution that can take the place of the backstop. That is why EU leaders and the British Prime Minister have been so clear that there is a need for the backstop even though we want to avoid using it and if it ever takes effect we want to make sure it is temporary and short-lived. The temporary commitment has to be qualified. It is qualified by the language in the withdrawal agreement, which says it is there unless and until it is replaced by something else that can do the same job. We all want to replace it. I have said many times I do not believe anybody on the island should feel threatened by the backstop. This is a worst-case, fall-back position. Even in that case, Northern Ireland is effectively being offered free, uninhibited, seamless trade access to the EU Single Market and customs union and to the rest of the United Kingdom's single market too. It is a British red line that has resulted in the element of the backstop that is now referred to as the single customs territory because Theresa May made it very clear she would not accept any deal that put Northern Ireland into a different customs union from the rest of the United Kingdom. The response to the EU from some in Westminster, that the EU was looking to trap the UK into its customs union with the backstop misunderstands where it has come from. It was a British request. The initial proposal from the EU side was we would have a Northern Ireland-specific backstop that would not involve the rest of the United Kingdom . It was a British request to make the backstop UK-wide on customs to which the EU initially said "No" and then facilitated after a lot of very difficult negotiation. It is now a point of criticism by some in Westminster, which is an irony that needs to be exposed.
I commend the British Prime Minister on following through on the political commitments that were made last December and on understanding the fragility and complexity of politics on the island and the need for an insurance mechanism that can address and allay the fears many people have of seeing physical border infrastructure re-emerging on our island. She has addressed it with the backstop. She now needs to get some accommodation from us in the context of the reassurance and clarification for which she is asking. She is not asking to change the withdrawal agreement. She is asking for reassurance and clarification from the EU side that everything possible will be done to avoid the backstop ever being used and, therefore, a focus on both sides to get a future relationship that is comprehensive enough to deal with the issue. She also wants reassurances that if the backstop is ever triggered, in other words if there is a time at the end of a transition period but before a future relationship has been signed off on when there is a need to use a backstop we will all work to ensure it is only on a temporary basis and that it gets replaced with something that can do the same job but is more permanent.
There are other issues related to Brexit, which I can go into. The final thing I will mention on Brexit is contingency. We will continue to negotiate politically to try to get acceptance and agreement to ratify the withdrawal agreement, which we believe is the most sensible way to manage Brexit now. We also believe the agreement on the political declaration on the future relationship is balanced.
We do not know if the Parliament in Westminster will ratify the deal. We hope it will but as we do not know whether it will, we have to plan for all eventualities as to how, as a country, we respond to a no-deal Brexit. We have spent many months planning for Brexit. Our public commentary on contingency planning has been primarily around what we describe as the central case scenario, which we still regard as the most likely outcome, whereby there is a deal, a withdrawal agreement and a two-year transition period at the end of which we would have to be prepared for the new realities of a new trading environment. It may involve a free trade agreement between the EU and the UK that in all likelihood would require some customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, checks by inspectors from the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Health and so on. In the event of a no-deal Brexit that kicks in after 29 March, a lot of these preparations will need to be fast-tracked and work in that regard is under way. We made a Government decision on Tuesday that essentially is an instruction to senior civil servants, essentially the Secretaries General, to build on the plans already in place to ensure we can be ready by 29 March. There also is an increase in the intensification of preparations at EU level, collectively, for contingency plans too. In many areas, EU competence will determine how contingency works, be that in aviation, fishing, data protection, security, recognition of certification and standards, citizens' rights and movement and so on. As I said earlier in the Dáil, the Commission has been holding sectoral seminars with the 27 member states to discuss contingency planning in all these areas and on how the European institutions would likely respond and how they would expect countries to respond in a way that is consistent with that. The last of those sectoral seminars will take place on 10 January.
Next week, we will publish an update paper on contingency. We have a Brexit stakeholders group which meets every five to six weeks. It is comprised of a broad cross-section of people, including political parties, who are following Brexit closely. We will bring that update contingency paper to that group and we will publish afterwards so that people will have a clearer picture in terms of the areas where Ireland will be planning domestically, in partnership with other EU countries and with the EU institutions to put in place contingency plans. To be clear, contingency planning is not about maintaining the status quoafter the UK leaves the European Union. Contingency planning will involve a lot of negativity in the context of a no-deal Brexit and a much more difficult trading environment in which we will be obliged to mitigate against the worst impacts. A no-deal Brexit will be difficult for everybody. It will be particularly difficult for the UK but it will be difficult for us too and we should not pretend otherwise. This is why getting this deal across the line in January, to which 28 countries including the UK have signed up, is so important.
