Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 1 February 2024
Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Estimates for Public Services 2024
Vote 27 - International Co-operation
Vote 28 - Foreign Affairs
On behalf of the select committee, I again welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence and officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and thank officials for the comprehensive briefing material provided to the committee and for the level of engagement with the committee, which is on a most satisfactory level. I thank the Tánaiste for ensuring that.
The proposed format of this section of the meeting is that the committee will deal with Vote 27 and then Vote 28. At the outset of the consideration of the Estimates, I invite the Tánaiste to give an overview of Votes 27 and 28, outlining any pressures likely to impact on his Department's performance or expenditure under the Votes for the remainder of this year. The floor will then be open for questions from members of the committee for each Vote separately. When we have completed consideration of Vote 27, we will proceed to consider Vote 28.
I remind Members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make them in any way identifiable.
I call the Tánaiste to make his opening statement.
I welcome the opportunity to present the 2024 Revised Estimates for the Department of Foreign Affairs group of Votes, namely Vote 27 – International Co-operation and Vote 28 – Foreign Affairs. Members will have received the advance briefing notes provided by my Department on the two Votes, summarising the main activities and priorities under each expenditure programme. In these opening comments, I will focus on the key changes and developments in 2024 and will be happy to take questions afterwards. For 2024, the overall gross estimate for the Department of Foreign Affairs group of Votes is €1.113 billion, including a capital allocation of €25 million. This represents an increase of €56 million on the initial 2023 allocation of €1.057 billion.
With the committee's agreement, I will start with Vote 27. Ireland’s official development assistance, ODA, is an integral part of our foreign policy. Our ODA funding, combined with our global presence and influence on the world stage, allows Ireland to contribute to reducing poverty, alleviating suffering and improving the lives of some of the world’s poorest communities. In 2024, the total ODA delivered across the Government will exceed €1.9 billion, or 0.48% of the gross national income. This figure includes the estimated eligible first-year costs for Ukrainian refugees in Ireland. As members will be aware, the first year of host country refugee costs count as ODA, as determined by the OECD. The very significant funding across the Government to cater for the large number of refugees who have sought protection in Ireland continues to have an exceptional impact on ODA levels, giving rise to unpredictable fluctuations. Excluding Ukraine first-year refugee costs, Irish ODA will be approximately €1.48 billion in 2024, the highest level ever and the tenth consecutive year in which the overall allocation to ODA has increased. This is estimated at 0.36% of the gross national income.
In 2024, slightly more than 38% of total ODA is allocated to the Department of Foreign Affairs, to be managed through Vote 27, or 54% if Ukraine first-year refugee costs are excluded. The remainder is managed by other Departments and includes Ireland’s share of the EU development co-operation budget. The gross allocation to Vote 27 for 2024 is €775.3 million, representing a significant increase of almost €60 million or 8.2%, on 2023 figures. In 2024, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Irish Aid programme and this is the highest ever allocation to Vote 27.
International development is not simply the right thing to do, but is a clear and practical protection of our interests. Through our international development co-operation programme, Ireland supports developing countries across the world to make real and sustainable changes for the better in the lives of their most vulnerable citizens. Our development co-operation programme provides Ireland with a significant international presence and footprint, including in fragile countries, small island developing states and conflict-affected contexts. Our ODA is also a key contributor to our ability to influence on the issues that matter most to us at the EU, the UN, the OECD and beyond. Ireland has built a distinguished track-record of responding to global development challenges and delivering a high quality, untied and coherent approach to development co-operation. A Better World, Ireland’s whole-of-government policy for international development, sets out the breadth and scope of Ireland’s international development co-operation. A Better World is a whole-of-government policy and affirms Ireland’s commitment to realising the central pledge of the sustainable development goals, SDGs, to reach the furthest behind first.
In 2023, we had a fourth successive year of major global disruption and greater challenges for our humanitarian and development work. Overlapping crises include Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the knock on impact this has had on other countries; climate and conflict-driven crises in the Horn of Africa; increased political instability across a number of regions; and the on-going crisis in the Middle East. Combined with a potential global economic slowdown, the number of people who are food insecure and living in extreme poverty continues to rise. The UN estimates that more than 345 million people are living in acute food insecurity today. Meanwhile the longer-term adverse effects of climate change continue to intensify and global inequality continues to rise. In the face of these overlapping crises, Ireland will continue to play our part in responding to the urgent needs of those most affected in 2024, while prioritising resilience-building in the medium to long-term. We will continue to invest in food security and nutrition programming and to prioritise global public health initiatives and education for girls.
The vision outlined in A Better World of an equal, peaceful and sustainable global community is in Ireland’s fundamental interest. As a small country with an open economy in an ever more interconnected and uncertain world, our prosperity and safety is intertwined with global events and the fate of the global community. Of the almost €60 million in additional financial resources allocated to Vote 27, €30 million is specified for international climate finance. Together with €11.5 million in additional funding allocated to the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, this represents a significant step towards meeting the commitment I made as Taoiseach at COP26 in Glasgow to provide annual climate finance of at least €225 million per year by 2025. This will help to address the worsening impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on the world’s most vulnerable communities living in the least developed countries and small island developing states, supporting climate initiatives in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean and Pacific regions. These include diverse projects on agroforestry and climate smart agriculture practices; energy solutions for poor households; the generation of clean renewable energy from waste products; women’s participation in the green economy; and access to green finance. An additional €5 million will be allocated to support sudden onset climate emergencies. The balance of almost €30 million will be allocated to respond to escalating humanitarian crises, prolonged acute food and nutrition insecurity and the impact of the war in Ukraine. Support will be provided to those countries worldwide that are experiencing the destructive global knock-on effects of the conflict and other shocks.
In 2024, the Department will also seek to bring a more strategic focus to work across fragility, conflict resolution, and women, peace and security, through a new cross-cutting peace and stability unit that was established last year, involving officials involved in Votes 27 and 28.
The unit will support initiatives related to conflict resolution and sustaining peace and will support strategic research and conferences, expanding and deepening Ireland’s knowledge base on peace and stability.
In 2024, we will continue to respond to the impact of the war in Ukraine, its regional impacts and wider global impacts of the conflict. We will provide at least €32 million in direct support to Ukraine and its neighbours. This includes some €22 million in support of the lifesaving work of humanitarian organisations on the ground in Ukraine, including to address urgent health needs. The remaining €10 million will be provided to the United Nations and international financial institutions for their work on peacebuilding, recovery and reconstruction in Ukraine and its neighbouring countries, and in support for ongoing reforms. Additional significant resources will also be provided in 2024 to address the wider global impacts of the war, including the deepening global food and nutrition security crisis.
We remain committed to continuing our support for Ukraine for as long as it takes. To date, Ireland has committed over €210 million in support for the Ukrainian people since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, comprising over €90 million in stabilisation and humanitarian support and approximately €122 million of non-lethal military assistance under the European Peace Facility. EPF funding is provided from Vote 28 but I mention it here to provide a complete picture.
