Dáil debates

Wednesday, 26 January 2005

5:00 pm

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this opportunity to make a statement to the House. Words cannot adequately describe the tragic events that unfolded one month ago on the morning of 26 December last. I, for one, cannot think of an occurrence in living memory that has touched the lives of so many people in so many countries and regions throughout the world. That morning and in the hours that followed the sheer power of nature directly impacted upon Indonesia, Sri Lanka, south India, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Maldives, Thailand, Myanmar-Burma, Malaysia, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles and Bangladesh. The people of these areas have suffered enormous physical and personal losses. No matter how great or small the damage caused to them, the thoughts and prayers of the House and the Irish people are with all citizens of this region as they come to terms with rebuilding their lives and livelihoods.

Here in Ireland we learned with great sadness of the confirmation of the deaths of Eilis Finnegan from Dublin and Conor Keightley from Armagh. I convey again the Government's condolences to their families and friends, who have seen the lives of their loved ones cut short in such a shocking way. Our thoughts go also to the families and friends of Lucy Coyle and Michael Murphy, who are still missing.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, will outline to the House the efforts of the Department of Foreign Affairs regarding Irish citizens, as well as his firsthand experience of visiting the region. For my part, I emphasise how proud the Government is of all the Irish personnel and volunteers who devoted their time to this unprecedented challenge.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, the crisis centre of which I visited on New Year's Eve, responded to the concerns of thousands of callers regarding more than 1,200 people reported to be in the region. Our embassy personnel across the region worked superbly in the most difficult of circumstances to locate Irish citizens and to help the families of those citizens injured or feared to be lost.

Other branches of the State made an equally valuable contribution to the overall effort. In saying this, I have in mind the Garda Síochána which sent personnel to Phuket in Thailand and worked tirelessly with the Department of Foreign Affairs to track down the remaining Irish people unaccounted for. I must also mention the Department of Health and Children and the Health Service Executive, which established a counselling helpline for those returning Irish citizens traumatised by the experience of the tsunami.

The estimated loss of life to date has just been increased to 280,000 people. The number of injured is expected to exceed the number of dead. Families have been destroyed, children have been orphaned and parents are grieving for their missing children. Livelihoods and whole communities have been washed away, leaving those who survived with nothing but the rubble of their shattered homes and businesses. The efforts of the survivors to recover and rebuild their lives must now be the focus, not just in the short term but also over the difficult months and years ahead. The development challenges faced by the region as a result of the tsunami will not disappear once the cameras have moved on to the next tragedy or disaster. The process of rebuilding shattered communities will take years. Ireland will play its part in these efforts.

Over recent weeks, we have witnessed unprecedented expressions of generosity across the world. While the power of nature has once again revealed itself with terrifying consequences, the power of the human spirit to respond with compassion and help has been remarkable. Ireland, like many countries, has reacted with speed and generosity to the appeals for help from the countries and communities affected. We were one of the first countries to respond in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

Immediately, on St. Stephen's Day, the Government pledged €1 million to the relief effort. This was doubled to €2 million two days later as the preliminary assessments of the scale of the disaster became available. Following the recent visit of the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the region, our pledge has increased to €20 million. Of this sum, €10 million is additional to the overall 2005 Government aid budget, which has now risen to €545 million. The remainder will come from Development Co-operation Ireland's emergency humanitarian fund. This fund is deliberately designed to be flexible to respond to disasters of this kind wherever they occur. This is the largest amount Ireland has ever pledged to a single emergency.

The European Union has also been a major contributor to the tsunami relief effort, with €473 million now pledged by the European Commission and overall member state pledges of approximately €1.5 billion. A special session of the General Affairs and External Relations Council was held in Brussels on 7 January to discuss the tsunami disaster, and a follow-up discussion will take place at the Council next Monday. The EU Presidency has circulated a draft action plan proposing follow-up actions that the EU should take to strengthen its current capacity to react to this and future humanitarian crises, including ideas for an EU civilian rapid response capability. The tsunami disaster has also illustrated the way in which military resources of EU countries can contribute in humanitarian relief situations. It has highlighted the importance of enhancing civil-military co-operation.

Co-ordination, in general, is the key to effective emergency humanitarian response. It is the Government's strong view that the United Nations is best positioned to provide clear leadership and co-ordination of the emergency and recovery efforts. Its work in countries such as Afghanistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and others has given it the capacity and experience to carry the emergency effort forward. Ireland has already allocated €3 million to UN agencies working in the region.

The UN will also play a crucial role in helping governments put together plans for the long-term reconstruction and rebuilding of the affected regions. Included in this must be the issue of early-warning systems for natural disasters. I welcome the outcome of the United Nations world conference on disaster reduction held in Kobe, Japan, last week, at which delegates pledged their support to create a regional tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean.

It is clear at this stage that while the tsunami has affected many countries, the local capacity of countries, communities and people to respond and recover differs greatly. This is a function of the level of development and wealth of each affected country. Sri Lanka and the Banda Aceh region of the Indonesian island of Sumatra have been the worst affected by this disaster in terms of the scale of the destruction and in terms of loss of life. Following the recommendations of the assessment team which the Government sent to the region, the focus of the aid effort is quite rightly on these two countries.

In Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh, Ireland is working with the Red Cross, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations such as Concern, GOAL, Oxfam and Trócaire to ensure that our assistance is balanced geographically and focused on the immediate requirements of the most vulnerable people. Shelter — temporary and permanent — and associated services such as clean water and sanitation are priorities. The rebuilding of livelihoods such as fishing, market trading and small business must follow. We will assist in this endeavour.

The public response in Ireland to the disaster has been truly remarkable. As we have seen many times before, the Irish public responds to such emergencies far out of proportion for a country so small. The total amount raised now exceeds €50 million. This is an expression of extraordinary human solidarity.

The link between natural phenomena and the vulnerability of people has been brought into sharp focus by the events in South-East Asia. The capacity of nations and communities to deal with natural disasters, recover and move on is closely related to their level of development. Time and again we see clearly that it is the poorest people who are most vulnerable to natural and other threats.

In other current humanitarian disasters such as in Darfur and northern Uganda it is also the poor, particularly women and children, who are most vulnerable. Long-term aid programmes do not attract the same media attention and public support as humanitarian disasters. However, it is the slow and painstaking human development gains made in areas such as agriculture, health care provision, education and improved governance that will ultimately allow communities and people to better protect themselves, understand and respond more quickly to natural and other threats and enjoy social and economic development.

It is critical at this time when the focus of all our efforts is rightly on South-East Asia that we do not forget other parts of the world which are in great need, most specifically Africa. The main focus of the Government's aid programme has always been and will continue to be Africa. Over three quarters of all Government spending on aid is directed to the world's poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This year will be no different. The greatest level of poverty is to be found in Africa and the majority of deaths from disease, malnutrition and other preventable causes is a silent tsunami. Some 8,000 people a day are dying from HIV-AIDS in a disaster without parallel in modern history.

The most important way in which we can reduce human vulnerability to poverty and natural and man-made emergencies is to work towards the millennium development goals which were agreed by 189 nations. They are the best benchmarks by which we can measure human progress in the decade ahead. Our development programme is closely aligned to these targets.

There is a common thread of poverty and vulnerability between many of those affected by the tsunami in South-East Asia and those struggling against almost impossible odds in Africa. Our response and that of the international community must be sustained and comprehensive if poor and vulnerable people everywhere are to share the same hopes for the future that we take for granted in our lives today.

6:00 pm

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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One month ago today the people of South-East Asia woke up to hell. Four weeks on that hell continues. For those who have lost everyone and, therefore, everything, there is the possibility it will never end. On St. Stephen's Day, as in so many other countries across the world, the term "tsunami" left the virtual safety of the Discovery Channel to become hard news, replayed endlessly throughout what we had hoped at least would be the holiday season. Then came the questions. When satellites can spot crop growth on the Russian Steppes and eavesdrop on conversations in Kandahar, why was there no warning? We were asked by our children, "What is a tsunami?" and, perhaps inevitably, "Could it happen here?"

The tsunami devastated South-East Asia but it also affected the whole world. I do not think there is a parent in the House or the country who did not think to themselves in the quieter moments of Christmas, "What if it were us? What if I had to let go? What if it were my child who was just too small to hold on?"

If any good can come from this natural disaster of the Asian tsunami, it must start in that shocked empathy, in the cold realisation that our world is a small one, that there is no such thing as other people's children, that we are all in the end responsible for each other, globally, nationally and locally.

Everybody will agree that it is hard to pick one moment from the Asian tsunami because there were so many. One that stands out in my mind, however, is the tourist-cum-rescue worker telling international television crews, "I washed the dead because I wanted their families to know that at the end there was someone looking after them."

In Ireland we looked after the living. As a nation, we responded magnificently, contributing €40 million in four weeks. Everyone wanted to do their bit to show that this disaster was not another anonymous catastrophe at the other end of the world but was instead their personal business. Because it was their business, they wanted to make a difference. The aid agencies will verify that they made sure they did.

Now it is time for the country to do the same. It is time for official Ireland to make that vital difference. We have proved that we are well able to do this. Just last week the green dot on the western edge of Europe went calling on that new economic superpower, China, led by the Taoiseach and 300 personnel. I was somewhat amused at how the Chinese media kept rechecking that, in fact, the population of the economic force here was only 4 million. The results of that visit remain to be quantified but what we can be proud of already is that we went there at all. Why not set the bar high? Why not compete against the best? Why not go out and fight for new business in new markets for hard working companies in this country? Why stop there with our economic opportunities? Why can we not be equally bold in discharging our moral and social responsibility to those in the developing world, to the fellow members of the community of man? We can and should do so.

I hope the sheer scale of the Asian tsunami might rouse the Government to real action. It might get through to it that if it was willing to raise the game significantly, it could let official Ireland catch up with the spirit and conscience of the nation and carve out a vital new role for itself, specifically in the developing world. There is a significant proportion of the population who would be enormously proud and relieved if the Government did so. They know that living up to these responsibilities is not just about charity, it is about justice, freedom and opportunity.