I, too, thank the Tánaiste for his presentation. It was useful to have the briefing note prior to the meeting. On migration, it has to be acknowledged that there is more migration within Africa than there is from Africa. There are countries within Africa which face very challenging situations and which are coping with migrants as well. The Tánaiste used the example of Jordan but there are many others.
On Libya, how confident is the Tánaiste of a Libyan-found solution when there are some many factions there? Are the detention centres still open because they are a source of funding for certain groups within the Libyan framework? The Tánaiste will be aware that a number of Deputies visited Syria a couple of months ago. It was a private visit, which opened our eyes to the reality of what is happening. I would say there were atrocities on all sides within the Syrian conflict. There is no good side or bad side but the reality is that the majority of people still living there are trying to rebuild their lives. We saw many examples of that resilience. It is time that we considered engaging in Syria with the people who are living there and are trying to rebuild their country after the conflict.
On Yemen, it is good that the negotiations have started after a long lead-in. The point was made in the briefing note that there cannot be a military solution. Where is the condemnation of the arms trade? EU member countries such as the UK and France are fuelling that conflict, yet there is to be no military solution. As long as the arms continue to be provided, that is what will happen.
We had an interesting meeting yesterday with an Iranian delegation and the message that came across for me is the way in which the sanctions are affecting them. The US is pulling the strings, as it has been doing in Cuba for many years. It is sanctioning companies and banks because they are trading with countries it does not like. I will leave Brexit to other members, or I might come back in on it later.
I acknowledge that countries need aid, that we are very generous and that we do it right but giving more aid is the short-term answer. We are not looking to the long-term answer, which is the policy coherence, in respect of which we await the White Paper. In regard to the €110 million in additional funding, has the Tánaiste earmarked where it is going?
I will respond to the Deputy's questions in reverse order. On the issue of aid, I refer to the new paper. I am slow to call it "aid" because it is really about development and partnership. I speak a lot about the relationship between the EU and Africa, which in my view, in terms of political infrastructure, is totally inadequate. We need a partnership between Africa and Europe in the future which is based more on co-operation and equal input than on funding and aid. A lot of aid is linked to contracts and is tied. I am glad to state that Ireland is not part of that approach. The new aid strategy will attempt to link development and capacity building whereby the private sector can complement and add significantly to the platforms we are trying to create through aid programmes around stability and local capacity building. Hopefully, I have shown a record in this area in terms of the Africa agrifood support programme, which I put in place during my tenure in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is the type of activity in which we need to do more. I hope the Deputy will see in the aid strategy, when published mid-January, a new approach that she will welcome.
On Yemen, I have agreed to a motion in the Seanad on Yemen, which will be debated next Tuesday. It involves a condemnation of arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the context of the war in Yemen, although we are all hopeful that the talks process can ensure that the ceasefire is lasting. It is important that we are realistic. It is virtually impossible to get a united EU position on arms trade. We do have arms trade treaties by which member states are bound. It is the responsibility of countries exporting arms to know where they are going and for what they are being used. A number of EU countries that historically have exported arms, for example, Sweden and Austria, are no longer selling arms to countries that are actively at war, including Saudi Arabia.
Ireland has been quite vocal in respect of this matter and has supported a motion that is balanced but also direct. I suspect that motion will be agreed, virtually unanimously, in the Seanad on Tuesday next.
I have a note on Syria which I must read. A new reality is emerging. So far, few refugees have returned due to fear of savage repression. These are the fears which prompted the start of the conflict in 2011. We will continue to have to provide significant humanitarian aid, not only to Syrians who are refugees in their own country but also to those who are refugees outside their country. There is a real fear of reprisals and the settling of scores. While some refugees will be welcomed home, others will not, depending on what side they were on in the civil war. We must not be naive about what is possible in Syria in the context of timeframes and so on. We must be aware of the need to facilitate the safe return of Syrian refugees to their home country, not only because of the difficult burden refugees place on neighbouring countries but also because people have the right to return. We are some way off seeing the opportunity of safe return for many refugees, particularly in light of the approach of the Assad regime. Oversight will be essential when that return happens. There will also have to be a global effort to rebuild the country. The same is true of Yemen. Yemen and Syria are countries which will require many billions of euro and dollars to rebuild. Societies will need to be rebuilt as well as physical structures.
