Wednesday, 13 July 2011
Question 15: To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the sabotage of at least two ships in the international flotilla to Gaza, including an Irish ship, and the actions of the Greek authorities in preventing other ships from the flotilla from departing from Greece; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20109/11]
Question 43: To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the way he interprets comments made by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, leader of the Israeli group Shurat HaDin, whose stated objective is stemming the flow of money to terrorists, that it had been working for months to obstruct the flotilla by threatening legal action against any group that helped them in the US, Europe and Asia. [20089/11]
With your permission, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I will take Questions Nos. 14, 15, 21, 33, 38, 43 and 45 together.
As I have made clear to the House, prior to the anticipated sailing of the flotilla I made clear to the Israeli authorities my insistence that any interception of the flotilla must ensure the safety of Irish citizens, and indeed other peaceful participants, on board. This message was conveyed through diplomatic channels and by me personally to the Israeli ambassador and to a visiting senior official of the Israeli foreign ministry, who I asked to make their Government aware of my views.
When reports were received of the damage to the MV Saoirse, operated by the Irish participants in the intended flotilla, I made clear my view that it would be a matter in the first instance for the authorities in the port in Turkey to investigate any claims of deliberate sabotage, but that if such claims were substantiated by the Turkish authorities this would be a matter of serious concern, especially if the lives of those on board might have been endangered.
I made this clear in public and, again, I conveyed the same message personally to the Israeli authorities.
As I have also told the House, however, the Irish Embassy in Ankara has been in contact with the Turkish authorities and has reported to me the latter's view, based on a coastguard examination of the damaged vessel, that the boat was not sabotaged. There has therefore been no basis for raising the matter with my EU colleagues, or making a further approach to the Israeli authorities.
I have myself indicated that, while I respected the intentions and objectives of those intending to participate, I could not support a venture whereby citizens intended to place themselves at risk. I understand that the actions of the Greek Government in preventing ships from sailing from Greece to Gaza were motivated by a concern to avoid risk to human life.
As regards the reported actions or statements of the NGO Shurat HaDin, a number of NGOs in Israel and elsewhere are reported to have made various claims in relation to the planned flotilla. We are not in a position to assess whether there is a factual basis to any of these claims.
I am extremely disappointed with the Minister's response. The people involved in the flotilla and their supporters will be very disappointed with that response, as they are angry at the collusion with the Greek authorities and, they believe, the collusion of all European political leaders with Israel, in preventing this peace flotilla reaching the beleaguered people of Gaza with aid and solidarity.
Why did the Minister ask the Israeli authorities merely not to injure people during an interception of the flotilla rather than ask them not to intercept the flotilla but to allow it free and safe passage to breach an immoral and illegal siege that has been causing immense suffering for the people of Gaza for several years? That is what many people and I believe the Minister should have asked them. Why did the Minister not ask them simply not to intercept the flotilla?
I am extremely disappointed by the Minister's response to the sabotage allegations. It is not true, as the Minister said, that the Turkish authorities have stated they do not believe the damage was caused by sabotage. This is based on a report from a newspaper that was put out a few hours after the official investigation by the Turkish authorities in Turkey began. The report has since been recycled in the press across the world. An official investigation is going on, with which the flotilla participants are co-operating, and which has not concluded. How can the Minister state that the Turkish authorities have concluded there was not sabotage when the official investigation has not concluded?
Has the Minister not seen the evidence of sabotage? I have, and the media in Ireland have seen it. Two boats in different ports were damaged in exactly the same way and in a way that, had the damage not been detected, would almost certainly have resulted in the loss of life of Irish citizens and others. The boats were damaged in exactly the same way in two different ports, one in Turkey and one in Greece. This is cast iron evidence of sabotage. I ask the Minister to look at the evidence.
Deputy Boyd Barrett was not in the House when I answered the serious questions raised about the Government's response to the Palestinian issue, the occupation that is taking place in Palestine, the blockade of Gaza and the efforts we are making to bring about a resolution to that. It is claptrap to talk about collusion by the Irish State with Israel. The Government is working constructively to find a solution to a long-standing problem. I hope, as part of that, we will be able to support recognition of a Palestinian state.
It is typical of Deputy Boyd Barrett to be more interested in the protest than in the Palestinians.
The only issue he seems to be concerned about is the protest. With regard to the protest, I made my position clear. The travel advice provided by my Department was consistent with the travel advice we provide to anyone going into dangerous circumstances. I was hugely conscious of the actions that took place last year, and which I condemn. I met the organisers of the Irish group in the flotilla and on two separate occasions I raised the matter with the Israel authorities, once with the ambassador and once with a representative of the Israeli Government, and made clear our view that we did not want a repeat of last year and that the safety of those participating in the flotilla must be ensured.
When we got reports of damage to the MV Saoirse we asked for a report of what had happened to it. I have told the House what the Turkish authorities reported in relation to that. If Deputy Boyd Barrett has evidence other than what I have given I ask him to produce it and I will have it investigated.
