Tuesday, 23 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 11, inclusive, together.
The European Union and the 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 briefings for meetings of the European Council and other European Union and United Nations summits, multilateral events and bilateral engagements with Heads of Government of European Union member states and other countries. It works to ensure a strategic and coherent whole-of-government approach to cross-cutting EU policies and on international issues generally, including in the context of Ireland membership of the UN Security Council and on matters such as global peace and security, international and sustainable development and the external dimensions of climate action. The division also supports both the Cabinet committee on Europe and oversees the implementation of the Global Ireland 2025 strategy.
I want to raise the issue of Catalonia and the Spanish Government’s continued pursual of politicians who led the Catalan referendum on independence. Spain continues to seek the arrests and prosecutions on political grounds, including that of Carles Puigdemont who is now an elected Member of the European Parliament. The decision of the Spanish Government in June of this year to pardon nine Catalan independence leaders was welcome but it is not the general amnesty for participation in the referendum for which many have called, including the Council of Europe. Its legal affairs and human rights committee called on the Spanish authorities to release all Catalan politicians convicted for their role in organising the independence referendum. The report also called on the Spanish Government to abandon all extradition proceedings against Catalan politicians. These demands were later endorsed by the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe.
As democrats we should be very clear in our position that leaders of a referendum should never be imprisoned and that the continued ban on some holding office is disgraceful. In recent times, EU leaders have publicly criticised other European countries for not upholding democratic values and yet has failed to hold the Spanish Government to account and to the same standards.
Does the Taoiseach agree the European Union needs to be consistent in its demands on member states and economic partners and should it be equally vocal against the use of courts for political purposes?
This Thursday has been designated by the United Nations as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Of course, violence against women is very much on the rise. We have had the pandemic and we have had the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence. Does the Taoiseach feel any degree of shame at the fact that in the city and county of Cork there are currently a mere nine permanent refuge units available for the victims of gender-based violence? Does he feel any degree of shame at fact that the workers at the Cuanlee refuge, who do such important work, have had to turn away 56 women due to capacity issues this year alone?
On Thursday at 6 p.m. I will join with women in my community of Blackpool, walking from Blackpool church into town in a show of opposition to violence against women. This is just one of several such protests being organised on the day by ROSA in Dublin, Limerick and across the country. Can the Taoiseach provide these walkers and their supporters with any indication from his Government that their desperate performance on these issues might change any time soon?
Over the past number of weeks, I and others have raised the designation of six human rights organisations and NGOs, including quite a number that receive funding from the EU, as terrorists by Israel. I am sure the Taoiseach has received representations from various Palestinian groups and others on this as well. This is clearly an attempt to, essentially, make illegal any organisation that utters a word of criticism of Israel or shines any spotlight on its apartheid policies, its routine denial of Palestinian rights, its persecution of Palestinians or its illegal occupation of Palestinian land. Those organisations are now designated as terrorists. The Government has expressed concern about this. It said it would be in touch with the Israeli authorities, as has the EU. What is actually happening? This is further evidence that Israel is a rogue state. I am slightly concerned about some of the responses from the Minister and from Government spokespeople, who have started to bandy around the word "antisemitism" if you question the right of Israel to be an apartheid state, which it is. That is clearly coming from the Israelis. I remind the Taoiseach that Nelson Mandela believed Israel was an apartheid state that should be boycotted. It is not an antisemitic statement to call out Israeli apartheid. What is the Government doing to sanction Israel over its designation of human rights organisations as terrorists in an attempt to suppress them?
The majority of the people of the North of Ireland support the protocol, as is clear in the polls that have been conducted there. Indeed, the majority of the people of the North of Ireland voted to remain within the EU. Obviously, there is a benefit to the protocol as it puts the North in a sweet spot economically for trade with the European bloc and Britain. Trade has increased by 60% from North to South and from South to North by about 48% just in the past year. Some unionists are fully against the protocol. That is their right but they believe, for some reason, that a majority of unionists have to support the protocol before it can be agreed by society in the North. That is not how democracy works and those days of unionist majoritarianism are over. The key point for this Chamber is that treating the British gently with regard to the protocol has not worked. Ireland has to get tough with the British and let them know, without a shadow of a doubt, that if they seek to bring down the protocol there will be enormous economic consequences for them. For us to be able to do that we need to make sure the European capitals are on our side. Has the Taoiseach's office been in contact with all the European capitals and governments to ensure they are rock-solid behind Ireland in terms of being tough with Britain if it does decide to bring down the protocol?