Discussions have been under way for some time at European Union level to design more sustainable, predictable and structured funding for Ukraine, across all facets of EU support. Those deliberations reached a key juncture today, as the special European Council in Brussels found agreement on the European Commission’s proposal for a €50 billion Ukraine facility package. This will put European Union macrofinancial support for Ukraine on a more stable footing over the next four years. The council is also considering the future of EU security commitments for Ukraine. These are being considered in a comprehensive manner, taking into account the many ways that the European Union can increase Ukraine’s security, including through support for its European Union accession. One of the proposals under consideration is a Ukraine assistance fund, which will put the European Union’s European Peace Facility funding on a more predictable footing. Ireland will continue to ensure that our funding goes exclusively towards non-lethal military assistance, a position that is well understood by our European and Ukrainian partners. We will continue to keep the Oireachtas informed, including through the relevant select committees.
It is almost four months since 7 October, and the human catastrophe that has unfolded in Israel and Gaza has been devastating. Hamas’s abominable terrorist attacks, killing approximately 1,200 people and taking over 240 hostages were utterly reprehensible. Such inhumanity against civilians is impossible to comprehend. What is happening in Gaza is also completely unacceptable and must stop. Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has claimed more than 26,000 lives to date while more than 64,000 are injured, many suffering life-changing injuries. As members will have heard me say in the Dáil earlier this week, we want to see an immediate ceasefire, the immediate and unconditional release of hostages and a massive scale-up in humanitarian assistance through full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access.
As members will be aware, even before this conflict broke out, a large proportion of Palestinians already depended on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNWRA, for basic services. Ireland has been a long-standing supporter of UNRWA. Let me confirm again today that Ireland has no plans to suspend finding to UNRWA. I have full confidence in UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini, and was the first foreign minister to make that clear last Saturday. Similarly, I have full confidence in UNRWA’s commitment to uphold a policy of zero tolerance towards anyone involved in violence or terror. For this reason, I fully support the decision of the UNRWA Commissioner-General to immediately terminate the contracts of a small number of employees in Gaza suspected of involvement in the brutal terrorist attacks of 7 October. The allegations that have been made are extremely serious. If proven, the individuals concerned must be held to account. However, I am deeply concerned that many UNRWA donors have stopped funding UNRWA with immediate effect, based on allegations in respect of the actions of a very small number of staff members in an organisation that employs 30,000 people in total, with 13,000 in Gaza alone.
I underline the urgency of the agency being able to fulfil its mandate at a time of great humanitarian need, with UNRWA staff in Gaza providing lifesaving assistance at extraordinary personal risk, in incredibly difficult conditions. Gaza’s civilian population urgently needs food, water and medical supplies. The humanitarian system in Gaza is at breaking point and international agencies - including UNRWA, which is the only organisation with the capacity to deliver aid in sufficient quantities in Gaza - need to be supported to ensure that vital supplies and services are provided without further delay.
For 2024, we have programmed in excess of €16 million in support to the Palestinian people from Vote 27, building on total funding of €36 million provided to Palestine in 2023, including €18 million in core support to UNRWA. We will keep our funding under constant review as the situation develops in the coming weeks and months. Given the current circumstance, the proposed mix of interventions and partners has been devised to allow for flexibility for reallocations across our delivery mechanisms and implementing partners. In particular, we will continue to focus on interventions aimed at improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
To conclude on Vote 27, the world is dealing with interlocking humanitarian crises and conflicts, all in the context of the existential threat of climate change. Ireland will continue to respond, seeking to balance our ODA funding between immediate humanitarian response, long-term development and building resilience to climate change. We are committed to developing better integrated responses, in order to have a real impact on the most vulnerable communities, and we are strongly committed to continuing our leading role internationally - in the UN and the EU - to renew commitment to the sustainable development goals. Despite setbacks, including during the Covid pandemic, the international community has a duty to ensure that the progress made in recent decades is sustained on health, education, livelihoods and gender equality, as we approach the target date of 2030.
I will move on to Vote 28. For 2023, the total gross expenditure allocation for the Vote is €337.8 million. This is a small reduction of 0.8% on the initial 2023 allocation of €340.6 million. Vote 28 funding is distributed across two expenditure programmes: programme A, advancing Ireland’s foreign policy goals, and programme B, the passport service. This is a change from previous years, when we had five expenditure programmes. In late 2023, we agreed with the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform to move to a more streamlined structure. This addresses an issue identified by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General in a report last year, and also at the Committee of Public Accounts in June 2022. They noted that the passport service was not a stand-alone programme, and that the total cost could not, therefore, be readily established.
Programme A accounts for the bulk of the allocation to Vote 28, a sum of €285.1 million. While it is not possible to directly compare to 2023 figures, due to the change to the structure of the Vote, the broadly equivalent figure in 2023 was €292.5 million, entailing a reduction of 2% year on year. I will focus in my statement on new subheads and those that have seen significant changes from 2023 to 2024.
Programme A includes the bulk of the pay and non-pay administration costs in Vote 28, essentially all administration costs not related to the passport service. The allocation to administration pay has increased by some 4.2%, primarily to cover, at least in part, the increased costs arising from the recent pay deal. The allocation to administration non-pay increases by some 8.8%. The bulk of this increase is accounted for by an increased allocation for premises expenses.
We are currently managing an ambitious expansion of our global footprint to deliver on the Global Ireland commitment to double Ireland’s global impact and influence to 2025 and beyond. We have opened 19 new missions to date. In 2024, we will open a new embassy in Islamabad and new consulates general in Milan and Munich. In addition, work is advanced on construction projects in Tokyo and Abuja, and we continue to look at opportunities for acquisition of new properties where purchasing may provide better value for money than renting.
In 2023, four properties were purchased in Armagh, Bogotá, Rabat and Washington DC. Across our property portfolio we must also ensure the upkeep of properties by undertaking repairs and renovations as required. Also in this subhead we have increased the allocation for travel and subsistence to reflect increased travel post-Covid as well as increased flight costs globally. We have also increased allocation for posting supports to take account of steep increases in officers’ rent in many overseas locations.
In the light of the very positive developments we have seen in Northern Ireland this week I am very pleased the allocation for reconciliation and North-South co-operation has increased significantly in 2024 by €4.3 million or 77%. This includes funding of €1.7 million transferred from the shared island fund administered by the Department of the Taoiseach. Additional funding will be used to increase the budget for the reconciliation fund that supports organisations working to build better relations within and between traditions in Ireland between North and South and between Ireland and Britain. On average 120 projects are supported each year by the reconciliation fund, which includes 23 strategic partners that are in receipt of multi-annual funding. Additional funding will also go the shared island civic society fund launched last year to promote practical North-South co-operation and engagement by civic society and community organisations and a regional, national or sectoral cross-Border basis. Some civic society organisations are constituted on an all-island basis, such as the major sports governing bodies. Others have formed strong cross-Border partnerships or have members in both jurisdictions. However, in many areas cross-Border civic society interaction is limited or non-existent, notwithstanding common circumstances, concerns and interests.