The Government's capacity to get itself really into gear remains to be seen. Two issues must be addressed immediately: first, overseas development aid and, second, the confusion of the triple-lock in respect of humanitarian missions.

As regards ODA, Ireland should not only give the 0.7% of GDP promised in the people's name on the world stage to the world's poorest families. With our wealth and privilege we should actively campaign for other countries to do likewise. In fact, the Government's lead was weakened somewhat by having made a commitment that it had failed to live up to in the eyes of the world. We brought our high standards to China. Why not do the same in Darfur? We would do well to remember that Europe received $75 billion worth of aid from America after the Second World War. So convinced am I of Ireland's opportunity — even obligation — to lead the world on aid, we should introduce legislation to operate in a way similar to the National Pensions Reserve Fund Act, placing a statutory obligation on any Government to allocate a sum of 0.7% of GDP from the Exchequer in ODA annually.

The millennium development goals are both realistic and achievable and we should work to see them completed. Halving the level of poverty and hunger, providing education for all, improving standards of health, halting the spread of major diseases such as HIV-AIDS, and slowing down the degradation of our environment are all perfectly achievable over the next ten years if governments have the will.

I would like to see the wish of the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, granted and have some realism injected into the broader ODA debate. The tsunami has focused us firmly on disaster in the developing world but there is a disaster there every day. Just as individuals we could not walk away from events in South-East Asia, the Government should not be prepared to walk away from the reality of these everyday disasters elsewhere.

In the course of this ten minute contribution 60 children will die from vaccine preventable illness. Eighty babies less than one month old will die worldwide. By the time I finish speaking ten children will have died of measles in Africa. Some 450,000 African children die from this disease every year. Every minute at least one woman in the developing countries will die in childbirth. Every 30 seconds a child dies of malaria. Today, 8,000 people will die of AIDS. If one goes to any African country one will feel that pressure. By the end of this year, as in every other year, whooping cough will have killed 300,000 children and diarrhoea will have killed 600,000 more under the age of five. In 2001, tetanus alone killed 200,000 newborn babies and 30,000 mothers. That is the reality that people in developing countries have not so much to live with but to die with. It is a reality that, in the name of the people of this country, should not be ignored or denied.

The triple lock is another casualty of confused thinking. The Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, who is new to his office, appears confused and hesitant regarding Ireland's humanitarian remit. The Army says we have the people to make a difference to the tsunami crisis. Regrettably there was confusion about this and a refusal to adopt Fine Gael's proposals last year, which would have allowed a rapid response by the Army to emergencies and which means we are not making half the difference we could in the tsunami affected areas.

The Minister is disposed to responding positively to any request for assistance. However, if we continue to dither over the triple lock in respect of humanitarian issues, while we are waiting for a UN rubber stamp mandate, hundreds of thousands of traumatised homeless people over there are battling cholera, typhus and plain hunger, but the Army is convinced that the triple lock does not apply to humanitarian missions. There seems to be confusion about this. There is something the Government could do at once. Given the depth of public feeling about this and given the generosity of so many people here, the Minister might consider lifting the normal restrictions on public servants who want to give of their services in the affected areas for a limited time. That could be done with specific expertise in terms of nursing, teaching, administration, logistical skills, engineering and so on.

Normally there is an endless series of applications to be made. If people want, for humanitarian reasons, to go to any of these countries, perhaps they could be facilitated. Right now, for example, Sri Lanka and Indonesia are the areas most in need of aid not just in terms of money but in terms of expertise. Sanitation is a serious concern right across the affected regions. In Indonesia problems of access and logistics are hampering the aid effort. Logistical problems see hundreds of thousands of survivors living in temporary camps, facing growing risks of water borne disease due to the lack of proper toilet and washing facilities and the persistent flooding of those limited facilities that are available. The situation in Banda Aceh, to which the Minister for Foreign Affairs referred, is now so critical that only one person in a thousand has access to a toilet.

I make this point to the Minister for Defence while thanking him for giving approval to a visit by myself and Deputy Timmins to the Irish troops in Kosovo from the Western Command. They do an element of humanitarian aid facilitated by €25,000 from the Department of Foreign Affairs. In a Roma encampment where the situation was atrocious, to put it mildly, there were no administrative costs from the Army personnel perspective, and very little money was needed to get real value in clearing places, putting in gravel or providing water sanitation. That is something that should be examined because the wastage of money in other areas is something that would not occur with that kind of effective strategic work by our Army personnel abroad. For very little money they get very good results. When the Minister goes out there, as I am sure he will, I ask him to bear that in mind.

We should remember and honour the private grief of the Irish families who lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters in that very public event at the other side of the world on St. Stephen's Day. The families of Conor Keighley and Eilish Finnegan have but cold comfort in having them home. For two more Irish families the vigil goes on. On behalf of the Fine Gael Party I offer the Finnegans and the Keighleys sincere sympathy. Our thoughts and prayers are with them, and with the families whose wait goes on. Losing a child at any age is an unimaginable horror.