On Deputy Martin Kenny's questions, Europe has to be consistent and is consistent. It has been consistent on Ukraine and has had unity of purpose on Ukraine and other neighbourhoods in terms of activities. The situation in Spain is difficult and challenging. I welcome the fact that the situation has de-escalated and that the politicians have been released. No one ever likes to see politicians who would ordinarily be going about their parliamentary business and referendum activity in prison as a result of their activities. There is an overarching constitutional framework within Spain as well that has to be resolved by Spain and by the country. It has had its history and it has evolved. It is important to bear that in mind and to keep that in perspective.
As regards Deputy Barry's points, I abhor violence against women. It is a stain on our society. The Minister for Justice, along with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, is working on a new strategy and on resources, making sure that resources will be provided in areas that have none at the moment, such as refuges in certain counties and that there will be a timeline for the provision of such services. That is ongoing. I am available to support any group that needs additional facilities through the local authorities. There have been good partnerships in Cork on the homeless issue and with regard to refuge for victims of gender-based violence. That has been always the case, consistently over time and I have no doubt that will continue with the support of Government. Any additionality or any requests that come to us from either the NGO sector or local authorities in partnership with the NGO sector will be positively responded to. That has been always the case. There has been a far greater level of awareness of this issue and that must continue. The situation is serious and was exacerbated during the pandemic. We know that and it has been reported. Every effort has to be made in an integrated way across all Departments and every forum, including education, to inculcate and nurture proper respect in our schools and right throughout our society so that we can reduce and, ultimately, eliminate, violence against women. It is shocking that it continues at the level it does.
On the Palestinian question, I am very concerned at this designation by Israel's ministry of defence of six Palestinian NGOs, including Irish Aid and European Union partner organisations. We partner with a number of these organisations and they have now been designated as terrorist entities. That is wrong. Ireland supported the holding of a discussion on the designation and on the recent settlement announcements at the UN Security Council on 8 November and we made a press statement following the meeting with France, Estonia, Norway and Albania, as an incoming UN Security Council member. In the joint statement, we underlined our serious concerns at this designation and the potential political, legal and financial consequences.
Ireland is committed to funding civil society organisations and human rights defenders through the Irish Aid programme, including Palestinian civil society. We as a country have been strong supporters of Palestinian civil society through the years. We carry out robust checks to ensure our funding is used only for the purpose intended and we have no evidence to suggest otherwise. In the absence of any detailed evidence from the Israeli authorities to support the designations, Ireland will continue to support the organisations concerned. This does not impact on our continued support but-----
-----it is still a regressive move. I am also aware of reports that Palestinian human rights defenders were hacked using Pegasus spyware. We attach great importance to the freedom of civil society and people's ability to act without surveillance.
We have also asked Israel to respect international law and to avoid loss of life in the context of Palestinian prisoners who are currently on hunger strike in protest at their arrests under the Israeli policy of administrative detention. We are aware of the concerns raised by the International Committee of the Red Cross regarding the health of some of these prisoners. I welcome the news that one of the individuals concerned has recently reached an agreement with the Israeli authorities to end his strike. We will continue to call on Israel to respect international law and to avoid loss of life and reiterate the right of all detainees to a fair trial. Likewise, in respect of settlements, we have consistently raised our opposition to the Israeli Government's plans for more than 3,000 settlement units in the West Bank. On 20 October we released a statement jointly with 11 other European countries urging the Israeli Government to reverse that decision and reiterating our strong opposition to its policy of settlement expansion. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, raised these issues during his recent visit to the region.
On the protocol, suffice to say that the discussions have taken a turn for the better for the time being. That has to be acknowledged and stated. I was at the British-Irish Council on Thursday and Friday and had a good constructive discussion with the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, and with the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales. They were very clear on the impact of invoking Article 16 on their economies.
There was general consensus all around on the need to avoid any disruption for the people on the ground in Northern Ireland. The EU and the UK are now working towards a negotiated resolution of the issues that have arisen as a result of the protocol. Some legitimate issues have arisen and they need to be resolved. We should do that by negotiation and that is the intention.