I am also very pleased an additional sum of €1.5 million was secured in budget 2024 for support for the diaspora, bringing the total allocation this year to €16.495 million. In the context of rising costs globally, this will provide badly-needed additional resources for the Government’s emigrant support programme. The programme supports organisations involved in the provision of front-line welfare information and advisory services to vulnerable and marginalised persons. It will also help to support cultural and heritage projects that strengthen links between Irish communities overseas and at home as well as business networks that help business people and professionals to connect. Occasionally, capital grants are also provided to organisations, as was the case last year with €500,000 provided to Gaelic Park New York and €2.2 million provided to the London Irish Centre for its redevelopment projects.
The committee will note the allocation to A6, “Contributions to Multilateral Organisations”, has reduced by more than €25 million. This subhead funds Ireland’s mandatory contributions to those initial at his feet keeping operations and international tribunals as well as mandatory contributions to other multilateral organisations of which Ireland is a member and in recent years mandatory payments to the European peace facility. Allocations to this subhead have fluctuated significantly in recent years as has the level of expenditure each year. This is linked to the budget-setting procedures of the international organisations in question. For example, UN contributions run on the three-year payment cycle and are not evenly spread over the three-year cycle. Payments to the European peace facility, which is an EU instrument to finance actions in the field of security and defence, are even more unpredictable. Ireland’s total commitment under the EPF currently stands at approximately €271.8 million for the period up to 2027. This includes our commitments for Ukraine and for other assistance measures elsewhere in the world as well as for the common costs of CSDP missions and operations. As I mentioned earlier, EPF commitments for Ukraine are under discussion today at the European Council. Given the total quantum of our EPF commitment and the difficulty in profiling our payments, which are not spread evenly throughout the period up to 2027, as well as similar challenges in relation to the United Nations and other international organisations, the Department has been in discussion with the Department of public expenditure and all the other titles to assess the most appropriate method of funding Ireland’s mandatory contributions to multilateral organisations. We are looking in the Department at what is the best way to fund it. Should it be independent of the Department altogether? These are international commitments so they come under our heading so those discussions are ongoing. This review should be completed by the end of the first quarter of this year.
Subhead A8 is a new subhead established in 2024 with an allocation of €1 million. This will be used to fund projects that consolidate and advance core European Union values and an enlargement-related reforms across the Continent with a particular focus on EU candidate countries. The rationale for this new subhead is significant renewed momentum in European Union enlargement policy. Ireland is amongst the strongest supporters of EU enlargement and our record of capacity-building support ahead of the last major enlargement in 2002-2004 continues to be positively recalled by the member states that benefitted. The establishment of this budget line will allow us to increase our practical support for enlargement, bringing it into line with our strong political support for it. Furthermore, in a context where core EU values like democracy, human rights and the rule of law are under increasing pressure on parts of our Continent, including within the European Union itself, the establishment of this budget line is a demonstration of Ireland’s commitment to these values and to the institutions that uphold them. We have also allocated an additional sum of €500,000 to an initiative that seeks to increase the numbers of Irish personnel in the European Union and international institutions, bringing the total to €4 million. It is vital Ireland is represented across the European Union’s institutions to the largest extent possible and this initiative is designed to double the numbers seconded to the European Union over the next three to four years.
Programme B now deals exclusively with funding of the passport service, a key public service provided by the Department. It is appropriate to bring greater visibility of expenditure on this important service. The total allocation to programme B in 2024 is €52.6 million. This includes the cost of staff and all other administration costs including capital expenditure for investment in the future of the service. While figures are not directly comparable in this first year, the equivalent figure in 2023 was €48.1 million. I am pleased to say the passport service is successfully meeting high demand for passports with turnaround times at or well ahead of target and no backlogs. The majority of online adult renewal applications issue within two working days. In 2023 over 1 million applications were received and over 950,000 passports were issued. So far in 2024 the passport service has issued over 64,000 passports and the service’s customer service hub is responding to an average of 10,000 queries per week on phones and web chat to customer service hub is consistently answering 100% of calls and 95% of web chat queries, having handled over 615,000 queries in 2023.
Demand for foreign birth registration also remains high. Over 35,000 applications were received in 2023, which is an increase of 27% on the previous year. Thanks to additional resourcing the turnaround time for processing foreign birth registration applications has reduced by 75% from 2 and a half years in 2022 to 8 months currently. Over the past number of years the passport reform programme has overseen major improvements to the passport service. The standout achievement of the programme was introduction of the passport online service to our citizens. Over 90% of all applications from all over the world are now submitted through this online channel. Last year a number of enhancements of the passport online portal took place. These improvements included implanting a digital link with the General Register Office, the central repository for birth certificates and similar records. This is helping to improve citizen experience as well as helping reduce the amount of physical documentation required by the passport service.
The programme of passport service reform continues to focus on the future of service delivery by continuing to identify and implement projects to enhance the customer experience and provide for business continuity while maintaining the integrity of the Irish passport. We are also working on the replacement of the back office passport processing and anti-fraud systems that citizens do not see but which are essential to the effective and secure operation of the passport service. A core project of the reform programme is the redesign of the Irish passport book. Frequent passport redesigns with enhanced security features are recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The upcoming design is central to maintaining the integrity and reputation of the Irish passport. As part of the redesign process my Department ran a public consultation on aspects of Ireland’s diverse natural environment.
The consultation, which was available as Gaeilge and in English, received more than 15,000 responses and is now helping to inform the design considerations for the new passport book. The results are available on Ireland.ie and I encourage all with an interest in our passport to access and read the detailed report. Who made the cut? A large number of animals made the final cut. The wolfhound is number one. The feedback is interesting.
My Department is currently undertaking a procurement exercise to secure a manufacturer for the production of new passport books, passport cards and other related documents. Upon completion of a successful procurement exercise, the Department expects to be in a position to provide a provisional timeline for the release of the new passport.
I have given a brief overview of how we will spend additional resources that have been provided to us in 2024 and I focused on a select number of other priority areas as well. Of course, there are many other areas of work that I have not touched on.
I take it we can ask questions across both Votes. I have fewer questions in this instance.
I agree with the Tánaiste that the actions of a number of states to withdraw or suspend funding to UNRWA is indefensible. I welcome his stated position that the Government will not be party to any such action. My questions are twofold. When looking at states that have withdrawn funding from UNRWA - Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Finland, shame on them all – they would be considered among Ireland’s closest allies in many respects, and we have strong relationships bilaterally with each of those states. Has the Government been in contact with those states to ask them to reconsider that position?