The tragedy of the tsunami is not that there are so many statistics but that there so many stories. Yesterday we saw the joy of a father reunited with his little girl. There are so many stories of the sheer brilliance of spirit of those people affected as to make us truly proud. There are unending cups of tea, thanks and prayers from men and women who lost sons, daughters, parents, many of them their entire families and, in some villages, an entire generation. Many of these people live by the philosophy that it is not what happens to one in life but how one responds to it that really matters. Our response could mark a new commitment to ODA, a new commitment to living up to the responsibilities we have as a rich country, a new commitment to showing the rest of the world how it should be done. Imagine the strength of leadership the Minister for Foreign Affairs could give internationally had we honoured the commitment we made. He would be able to go to every other country and say we have only 4 million people but we honoured a commitment solemnly made before the eyes of the world, and show real political leadership by getting on with it. I encourage the Government to give the 0.7% promised in ODA and to actively campaign for other countries to do likewise.

Mr. John O'Shea of GOAL made a point that is very relevant. When something like this happens and a warning system does not work, centres of real commercial tourism will be rebuilt in due course. What is needed as an emergency measure afterwards are the armies without the guns, logistics plans in order to get in 500 aircraft into a small airport and shift goods, facilities and medicines and move on the aircraft. What is required is the ability to get people in, to get people out, to get aid and assistance to where it is most needed quickly and effectively. When one thinks of all that happened in Iraq and all that could be done in terms of life saving, of real humanitarian but military logistical capacity, we have the opportunity to lead and to save thousands of lives.

An unspeakable horror took place last St. Stephen's Day and this presents us with an opportunity to respond in a way that really matters.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I propose to share my time with my colleague, Deputy Burton. In our lifetime few events have caused such an outpouring of human reaction as the terrible consequences of the earthquake off the coast of Indonesia and the terrible tsunami that followed it. The rest of the world watched in horror as first thousands and then tens of thousands and ultimately nearly 300,000 people lost their lives.

For most of us the first reaction was one of helplessness. However, it would be wrong to contribute to this debate without paying tribute to the people who reacted immediately to the terrible human disaster that unfolded. Non-governmental agencies, such as the Irish Red Cross, GOAL, Concern, Trócaire, Oxfam and others, backed up by the willing contributions of thousands of Irish people, set about the vital and urgent task of bringing practical help to the thousands of bereaved and homeless people. Not for the first time, Irish people led the world in their decency towards suffering people.

Following a slow and faltering start, the Government made a real effort to contribute and has committed itself in a variety of ways to remain involved in the long and difficult process of rebuilding that will be necessary. No doubt the Government will learn lessons from the way it failed initially to reflect the spirit of the Irish people in respect of the unfolding tragedy. I acknowledge the real and genuine commitment made by the Minister for Foreign Affairs during his visit to the region.

I acknowledge the supreme effort made by some of our diplomats in the region, especially Ambassador Dan Mulhall who made a huge effort to ensure that missing Irish people were found. The disaster has left a number of Irish families bereft and grieving. It has had horrendous consequences for people thousands of miles away from the region. For example, the number of British and Swedish people who lost their lives is staggeringly large but in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and other countries most directly affected by this natural disaster, it will take years, perhaps generations, to recover from the economic damage and the damage caused by so much loss of life and human suffering. We need to reflect on that. We need to look beyond the immediate task of giving help, urgent as that is. This disaster must be used as an opportunity for reflection by countries of the developed world on their policies towards those countries at risk from famine and natural disasters. Perhaps the best tribute that could be paid to all those who have lost their lives — the families of victims and others struggling to survive — is to use the opportunity for a new departure in international politics. This should include a renewed commitment to achieve the world millennium development goals, accepted by the United Nations in September 2000, and which include the achievement of universal literacy, halving of poverty and the elimination of the four major communicable diseases.

The aid and logistical support which is needed in South-East Asia must be additional in every respect to what is pledged to continents such as Africa. One section of the poorest of the world must not be asked to pay for a natural disaster that wrecks the lives of another section of the world's poor. This is a moment for a new departure with a renewed and strengthened United Nations enhanced by the establishment of a new logistical force with a capacity to respond rapidly to natural disasters. It is also an appropriate time to establish a free and just trade with the economies of the countries involved and to offer them such favourable terms as were enjoyed by Europe in the past.

The response of the IMF and the World Bank should be immediate on the issue of debt. Out of this, one of the greatest disasters of our time — and reflecting on its enormity — the best option for the world community is to commit itself radically to a new global partnership in which the resources of science, technology, economy and humanity can be deflected from tasks of war towards the enormously positive challenge of human reconstruction and renewal.

From our point of view, we need to revisit the decision to abandon the United Nations target of 0.7% on ODA. Ireland was held up as an example to others when the Taoiseach stated unequivocally that we would reach that target by 2007. Our commitment was particularly appreciated in continents such as Africa which so desperately needs untied aid and genuine assistance in its task of development.