Political fragmentation and the fragile security situation in Libya allow for only a limited capacity on the part of the international community to end abuses there. No one should pretend some of the camps from which pretty horrible imagery has emerged have gone away. While significant efforts have been made to build capacity among systems in Libya to protect people, we are clearly not where we need to be. There is a need to build consensus among groups and factions in Libya in order to provide a platform and foundation for free and fair elections. The UN process is the one we need to follow. Part of the problem in Libya is that different organisations were trying to do different things for a while, but they have now all coalesced behind UN efforts which is necessary and positive. However, I would not want to be overly positive about where we are. Libya is still a haven for human trafficking and a very sophisticated and well-funded level of illegal activity. Families are sent from Libya in boats that have no capacity to get very far at sea and so on. The EU has funded some successful efforts to repatriate people to home or source countries from Libya and we will see a great deal more of that in future. It has been successful and reduced numbers significantly. However, there is still a great deal of work to do. It is very hard to get certainty around co-operation with a state when one does not have a sound structure with which to negotiate politically.
I take the point about migration and am glad to say the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, has signed on behalf of Ireland the UN’s global compact on migration, which is a voluntary commitment. Unfortunately, many EU countries decided not to do so but a majority did. It reflects how deeply divisive the global political debate on migration continues to be. We see those tensions in the Mediterranean now. That NGO boats are no longer allowed to operate in the Mediterranean is a reflection of some of the challenges the EU faces and even of the challenges faced by the likes of Operation Sophia. It is sobering and a matter in respect of which Ireland will continue to try to have an input.
I thank the Tánaiste. He is welcome, as are the members of his team. I have raised most of my questions with the Tánaiste previously. Can he provide an update on the Middle East peace process? He mentioned previously that he was anxious to convene a summit or meeting in Dublin in the new year. Can he provide his view on two areas, one of which Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan touched on? The first is Iran and the climate of human rights there. It was news to us yesterday that the death penalty has been legislated out of practice there. That includes the stoning of people to death. As late as this morning, we met a group involved in the advocacy of human rights and democracy in Bahrain. They painted a pretty grim picture for us about political prisoners. There appears to be a complete lack of open, transparent democracy and freedom of speech. People are tried, locked up and sentenced to death for speaking out even on Twitter. We were told that there are approximately 40 people under sentence of death.
Can the Tánaiste provide an update on the chilling effect of the situation in Hungary and the rise of Viktor Orbán? I have raised this matter with him before. What is the impact of that on open democracy, the media and the judiciary there? Some of us had the benefit of a briefing last week from our ambassador to the UN, H.E. Geraldine Byrne Nason, on the campaign for a Security Council seat at the United Nations. Can the Tánaiste comment? I ask for a comment on the undocumented Irish in the USA. We are up to speed on the campaign on the E3 visas, but there is a lingering concern about how, ultimately, we can address the cohort of Irish who are undocumented within the United States of America.
We are eating, sleeping and drinking Brexit every day of the week. Can the Tánaiste provide a little more detail on the work under way on preparedness and the recruitment campaign Revenue is conducting for customs staff in particular? Different numbers are being quoted on how many people are actually being sought through the current recruitment campaign.
Will the Minister give us some indication as to where the critical mass of these people will be? Will they be dotted along the Border, will they be in our ports or will they be everywhere? We have not been saying a whole lot publicly about the detail of the contingency planning, but will the Minister give us any insight into it?
There are many questions but they are all valid. On the Middle East peace process, which we have spoken a lot about and which I have spoken with Deputy Crowe about, I refer to the positive contributions that Ireland is making. Last week in the UN, Ambassador Byrne Nason did what can only be described as a phenomenal job in ensuring that Ireland was not only relevant but actually pivotal in getting a resolution agreed at the UN General Assembly which got the support of 156 countries. Only six countries opposed the resolution and a small number abstained, and it was an Irish resolution on the Middle East, insisting on a two-state solution and referring to previous UN resolutions which recognised the unacceptability of settlement expansion and the need for a fair and lasting peace process. We remain very active on the Middle East peace process at international fora, and my record at EU Foreign Affairs Council meetings and at the UN is pretty strong on that.
As I said before, we plan to have a meeting in Dublin early next year. It is not possible to do it in January so we are hoping to be able to do it in February. It is purely a scheduling reason because we need to get key countries here, we need to get certainty from the most important of those countries that they will attend on certain dates and as the Deputy would expect, these are busy people. I am hopeful we will be able to get an agreed date in February and we will have a number of key EU and Arab countries here to have discussions privately in a retreat-style structure, which is what we want and what we think will work well. We have consulted widely on that to try to get some new thinking into the Middle East peace process which will obviously involve the Palestinian Authority.