Second, I note the Tánaiste’s commitment to Irish funding. Has consideration been given to increasing the Irish contribution to UNRWA? I certainly advocate that. It would be an important statement. I have been in the West Bank previously. I visited an UNRWA refugee camp. UNRWA is the last line of defence for many Palestinians and absolute devastation. I cannot imagine the bravery of the UNRWA workers who continue to operate in Gaza and what they are contending with. There are double standards at play in respect of states withdraw funding from UNRWA at this point. In my view, all states should be seeking to have the contributions made to UNRWA recouped by the Israeli state because without the actions of the Israeli state, there would be no need for UNRWA in the first place.
My questions are twofold. Have we contacted and are we engaged with those states that have withdrawn or suspended their contributions and will we increase our contribution as a symbolic gesture as much as a much-needed financial gesture?
I thank the Deputy for his comments and raising this important issue. To give background, in 2023, as a result of the conflict in Gaza, we provided €36 million in total assistance to Palestinian people, which is our highest figure ever. This includes our contribution to UNRWA, which had originally been set at €6 million. That was kind of the norm. It was €6 million in 2023, which was then increased by €2 million during the year. It was increased by a further €10 million in response to the conflict, which made it €18 million and our highest ever contribution to UNRWA. As the Deputy said, we have not suspended our funding to UNRWA, in common with Norway, Portugal, Spain and others. We will need to review our contribution in 2024, which originally would have been set at approximately €8 million. That was upping the regular €6 million. The countries that have suspended or have indicated a review are responsible for 70% of UNRWA support, so this is very serious. We also give €3.5 million to institutional building in Palestine, mainly to the ministry of education. I visited some of the schools in my last visit to the West Bank. We also give funding to human rights organisations in Palestine and Israel and for humanitarian assistance. Under Irish Aid's fellowship programme, we provide 22 scholarships for Palestinians to study at Irish third-level institutions, with 11 students from the West Bank and 11 from Gaza. We anticipate the same number, if not more, for students from Gaza, if we can get them out, and the West Bank this year.
The Secretary-General of the UN convened a meeting during the week of major donors that contributed more than €2 million. We were at that meeting and we gave our rationale. The US, the UK and all the countries the Deputy mentioned were at the meeting. The Secretary-General highlighted Ireland’s intervention and thanked our permanent representative at the UN for it. It is critical that we engage with the others and we did so at that meeting. I will engage directly with some of these countries. I will go to the US next week, so I will make the case with those I am meeting on the Hill and hopefully with other interlocutors I will be engaging with. At the European Union we are equally talking to like-minded states. Portugal, Spain and others are like-minded. By coming out early, it was important for others to see that we were not budging.
I think the UNRWA leadership has handled it well and strongly in terms of ordering an independent review and suspending the personnel involved. There has been a long-running situation in respect of UNRWA. In my view, Israel has always sought to undermine UNRWA as an organisation. It goes back to the Nakba. It is an historic organisation that was established specifically to support Palestinian refugees in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere. It is a huge organisation with 30,000 people employed. The Deputy said he had been to the West Bank. If you get rid of UNRWA, Hamas would take over. This is the kind of illogicality of what is being said. I remember being there in 2009 when an Irish former military member, John Ging, was in charge. He told me at the time that when he ran the summer school in Gaza, he was competing with Hamas summer schools. However, by a country mile, the UNRWA summer schools were far more popular. The mothers of Gaza spoke and voted with their feet by attending UNRWA summer schools. I went into UNRWA schools where the Holocaust was being taught. That was back in 2009. Now we are being told antisemitic material was being distributed. That was investigated by the European Commission following Commissioner Várhelyi’s concerns last year when he froze funding to UNRWA education. The allegations did not stand up and the funding flowed again.
The Deputy heard Prime Minister Netanyahu say he wants to get rid of UNRWA. I do not believe the military of Israel want UNRWA to go. I think they know deep down that the only operation in town, so to speak, that can provide the scale and volume of aid that the Palestinians require in health, education and food supplies is UNRWA. UNRWA has to be extraordinarily efficient, effective and disciplined and must have resolute mechanisms to make sure that none of its personnel are involved in terrorist activity or criminal activity because that damages the whole organisation. When something like that is found it, it undermines the situation.
UNRWA needs reform with regard to needing financial stability. I agree with that. We have offered our assistance to the commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, in respect of reforms he wants to introduce to make it more sustainable. This was before the war and the conflict. That is my position on that.
During the year we had a number of discussions on the International Criminal Court and the particular investigation. I will not go into the politics of Ireland joining or not. One of the responses by the Government was to make an increased contribution to the court. There has been quite an amount of criticism of the prosecutor for what is perceived to be slowness in the approach to the situation in Palestine versus, for example, the approach to the investigations on Ukraine. Is there direct engagement between the Government and the ICC prosecutor in terms of the efficiency with which the investigation on Palestine is being conducted?
There were issues in between that slowed down the decision to actually take it on board and prosecute it. However, it is being prosecuted. It will take in everything from 7 October to the present day, in respect of both Israel and Hamas. It would be very unusual for us to interfere with the courts. One cannot politicise the courts. There is a fear with all of the debates going on, and I understand the emotion, there is a sense that there is a danger that we will over-politicise the international courts. If we do this we will undermine them. There are plenty of actors out there who want to dismiss them and do not want to be held to account before them. We have to be extremely careful about how we handle this. It is easy for political reasons, to say that we will join but the issue is resources for the court. The court is actively pursuing something and it should be allowed to get on with its work. That being said, there has been criticism. I do not know whether there are practical difficulties getting into Gaza, for example, because of the conduct of the war. We can make certain inquiries to see what the challenges are. We can come back to the Deputy or to a future committee on the matter.
I am not suggesting any interference. I am seeking an update in terms of the timeline as the prosecutor will set it. I think the committee requested an update from the prosecutor. I mentioned it at a meeting but I am not sure if I made a formal request that we would do so. I think it is entirely appropriate. In the absence of definitive rulings from the international courts, the difficulty is that there are very powerful states in the world making pronouncements as if they were facts. In a sense, the decision by the aforementioned states to withdraw funding from UNRWA is making a pronouncement or determination based on the allegation of an actor in a conflict. There is a need for the international courts to adjudicate and set out things in real terms. If there is a suggestion that the courts are being slower than they might need to be - I am not making that but saying it is the accusation being made - then I think it would be appropriate for states to ask for updates. Ireland would be well positioned to ask for these.