Every year there are events with the horrific consequences of several tsunamis. Many go unreported or under-reported. There are few enough opportunities for people to express their views on them. There is little mobilising of international effort, few enough tours by foreign Ministers of the affected regions, little interest in sending camera crews and delivering nightly reports. Therefore, we are not told night after night that tens of thousands of people die from unnecessary malaria, three out of four of whom are children, 1.5 million people per year die from TB and 8 million are infected. Those are just some of the features towards which our commitment to meet the UN target was addressed when it was given in September 2000. The commitment is now abandoned. I understand from the Minister of State with responsibility for ODA last evening that it may be 2012 or 2015 before we try to reach the target. It is worth recording that the first swingeing cutback after the Government won the general election was to slash €40 million from the ODA budget and now we are betraying the Third World and the dozens of countries which voted to support Ireland's membership of the United Nations Security Council. Even now the Government should remember that it was supported for membership of the Security Council of the United Nations by those who believed it would meet its commitment and give a lead — and we should give a lead.

The unprecedented outpouring of generosity by people throughout the country, faced with this disaster, proves that Irish people are only too well aware of our global interdependence. The people know well that the unprecedented scale of the death and destruction unleashed on countries surrounding the Indian ocean represents a real test for the states of the developed world. If we want to take a lead in that test, as I believe we should, we must begin by recommitting ourselves to the promise we made on human aid.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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I join with the condolences offered to the victims of the tsunami by previous speakers but I wish to address the statement, made last night on RTE's "Prime Time" programme, by the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs with responsibility for overseas development aid that he only envisages the Government attempting to reach the target of 0.7% of GNP for ODA spending between 2012 and 2015. This is a further shameful betrayal by the Government of a promise freely given by the Taoiseach at the UN and various international meetings. The blustering by the Minister of State on RTE last night was in stark contrast to the efforts made by hundreds of thousands of Irish people throughout the length and breadth of the country during the past few weeks to do whatever they could to assist the tsunami victims. People in Ireland can be justly proud of the contribution they have made and the contribution made on their behalf by Irish development agencies, such as Trocáire, Concern, Christian Aid, GOAL and others working to assist the tsunami victims.

It is important, and I agree with what the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, said last night, that the money collected, whether by individuals, and donated to development agencies, and that contributed by the Government, is spent in a sensible and coherent way and that the solidarity and commitment of the Irish people and the Government should be for the long term and not only for the time the tsunami remains in the media spotlight. Many of the Governments in the region, particularly in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia, have significant military personnel and financial resources. Most people in Ireland are aware the Indian Government has long had a large infrastructure devoted to the rapid relief of humanitarian disasters, whether from natural disasters, such as the tsunami, or from other causes. Nevertheless, there is a role for solidarity from countries such as ours.

As other speakers have said, Ireland has been particularly concerned with African countries, such as our partner countries in Tanzania and Zambia. Not only do such countries suffer from the aftermath of wars and natural disasters but in many cases there is relatively little infrastructure and, therefore, their needs are correspondingly greater. Asia is different for that reason and if the international community is able to organise, through the United Nations and its various organisations, a properly targeted disaster relief and rehabilitation programme this may signal a turning point for development assistance not only for Asia but for the ongoing needs in Africa. Organisations such as Oxfam and Concern have made special studies of the process of disaster relief, how it can best be focused and how it can go to those most in need.

There are a number of important principles which the Government accepts. The first is that as far as possible, the resources, skills and knowledge of local people and local communities must be utilised so that outsiders, however well meaning, have key local advice to ensure that what they do is sensible and sensitive to local customs, culture and religion.

The second principle is that in so far as possible, aid relief and rehabilitation supplies should be bought either in the region or as close to it as possible. This prevents foreign assistance from swamping and destroying local markets, particularly those relating to agriculture and food production and helps to provide purchasing power to local markets so that local economies can begin to recover as soon as possible. Third, in some cases of African disasters in particular, inappropriate donations such as second-hand clothes have done enormous damage to local textile markets and industries. Many Irish agencies have experience in this area and I hope the Government can indicate that the lessons of the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda have been learned. Many UN organisations compete with each other for funds. It is not a pretty sight in the aftermath of a disaster to behold the competing efforts of different UN agencies.

I join with my party leader in congratulating the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, for visiting the region. The full-time presence of the Minister of State who is responsible for overseas development aid is very important. He should be working full-time on this matter and should be the leader of the Irish campaign to ensure that the aid is properly spent.

I refer to the extraordinarily generous donation of Bill and Belinda Gates of $0.75 billion to fund research into vaccines for child killer diseases such as malaria. The Gates' challenged the political leaders of the world to match their private generosity and already, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, has indicated his willingness to rise to that challenge on behalf of the UK Government.

It is imperative that the Government rises to the challenge. With what we now know about the tsunami, it is now time for the Taoiseach to acknowledge that budgetary cutbacks to the overseas aid commitment were wrong and should be reversed. The Irish people would strongly support this Government honouring its commitments to overseas development aid.