On Iran, the human rights situation there is a matter for concern as Iranians do not enjoy freedom of religion and belief, expression or assembly, and there are particular concerns about the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities, political activists, journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders. The situation of women is also an issue of real concern. While we have taken on and support the EU perspective on the nuclear agreement because, in our view, it is important to prevent the development of nuclear weapons, that does not mean that we are not critical and, we hope, consistent on the human rights record in Iran.
On Bahrain, I remain very concerned about the human rights situation there. The Bahraini Government has repeatedly stated its commitment to improving its human rights record, and human rights are enshrined in the Bahraini Constitution. Fulfilling this commitment must include allowing space for Bahrainis to express disagreement with or criticism of the government without fear of arrest or mistreatment. I am often confronted with these issues in different parts of the world where politicians ask me with seriousness and respect how we fund NGOs that are critical of our own Government, how we justify doing that and sometimes how we fund NGOs that are critical of other governments that are supposed to be allies that we trade with and work with. The truth is that in any functioning and normal democracy, constructive and transparent criticism through active, mobilised civil society is a good thing, not a bad thing, and governments should not see it as a threat unless, of course, that activism crosses lines into violence and instability. Ireland has been and continues to be consistent on that, whether it is in the Middle East or the Far East.
On Hungary, we have concerns over the civic space available for NGOs to continue to operate there. In some ways it is pretty shocking to have to say that about an EU member state, but it is the truth and these concerns have been exacerbated by the passage of legislation by the Hungarian Parliament aimed at individuals and organisations providing lawful assistance to migrants and asylum seekers. We also have concerns about the position of the Central European University and the difficulties it has been having. It is not a good development, but having said that, my party shares a place in the European People's Party with the governing party in Hungary, and debates around these issues do take place in that forum, as they should because there is a real concern about some of the politics and the direction of policy of the Hungarian Government.
On our UN Security Council, SECCO, campaign, we are in reasonably good shape. Ambassador Byrne Nason and her team in New York are very active. We have focused not only on strengthening relations with traditional friends, particularly across Africa where Ireland has had a very active development programme for many years, but also on building new alliances and friendships across island states in the Caribbean, which are now discussing with us how to build resilience in terms of climate adaptation. We will hold a small island states conference in Ireland next summer, specifically focusing on how to build a blue economy sustainably and how to respond in the context of climate resilience where islands are literally facing hurricanes of increasing strength year after year and rising sea levels in some cases, especially in the Pacific. Very interesting and new discussions and partnerships are starting to take place there and Irish technology and know-how can be very helpful in some of these islands.
We also have very good relationships across the Middle East in terms of our interest and, it is hoped, our balanced input in the Middle East peace process, insisting that a two-state solution must be kept alive, even though many people write it off already, that any peace process has to happen on the basis of parity of esteem between both sides, and that the obligations an occupying force has in occupied territory under international law are followed. Sometimes I am accused of being partisan and anti-Israeli. I am neither but I call things as I see them, as the Government does in terms of international law in agreements at UN level and our hopes and demands around a fair and equitable peace process that can work for both sides and that understands that Israel has genuine security concerns while also understanding that Palestinians need to be treated fairly in their hopes and dreams for a country of their own.
Our SECCO campaign will be very competitive because, unfortunately, we are competing with two other countries that are also very active on the global stage. Two tougher competitors than Norway and Canada could not have been picked and only two get chosen from the three. This vote will take place in about 18 months but we are working hard, we are well placed and we have shown before that we can win a place on the UN Security Council, even when there is stiff competition.
On the E3 visas and the undocumented, I hope that there might be a breakthrough in the next 24 hours. However, we must be careful not to issue firm predictions because we can never be certain what will happen in the US Senate. The Government and Deputy John Deasy in particular have worked very hard on this issue. Our embassy and team in Washington have done a great job in this regard, and I hope that will be recognised if and when we get this across the line with the support of friends of Ireland in the US Congress and Senate who want to progress a structured and sensible facilitation of Irish people who want to get a visa to live and work in the United States. Australia is the only country to receive E3 visas. It receives an allocation of 10,500 visas a year for predominantly young Australians to go to work legally in the US. That special facilitation was granted after Australia militarily assisted the US. In recent years, only approximately half of those visas are used, meaning there is an unused surplus. Of course, we have reassured Australia that we are not seeking to take its visas but only wish to be facilitated with those visas which it does not use and which could be applied to Irish people who wish to travel to the US. To reassure Australia that this will not in any way undermine its scheme, it is proposed that the surplus would be allocated to Ireland in the following year. Australians will not be losing out in any way. Any unused surplus in 2018 would be allocated to Ireland in 2019 and so on. That is my understanding of the current proposal which aims to reassure Australia that Ireland is not trying in any way to undermine its allocation.
