Wednesday, 2 June 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 17, inclusive, together.
The European Union and international division of my Department works on all aspects of European Union and international policy within my Department, including issues relating to the European Union and the United Kingdom relationship.
The division assists me in my role as a member of the European Council and in my other European Union engagements. It provides advice and briefing for meetings of the European Council and other EU summits, multilateral events, and for bilateral engagements with Heads of Government of EU member states, the United States, and other countries. It works to ensure a strategic and coherent whole-of-government approach to cross-cutting European Union policies and international issues generally, including, in the context of Ireland's membership of the UN Security Council, matters such as global peace and security, international and sustainable development, and the external dimensions of climate action.
The division also supports the work of the Cabinet committee on Europe and oversees the implementation of the Global Ireland 2025 strategy, which is progressing very well. Ireland's footprint is now quite extensive, not just within Europe but across the globe.
Last week the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territories, including east Jerusalem. During the special sitting of the council, the UN heard how Israeli forces had targeted homes, medical facilities, media centres, Covid-19 testing centres, schools, and a police station. It also heard that there is no evidence that any of these buildings that were targeted and destroyed had a military function, as had been claimed by Israel.
The motion passed last week by the Dáil marks the most explicit and united call by any parliament in Europe against the annexation and the illegal Israeli occupation. Important as the motion is, it will mean nothing to the people of Palestine if we do not use our collective voice to demand action from the international community and Europe to hold Israel to account. It is the Taoiseach and the Government who have the greatest responsibility in this regard.
The Government's action must include progressing the occupied territories Bill and using our seat on the UN Security Council to progress the positions, aims and ambitions of last week's motion within the European Union. I ask the Taoiseach to set out for us when the occupied territories Bill will again come before the Oireachtas and be put on the Statute Book and how he plans to advance the positions adopted by the Dáil in our motion in the coming weeks and months.
Last week, the Government unfortunately voted against my amendment seeking to impose sanctions on Israel of the same sort we imposed on apartheid South Africa. I think that is a mistake and I think history will ultimately vindicate the view that this is an apartheid state and that it should be treated in the same way as apartheid South Africa.
Beyond that general proposition, I want to give the Taoiseach a specific instance he should investigate of the apartheid policies of Israel, which is that of Irish passport holders or European Union passport holders who are Palestinian, who cannot travel through Israeli airports to go to Gaza, the West Bank or Jerusalem. The Taoiseach can and I can, but somebody with an Irish passport who goes to Tel Aviv to try to get to Gaza will be turned back and told he or she has to go by Egypt. That is apartheid against our citizens who happen to be Palestinians. What is ironic is that Israelis get a visa waiver to come here or anywhere in Europe. Even the United States does not extend that privilege to Israel precisely because it discriminates against Palestinian co-citizens, but we do. They are discriminating in an apartheid, racist way against our citizens while we are giving a free pass to Israelis. Europe does not give that free pass to Palestinians coming into Europe, so Europe is practising apartheid against Palestinians by denying them the same freedom of access without a visa that it allows to Israelis. That is apartheid and racism, and I would ask the Taoiseach to do something about it.
There was quite a bizarre story a couple of weeks ago which illustrated a very important point about the position of Ireland in the world and the role it plays in terms of supporting and facilitating US imperialism. It was the story about the massive US air force jet landing at Baldonnel. I and many others asked a whole bunch of questions about it and what emerged was that the pilot had landed there because he wanted to go and see the Cliffs of Moher, and he had gone down low, had been facilitated by air traffic controllers, had taken a picture and so on. It highlighted the fact of relatively significant numbers of US military planes stopping in Ireland. As I asked and did not get a clear answer, I will have to presume this plane was not inspected for weapons. Perhaps the Taoiseach can provide information if, in fact, it was inspected. We also do not know, or the question was not answered, whether this plane was involved in recent military actions or military exercises, or what it was en routeto do. It highlights the point of Ireland being used as a war port by the US military en routeto the Middle East. Clearly, all uses of Shannon Airport, Baldonnel and anywhere else by the US military should be ended.
It is over a week since the Ryanair plane was forced to land in Belarus, which led to the detention of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega. The US now joins with the European Union in imposing sanctions on Belarus over its campaign to crush critics of the President of Belarus and its diversion of the Ryanair aircraft so that anti-Government activists could be arrested. I want to get an update on what actions the Government has taken in regard to this issue, both as a nation and within the EU. My colleague, Deputy Howlin, raised this in the Dáil yesterday. We also need to know if Russia was involved in this hijacking and we need to put questions to the Russian ambassador. Where are we at in regard to proposed sanctions? There was an awful lot of activity on this a week ago but there seems to be less now.
The second issue is in regard to the EU directive on the minimum wage which is being proposed. Where are we at in this regard? If enacted, it would be a very important endeavour and would oblige member states to take measures to boost coverage to a target of 70%. What steps has the Government taken to push this through? Is the Taoiseach supportive of it? What are the timelines around it? Will the Taoiseach update the House on where he thinks this is going? Will it be enacted? Will the Taoiseach support it?