I advise the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, who is new to the job, that the survivors who will be most damaged in this disaster will be the women and children. Last night on "Prime Time", the Minister of State said that if the budget cuts were restored, he would not be able to spend the money.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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There are no budget cuts. This is a complete misrepresentation as usual.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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I say to the Minister of State and to his senior Minister that the Labour Party offered a mechanism to address this issue. I am pleased that Deputy Kenny has also endorsed this proposal. If the Minister of State is of the opinion that he cannot spend the money in this budgetary period because it might be spent inappropriately — which is a reasonable argument — there is a way to meet and honour the important commitment which Ireland made, which is to create a special development aid fund under the control and management of the National Treasury Management Agency, just like the National Pension Reserve Fund. This would provide the Government with the mechanism for contributing the money which is promised and spending it over a longer period. The capital spending envelope which was referred to in the budget could easily be utilised to allow the Government to honour its promise.

I was disappointed by the Minister of State's flimming and flamming on "Prime Time" last night when he stated that the money could not be spent. I could write down on one page how the money can be spent.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I did not say the money could not be spent. That is a misrepresentation of what I said.

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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The Deputy has exceeded the time and should conclude.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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In the context of the awe-inspiring disaster, the Minister of State should be humble enough to admit that the budgetary cutbacks were a mistake.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy typically exploits everything, even a disaster.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Tá mé ag roinnt ama leis na Teachtaí Connolly, Finian McGrath agus Sargent. Thar cheann Sinn Féin, déanaim comhbhrón faoin tragóid ollmhór, an tsunami seo, a d'fhág 250,000 duine marbh i ndosaen náisiún san Áise thoir-theas agus san Afraic mí ó shin. I measc na marbh, bhí bean óg ó mo cheantar féin, Eilís Finnegan, agus tá Éireannach eile caillte, Conor Keightley, as Tír Eoghain, síocháin síoraí acu.

Our thoughts are with all the bereaved families and the families of the missing, including the family of Lucy Coyle and of Michael Murphy. Our thoughts are also with the orphaned children and the traumatised survivors, many of whom have been made homeless and jobless and who must now rebuild their lives. They are also with the adults and the children, who are now more vulnerable than ever to preventable death from hunger or disease, and with all those who are now coping with a disaster of unprecedented scale. The bravery and community spirit which the people of the tsunami-affected states have demonstrated under these conditions, humbles us all.

I welcomed the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, of the increase in the Government's tsunami humanitarian aid commitment to €20 million but I am deeply disappointed that the Government's second €10 million will not be additional moneys, as stipulated by the UN, but rather come from the existing emergency humanitarian assistance budget.

I urge the Government of the second-wealthiest state in the EU and the fourth-wealthiest in the world, that at the very least it should match the generosity of the Irish people whose donations to date exceed €50 million and with more to come. The Irish people's spirit of solidarity is a source of national pride and I commend each and every donor. I also commend all those, including members of my party, who have organised and participated in tsunami relief fund-raising efforts throughout the country. The 5 million survivors in the 12 affected countries who now lack the basics of food, water and shelter, must receive relief on the basis of need without discrimination. Equally, aid must not be used as a tool of counter-insurgency against affected populations in conflict zones. To this end, Sinn Féin welcomes the UN's formal co-ordination role in relief operations.

Sinn Féin supports the contribution of Irish military assets for humanitarian relief in response to the UN requests and their deployment under the leadership of the UN emergency relief co-ordinator in co-operation with the tsunami-affected governments. Emergency disaster relief and the freezing of the €272 billion debt owed by these countries are not sufficient. Ireland must ensure that the reconstruction provides for the long-term development needs of the affected regions and includes participation by local communities affected in formulating their future.

This disaster has highlighted the urgency of the related issues of debt cancellation and the need for fair trade rules as well as the need for meeting the UN's ODA target of 0.7% GNP by 2007. I endorse the priorities for post-tsunami action identified by Oxfam as reconstruction plus. Like other Deputies, I urge the Government to provide global leadership on these issues, starting with the announcement that it has resumed its commitment to meeting the UN's ODA target by increasing Ireland's ODA spend for 2005 to 0.5% GNP.

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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I wish to express my sympathies to the families of the Irish victims of the tsunami. I was in Kuala Lumpur on New Year's Eve to help a constituent who became ill. I am aware of the good work done by the Irish diplomatic service in the region. Ambassador Dan Mulhall has been extremely helpful to the constituent in question who fell ill just before the tsunami struck. The ambassador did great work to sort out the person's difficulty before rushing off to Phuket to co-ordinate the relief effort. I am aware of Ambassador Mulhall's hard work on behalf of Irish people in region, including visits to hospitals to try to identify victims, which is harrowing. I also pay tribute to Mr. Brendan Lyons, acting Ambassador in Kuala Lumpur while Ambassador Mulhall was in Phuket.

Terrible things happen and it is reassuring that the Government has contributed €20 million to relief efforts. However, considering our wealth and what is needed in the region, this appears to be a small sum.