We have a significant amount of support on the issue from people such as Congressman Richard Neale, who was a sponsor of the legislation in the US House of Representatives. Some US Senators who have been very helpful are seeking to facilitate this measure which might be approved by the US Senate in the next 24 hours. It must be unanimously approved by the US Senate. A single Senator could prevent it moving ahead. We have worked hard to address the concerns of a small number of Senators and I hope we are nearly there. It is very much about putting a visa system in place for new generations of Irish people, which is very important. For many decades, young Irish people have travelled to the US for work or adventure through various mechanisms to be part of the new America. I consider it very important that new generations of Irish people also have that opportunity, which is why the E3 visa proposal and legislation is of such importance. In return for the E3 visa facilitation, we have offered to facilitate US nationals who want to come to Ireland. No Irish people would find the commitments we have made in that regard objectionable.
On the undocumented, the Government has not lost sight of the pursuit of relief for undocumented Irish citizens in the US. The Government, including my Department, works with our envoy to the US Congress on the undocumented, Deputy John Deasy, and will continue to pursue the goal of trying to provide certainty, relief and safety for the many undocumented who work and live in the US. Many of them are part of Irish immigration centres which we support and fund to help look after them. We initially hoped to get legislation that would also provide a pathway to citizenship for many of the undocumented. The E3 visa is a slightly different vehicle. We will look for opportunities to focus on the challenges that undocumented Irish in the US continue to experience. I am well aware of their current concerns and vulnerabilities.
On Brexit, there is some confusion on the numbers. We began our contingency preparations on the basis of what I have described as the central case scenario. When one is preparing for something, one should start with the most likely outcome. In the case of Brexit, that is that there will be a deal, a withdrawal agreement, a transition and then some type of free trade agreement or similar which it is hoped would involve only limited border checks. In July, the Government agreed to take on an extra 1,077 inspectors and staff in our ports and airports, primarily Dublin and Rosslare ports and Dublin Airport, which are where the vast majority of commercial goods traffic enters the Irish economy. In fact, half of the product going to Northern Ireland from Britain comes through Dublin. The central case scenario would involve approximately 200 customs officials being taken on by the middle of next year. In a no-deal scenario we would need to take on all of the approximately 1,000 staff who would be required in our ports and airports far more quickly. That would involve the recruitment of approximately 600 customs officials, with the other 400 recruits being sanitary or phytosanitary inspectors at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and food health inspectors at the Department of Health. There are recruitment campaigns under way or in preparation in those Departments for those inspectors. The Revenue Commissioners has moved ahead with its recruitment process for customs officers and is in the process of initially recruiting 200 officers. However, a panel of 3,000 people applied for those customs jobs and that panel will allow us to increase quickly the number of customs officials we take on if that becomes necessary in a no-deal scenario. We will provide far more detail around those numbers when we publish a paper to provide an update on our contingency planning for a central case or no-deal scenario. We do not yet have all of the answers because many of the issues are being discussed at EU level and form part of EU competence. However, the EU has published approximately 70 papers on no-deal Brexit planning, so a substantial amount of work has been carried out in that regard. That work must continue and intensify to ensure that we are where we need to be by 29 March to try to mitigate what would undoubtedly be the many downsides of a potential no-deal Brexit.
The Minister is correct that we need to be seen as critical, fair and consistent. People would be somewhat surprised, however, by some of the statements issued following meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council. The Minister mentioned that the elections in Venezuela were neither free nor fair, but there was no mention of certain other elections, such as those in Bahrain on 24 November. As the Minister stated, there are significant question marks in regard to Bahrain as no opposition candidate was allowed to stand in the election and people have been jailed for tweeting their opposition to a motor race, never mind tweeting opposition to the regime. That is the type of country with which we are dealing.
On the reference to the destabilising influence of Iran, those living in Iran, Iraq or even parts of Syria would probably say it has been a stabilising influence in the sense that it has helped to stand up to ISIS in that part of the world.
That is again debatable but Iran has played a positive role in some cases in that part of the world.
The Minister spoke of the blocking statute devised some years ago to counter United States sanctions on Cuba. The statute was never operated. Will he expand on how that would work? Some of us were active with the Cuban support group in working against sanctions and so on. There are difficulties with bank transfers and basic activities like that. How would this roll out and what impact would it have on groups in Ireland?