The latest news I have heard back from the court through my officials is that the court wants to get on with it. It does not want any more political pronouncements or people saying they are going to join. The court just wants to get on with it and get the resources. We also need to be careful of the whataboutery concerning the Middle East and Ukraine. One of the key issues that has not been resolved in Ukraine is the setting up of special court to deal with the war of aggression. There are different legal templates as to how one could best do that. It has not been all plain sailing in respect of Ukraine either, in terms of the accountability of Russia. There is huge aggression and war crimes are being committed in Ukraine, but Ukraine did not invade Russia. In our view, Russia made a false allegation of genocide against Ukraine as a justification for invading Donetsk and the Donbass region. The Ukrainians refuted the charge and they are in the ICJ refuting the Russian allegation of genocide. It is not the case, as some alleged in the Dáil, that Ukraine had made an allegation of genocide and we joined immediately. That is not the case. It took us five months to intervene in the case, along with other countries, to support Ukraine's refutation of the Russian allegation. I do not disagree with the Deputy on the need for accountability. At the moment the ICC has a case underway in respect of war crimes up to, and including, genocidal acts. The ICJ has a case in respect of the legality of Israel's occupation of Palestine. We have already submitted a robust legal submission and the Attorney General will be participating orally in the case, on behalf of the State this month
Hear me out. In order to be responsive and in trying to facilitate the Dáil and the Oireachtas, one potential idea is that we would summarise the key points of the submission and make it available to the Oireachtas and lay it before the House. I will have to check where that is at the moment.
I want to move on because it is getting late. Regarding new diplomatic missions, despite the fact that a number of new embassies and consulates have been opened in recent years, we are still under represented in different parts of the world, either by having no representation or a very small presence. I have raised this issue a number of times. I was in Australia over the summer. It is amazing when Irish people gather in large numbers in different places, particularly once they get GAA clubs established. It promotes healthy rivalry. The Melbourne Irish were quick to have a go at the Sidney Irish saying that they were getting everything because they have a consulate. They assured me that a consulate in Melbourne would be very much utilised. There are vibrant Irish communities in many cities in Australia, but Melbourne is a large city and a very important economic centre. It would be a really worthwhile initiative to open a consulate in Melbourne. In Sidney I noted something that does not happen very often. Even before I had an opportunity to visit a Government service people told me how valuable and important it was to them. That is the experience of people with the consulate in Sydney. From how it was described I thought there was a staff of 30 or 40 people. It turns out that the staff is two or three, one of whom is on secondment. The interaction they have had with the Irish community and also with very important stakeholders there makes it a very valuable resource for Ireland, which is good value for money, if nothing else. We could have a similar situation with a consulate in Melbourne. Are there any plans in this regard and are any other consulates or embassies going to be opened in 2024?
I appreciate the Deputy's comments on the embassies. Our diplomatic services provide very high value for money. There is a lot of leadership in the various missions.
They are not large in numbers but they are strong in capacity and leadership and I think that is a distinguishing feature of our diplomatic service. Some of that is due to the manner and model of recruitment and the model of the workplace environment is strong. There is a great deal of mentoring, of mutual supports, from what I can see, and many young people are anxious to come in. We need to continue to nurture that. I saw that recently among our team at the UN Security Council, when we were on the Security Council. I was very impressed. We have many hungry young people, in addition to the more senior personnel who are on my right and left and who are anxious to serve in the diplomatic service. That is a positive and good thing. I saw in Mozambique recently where young Irish people were participating in the peace secretariat run by the UN and had a very telling role to play on that. It is very positive.
We have opened 19 new missions and, by any yardstick, it has been a fairly dramatic expansion over the last five or six years. This is something I have always believed in and advocated for because this is exactly the Deputy's point. With two, three or four people in a particular mission, we can achieve a great deal for the country, economically and on a consular basis, in looking after citizens and their needs. This can be in Bogotá, Wellington, Amman, Monrovia, San Diego, Chile, Kyiv, Manila, Dakar, Teheran and Rabat and the new consulates general in Vancouver, Mumbai, Cardiff, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, Manchester, Lyon, Toronto and Miami. I am looking at the Western Balkans and the candidate countries and believe, as we did in the past, when there are new states on the cusp of joining, we should have a presence there. I am looking at Melbourne and other areas as well to see what the next tranche will be and I will come back to the committee on that. I take the Deputy's point but I am looking at all of those areas with regard to expansion. We have had very substantial expansion and that has stretched personnel and makes for a much more different organisation but on Ireland's footprint, that is good and has many benefits, including cultural.
Whether the Tánaiste was in this Department or not, he was certainly around the Cabinet table, if not heading it, if I remember correctly. Is the use of envoys something which has been quietly pushed to one side or is it something the Government is considering for either geographical regions or for particular political purposes into the future?
Generally speaking, my own view, for what it is worth, is that Department missions are where the action is. There will always be specific issues where the EU, for example, has envoys. Eamon Gilmore would have been the European Union envoy on the Colombia peace process. The fact he was a former politician should not disqualify him. In fact, it made him a good candidate. They were very appreciative of his contribution to the Colombian peace process as an envoy of the European Union. I do not have any ideological opposition to the idea of an envoy if it has a specific purpose-----
We should, perhaps, just pull ourselves back from what tends to happen in the House every now and again where there is a huge noise around a given situation which, perhaps, could have been handled differently. We should be careful if we just say, "No, never again" when this happens. Sometimes the need does not justify it. If one thinks about it, Joe Kennedy is an envoy from the US President to Northern Ireland and we all welcome it but if Ireland sends an envoy somewhere, we all say, "Oh", and ask for an inquiry-----
-----but I do not actually think that we should rule out envoys for specific purposes into the future because we have a very rigid format which works well in how ambassadors and consuls are appointed compared to many other countries. They are not political appointments and that is correct-----
-----but there might be a rationale at different points in time to have envoys to the North Americas, the South Americas or wherever, and to have a broader strategic overview than that of a specific envoy.
I am not referring to Deputy Carthy here but more generally. Our diplomatic service works well in the way it is modelled. In North America, it works superbly well. Long-established links with the Hill, with both sides of the aisle, both Senators and Congress people, are very good. I am not a fan of sending political envoys to override that because one asks who speaks for Ireland then. The Minister is the head of the diplomatic service essentially. One has to be very careful that one does not get-----
In regard to the EU, there was a peace process in Bogotá and a significant issue there. In our peace process, external help was very important. We had US envoys. For decommissioning, we had Martti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa, and George Mitchell was an envoy who essentially kept the oil flowing in the talks process. It is that kind of thing which I get, but one does not want a parallel operation which can be injurious. The Deputy and I are both agreed on this point.
Not to unduly intervene but there is a process involved here. The Deputy will be aware that following the incident which he raised, there was an extensive engagement by this committee, following which a report was published. It was sent to the Government-----
No, the Deputy is wrong, because after which, a new process was inaugurated which I understand is the process which is now to be deployed from time to time when such engagement is to be considered appropriate.
Fair play, Chair. I have a quick question on diaspora supports. Going back to Melbourne, there was a recent report that a group of Irish people were looking into the prospect of establishing a Gaelscoil. I know there have been other areas where that has been looked at. Is that something the Department, in conjunction with perhaps the Department of culture and the Department of Education, could look at? If such a project was to be planned out, could the Government inject seed funding?
