Wednesday, 2 December 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take questions Nos. 3 to 7, inclusive, together.
Matters relating to international policy and foreign affairs are discussed by the full Cabinet as and when appropriate, mostly on foot of memoranda to Government brought by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I also engage bilaterally with the Minister on such matters, as appropriate.
International matters also arise in the context of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy and other external policies of the European Union. When appropriate these are included on the agenda of meetings of the Cabinet committee on Europe. That committee last met on 8 October and is scheduled to meet again on 8 December, in advance of the European Council meeting of 10 and 11 December. While the agenda for that meeting is yet to be finalised, it is likely that a number of international issues will arise, including relations with Turkey and the United States of America.
With regard to international travel, given the current pandemic, it remains the Government’s advice that only essential travel should be undertaken. This position will be kept under review as the situation evolves. As of now, I will only travel abroad when it is necessary to do so to represent essential Irish interests, as I have done when I have attended recent meetings of the European Council in Brussels. If I do need to travel abroad, I will follow the advice of the Government’s scientific and medical advisers and observe relevant public health guidance. In the immediate period ahead, it is my intention to attend the meeting of the European Council and of the euro summit in Brussels on 10 and 11 December.
Strict protocols are in place for European Council meetings. The travelling delegation is kept to the minimum necessary, social distancing and other hygiene protocols are followed and diagnostic testing is carried out on our return.
Other travel commitments for 2021 have not yet been finalised. A number of high-level events and summits that were due to take place in 2020 have been postponed to 2021. If they go ahead, decisions on attendance will be taken in due course. Any plans for further travel will also take account of the prevailing situation regarding the pandemic.
I understand what the Taoiseach is saying. The situation with our troops in the Golan Heights and Lebanon is very difficult because of restrictions on travelling abroad. Usually a Minister, the Taoiseach or somebody would visit them because of the significant work they do. This cannot happen at the moment and we need to support them. What else is being done in that regard?
I raise the issue of the presidential election in Belarus. What is Europe going to do about this? Belarus as a country is not a nice place, although it has very nice people who need support. My mother has been visiting Belarus for 15 years and working in orphanages there up to her 80th birthday. They are incredible people. Unfortunately, she could not go this year. We all know about the presidential election opponent, the teacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. As the Taoiseach is probably aware, she spent some time in my county, in Roscrea. She is now in isolation in Lithuania while her husband is in jail. The way the public in Belarus have been treated as they protest about what has happened, and the way the army and government are treating them, is disgraceful. What sanctions are being proposed, through our European partners, for the Belarusian Government because of its behaviour?
Sunday marked the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Ireland's strongest and most useful expression of solidarity would be the formal recognition of the state of Palestine. This would honour the hopes and aspirations for peace and the dignity of the Palestinian people, who continue to live under the horrific oppression of the Israeli authorities as they ramp up their ongoing attempts at annexation of vast swathes of the West Bank. Israel continues to evict Palestinian families from their own homes. Just last week, Palestinian families in the Jordan Valley were forced out of their homes to make way for Israeli military training operations in the area. As communities throughout the world attempt to cope with the global pandemic, the Israeli Government continues to compound the challenges faced by Palestinians through daily acts of aggression. This year alone, Israeli authorities destroyed more Palestinian homes than at any time in the last five years. These vicious acts of destruction are not confined just to residential homes; humanitarian infrastructure has also been destroyed. The primary purpose of these violent and illegal acts by Israel is to make it impossible for the Palestinian people to maintain a viable homeland. The Irish Government's expressed disappointment is of little consequence to the Israeli Government. However, if the Government supported the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018, Israel would finally be held accountable. I ask the Taoiseach to engage with both of these matters: the recognition of the state of Palestine and the occupied territories Bill.
What actions do the Taoiseach and his Government intend to take to pressurise the British Government to reverse its scandalous decision not to hold a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane? Even David Cameron, in 2012, admitted to "shocking levels of collusion" and said it seemed that Mr. Finucane was suggested to the murderers as a target to kill by the police. The British Supreme Court has found that there was a failure to investigate this killing properly, but the British Government is determined to avoid a public inquiry because it is eager to cover up how high that collusion went in the British state. The refusal to hold a public inquiry is another example of the disregard it has for the lives of ordinary people on this island, as, indeed, it has for those of people in Britain and around the world. We are talking about the working of British imperialism under successive governments, hand in hand with loyalist paramilitaries, to target and kill people they considered problematic, in this case a lawyer, and using that to spread terror within working-class communities. The maximum possible pressure must be applied to the British Government to demand justice and a public inquiry.
The biggest international issue we are facing is obviously the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact it is having across the globe. A vaccine that is safe and effective will be critical to exiting this current crisis. If the roll-out of a safe and effective vaccine is going to work, a number of key things have to happen. First, the profit motive has to be removed completely from the roll-out. This means that intellectual property and patent rights, which protect the technology for the vaccine in order that those companies can make a profit, have to be waived. I note that the Government intends to give indemnity to the pharmaceutical companies and that we are going to underwrite any problems there may be with the vaccine. What is the quid pro quohere? It should require all intellectual property rights to be waived and the raw data published, because we need honesty, humility and transparency in the roll-out of this vaccine if we are going to win people over to taking it. There should be no question of those pharmaceutical companies using patent or intellectual property rules in order to safeguard profits at the expense of the roll-out of this vaccine, not just in this country but across the world. If poor countries do not get the vaccine, its efficacy could potentially be undermined.
