Dáil debates

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Adjournment Debate

Official Engagements.

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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This issue arose from two incidents, the visit of the ambassador of Israel to Carrickmacross and then the decision of Carrickmacross Town Council to remove the page which he had signed from the distinguished visitors book. I regret the decision to remove the page and the nature of the protest on the day of the ambassador's visit.

When an ambassador visits a town, he or she should be welcomed and treated with respect in a way that reflects their status as a diplomat and personal dignity. This does mean that one necessarily approves of the policies of his or her government. I met very many people in Carrickmacross at the weekend and they all believe that the ambassador should have been shown such respect and courtesy.

I understand the feelings shared by all the members of Carrickmacross Town Council and I too feel strongly about the injustices which we see in Gaza and the West Bank on a continuing basis. I met the Israeli ambassador when he visited Carrickmacross on that day and spent one hour in discussion with him. I was glad of the opportunity to have such discussion and impressed on him the seriousness of Ireland's engagement on the issue of concern.

I have visited the Middle East twice over the past two years. Last July, I was a member of a delegation from the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs which visited Gaza at the invitation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, where we met its director, Mr. John Ging. During that visit we saw, at first hand, the ongoing dire humanitarian consequences for the civilian population as a result of the ongoing Israeli blockade. We published a report on our visit and set out in direct and unambiguous terms our view that it is not reasonable or right for Israel to use the complexity of the issues involved as justification for allowing the intolerable humanitarian conditions which prevail in the West Bank and, more particularly, in Gaza to continue.

I have no qualms about being direct and honest in criticising Israel where appropriate. I have supported the findings of the Goldstone report, which calls on Israel and the relevant Palestinian authorities to launch appropriate investigations into allegations of war crimes committed during the Gaza conflict which are independent and in conformity with international standards. I wish to see an end to violence on both sides.

I spoke out in this House when Israel forcibly returned to Gaza a young Bethlehem university student, Berlanty Assam, without just cause. The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and the vast majority of Members in this House actively support a two-state solution which would provide peace and security on both sides in the Middle East. This can only happen through a negotiated settlement. We know better than most in Northern Ireland the futility of overreaction and the politics of the last atrocity, and it was when Senator George Mitchell came to Ireland and that dialogue commenced seriously that we made progress. I wish him the same success in the Middle East as he had here.

I cannot support the obliteration of the name of the Israeli ambassador from the records of Carrickmacross Town Council. The political way forward is dialogue and negotiation. We must uphold democracy and principles of respecting the right to meet and to listen to those with whom we may not always agree politically. We have a responsibility to remain engaged and to remain committed to finding a solution in the Middle East. Refusing to recognise and respect the ambassador of Israel will not in any way contribute to that goal.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Minister of State with special responsibility for Public Service Transformation and Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, have asked me to send their regrets but they both have engagements. Responding to articles which appeared in the Irish, British and Israeli media, the Minister for Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Tuesday regretting the decision of the Carrickmacross Town Council to remove the signature of the Israeli ambassador from the council's distinguished visitors book.

I am pleased to have the opportunity this evening to read the Minister's statement into the record of the House. The Minister said:

I fully understand and share the deep concerns which many people in Ireland feel in regard to Israel's policies on a number of issues, including the settlement of east Jerusalem and the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza, as well as the allegations of the use of forged Irish passports by Israeli agents. I made our concerns on these matters known last week when I met the Israeli Foreign Minister and visited Gaza. However, it is a basic principle of relations between states that we treat each other's diplomatic representatives with civility and respect, regardless of any policy differences. To do otherwise would seriously undermine the ability of states to conduct international relations.

Ambassadors represent not just their governments but their peoples. In turn, the way that foreign ambassadors are welcomed and received in Ireland says something about us as a people. Foreign ambassadors are free to travel in Ireland and I encourage them to do so. If citizens here feel moved to protest against the policies of the governments they represent, which they have the right to do, I would ask that the do so peacefully and in a way that respects the diplomatic status and personal dignity of the ambassador.

It is indeed the case that many people in Ireland share the Government's deep concerns about Israel's policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, including restrictions on movement, construction of illegal settlements, evictions of families and demolition of their homes, as well as the continuing blockade of Gaza. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, on behalf of the Government, has been active and indeed outspoken on these issues at EU and UN level. The Minister has taken every opportunity to make these concerns known directly to Israeli leaders, including to Israeli Ministers and to the Israeli ambassador here in Dublin.

Last week, the Minister became the first EU Minister for a year to visit Gaza. He was determined to visit Gaza to see for himself the humanitarian situation in the strip. Having been denied entry by Israel, he obtained the agreement of the Egyptian Government to entry through the Rafa crossing. Speaking from Gaza, he made a direct public appeal for the lifting of the Israeli blockade. It is understandable that people may wish to make clear their own concerns, to voice protests and to do something about these issues. However, this should not extend to using insulting behaviour towards the Israeli ambassador, or indeed, any other diplomatic representative.

We expect our own ambassadors abroad to be able to travel and meet people in the countries to which we send them and sometimes to deliver unwelcome messages, safely and with respect for their personal dignity and their status as representatives of Ireland. If we want our ambassador in Israel - or anywhere else - to be heard with courtesy and respect, we must reciprocate those practices here. It would be misguided to remove the page in the visitors' book which the ambassador of Israel had been invited to sign, regardless of who invited him and in whose presence he signed. I understand that those who decided to do so were motivated by a desire to protest against Israeli Government policies, but to treat the ambassador as a pariah, to try literally to erase the fact of his visit from the record, was excessive and could be misunderstood.

Israeli citizens and Israel's supporters around the world are foremost among the people we are trying to reach and whose views we are trying to influence. Indeed, we should not overlook the fact that the strongest, most dogged and most consistent opponents of many of the Israeli Government policies we decry are in fact among the citizens of Israel. For those who would rather Ireland's messages were not heard, nothing could be more welcome than a story such as this. It can and will be used to suggest that Irish concerns about Israel are founded not on a concern to right wrongs, but on vehement antipathy bordering on racism. That would of course be grossly untrue, but we must remember that protest taken too far can undermine the force of the very message that those who protest are seeking to convey.

I know that the members of Carrickmacross Town Council considered this question at short notice and I do not doubt the sincerity of the concerns which led them to decide on that occasion as they did. However, now that they have had an opportunity to reflect fully on the issues I have outlined here, I hope that they might wish to reconsider their decision and express their views by more appropriate means.