While previous speakers also raised this matter, I will return to the UN migration compact. Like me, I suppose the Minister has received emails and letters about the UN global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration that was signed this week in Marrakesh. I do not know about other members but I am somewhat astonished by some of the lies and misinformation being spread about this non-binding compact. Some of the stuff on social media is appalling, as there is talk of a flood or influx of migrants into Europe. It all comes from a handful of right-wing organisations or countries. I welcome that migration has been recognised as a global phenomenon and that it needs a global framework to deal with some of the challenges it can create. The compact recognises the major positive effect that migrants can bring to countries. Does Ireland's signing up to this compact mean tens of thousands will come to Ireland? This needs to be explained to people. It is also important that these lies and the hysteria arising from fear about the compact are dealt with. It is important that those of us who understand what is going on, particularly Government spokespersons, counteract and explain the reality and positivity of the compact. That perspective would be shared by most parties represented here. Again, people can get carried away by a handful of letters or a couple of phone calls and some are scared as a result.
I will focus on Brexit, an issue that has hardly been touched. Nobody could deny this week has been a bit of a shambles in Westminster. We now know British Prime Minister May remains in place for now but nobody knows what will happen next. The Minister clearly explained the importance of the backstop. I ask him to state again, in no uncertain terms, that the backstop is non-negotiable. There have been positive statements relating to Brexit coming from our EU partner countries, for example, people have explained the importance of having no hard border and no diminution of people's rights. Will the Minister focus on that?
Some of us travelled to meet groups in Belfast and Derry two weeks ago. The main concern was about a diminution of rights. People are concerned about what is coming down the tracks. We met people from an educational background who are concerned about access to the Erasmus programme, the EU health insurance card and student fee rate, along with other elements. Statements on this from our EU partners are welcome but is there now a need to put some flesh on those statements? What is the Minister's sense of what is coming down the track? Yesterday, we met people from the north-west partnership in Derry who spoke about the working structures. They mentioned the A5 route and how it would open economic development in the region. People from Manufacturing Ireland spoke about the difficulty in the central area of Monaghan and Fermanagh. I am talking about putting flesh on these issues. One of the simplest proposals is the development of a port in Donegal. The money required would be small but it would have a major impact on the region. How can these forward-looking proposals be actioned? Will we issue demands to EU colleagues in this regard in order that we can build on peace and statements about having no hard borders? Part of this relates to developing the economy and trade in those regions.
The most important element relates to the rights of people, and it is what people keep coming back for. It is about access to the European Court of Human Rights for citizens living in the North. The original statement referred to those "residing" in the North but there is no mention of that now. How do we reinforce those rights? I am not just talking about the Good Friday Agreement but rather the potential in the agreement. That is where we must "talk up" the Irish peace process; it is not just about what we achieved in the past but what we can achieve in future. I am interested in the Minister's thoughts on that.
I could get into discussions on a hard Brexit and the issue has been mentioned in the Chamber. If there is a hard border, we could speak about holding a Border poll because unity by consent is part of the Good Friday Agreement. The Government has a different view in that regard. We must also speak in terms of the possibility of a hard Brexit and the implications it would have. The Minister will say there is a possibility that the agreement will be ratified by the British Parliament but the numbers currently do not stack up. We are hopeful that it can happen. I am concerned by what we can do in the Border region to support and build on the peace process.
Many questions were asked. I have concerns about Bahrain, as I outlined earlier. The truth is there are many things happening in many parts of the world and we cannot focus on all of them at the same time. I gave members a sense of some of the priority areas, countries and challenges we have been trying to deal with at the Foreign Affairs Council at EU level.
On the matter of Iran and the nuclear deal, as I and other EU figures have said many times, we were very disappointed by the decision of the United States to withdraw from that deal. My EU colleagues and I discussed Iran and the joint comprehensive plan of action at the Council meeting in November and again earlier this week. We reiterated our united and continued support for the full implementation of the agreement, including the creation of a special purpose vehicle that can effectively allow for investment and money flows back and forth in the context of the United States sanctions being implemented, which is not easy.
It is not easy because the US financial system is the core of much of global commerce.
