Dáil debates

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Afghanistan Crisis: Statements


6:42 pm

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber to debate this important topic. His speech and that of the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, were very detailed and comprehensive. The discussion this evening really emphasises the extent of the tragedy and catastrophe that have befallen the Afghan people, both those inside the border of Afghanistan and those who are scattered all over the world. It also underscores the massive extent of the defeat that has been inflicted on the international community by the Taliban. It is clear now that the strategy has shifted from intervention to one of containment and mitigation.

I want to make three points focusing on the Irish context. I echo what the Minister and colleagues have said regarding the bravery of the emergency civil assistance team, comprising both civilian and military personnel, which deployed at very short notice to Kabul. I commend the superb performance of those personnel. They were only on the ground for some 36 hours but managed to pull out 26 Irish citizens. It was an incredible performance despite all the complexities and the challenging operating environment. From our own perspective, their task was achieved against the background of a very challenging logistical environment. As the Minister is aware, we lack an independent airlift capability in this country. That was the primary reason, although not the only reason, that our troops were delayed for a week in getting to Afghanistan. An independent airlift capability is absolutely vital. I am reassured by the Minister's indication that there is at least a recognition that there will be many more of these types of operations in the coming years because of the climate crisis, which will necessitate the evacuation of Irish people in other locations.

I cannot emphasise enough that Ireland needs an independent airlift capability. For any state that does not have such capability, it is like being a farmer without a tractor or a jockey without a horse. It really is that fundamental and we must focus on achieving it. An allocation of €20 million would do the job. It is good that the Minister of State was here earlier because he oversees a budget of more than €800 million annually for overseas development aid, which is at it should be. The money is there and it is just a question of prioritisation. It would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to point out that there is an outstanding pay award from 2010 that has yet to be honoured for some of the military troops who deployed as part of the ECAT. If this House expects our troops to fight for us, then we must be prepared to fight for them as well. We paid the bondholders and it is long overdue that we pay our best soldiers.

My second point concerns the Afghan refugee admissions programme. I was pleasantly surprised by the announcement yesterday in this regard, which represents significant progress for a number of reasons. Instead of bringing stranger refugees into this country whose background we do not really know and, in the process, overloading our direct provision centres and the limited housing stocks of local authorities, it makes perfect sense to leverage the existing Afghan network here. The Irish diaspora across the world has been doing something similar for our people for decades and centuries, so it makes sense that we do this now. It is a good system and model for the future. However, the intake of 500 is quite limited. It makes sense as an initial tranche but I expect the number will increase over time as the extent of the problem becomes known. It is sensible to target the vulnerable people coming out of Afghanistan and look to get some of them here as soon as possible.

The third point I want to raise relates to the humanitarian situation. I agree with the comments of the Minister and the Minister of State in commending the humanitarian actors who have opted voluntarily to remain in Afghanistan. It is one thing to go to that country wearing body armour, armed to the teeth and surrounded by 6,000 western troops; it takes a completely different type of courage to drive around Kabul, as those volunteers are doing as we speak, armed with nothing but their wits. They are moving around in soft-skinned vehicles, with no body armour, and are completely at the mercy of the new regime there. I take my hat off and salute the humanitarian workers who are still in theatre. I welcome the €3 million that was announced by the Government in the past fortnight to support the UNHCR and additional UN agencies. That is a good step in the right direction. I also welcome the recognition in the opening statements tonight that humanitarian aid is only a short-term measure or stopgap. What is really needed in Afghanistan is a comprehensive peace settlement at a regional level.

That leads me on to the first of two questions I have for the Minister. Bearing in mind that a comprehensive peace solution is needed and that we have UN personnel in Kabul, will he elaborate on the indication in his opening statement that he hopes there will be an EU presence there in the not too distant future? What timeline does he envisage in that regard? Does he expect there to be an EU presence this side of Christmas and, if so, will Irish diplomats be involved?

I will choose my words very carefully in asking my second question. A gentleman called Mr. Hassan Ali Faiz appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence yesterday, who was very clear in pointing out that he was a refugee who was brought back as part of the resettlement programme. He expressed a concern that among the hundreds and thousands of refugees who are coming to Europe, he was surprised by the amount of sympathy and even support some of them still had for the Taliban. Is the Minister satisfied we have a robust screening process in place that will ensure we are not storing up problems for the future from that perspective? I would greatly appreciate if he could address those questions in his closing statement.


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