Again, we will look at any kind of worthwhile venture which comes forward. We support organisations but we do not supplant existing State funding for schools or whatever. Obviously, the bulk funding for a school would come, presumably, from the local government there or the education department in that area. We could, of course, then assess the situation with regard to any additional supports and respond. We can take the Irish Arts Center in New York, for example, where we have provided substantial money. When I was Minister for Foreign Affairs on the last occasion I would have given the first €2 million to the New York Irish Arts Center back in 2008, I believe. That was a kickstart but then the New York council had to come in, as did various other agencies in the United States. We would not rule anything at all out and it would obviously depend on applications, capacity and so on. We certainly look favourably on these things which advance Irish culture and language. We support Irish language studies in various parts of the world. I was treated to a traditional Irish music presentation by third level students in Beijing who are part of the Irish Beijing studies.
We do a great deal for the GAA which, it seems to me, is the biggest network overseas, in Asia, Australia, the Middle East, the Gulf States and in many other parts of the world. It is a very strong organisation and we try to support it everywhere we can. I was in Mexico recently where a new GAA club was formed - the Los San Patricios GAA Mexico City club. There were more expats or non-Irish playing than Irish but they loved it. There is a woman's GAA football team. This advances Irish culture and the Irish profile. It is a good thing and we support them.
I am sure the Minister would be very eager for Government to support that club and also its rival club which is called the Wolfe Tones GAA club. Apparently, the rivalry between the two clubs can get as intense as any inter-parish rivalry when it comes to their championship.
There is no Fine Gael club as far as I know, Chair.
I just want to touch on the passport service. I recognise the huge pressure it has been under over the past few years. I acknowledge that the service last year was immensely improved on the previous year. I have had experience of this. Online renewals are virtually without hitch. The service is very quick, efficient and easy to use. The service can be exceptionally accommodating for what could be described as emergency cases where people have a valid medical reason, a bereavement or whatever the case may be.
However, there is a bit of a gap in what might be described as urgent cases. There might be an argument in terms of definition. We have all come across cases where people urgently need a passport, often due to issues beyond their control or in some instances because the passport was left in the top drawer and only pulled out a couple of days before going on holidays. Perhaps mammy thought that daddy was going to sort out the new baby's passport and daddy thought mammy was going to do it and they only discover it two days before the holiday of a lifetime. I presume many of the pressures we saw in the last few years have been taken off the services. Could there be a mechanism, even if it means charging people a healthy sum, to put a service in place to allow people to get those urgent passports if and when required?
I think the Minister mentioned 64,000 this year, which is essentially one month, in terms of applications made in January. How would that compare with January of last year. Are the numbers high? I imagine the numbers would have dropped a bit. The Minister mentioned that this year 10,000 each week have been contacting the customer services hub. That would suggest that 40,000 people, if not more, have been contacting the customer services hub. Usually there is a bit of anxiety or urgency that would require somebody to contact the hub. I presume that number means that some people are contacting it multiple times which would suggest they are not getting the answer they want or expect the first time. I ask the Minister to clarify that.
Considering that the former Senator, Niall Ó Donnghaile, is no longer on the committee and indeed not a Member of the Upper House, it would be remiss of me not to ask the Minister if he has plans to open a Passport Office in the North. This is frequently raised both by citizens in the North and by people living in the Border region. We acknowledge that there is less reason for people to physically go to the Passport Office, but it may sometimes still be necessary. They can do so in Dublin and Cork but cannot do that anywhere north of Dublin. It would be very appropriate to have a Passport Office in the North and to make provision for it in the budget.
I appreciate the points the Deputy has made. The figure of 88,000 this year was very similar to last year due to an intensive advertisement campaign we had before Christmas. We wanted to get people ready, alert and aware so that if they are planning on going on holidays, they should start working now on their passport. That has borne fruit in terms of the surge in passport applications we are currently experiencing, which is a good thing.
Of 1 million applications received last year, 950,000 were issued and 90% of all passport applications were made through passport online. We need to continue to work to get people into the right zone. We need to be slightly careful if we create new classifications. I know the Deputy does not mean this, but somebody could say, "Ah sure, it's fine. There is a category there for the urgent or the less urgent." No sooner would we have the urgent ones done than there is another urgent category that comes after that.
I find the system quite responsive to the kinds of cases the Deputy is raising. It can be a bit difficult getting a new passport for a child. Generally speaking, if we get it early enough the system does respond. The number of same-day public counter appointments in Mount Street increased by 50% in 2023 to 165 appointments available weekly. This will increase by a further 33% to 220 in 2024. About 1% of passport applicants use the urgent appointment service in Dublin and Cork. The contact hub is generally for reassurance. They are not urgent or anything like that; people just want reassurance.
Because of the online transformation, the opening of a physical office is not on the agenda. It will be increasingly online. I anticipate that the figure of 90% will increase. My sense is that the service is responding to the urgent cases. We can examine that further in light of what the Deputy is saying. Between Dublin and Cork, people book appointments to get to see things. I take the Deputy's point that that is not everywhere. Is he coming across cases that are not making it in time?
I get cases where people might be making a one-day or a three-day appointment. It is very different if I live in this city. That is something a person can do on their lunch break or take a couple of hours off work. If somebody is coming from the top end of County Derry or Donegal, that is a very different scenario. That is a full day of their lives taken out, if there is childminding or-----
People ring me in Cork and say, "I'll drive to Dublin. I'll be up at 6 in the morning." They do that because someone has made a mistake or they took out the passport and found it is one or two days beyond the expiry date. We will keep looking at what the Deputy is raising on the urgent cases. I am not clear how we might create that category. However, we will continue to examine it.
The Minister is correct. When urgent cases are brought to the attention of Members of this House and we bring them to the Passport Office, officials there are exceptionally good and sympathetic in dealing with that. I am always wary of a service that involves a politician having to intervene and ask for it. There is nothing worse than failing to see a text message and next thing it is not the Passport Office that is getting the blame but the Deputy for not seeing it or whatever the case may be. We need to find a way that goes beyond that. It needs to be an official service and not seen as some form of patronage on the part of a politician or somebody who happens to have a first cousin who knows somebody in the Passport Office or whatever the case may be.
I have four brief issues before handing over to Deputy Berry for concluding questions. Further to the questions on the Passport Office, I wish to make reference to foreign birth registration. This is the first time I have seen this figure of 35,000 applications received last year. It does not surprise me. These figures will continue to increase in similar terms given the volume of young Irish people abroad who are very keen that their newborn child would have access to an Irish passport. I see reference to an eight-month current waiting time. With respect, I suggest that is a long time. For example, if there is a birth in Paris and people have plans for a summer engagement in America or a visit to a grandparent in another part of the world, eight months is a long time. While acknowledging great improvements I wonder if there is a target to improve that further.
I am reluctant to engage in whataboutery on the matter of Australia.