I accept the Minister's point about the Palestinian campaign for recognition. Throughout the decades, Irish Governments have played a constructive role there. However, I am stunned to learn that it is the position of the State that the investigation has concluded and that no sabotage to the MV Saoirse took place. I do not accept that.
Like Deputy Boyd Barrett, I have seen the evidence of sabotage. A man I know to be of the highest integrity, a fisherman called Pat Fitzgerald from Waterford, has clearly outlined that the damage to the propeller shaft would have to have been man-made. Almost identical damage was done to a sister-ship in the flotilla. The Minister has asked for evidence. He should meet the campaign group, Irish Ship to Gaza. I am sure they would arrange a delegation of some of the flotilla participants to produce the evidence to the Minister and explain why it had to have been man-made.
I am shocked that a spokesperson for the Turkish authorities, after a cursory examination, could make a pronouncement that sabotage did not take place.
There is a state that held the Palestinian people under military occupation for all of these years. It was responsible for the slaughter of 1,500 people in Gaza. It has caused a massive humanitarian crisis which every human rights organisation in the world has condemned. It murdered nine peace activists on a flotilla last year. Is the Minister seriously suggesting that state is not capable of sabotage of two boats to prevent the completion of a mission that would have been deeply embarrassing to that state?
I implore the Minister to meet a delegation and look at the evidence himself. I trust his integrity. I ask him to look at the evidence and make up his own mind.
I do not have to be invited to do that at all because on the very day that we received the report that there was damage to the MV Saoirse, we asked for the matter to be investigated. The investigation had to be carried out by the Turkish authorities because the vessel was in one of their ports. I am not telling the Deputy what I believe nor am I offering him an opinion. I am relating the report that came back to us. If somebody else has evidence, which contradicts that, we will ask to have that investigated. I made it clear on the day we received the report about the vessel that if there was sabotage, we would take a serious view of that.
I am genuinely not trying to score political points but I was disappointed with the Minister's answer. In reply to a written parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Mac Lochlainn, the Minister stated: "I have no grounds on which to dispute these views or to demand a further investigation." That is why I expressed disappointment. There is no evidence to support the claim that this matter has been investigated. Who in the Turkish Government told the Minister that this matter had been investigated and it was concluded that this was not sabotage? On what basis were the conclusions drawn? Did he inquire about the nature of the investigation that led them to these conclusions? The official investigation involving the coast guard had only begun hours before the report that it was not sabotage appeared in a newspaper. It has not even concluded and, therefore, how the Turkish authorities could conclude it was not sabotage is beyond me. From whom and on what basis have they given the Minister this information?
He got somewhat annoyed when I referred to the collaboration between European governments. Why did the Government and other European governments say to Israel "Just do not do any harm to anybody when you are intercepting the flotilla", which is more or less what the Minister said earlier, instead of saying to them "Do not intercept the flotilla because these are peaceful activists bringing aid to people who are unfairly and brutally besieged"? That is what anybody would expect our Government and European governments to say because the siege is wrong. My interest is in the lifting of the siege and not in the protest. I became involved in politics having visited the Palestinian occupied territories at the beginning of the first intafada. The appalling plight of the Palestinians and the failure of western governments to do anything about it motivates me.
First, I do not rely on newspaper reports. The report I received was from the Irish embassy, which had been in contact with the Turkish authorities who reported the view they had concluded based on the coast guard examination. If the Deputy has information and evidence other than that, we will look at it. This is my third time to repeat that and if it transpires that there was sabotage, we will take a serious view of that.
Second, if I had not raised at all with the Israeli authorities concerns about the safety of the people intending to travel in the flotilla, I would happily say that the Deputy had grounds for criticism of the Government. However, on two occasions I made clear directly to the Israeli authorities that we were concerned about the safety of Irish people in the flotilla and what we expected by way of response, which confirmed a view that was pursued through diplomatic channels. The Government has been actively engaged for a long time in seeking a just solution to the Middle East conflict and in respect of the hugely difficult conditions that the Palestinian people have to live under.
It would serve that cause and, ultimately, the Palestinian people better if, occasionally, the Deputy expressed a little support in the House for the effort the Government is making in this regard rather than making wild and unsubstantiated allegations of collusion with this, that and the other one.
A delegation from the Irish ship sailing to Gaza has produced video evidence and so on. Will the Minister consider an independent examination of the evidence they produce? All it would take is someone with naval engineering experience. I am confident that this was sabotage of the propeller shaft. The Minister is well aware of the implications. It was devious sabotage because it would have caused a failure at sea by forcing the shaft up into the hull, forcing the boat to take on water and sink. It was a most malicious and devious form of sabotage. Will the Minister accept a presentation of evidence to him on this matter? If so, will he have it independently examined if it turns out the Turkish authorities are holding to the position he outlined?
If any Deputy wants to bring evidence to my attention, I will have it examined. The standard way to assess damage to vessels in a port is to have it investigated by the port authorities and the authorities of the country in which it takes place.