The tsunami highlights the terrible reality that is part of life in many other nations. When one considers the number of people who have died from AIDS and the terrible tragedies taking place daily in Africa, Ireland has a great deal going for it. I do not wish to detract from the terrible tragedy and death toll of the tsunami, which also affected Irish people and their families and I convey my sympathy to the families in question. I hope we will do our utmost to increase our contribution.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Dublin North, Green Party)
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Words fail us when faced with loss of life, livelihoods and basic needs of life and culture of the scale created by the tsunami and its awful aftermath, which will continue for years. In the years to come, will we monitor the loss of life anticipated as a result of disease and many other hardships facing the areas affected?

We must first express sympathy to all those affected, including the families of those who died. Many westerners, including a number of Irish people, died and we express sympathy to their families. Although many Swedish and British people who were on holiday in the region also died, the vast majority of the victims were local people barely holding onto life and leading subsistence lives. Their destitute circumstances mean they have much in common with many other people dying in other parts of the world such as the western Sahara and Darfur. As other speakers have stated, many of people in such areas are dying without the media coverage many outlets have afforded south-east Asia since the tsunami disaster. If those who continue to die due to avoidable reasons, such as lack of clean water, basic medicines or food, were businessmen or football teams involved in an aeroplane crash, our newspapers would not cover anything else.

There is a degree of intolerance towards constant exposure to a disaster of this nature. We have been tested in this respect by the huge scale of the tsunami. Nevertheless, we live on a planet in which we are all interdependent. Therefore, we need to get used to the fact that poorer people are getting poorer and richer people are getting richer. This problem will not be resolved unless we transform our way of life. As Gandhi said, there is enough in the world for everybody's needs but not enough for everybody's greed. Perhaps greed is still the uppermost motivation behind much of the economic life that sustains us.

Will the Minister provide more detail on the outcome of his meeting with the aid agencies on 4 January? I asked the Taoiseach for details as he was involved in the meeting but the question was transferred to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

I thank all those involved in voluntary fundraising efforts which culminated in a sum of €40 million being raised for victims of the tsunami. Many of the efforts in my constituency, for example, by organisations such as the Hills cricket club or Skerries community school, raised money to buy items such as boats which would be of practical assistance to families. This is not sufficient, however, when one considers that many of the fish in the region were destroyed by the disaster. Silt has covered the beds which provide a breeding ground for fish. Without fresh water, life will not be possible. We face a major challenge in sustaining the interest and effort that has been so fantastic in the initial period.

Information provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in the United States indicates the incredible change in the landscape of the region, notwithstanding the human impact of the tragedy. The tsunami has virtually destroyed everything within two kilometres of the shoreline and there is no possibility that people will be able to live in that area in the foreseeable future.

Regardless of whether the eventual death toll is 250,000 or half a million, many times that number of people will be vulnerable to disease. We know from the ecology of mosquitoes that they seldom breed in salt water and many would have been destroyed by the huge tidal wave. However, the wave also created millions of places in which mosquitoes can breed. Malaria and other diseases will take hold anywhere fresh water can lodge, which will be a problem.

One issue not raised this evening is the extent to which places such as many of the Maldive, Andoman, and Nicobar islands have had to be abandoned. Coffins were left floating in the water in Chaura Island because people were forced to abandon it. Political refugees are recognised under the rulings of the United Nations Commission for Refugees and countries must make provision for them. Environmental refugees, however, fall outside the scope of these provisions. I ask the Minister to take on board this anomaly, which may have been the result of a view that environmental refugees could be dealt with by the home country. In light of the prospect that whole countries may no longer exist or may become uninhabitable, how would one tell the Government of such a country to take care of refugees who do not have a home? I ask the Minister, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to take on board this reality, which the tsunami brought home to us.

It is a reality that will be brought home to us again and again with climate change and rising sea levels in places such as Tuvalu in the Pacific. One will not be able to tell a government to take care of its people because the government and the country will have been wiped out. Hopefully, that ruling will change, along with the ruling regarding the 0.7% of GDP to be allocated to ODA, the need for early warning systems and the need for close co-operation with the NGOs which are being stretched but which continue to do great work. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees needs to change the rulings in the aftermath of this disaster and this is one lesson which must be learned and acted on.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Members for their comments. Deputy Kenny referred to the need for additional medics. The WHO has stated that there is no need for additional medics, particularly in Indonesia where there was an avalanche of medics. Following such disasters, we always give people, particularly those in the public service, the opportunity to take time off to assist. It is not often I get compliments from Deputy Rabbitte but I will take them in the spirit he made them. However, I would say the response from the Government was not slow. In fact, I was involved as early as 10 a.m. on St. Stephen's Day. A neighbour, a parent of a person who was caught up in the disaster, contacted me at 10 a.m. and immediately the crisis plan, which was put in place in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, kicked into play. Deputy Rabbitte might not have realised it because perhaps he, like most people, was working off the effects of his Christmas dinner, but civil servants were manning the phones before 12 p.m. on St. Stephen's Day, and I thank them for that.

Deputy Rabbitte referred to our denial in regard to 0.7% of GDP for ODA, or the fact we had, in effect, forgotten about that. It is an absolute commitment of this Government to reach 0.7% of GDP. I indicated publicly to the NGOs and other interested parties that we wish to work with them in the coming months to insert a new, realistic timetable in regard to the achievement of this target.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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By 2015.

7:00 pm

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Louth, Fianna Fail)
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We are also preparing for the first time a White Paper on ODA, and the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, will lead on this. I will not take any lectures from Deputy Burton. Ireland is the eighth highest donor of ODA in the world. We have tripled it since 1997 and over the next three years, we will put in place €1.8 billion in ODA.

Deputy Sargent referred to the meeting with the aid agencies. We had a very fruitful meeting with the aid agencies on 4 January and, as a result, I suggested to them that I, and the leaders of the leading agencies, visit this disaster area. There was some trepidation as to the type of reaction people would have in regard to a proposed visit by me to that area but it was common cause by all the people and the agencies who participated that it was a very fruitful decision. We were able to glean a huge amount of information from that short visit which, in turn, overlapped the technical assessment team we sent to the area.

On such an occasion, we struggle to find the right words to reflect the enormity of what has happened and the depth of our feelings about it. As previous speakers said, 280,000 people perished. Entire communities, particularly in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, have been wiped out. We saw clear evidence of that. Many of our European partners have lost hundreds, if not thousands, of their citizens in the tsunami. On Monday, I visited Sweden and Finland, which have lost hundreds of citizens. In Sweden, for instance, 15 people have been confirmed dead but over 800 are still missing.

Ireland has not escaped the effect of the tsunami and our thoughts and sympathies are with the families and friends of Eilís Finnegan and Connor Keightley who lost their lives in Phi Phi in Thailand. Also our thoughts are with the families of Lucy Coyle and Micheal Murphy who are still, unfortunately, missing. The families' lonely wait continues. We can only pray that this wait will be ended as quickly and as mercifully as possible.

The Taoiseach stated that Ireland responded immediately on hearing the news of the disaster on St. Stephen's Day. We did that by immediately establishing a crisis centre, sending staff to Phuket in Thailand and to Colombo in Sri Lanka to assist in locating and helping Irish people affected, dispatching Garda forensic experts and Defence Forces logistic specialists, setting up a 24 hour help line for those people suffering from distress and trauma and donating €20 million in aid. More than anything, Ireland should be proud of the generosity of ordinary, Irish people. It is worth noting that on the day of Live Aid, Ireland had the highest debt per head in the world yet we donated more per head than any other nation. That same spirit and determination to dig deep is as evident now as it was then.

Again, I echo the words of praise from many speakers for embassy staff, such as Dan Mulhall and Pat Bourne, and many other Irish people and other nationalities who gave their time in these locations and who volunteered to assist the effort to find Irish people. As I said, I visited the disaster area with the main agencies. No amount of television images, reportage or description could brace the mind for the devastation and turmoil which the tsunami caused to the region. I have never seen anything like it and I probably will never see anything like it again in my lifetime. Whole towns and communities were destroyed. Large trawlers normally moored in harbours were, in some cases, found over two miles inland. Of course, there was the human cost which we saw, particularly in Banda Ache where people had lost their loved ones and, in many cases, their livelihoods.

The Irish agencies and their counterparts in the region have responded as they have done so many times in the past in other difficulties areas of the world. Life saving work is being done by people from Concern, GOAL, Trocáire, the Red Cross and others. It is truly worthy of the support of so many generous people in Ireland.

The importance of the UN system in providing help directly, co-ordinating action on the ground and planning for future protection mechanisms cannot be underestimated. In this regard, I want to highlight the role of the UN which has continued to play an important role as the emphasis shifts to the long-term rehabilitation and recovery programmes. The priority of all donors, UN agencies and NGOs, is to carefully co-ordinate their efforts with nationally devised plans which reflect the views and concerns of the local communities. I and the Government are determined to ensure that Ireland's role in relieving the suffering and rebuilding this region will continue long after the cameras have left. We will drive the issue of independent monitoring of assistance, something I did at the most recent meeting of EU Foreign Affairs Ministers. Independent monitoring is needed to ensure that moneys donated by states are delivered. In this instance, Ireland has a good record compared with some other countries.

We will send a special envoy to the region to serve over the next six months and to submit regular reports to the Department detailing progress. I will nominate Chris Flood who has agreed to be that envoy. He is a former Member of this House and the current chairman of the advisory board for Development Co-Operation Ireland. Technical assistance will be provided to that envoy by the emergency recovery section of Development Co-Operation Ireland. We will also designate specialists, as required, in order to provide additional support. We will also establish an honorary consulate in Phuket. Pending its formal establishment, I have appointed an Irish resident, Ms Fallon Wood, to represent the Department.

The Taoiseach has spoken about the overall focus of our aid programme. We have made it clear in announcing the funding for this crisis that, of €20 million allocated to date, €10 million is additional to the overall budget. The remainder will come from Development Co-operation Ireland's emergency humanitarian aid fund, which is specifically designed to respond to disasters when and wherever they occur.

I thank Members for their strong encouragement and support and their comments on this issue. We can all be proud of the response of the State and the Irish people to this extraordinary disaster.

Members rose.