Deputy Kelly is correct about the difficulty of visiting and recognising our Army, which has done some fantastic work in the Golan Heights and elsewhere across the world and continues to do so, because of Covid-19. We will do everything we can to show our Defence Forces again that we recognise the contribution they are making to international peace.
The European Union has moved on Belarus. We have condemned the ongoing mass and indiscriminate detentions, including of children, and the threats made by the authorities to take away the children of parents who protest. I am appalled by the shameful and needless death of Roman Bondarenko in police custody. The EU sent a very firm message to Minsk by imposing targeted sanctions against 55 individuals in Belarus, including Alexander Lukashenko himself, and we stand ready to go further. While Mr. Lukashenko has announced that he will stand down after constitutional amendments are adopted, it is clear that the repression of the Belarusian people continues. The European Union Commission has conducted a review of EU-Belarus relations and is working on directing European Union funds away from the authorities to provide direct support to Belarusian civil society. We and our European partners will continue to press the authorities to respect their international commitments to stop the repression of their people. I spoke to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in August. She has a great love for Ireland and said that a piece of her heart is always in Ireland. She spoke fondly of her time in Tipperary. We support a sustainable, democratic and peaceful resolution of the crisis there.
Deputy McDonald asked about Palestine. Ireland has long supported a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That said, Israeli policy is consistently jeopardising and undermining the prospect of such a solution. We urge the Israeli Government to cease its practice of demolitions, which is contrary to its obligations under international humanitarian law. We as a country provide emergency shelter and support to affected families through the West Bank Protection Consortium.
We will prioritise the Middle Eastern peace process during our term on the UN Security Council in 2021-2022. We will do whatever we can to advance efforts towards a just and lasting peace.
We are aware of the situation in east Jerusalem and the long-standing threats of eviction which Palestinian residents continue to face in that neighbourhood, which has worsened in recent weeks. Irish officials in Ramallah visited the neighbourhood and they will continue to monitor the case closely. Our clear view is that the Israeli Government must uphold its international obligations on the treatment of civilian populations.
Settlements are illegal under international law. They actively undermine the prospects for a two-state solution. Ireland has consistently and strongly opposed settlements and this Government will continue to do so. We also work and repeatedly call on Israel to respect and respond to genuine concerns about the treatment of Palestinian prisoners. Ireland has repeatedly called to Israel the applicability of international human rights standards, and Irish embassies and missions in the region continue to monitor the situation closely. Ireland's humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of the most vulnerable Palestinians will amount to more than €16 million in 2020. This funding has been expedited to reduce the incidents and mitigate the impact of the pandemic among the Palestinian people.
When it came to power, the new Government adopted a position on the Occupied Territories Bill. I am not sure that the legislation in itself would act as any restraint on Israel's policy on settlements. We have supported legal avenues to differentiate between settlements in Israel, for example, by joining a case before the European courts last year on labelling of certain goods produced in settlements.
On the recognition of Palestine, the programme for Government makes clear that the Government will honour its commitment to recognise the state of Palestine either as part of a lasting settlement of the conflict or, in advance of that, when we make a judgement and believe that doing so would progress efforts to reach a two-state solution or protect the integrity of the Palestinian territory. We discuss this issue on an ongoing basis with our European partners, due to the likely benefits of moving in step with our European colleagues.
I articulated my views on the Finucane case strongly in the Dáil yesterday. I will engage with the British Government and Prime Minister on the need for a full public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. There was extreme annoyance and anger at the previous day's decision and, in particular, the reference to the PSNI and the Police Ombudsman, both of which had made it clear that there is no new material for them to take the case forward. We, as an Irish Government, will, as successive Irish governments have done, continue to put pressure on and engage with the British Government on the need for a full public inquiry.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the Covid-19 vaccine. Governments do not produce vaccines nor do they produce medicines. They do not have the capital wherewithal and have not engaged in the area historically. The important difference that I have seen, as Taoiseach now and as Minister for Health during the SARS epidemic, has been the far greater degree of co-ordination at international level, particularly at European Union level with the private sector. I know the Deputy hates the words profit and private sector. That I understand, but that ideology cannot get in the way of getting vaccines and getting them researched and produced at an unprecedented pace and rate. The pre-purchase agreements have been essential to enabling the capital and funding provisions that will underpin the production of the vaccines. There are no guarantees when vaccines are being researched, produced and manufactured. This is a collaboration between the private and public sectors at an international level, within Europe and the United States. Considering the trillions of euro that governments have spent all over the world in underpinning their economies, the expenditure involved here is only a fraction but will be far more effective in getting our economies back up and running and getting people back to work than anything else.