I am glad the Deputy raised the global compact because there is a great deal of scaremongering taking place in that regard. I have had people approach me in the street to raise it, which is unusual in Ireland where we have generally avoided what I regard as the politics of migration. That is partly because of where we are geographically but also because we do not tend to have a hard left and a hard right in Irish politics on a large scale from a policy perspective. Ireland supports the global compact for migration which was adopted at the UN conference in Morocco in the last few days and we look forward to joining other signatories to ensure migration is safer, more orderly and better managed. It is regrettable that some countries have indicated that they will not join the compact but we hope they will reconsider in time. The lessons we learned in the European Union during the 2015 migration crisis should remind us of the need to address migration in a co-operative and comprehensive manner. The global compact is non-binding and in no way infringes on states' sovereignty. Suggestions that it might lead to a surge in migration are absolutely unfounded. Migration is a global challenge whether we like it or not and we need collective solutions based on multilateral agreements and structures, primarily through the UN and EU.
Yes, but I wish to make a point on the global compact before we move on to Brexit. I spoke to Deputy Crowe briefly as we walked over to the House for the vote. Many people seem to have the wrong impression about the global compact. It is somehow seen as countries wanting an open door policy on migration. It is nothing of the sort. This is about trying to balance rights and responsibilities to make sure that countries respond in a way that is consistent with international humanitarian law. It provides for a recognition of the reality of the extent of migration in various parts of the world and the need to respond collectively in a consistent way which allows countries to manage their own borders appropriately but which at the same time ensures that we can respond to the humanitarian challenge of significant levels of migration which are not going to reduce any time soon. We are talking about millions of people on the move within the continent of Africa at any given time. Unfortunately, significant numbers of people continue to flee conflict and oppression. There are also, unfortunately, millions of people in refugee camps.
Migration is a reality to which the international community needs to respond with much more consistency than has been the case to date. Some countries take hardline positions in this regard and shut their borders and others then have to accept a totally disproportionate burden in terms of the humanitarian challenges relating to mass migration. That is not sustainable and it is what the global compact is essentially trying to respond to. I am pleased to say that the majority of UN member states support the compact. There is a lot of work to do because some very influential and wealthy countries have decided not to support it.
On Brexit, it is fair to say that the backstop is now part of a negotiated agreement that will not change. The British Prime Minister gave a very strong defence of the backstop on Monday when she spoke in the House of Commons in very difficult political circumstances. She recognised that the House of Commons needed reassurance and clarification on the backstop from the EU and I hope we will be able to give her that. She also recognised the need for the backstop in the context of providing certainty and reassurance to people on the island of Ireland that they are not going to face border infrastructure as an unintended consequence of Brexit.
I referred earlier to why the backstop is so important. The presence of the backstop in any withdrawal agreement is not negotiable. Reading some of the reports in the British media today, there seems to be confirmation that even if there was another future relationship agreement in place, which is unlikely to happen, a backstop would still be required in the context of a withdrawal agreement, which creates the space through transition for the future relationship to be negotiated and finalised.
All of the focus on the backstop has in many ways camouflaged or hidden many of the other very positive elements in the withdrawal agreement, which are following through on the very strong language of this time last year in the political declaration by the UK to no diminution of rights for citizens in Northern Ireland. Essentially, that is something on which we will have to get further detail in the context of any future relationship agreement. As a result of the fact that people in Northern Ireland have a right to Irish citizenship, they will also have a right to EU citizenship. Therefore, they will, like other citizens of the EU, be able to move around, study and work across the Union. There is a difference between EU citizenship and EU residency rights and entitlements and it is important to signal that distinction. It is the intention of the British Government to try to ensure that the Erasmus programmes that are in place would be made available to all British citizens in the future through an agreement with the EU. European health insurance is also something on which there will be positive negotiation in the future to ensure that citizens in Northern Ireland and British citizens generally can benefit from the scheme. The UK would have to contribute towards it because there is a cost attached.
Investment in the north west generally or in the Border counties is a separate issue to Brexit. However, the two are linked.
If we look at the 20-year plan for Ireland, Project Ireland 2040, there is a big emphasis on the north west and on the Border counties in terms of investment in road infrastructure but also in North-South connectivity. For example, doing a full value-for-money assessment on high-speed rail networks between Belfast and Dublin is part of that 2040 plan.
The Deputy makes the case for the need to demand certain things of our EU colleagues to ensure that we reinforce and protect the peace process and so on but all I can say is that to date, our EU colleagues have been nothing short of extraordinarily supportive in this Brexit process in respect of the solidarity that Ireland has got. Many people predicted that as these negotiations intensified, Ireland would be cast aside. I am not suggesting that the Deputy was saying otherwise.