Deputy Carthy has left. He made a good case for Melbourne but I will make a similar case for Perth, where there is a large and growing Irish community and its distance from either Canberra or Sydney is considerably farther than Melbourne is from Sydney or Canberra. The need in Perth might be borne in mind in the context of the Irish footprint in Australia. I am sure due diligence will be done in the normal way the Department engages in these issues, but I hope consideration might be given to Perth.
Third, let me fully subscribe to the Tánaiste's work in the Middle East, especially his engagement on the delicate, sensitive and critical issues of recent times. Will he proffer a view on whether it is his considered opinion that the Palestinian Authority has the capacity to run a state in the near future, or at some future time, having regard to the fact that we pin our hopes, as do others in the West, for the future of the West Bank and Gaza on the Palestinian Authority? It seems, in recent times in particular, that the gap that has emerged between what is expected of the Palestinian Authority and what it can in effect deliver is widening to the extent that it is perhaps becoming unrealistic to expect that it can govern anywhere. Ultimately this question needs to addressed. That is the context of the issue of the recognition by Ireland of the state of Palestine in the future. I hear calls in the House and from civil society and I hear engagements in other parliaments that this would be helpful in the circumstances, but I am not sure it would in the current climate. What are the Tánaiste's views on an early recognition by Ireland of a state of Palestine, having regard to the current state of crisis in Gaza in particular, but also in the West Bank and the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to assist in making matters work?
Before we conclude, on the Ukrainian situation, again I acknowledge the Tánaiste's work, diligence and commitment in support of Ireland's effort to support Ukraine. He again stated that Ireland will be with Ukraine for as long as it takes. I am sure he will agree that a Russian victory in Ukraine would only lead to further risk of conflict on European soil. How can a small state such as Ireland continue to thwart the ambitions of the Kremlin? We can point to what we are doing in providing a welcome to Ukrainians seeking refuge; to the sanctions we have imposed; and the Tánaiste's commitment and record of advancing EU membership for Ukraine, but we need to continue, so to speak, to put our money where our mouth is. In that regard, I ask about the possible forfeiture of the proceeds of sanctions in this jurisdiction, which is slightly less than €2 billion. How can that be harnessed or forfeited and put back into support of Ukraine? I point to the legislation the Belgian Government has introduced on a Belgian fund for Ukraine. Would there be merit in such a consideration here, having regard to the frozen assets of Russian oligarchs in this State, which are moderate, but nevertheless in existence?
The Tánaiste stressed, as he always does, that we supply non-lethal military equipment and weaponry to Ukraine. That is accepted by the Irish people as being in accordance with our law. However, with reference to one aspect of military equipment being supplied by Ireland, namely, in the area of de-mining, is there further equipment we can provide in that area, as well as personnel? For example, de-mining equipment is manufactured in Ireland. Can we do more? Can we purchase de-mining equipment and put such a purchase towards the Ukrainian effort? In the context of the overall Ukrainian war effort, one of the obstacles has been the slow nature of the success in de-mining, which appears to frustrate a possible Ukrainian advance. Could a small country like Ireland purchase de-mining equipment and provide it to our personnel who are currently providing assistance to Ukraine? It is important to ensure the Ukrainian defence effort remains top of the agenda and does not fall down the priorities, as that is exactly what Putin is waiting for to happen.
The Chair raised a number of points. I was alerted by my officials about his enduring interest in securing a consulate in Perth. I appreciate his view on that. We will keep it under review and there will be due diligence.
I take his point that eight months is a long time for foreign birth registration numbers, but it is a complex process because it involves a number of generations and therefore a large number of documents from many jurisdictions are often required. If a rare situation arises in which a child is not eligible for other passports, the application would be expedited. However, we have made great progress getting it down from 15 to 18 months and we aim to get it down further, below eight months. I would like to get it down to single digit figures, if we can eventually, in the fullness of time, for the bulk of them.
I appreciate his comments on the Middle East. Mixed views and opinions have been articulated on the Palestinian Authority on an ongoing basis. It has never really been allowed to thrive or develop. It has been one of my sustained, consistent criticisms of Israel, that it lacks a strategic approach to the region. It has always been my view that a moderate Palestine should have been supported and nurtured and there should have been far more capacity building. It would be in Israel's interest, as well as the interests of the wider Arab region and of course the interests of Palestinians. I was there in the past when there was a technocratic government. Fayyad was the Prime Minister. I met him. All the donors and external agencies were happy with his governance. When I met him, he said the Israeli Government was making life very difficult for him, because he was trying to build confidence among the community and so on and there would be a raid below in Jenin or something would happen in Hebron or Bethlehem and more and more challenges would be created for the authority.
That is going on all of the time. When I met President Abbas last September, before the war broke out, I was struck that he was very strong on a non-violent approach to the resolution of the issue, recognising Israel’s right to exist and very strong on no violence to achieve the two-state solution. That needs to be taken up more. I am struck that even in the midst of terrible provocation and in the midst of a terrible war in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority has held the line in respect of avoiding an implosion in the region and that cannot be easy. I say that knowing that all the presentations to us are that it is at boiling point in the West Bank because of the incursions, the violence and the killing of young people in the West Bank. The number of people killed in the West Bank is at the highest level in a very long time. All of that is not making it easy for the Palestinian Authority. There is a general acceptance that if, for example, there was to be a Palestinian Authority-type structure to oversee Gaza in the aftermath of this war, you would have to put a lot of technocratic capacity behind it and a lot of financial support behind it. I think that is understood. The Palestinian Authority is saying it is ready. Its view is that it never left Gaza; that the administration is still there; education is still there; departments it has funded and continues to fund. We have asked for elections and so on but elections could give different results. There should be elections when the climate is right and the environment is right. But in the immediate aftermath of this war, I agree with all the key partners here. Even the US is very clear that it cannot be Israel governing Gaza, there cannot be a displacement of Gazans, so there has to be an administration put in place into Gaza and there has to be a viable administration in the West Bank.
In terms of a Palestinian state, if the time comes for us to recognise a Palestinian State, we will be recognising the State as defined by the 1967 borders and UN resolutions. We continually discuss this with like-minded states in the European Union. There is an Arab peace initiative on the way. Ideally we would like to recognise the state of Palestine when it would give some support to that peace process that would lead to a two-state solution. That is the context where you could use that effectively. But we cannot keep going on allowing Israel to undermine the Palestinian Authority and not be strategically sensible about facilitating its growth and development. What has happened by supporting the settlers, as the Israel Government essentially has - and the IDF has been in support of the settlers and there have been some very violent far-right settlers in recent times, displacing Palestinians and attacking schools - has made the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state very difficult with pockets of settlers are populated all across the West Bank. All the UN agencies are saying this to us. What happens then is Israel starts attacking the UN agencies and undermining them, not only UNRWA but also others. The UN agencies are saying that settlers being in the West Bank is now a big problem and most countries are saying that to Israel. Israel will say it is not responsible for the violent settlers and it decries their activities but there is very little evidence of that on the ground where all the Palestinian communities will say the IDF is in there supporting the settlers as they go about displacing Bedouins and various agricultural communities. I met some children in a school where the settlers went into the school with the children present and attacked the school. My view is that right now, the Palestinian Authority is the key agent to try to create some stability in Palestine. It will need support. There may very well be a need for international force to ensure security. Israeli security needs to be protected. I accept that and I think the Arab states accept there has to be security from an Israeli perspective. That was clearly evidenced by the 7 October attack. People are talking openly about an international security force to maintain security and to keep the peace.
