Tuesday, 15 December 2009
It was a great privilege and a joy to announce the release on 11 November of Fr. Michael Sinnott after 32 days in captivity. His release was the result of an intense diplomatic effort by the Irish and Philippine Governments, working through the mechanisms of the Mindanao peace process. No ransom was paid to secure Fr. Sinnott's release nor was there any use of force. This was a victory for persuasion, perseverance, and patient diplomacy.
On hearing of the abduction on 11 October, I immediately asked our ambassador to the Philippines, Mr. Richard O'Brien, who is based in Singapore, to travel to Manila to work with the Philippine authorities to help secure Fr. Sinnott's early release. He was joined in Manila on 25 October by Mr. Robert Hull, an official from Ireland's Mission in Timor-Leste. Ambassador O'Brien engaged in talks with the Government of the Philippines, representatives of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, MILF, local officials in Mindanao, members of the Columban order in the Philippines and several international NGOs. We worked closely with our EU partners and the European Commission delegation. The ambassador also met with the Papal Nuncio and with Philippine church leaders. I would like to underline our deep appreciation to the United States Government for its assistance, as well as the Malaysian authorities.
On 21 October, the ambassador. Mr. O'Brien travelled with a high-level delegation of EU ambassadors to Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines, which is home to a number of armed Islamist secessionist groups and where the security situation remains extremely fragile. While in Mindanao, the ambassador had a separate meeting with the leadership of the MILF at their headquarters in the jungle. He made a strong plea for Fr. Sinnott's release and received assurances from the MILF that they would do everything in their power to bring the kidnap to an end. Our ambassador to the Vatican, Mr. Noel Fahey, also maintained contact with the Columban order in Rome.
I was in direct contact with my Philippine counterpart, Foreign Secretary Romulo to convey the great concerns of both the Government and the Irish public. I emphasised our desire to see the kidnap resolved in a peaceful manner. I have since expressed my sincere gratitude to the Philippine Government for the consistently excellent co-operation it extended to us in securing Fr. Sinnott's release. The Sinnott family and the Columban Fathers demonstrated remarkable stoicism throughout their ordeal. I spoke to them on several occasions, and my officials maintained daily contact with them to brief them on developments.
Fr. Sinnott arrived in Dublin airport on 3 December, where he was anxiously awaited by his family and friends. Officials from my Department who had worked on the case were also present to greet him on behalf of the Government. I met with Fr. Michael and three of his Columban colleagues in Leinster House on Thursday last to welcome him back to Ireland and to discuss his experience. Our meeting left me with a strong impression of a truly selfless and dedicated man, and with an even deeper appreciation of the inspirational work carried out by our missionaries abroad.
Fr. Sinnott was particularly pleased with the acknowledgment that the Chair gave him when he was in the Visitors Gallery. Today, he is attending a special ceremony with the President in Áras an Uachtaráin. However, because we are busy here, we are not in a position to attend that.
That is a bit far from the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's bailiwick in the centre of Wexford to be out knocking on doors. I know the place well.
I want to compliment the Minister on the work done by the Department of Foreign Affairs, particularly that of ambassador O'Brien, in assisting in getting the release of Fr. Sinnott. Unfortunately, his release is in stark contrast to the murder of the Kiltegan priest, Fr. Roche. We would like to sympathise on his tragic passing.
I raised the issue of the safety of Irish people abroad with the Minister of Defence during discussion on defence legislation a couple of months ago. This is probably not as applicable to Ministers as it is to NGOs. The Minister said he would have a discussion on this with his colleague. If he has not, will he take this up? While I am conscious of the fact that aid agencies are aware of security, one can never have too many measures in place.
I agree that the events of recent months are a cause of deep concern. There is clearly an increase in the frequency of such events. I, too, sympathise with the family of the late Fr. Roche, the priest of the Kiltegan Fathers who was murdered last week. We are very concerned about this. My officials will be drawing lessons from the recent incidents and we will be in discussion with the NGOs to ensure the optimal security of workers and volunteers who go overseas to be of service to very vulnerable people.
It is a very happy outcome that Fr. Michael Sinnott has been released since the matter of his captivity was raised on the Adjournment some weeks ago. He was very impressive when we met him. The graciousness of his response, his courage and his commitment to the people, to whom he is to return in January, are admirable.
With regard to the murder of a Kiltegan Father in Kenya, it is very important that it be pointed out, as the Minister for Foreign Affairs has done, that attacks on such people are attacks on all the people of Ireland.
All the people in question who work abroad do not qualify for pensions in the Irish system on the grounds that they do not meet the habitual residency requirement.
I support the Deputies' remarks. I have already stated in public that the performance of our public servants, particularly Ambassador O'Brien, demonstrated public service at its best.
That should be articulated clearly. Ambassador O'Brien and Mr. Robert Hull went to extraordinary lengths, as did our ambassador in Kuala Lumpur. One gets some sense of the network of people involved. One might ask why there is such a network in Malaysia but that is where the Mindanao peace process was being brokered. That peace process was central to the release of Fr. Sinnott. At times such as these, we must reflect on the quality of Irish people overseas and the extraordinary work they do in very difficult circumstances when called upon to do so.
Does the Minister agree that, although US foreign policy comes in for criticism quite regularly in this Chamber, it is important to acknowledge the role US foreign affairs officials played in securing the release of Fr. Sinnott.
The US Government was of great assistance to us and has been on an ongoing basis in respect of such issues. I refer in particular to the case of Fr. Michael Sinnott. Secretary of State Clinton was particularly helpful. I have written to her thanking her for her interest in this case and for the help and assistance of her Government. I have written to quite a few Governments to thank them for their general co-operation in respect of this case. I have also written to the head of the MILF, who wrote back and made the point that the Northern Ireland peace process is a model that interested parties in his part of the world aspire to emulate.