If we look at what our EU colleagues have done, in the withdrawal agreement we are now talking about protecting peace funding, protecting the common travel area, which essentially gives Ireland special treatment, protecting the peace process in full, no diminution of rights and guarantees against future Border infrastructure. All these matters require facilitation from other EU countries of a withdrawal agreement that is about protecting interests on the island of Ireland and a peace process. The focus on Ireland and the attention to detail there sums up for me why we are in the European Union because small countries matter and when they are threatened or vulnerable, bigger countries and not so big countries in the Union are supportive and show solidarity. Today it is Ireland but next year it could be Estonia, Latvia, Cyprus or Malta.
There are benefits to being in a union and we are seeing an understanding and a solidarity that is important, not in a way that is anti-British or against the UK but in a way that is looking for a fair outcome. That conversation will continue from the withdrawal agreement, if we can get it agreed and ratified, into the future relationship negotiation that in my view will continue for the next two to four years, which is why there will be a need to extend the transition period should it be triggered and if the withdrawal agreement facilitates that anyway. I do not see how we can get everything done in 21 months but that will be a decision for the UK and we have some big hurdles to overcome before those choices have to be made. Between now and 21 January, the British Prime Minister has to find a way of getting this deal ratified and we need to do everything we can to help her, within reason.
I thank the Tánaiste for his detailed presentation at the outset of the meeting and for his response to the questions raised by members. I was glad to hear the Tánaiste say that under no circumstances could we countenance the reintroduction or re-emergence of Border infrastructure. I live in a community that has been transformed through the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. I said at this committee before that it was only when the Brexit referendum happened that we took stock of the progress that has been made on this island and under no circumstances can we go back. I used the phrase previously that the referendum decision knocked the stuffing out of Border communities because those of us who grew up in parishes that were divided along the Border and who have had the privilege of representing two counties with a long land border with Northern Ireland have seen the benefits of the Good Friday Agreement and as the Tánaiste inferred earlier, there has been a huge growth in North-South trade and the development of the all-Ireland economy through the mechanisms that were put in place and through the political environment that we have had as a result of the Good Friday Agreement.
As the Tánaiste knows well, the food industry and many other sectors of our economy have grown on an all-Ireland basis and those enterprises and commerce grew without people waving flags or talking about political ideology. The political framework and understanding was there on how to go about creating business and working together. We have businesses that were established here by people who are from a different political tradition than I come from and similarly, people from the South are establishing businesses in Northern Ireland as well and that has been really beneficial. It is only since June 2016 that we have realised the progress that has been made. It is thankfully a transformed society, even though we fully realise that we have progress to make in other respects.
I recently attended the launch of a publication by Donnacha Ó Beacháin of Dublin City University, DCU, entitled From Partition to Brexit. It was very heartening to listen to the President of DCU, Professor MacCraith, speak at that launch about the students in DCU. The overwhelming majority of those students and the students at every third level college in the country thankfully did not live through the Troubles. They are a new generation that did not experience that troubled era on our island and we surely want to make sure that every protection is made so that we do not go back in any respect, be it political, economic or social.
I know the Government is putting in a huge effort, supported by all political parties here, in bringing representatives and the Tánaiste's counterparts in other governments to the Border area, as we did with parliamentary groups. It gave a good understanding to people in other member states of the European Union that we do not have a border, that the communities are living side by side and that under no circumstances could we countenance a return to the era where we had impediments to the free movement of people, goods and services.
Together with Deputy Crowe and the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I was in Belfast and Derry recently to meet different groups about the need for investment of which we all are aware. The Tánaiste referred to the 2040 national plan and he mentioned the development plans for the north west and for the east coast. We all welcome those but there is a central Border area that needs particular attention and it does not get the attention in Project Ireland 2040 that I would like to see it receive. It is an area to which I would like to see some attention given, although I am realistic enough to know there are always competing demands.
The British have spoken about a prosperity fund post 2020 for Northern Ireland, which is a bit of a misnomer if ever there was one. Alongside the peace programme and the INTERREG programme, perhaps we should have developed a particular fund to be administered through the Irish Central Border Area Network, ICBAN, which covers Cavan, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Tyrone and similarly in Derry and Donegal in the north west, as well as in the east Border region. We should explore the possibility post 2020 of the British, the European Union and our Government contributing to a specific fund. I would like it to be given some consideration in that respect because our area, regardless of what Brexit there is, will unfortunately be adversely affected. Those are just some ideas for consideration.
I will take that on board and members should know they can call me on these issues any time. We are constantly looking for ways to build bridges between North and South and building strong and resilient economic development along that mid-Border region should be a big part of that because that was obviously a big focal point for the Troubles in the past.