On Ukraine, the focus on non-lethal aid is because of a programme for Government commitment, not necessarily a law. One could argue maybe even in the context of military neutrality that providing aid would not in itself constitute a breach of that because every country under the UN Charters are entitled to self defence but it is a debate that has not been held here. The programme for Government, which the three parties to the Government signed, said in the context of the EPF that we would not be supporting -----
-----military intervention in any war situation. So what we do is non-lethal aid, which is needed. Human resources are vitally needed in a war effort. The Irish Army has donated anti-mining or de-mining equipment to Ukraine.
Yes, flails. So do we purchase them to donate? One of the issues for Ukraine is the industry is at saturation point in terms of provision of weaponry and so on. There is no point in everyone going in and purchasing to give. They should be in the position to purchase whatever is coming off the manufacturing lines. But we have helped in training. De-mining will be, and is, the biggest issue in conflict zones for civilian populations afterwards, at the Deputy knows. As mines have the capacity to kill people, to amputate and maim, I am anxious we do everything we can on the de-mining front. We have joined the Lithuanian de-mining coalition in Ukraine to work with other countries to see what we can do to help on the de-mining agenda.
On forfeiture, the Chair may be aware the EU has achieved political agreement to use the revenue generated from immobilised Russian assets to fund reconstruction in Ukraine. The interest that has been earned to date is a significant start, at least, to use that revenue to start funding reconstruction in Ukraine. I favour the whole general idea. There is concern in the European Central Bank about potential currency destabilisation if we were to go down the route of forfeiture. I am not convinced of that at all. I think Russia must be held to account for its invasion. It is a brutal invasion. We cannot have countries invading other countries just because they are the bigger neighbour. That is no way in the multilateral world that we should be proceeding. This is being actively examined. Various European institutions, including the ECB, are involved. One of the breakthroughs has been that the interest that has been accruing on those assets is now going to be used to help the reconstruction.
My question is pretty much already answered but it follows the Chair’s question and dovetails nicely. On the European Peace Facility, the Minister said it was €271 million. That is pretty impressive. It is being used for non-lethal aid. My understanding of the mechanism is that a third country buys communications equipment, medical equipment and fuel, gives them to Ukraine and we refund the third country. That is my understanding of how the mechanism works. I would agree with the Chair. Mine-clearing equipment is entirely compatible with our non-lethal categorisation. I want to introduce a potential other category which I would regard as non-lethal. One of the biggest threats to Ukraine at the moment is that these projectiles are flying through the air, that is the one-way attack drones, the cruise missiles, and the ballistic missiles which, by definition, are not alive and have never been alive so you cannot have a lethal effect
Cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, attack drones – Iranian made – have never been alive so you cannot have a lethal effect on them. Surely providing radar and interceptors would fall into the category of non-lethal assistance in those circumstances. I would argue that not providing this would have a lethal affect. It is having a lethal affect on the civilians on the ground. It is something that is worth considering or to reflect on over the next while. I agree with the Chair that mine-clearing equipment should be regarded as non-lethal, which it is. It think that should also be true of air defence. You could put a caveat on any Irish support for air defence that it could only be deployed around the capital city, or whatever. It could save a lot of lives. I think it is worth exploring anyway. That is all I have.
That is very fair. On de-mining, we are saying to the European Union on the EPF that de-mining is okay and that could involve equipment as well. For anything that de-mines a zone we have no issue and we train Ukrainian soldiers to de-mine.
I do not have an issue with that but I take the Deputy's point. To be frank, I will have to come back to him on the precise mechanisms to give effect to that. We have been telling Josep Borrell that demining is key for us in the reformulation because I accept the principle articulated by the Chair and Deputy Berry that it is non-lethal. I will examine the other two areas the Deputy mentioned. Air defence is key for Ukraine this winter.
We have a responsibility to protect civilians and it is primarily cities that have been targeted. I will finish on the point that there is a perception in Ireland that we are doing Ukraine a favour by taking in all of these people. To an extent, we are but it could also be argued quite convincingly that Ukraine is doing us a favour by keeping the Russian army at bay. We know what the alternative is. If Russia wins, the Baltic states are next, followed by Moldova. I will just make that point.
It is a very fair point that needs more debate in the Department and in the Dáil. When I was Germany, I had discussions with a think tank and we had no idea of the vulnerability Germans felt when Russia invaded Ukraine. We talk about the existential crisis in the Baltic states and other countries but many Germans felt it was a very significant watershed for them, hence the massive changes made as regards defence capability and the announcement of €100 billion in expenditure. It was explained to me that some in strategic German think tanks are worried that the moment to use this occasion to transform Germany's military capability to protect Europe might now be lost because the Russian attack was repulsed by the Ukrainians. In the first two or three weeks, everybody thought the Russians would be in Kyiv within a week or two. All of the military experts in different countries with big militaries thought the Russians would be in there. I remember President Zelenskyy talking to the European Union and saying it could be his last meeting with it. He was online and said that he was not moving, that he would not leave Kyiv and that he would stay there. To me, that was a key decision. If he had left, perhaps the Russians would be in Kyiv. It is not all about military might. Sometimes it is about putting down the line. That is something we do not appreciate enough.
In the debate in the House itself, some were saying it was not about Russia invading Ukraine at all and that NATO was responsible for the whole thing. It was suggested that the whole thing was a pretext for NATO aggression and imperialism. It is hard to take but that was the kind of debate we were having. Things were suddenly turned around. However, for many European countries, it an existential matter. They feel that if Russia succeeds they will be an awful lot more vulnerable. Many are already subjected to significant hybrid and cybersecurity attacks.
I hope that, at some stage, this war will stop because it is causing great uncertainty and instability across Europe. It is also causing a great deal of dislocation, migration and displacement of human people, which then creates pressure on other countries. That suits Putin, by the way. For many of these authoritarian states, the new agenda is to use migration as leverage to put pressure on democratic states and to cause all sorts of disruption. That is the agenda.
I believe we are coming towards a conclusion. I thank the Tánaiste and his officials for being with us and for dealing with members' questions. As we have now completed our consideration of the Revised Estimates for Votes 27 and 28, the clerk will send a message to that effect to the Clerk of Dáil Éireann in accordance with Standing Orders 101 and 102.