Dáil debates

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Adjournment Debate

Diplomatic Representation.

12:00 pm

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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I wish to share time with Deputies Howlin and Kehoe whom I know share my concern regarding the matter I raise. I am happy they should have an opportunity to express their concerns.

I raise the kidnapping of Father Michael Sinnott who is from Barntown near Clonard, an area I know well for many different reasons. It is a fundamental fact that the kidnapping of an Irish citizen who has worked abroad in such a distinguished way for nearly five decades, as Father Sinnott has done, is something that affects all of us. Father Sinnott's Columban community has expressed its concern but I wanted us, as a Parliament, to join the Columbans in saying we wish to convey to the Filipino community and the breakaway group in Mindanao that we are affected. Everyone in Ireland is affected by the kidnapping of Father Sinnott, a man aged 80, who has very special medical needs. His community has appealed to those who may be holding him to deal immediately with the authorities and negotiate so that his medical needs can be met.

That this is not a party political matter is important, as we all share a concern. Ambassador Richard O'Brien has flown to the Philippines and is in touch with those who are seeking to discover Fr. Sinnott's whereabouts. This is a difficult time for his family and companions in the Columban order. I know a number of individuals in the order. They are distinguished as people who have entered problematic areas, be they in Peru or the Philippines. What is interesting is that Fr. Sinnott is one of those who sought to transcend cultural, ethnic and religious differences, being as he was part of the inter-faith dialogue. In addition, some in the Islamic community have issued statements to the effect that they are appalled by his kidnapping in so far as he had assisted some of the weakest people. In 1998 he founded a school for children with intellectual disabilities. He is regularly photographed among the community and has enjoyed the support and love of people of different religious beliefs.

I raise this matter only to send messages, however they might be delivered, abroad and at home. One message is to the Columban community and Fr. Sinnott's family to the effect that we are in solidarity with them. The other is to those who are encountering Fr. Sinnott in his work abroad. Anything visited upon him is visited upon everyone in Ireland. For this reason, the Parliament wants to send a message to people who may never get to hear it, namely, that we want him released and to have immediate access to the medical support he requires.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I am grateful to my friend and colleague, Deputy Higgins, for seeking this Adjournment debate and affording me a brief opportunity to lend my support to the appeal that he has made before Parliament - I hope it will be echoed on the other side of the world - for the immediate release of Fr. Michael Sinnott, an elderly son of my home town of Wexford and the parish of Clonard which he visited not long ago to recuperate following heart bypass surgery. During his visit he said mass in Clonard church. He comes from a distinguished Wexford family that has given great public service to the community. His abduction has caused considerable distress to his family in Wexford, his religious brothers, the wider community in Wexford and the entire nation. I am heartened to hear of the immediate intervention to be made by our ambassador to Singapore who has flown to the Philippines. I also know of the active involvement of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

It is a source of great distress that two Irish citizens have been abducted in two parts of the world - the Sudan and the Philippines.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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Aid workers.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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We also show our concern for an Ugandan employee of GOAL. I hope our plea will have some impact. Every side of the House will join in exhorting the Department of Foreign Affairs to do all that it can to intervene speedily in this matter. Genuinely, we fear that the health of Fr. Sinnott is not great. He needs his medication and freedom.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Higgins for allowing me to add my voice to the call for the early release of Fr. Michael Sinnott. As Deputy Howlin stated, he is a native of County Wexford and I know members of his family well. One of his nieces is a member of my office staff in Enniscorthy and I know how concerned his family is for his safety and well-being. He is 80 years of age and, as Deputy Higgins stated, has spent a long time, nearly 50 years, in the Philippines. Like many Columban priests, he has done good work to ensure the well-being of people there. I ask that his captors release him early or liaise with the Columban order or the authorities in the Philippines to ensure this situation can be brought to a satisfactory end. As we all know, Fr. Sinnott had heart bypass surgery a number of years ago and is in need of medication. His health is of significant concern to us all. He has been described as a compassionate defender of victims, a fighter of injustices and a benefactor to the poor, particularly adults and children with disabilities. I echo Bishop Denis Brennan's sentiments expressed on Monday morning when he asked Deputies and the greater community to remember in their prayers and thoughts Fr. Sinnott, better known as Fr. Mal, in order that the situation might be brought to a speedy and satisfactory end. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.

Photo of John MoloneyJohn Moloney (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Like the Deputies, I am extremely concerned for the welfare of Father Michael Sinnott, who was abducted from his residence near the southern city of Pagadian in the Philippines, on Sunday, 11 October. Father Sinnott, who is a member of the Missionaries of St. Columba, is nearly 80 years of age. He has a heart condition, which required a bypass four years ago and is in need of daily medication.

I wish to assure the House that the Government is making every possible effort to secure Father Sinnott's release. On hearing of his abduction, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, immediately asked our ambassador to the Philippines, Mr. Richard O'Brien, who is based in Singapore, to travel to the Philippines to impress upon the government there our concerns about the safety and health of Father Sinnott and also to work with the authorities to help secure his early release.

The information we have received is that Father Sinnott was abducted by a number of armed men from the Columban house in Gates District in Pagadian City. The government authorities in the Philippines have reported to Ambassador O'Brien that the assailants forcibly entered the Columban house, seized Father Sinnott at gunpoint and fled with him in a mini-van which was subsequently abandoned and burned. The abductors took Father Sinnott to a nearby beach where they boarded one or more boats.

The Philippine security forces immediately launched an operation against the kidnappers. The security forces claim to know the whereabouts of the kidnappers and to be monitoring their position. The Philippine Government has issued a statement condemning the kidnapping of Father Sinnott, expressing its abhorrence at this type of crime and appealing for Father Sinnott's immediate and safe release.

On his arrival in Manila, Ambassador O'Brien met the superior of the Columban order and other members of the Columban community, many of whom are Irish. He has also met with the deputy secretary of the ministry of the interior; with the under secretary of state of the Philippine Government who is managing the kidnap and who had been given charge of the operation. He also met with the deputy chief of police, who has special responsibility for the safe return of Father Sinnott and with the police chief of the neighbouring area, who is joint co-ordinator of the task force established to deal with the abduction.

Ambassador O'Brien also met with officials from the ministry of foreign affairs and the British Embassy. He has been working throughout with the invaluable assistance of our honorary consul in Manila, Ms. Noreen Trota. The Philippine authorities gave the ambassador an account of their investigation and efforts to date to free Father Sinnott. Ambassador O'Brien impressed upon them that the Philippine authorities have operational responsibility for the management of this hostage situation and for security matters in their own country, and for the resolution of this unacceptable situation in a swift and peaceful manner. He also stressed that efforts are needed in the short term to persuade the kidnappers to ensure that Father Sinnott has all the necessary medication he needs at this time. The local church has appealed to the kidnappers to secure the necessary medical supplies for Father Sinnott.

The Philippine Government has also indicated that as yet nobody has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, and there has not been any contact from the kidnappers. While a number of groups have been cited locally as possibly responsible for the kidnapping, it would be counter-productive to speculate further at this stage. The Minister, Deputy Micheál Martin, has been in direct contact with the head of the Columban order both here and in the Philippines. The consular division of the Department of Foreign Affairs has been in contact with the family contact person here in Ireland. Father Sinnott has four sisters, one of whom is a Loreto sister.

In conclusion, I appeal to the kidnappers to release Father Sinnott. He has made such a contribution to the welfare of the ordinary people of the Philippines and he deserves to be honoured for his work rather than taken by force from his home in such a violent manner.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 14 October 2009.