The Chinese regime wants to erase the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Hong Kong has been the only Chinese city where public commemoration events have been held and not banned; for example, 180,000 people attended the event in 2019. This year, the event has been banned by the Hong Kong authorities, acting on behalf of the Chinese regime. Those who dare to attend face five years in jail and those who publicise the event face a year. Last week, when I asked a similar question, the Taoiseach said that concerns would be expressed through EU channels. This week, I want to ask him will he separately make direct representation to the Chinese Embassy here in Dublin to register opposition to the repression in China and Hong Kong, to the show trial of the 47 election candidates and to the banning of this Tiananmen vigil?
In regard to the range of questions on the Middle East, Deputy McDonald correctly raised the issue of the appalling violations of human rights in Gaza and East Jerusalem. The Irish Government has been very consistent and very strong in regard to this issue, both at the UN Security Council and in terms of our engagement at European level. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has pursued these issues robustly in all fora.
We have supported the collective, united approach from the Dáil in respect of the terrible violence that occurred between Israel and Gaza. We have condemned the launching of rockets by Hamas from Gaza into Israel, which should be condemned and I think all Deputies should condemn that. It is a wrong thing to do and has caused death as well. Equally, or more so, there is the wholly disproportionate response by the Israeli defence forces. The high number of casualties is shocking, particularly the number of children who have been killed and entire families have been literally wiped out by Israeli forces. When they bomb Gaza, given its high density, that is what they know is going to happen. It is unacceptable morally for Israel to do that.
The other key point I would make in respect of what Deputy Boyd Barrett has said is that Israel does place enormous restrictions in terms of access into Gaza. When I visited Gaza some years ago as Minister for Foreign Affairs, I had to go in through Egypt. I was the only Foreign Minister who managed to get into Gaza in the aftermath of the war at that time, in 2009, because I was facilitated by the Egyptian authorities. I saw at first hand the destruction the violence had caused at that stage. This is a repeated cycle of activity – bombing, destruction, then international support comes in from the European Union and others to rebuild, to be followed by another cycle of destruction. It is extraordinary what the children and families have to go through. Without the United Nations through UNRWA - the United Nations Relief and Works Agency - the European Union and others, the lives of those in Gaza and the West Bank would be extraordinarily poor and deprived, notwithstanding the extraordinary challenges they face right now and on a daily basis.
The Irish Government wants to try to work towards an international resolution, and people can have different approaches. Deputy McDonald raised the occupied territories Bill. We are being advised that, legally, that is not compatible with European law, and that is the advice we received. That said, we have supported legal avenues to differentiate between settlements and Israel, for example, by joining a case before the European courts last year on the labelling of certain goods produced in settlements.
The programme for Government also states the Government will "honour our commitment to recognise the State of Palestine as part of a lasting settlement of the conflict, or in advance of that, when we believe doing so will progress efforts to reach a two-state solution or protect the integrity of Palestinian territory." Fulfilling that commitment is something the Government is keeping under active review.
On what is happening in East Jerusalem, Irish officials have been and are on the ground monitoring it closely in co-operation with EU partners. Ireland provides humanitarian assistance, legal and other supports to specific developments to improve the situation of Palestinians. We fund a number of civil society partners that are active on human rights issues which impact specifically on Palestinians in East Jerusalem including in relation to evictions. We have always consistently and strongly opposed settlements and we will continue to do so. We believe them to be illegal under international law.
I welcome Deputy Kelly raising Belarus, the only Deputy to do so today. It is a very serious issue in how it reflects how authoritarian leaders believe they can do anything now and get away with it in undermining the human rights of journalists or individuals who are living in the capitals of European countries such as Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega. Ireland, along with our European colleagues, will introduce sanctions. Last week's European meeting agreed on concrete steps to protect our citizens, including the introduction of new sanctions. We have called on all airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and we are commencing work to ban Belarusian airlines from EU airspace. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, supported calls for transparent, independent investigation at the special meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization on 27 May. We have concerns for Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega and we call for their immediate and unconditional release. There was a debate in the House on that yesterday. We will continue to work on it. We believe a strong response is required. This is not acceptable and it crosses a line.
The situation in China has been raised. As I said earlier, we consistently raise these issues relating to the Uyghur community and the restrictions on freedom of religion and belief, arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance, forced labour, forced sterilisation and birth control in general, both individually and along with our EU partners and the wider international community.
I will just conclude on this quickly. We raised the matter at an international stage at the UN Human Rights Council on 15 March. Likewise, the EU has made a number of very clear statements on the situation in Hong Kong, including most recently on 11 March. Again, it is a matter of regret that fundamental freedoms, democratic principles and political pluralism that are essential to Hong Kong's identity and prosperity are under increasing pressure by authorities. We are working with our EU partners to do everything we can to raise these issues. The matter has been raised by the Minister for Foreign Affairs with the ambassador of China in Dublin during his 30 May meeting with the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi.