Wednesday, 19 May 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.
I joined European Union leaders at the Porto social summit on 7 to 8 May, which was also attended by Commission President von der Leyen. This included a high-level conference on 7 May organised by the Portuguese Presidency, which discussed work and employment, skills and innovation, and welfare and social protection. Along with a number of other leaders and representatives of social partners, I participated in a workshop on skills and innovation.
Leaders of the Union's three main institutions - the Council, the Commission and the Parliament - joined with social partners in endorsing three targets to be achieved by 2030. These are that we should ensure at least 78% of people across Europe aged 20 to 64 should be in employment; at least 60% of all adults should participate in training every year; and the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion should be reduced by at least 15 million, including at least 5 million children.
That evening I attended a working dinner where our discussion focused on the Covid-19 situation, including production and distribution of vaccines, progress toward digital green certificates, and international solidarity.
At our informal meeting on 8 May we adopted the Porto declaration, which makes clear that our shared European ideal is first and foremost about improving the lives of our citizens. We also welcomed the new EU headline targets on jobs, skills and poverty reduction.
Members of the European Council also attended an EU-India meeting with Prime Minister Modi on 8 May. Due to the pandemic, and the extremely serious situation in India in this regard, Prime Minister Modi joined the meeting virtually. In our meeting, we agreed to reinforce the EU-India strategic partnership, which is underpinned by the shared values of democracy, freedom, rule of law and respect for human rights. We agreed to resume free trade negotiations and to start negotiations on two additional trade agreements. A free trade agreement is likely to take some considerable time to deliver, so we also asked officials to ensure progress on market access issues that currently act as a barrier to smooth trade between us.
I regularly interact with the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, on a range of issues, including matters relating to Covid-19 and economic recovery. We are very much like-minded on the need to work with pharmaceutical companies to increase the supply of vaccines at global level as rapidly as we can, and to support the work of COVAX in making vaccines available throughout the world.
I also regularly brief the President on the situation in Ireland and in Northern Ireland. Since the beginning of the year, President von der Leyen and I have participated in videoconferences of EU leaders convened by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, on 21 January, 25 to 26 February and 25 March.
Has the Taoiseach discussed the crisis in the Middle East with Ursula von der Leyen? We are all deeply concerned. I see that she put out a tweet saying that she was very concerned about the situation in Israel and Gaza. It stated: "I condemn indiscriminate attacks by Hamas on Israel. Civilians on all sides must be protected. Violence must end now." There was no mention, however, of the horrendous acts being carried out by Israel, which is killing so many innocent children in Gaza, children who do not have anywhere to flee. She does not seem to mention that in her communication or the efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem. We know Israel does not really care about condemnation. Unfortunately, words from the Irish Government have very little impact. Has the Taoiseach discussed the need for meaningful sanctions on Israel with Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel or Josep Borrell? Could he enlighten us on any discussions he has had beyond those three individuals on what sanctions are being proposed or considered in response to the horrendous acts that are being carried out, as we speak, by Israel?
I thank the Taoiseach for his report. I note that he did not mention any discussions on climate change. Yesterday, the International Energy Agency gave its starkest warning yet. Exploitation and the development of new oil and gas fields must stop this year. No new coal-fired power stations can be built if the world is to stay within safe limits of global heating and meet the net zero emissions target by 2050. My concern is that although I would love to be in a position to welcome the announcement yesterday by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on behalf of the Government on LNG, I fear that like the EU, the Government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. The Government tells us that it cannot ban fracked gas because it is an EU-wide issue. It says it is against LNG terminals, but it will not ban them because there is a review of energy. Can the Taoiseach tell us that at a minimum, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will amend the law to ensure that New Fortress Energy, for example, is stopped in its tracks in having discussions about an LNG terminal at Shannon?
The statement of the EU Commission President that she condemns indiscriminate attacks by Hamas on Israel was scandalous. There was no mention of the ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem. Neither was there any mention of the pogroms being carried out by far-right Israeli activists in Israel, with the backing of state forces, against Palestinians. Likewise, there was no mention of the bombs raining down on Gaza, not even the kind of mealy-mouthed false equivalence that the Taoiseach himself likes to engage in.
It shows that the official international community, following the lead of US imperialism, is fully on the side of the Israeli regime, one that is a deadly threat to all Palestinians and is an enemy to ordinary, working-class Jewish people. However, there is another international community out there. It was seen on the streets around the world last Saturday. It is a global movement of resistance, solidarity and support for what increasingly looks like the emergence of a new third intifada in the Middle East, which by mobilising people from below, can defeat the occupation.
Back in the 1980s, Ireland led the way against the South African apartheid regime, starting with the Dunnes Stores workers and then Ireland was the first country to put in place sanctions against the South African apartheid regime. Human Rights Watch recently published a report comprehensively demonstrating that Israel is an apartheid state, and this follows the report from the respected human rights organisation, B'Tselem. Our Government knows this. That is the context to the slaughter that is happening right now, in which 181 Palestinians have been killed, with 1,200 injuries and 34,000 people displaced. Forty schools operated by the UN are now being used as shelters, and 18 high-rise towers have been destroyed, along with 350 buildings.
When is the Government going to return to the leadership that we showed in the 1980s? When are our people going to have a Government that will do what is right in what we feel about this crisis?
Has the Taoiseach raised at European Union level the need for support for the International Criminal Court to investigate potential war crimes in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem? If he has not raised that, will he?
As I said yesterday, I am very clear that the violence in Gaza has to stop. I believe Hamas should stop firing rockets as well, and that has killed people. Equally, I have been very clear that the response from the Israeli Government has been wholly disproportionate and wrong. It has been ruthless and brutal. One cannot bomb Gaza without killing innocent children, innocent families and civilians. I am very clear about that. That is my position and has been my position for a long, long time.
In my view, the key to this, ultimately, has to be negotiations around the two-state solution, but the behaviour of Israel over recent years has made that more and more challenging, and more and more difficult, in terms of settlements, annexation of land and so forth. There has been very little moderation in recent times or engagement in terms of getting a settlement in the Middle East.
Ireland has strong views on this, and always had strong views and put forward strong views. In fact, it was the late Brian Lenihan Snr., as a Fianna Fáil Minister for Foreign Affairs, who was the first Minister in Europe, I think, to recognise the Palestinians’ right to a homeland. We have been very consistent as a party in that regard. When I was Minister for Foreign Affairs, I visited Gaza in the aftermath of a war there to witness the devastation at first hand.
What I also witnessed and reflected on in particular was the European Union's strong support of UNRWA, the United Nations relief organisation which provides a range of supports to Gazans and Palestinians on the West Bank, from education supports to social supports to economic supports. That needs to be acknowledged but it never gets acknowledged in the debate. It is always one that is condemnatory of stances that the President of the Commission might take but no one on the far left ever acknowledges that Europe is not an imperialist power or anything like that. There is this constant negativity about everything that Europe does without balancing it with some of the positive things that Europe does. Europe, overall, has been a force for positivity in the Middle East, underpinning a lot of economic and social supports and governance supports to try to help to get the capacity for self-governance going.
There are different perspectives across the 27 EU member states, and let us not pretend there are not. Some are historic and some relate back to history, and that is the reality. It is easy to stand up in the Chamber and lambast the Union as if it was a coherent whole in terms of this issue. It is not. It is not one coherent entity on this; it brings together a consensus view.
Ireland's view is very strongly that the type of behaviour by the Israeli Government is wholly disproportionate and wrong. Likewise, we are equally of the view that Hamas should not be firing indiscriminately into Israel, threatening innocent lives. No one so far who has spoken, apart from Deputy Kelly, has condemned that and said that was wrong too, because it is wrong and it has been wrong all along the way. Hamas has enjoyed support from other regimes which would be far better off not doing that, because this can only be resolved in a peaceful way, ultimately. People have to coexist and people have to live in a shared space, and what has been going on for far too long is utterly unacceptable.
Ireland's role, in my view, is to work as best we can, as the small nation that we are, to see if we can help to persuade others to move towards resolution. Of course, I fully accept that the public in Ireland are very seized by this issue and have been consistently over the years, and I understand that. There is an innate sense of justice and fair play among Irish people, and that is what we want for Palestinians in particular, and their right to a homeland. That is our position.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs attended the EU foreign ministers meeting earlier this week, where agreement and consensus were reached on the need for a ceasefire. That, in itself, was not easy but consensus did emerge, ultimately, in regard to that. I have not spoken to President von der Leyen yet but we are having a Council meeting on Monday evening and Tuesday. There is a range of issues already on the agenda but we will obviously be raising this issue also, and the foreign ministers have spoken in regard to it.
Deputy Bríd Smith raised the issue of fracked gas and climate change. The Cabinet this week passed a significant statement that will emerge from the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in regard to the importation of fracked gas into the country and outlining the Government's position in that regard. The Deputy was right that the EU legal framework does not facilitate the passing of domestic law that would contravene EU law but the statement is a strong one which will have an impact in terms of planning and so on.