Wednesday, 26 January 2022
Post-European Council Meeting: Statements
I attended a meeting of the European Council on Thursday, 16 December in Brussels. Cruinniú suimiúil agus tábhachtach a bhí ann. This was preceded by the Eastern Partnership summit, also in Brussels, which I attended on Wednesday, 15 December.
The European Council had a full agenda, addressing some of the most pressing issues facing the Union. We discussed Covid-19. We addressed the epidemiological situation in the European Union and the impact of Omicron, reiterating the importance of vaccination, co-ordination and international co-operation in the fight against the pandemic. We took stock of work on the European Union's crisis management and resilience to enhance our collective preparedness for future crises. We had a discussion on security and defence issues, and adopted conclusions reaffirming the European Union's intention to promote our interests and values and work towards global peace and security. We discussed developments in Belarus and on Ukraine's borders. We also discussed the external aspects of migration, building on previous discussions in June and October of last year. Leaders discussed the preparations for the European Union-African Union summit, in which I will participate on 17 and 18 February. We concluded with a discussion on the situation in Ethiopia.
The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will address crisis management and resilience, the external aspects of migration, the European Union-African Union summit and Ethiopia in his remarks later. I will address all other items.
Before turning to the European Council meeting, I take this opportunity to update the House on the outcome of the Eastern Partnership summit. The Eastern Partnership summit took place on 15 December amid increased challenges in the European Union's eastern neighbourhood. Since its establishment in 2009, the partnership has sought to foster stability, prosperity and mutual co-operation, to advance reform and to address global and regional challenges. This was the first meeting in this format since 2017. Ongoing developments in the region are a reminder that an effective partnership with, and stability in, our eastern neighbourhood, reinforces peace, security and prosperity across Europe and within the European Union. I was glad to have the opportunity at the summit to exchange views with the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
I regret the necessary absence of Belarus from the summit and the continued refusal of the Lukashenko regime to abide by its international commitments. Symbolically, Belarus was represented at the summit by an empty chair which I hope will be filled in the near future with a representative of a democratic government in Belarus.
The declaration adopted by European Union leaders and our eastern partners at the end of the summit confirmed that our partnership remains rooted in common fundamental values, mutual interests and shared ownership. The outcome reflects Ireland's long-held view that robust democratic processes, diverse media voices, gender equality, good governance and the rule of law are essential to enable all our societies to face the challenges of the 21st century.
Recognising the challenges facing countries in the region, I emphasised that it is vital that the will and voice of citizens are always at the heart of decision-making. In my view, the partnership has been a useful platform for co-operation, bringing improvements in trade and investment, infrastructure, people-to-people contacts, environmental standards and quality of life generally. The summit gave it new impetus at a critical time with elevated political pressures across the region.
When we met on 16 December, European Union leaders stressed the urgent need for Russia to de-escalate tensions caused by its actions along borders with Ukraine, where there has been a build-up of Russian troops. We also reiterated our full support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and our willingness to impose severe costs on Russia should it pursue further military aggression. Ireland never gives up on the prospect of a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to tensions. That is what we are trying to achieve and is our primary goal. I therefore hope that such sanctions will not be necessary, but Ireland and our European Union partners are willing to take steps such as these to defend our core values.
I welcome the intensified international dialogue on this issue, including between Russia and the United States, NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE. Of course, it is important that Ukraine's voice is heard in discussions which concern it. Dialogue is the best way to de-escalate tensions and that should remain everyone's primary focus.
The European Council also addressed the situation in Belarus. European Union leaders condemned the regime's instrumentalisation of migrants, called for the release of political prisoners, an end to the repression of civil society and media, and reiterated the right of the Belarusian people to free and fair elections. The European Union's united position and role contributed last month to the de-escalation of the humanitarian situation at the European Union's borders with Belarus. We must now keep our focus on the challenge of ensuring all people in Belarus are able to realise their fundamental rights and freedoms.
Leaders held a discussion on security and defence issues and adopted conclusions reaffirming the European Union's intention to promote our interests and values and to work towards global peace and security. There is a strong emphasis in our conclusions on the EU's commitment to the global rules-based international order, with the United Nations at its core.
At European Union level, Ireland has always engaged constructively in the development of the European Union's Common Security and Defence Policy, guided by our traditional policy of military neutrality and our contribution to crisis management and peacekeeping. This includes ongoing work to develop the European Union's new security and defence strategy, known as the strategic compass. The strategic compass will outline the European Union's approach towards our Common Security and Defence Policy for the decade ahead, offering a useful framework for the European Union to contribute to international peace and security. It will also reflect ongoing efforts to strengthen the European Union's ability to respond to new types of threats, such as cyber and hybrid attacks. It is expected to be adopted at the March European Council.
At the time of our meeting in December many member states, including Ireland, were experiencing a surge in Covid cases due to the emergence of the Omicron variant. This was a focus of our discussions at our meeting. The European Council underlined the importance of overcoming vaccine hesitancy, specifically through combatting disinformation.
We also called for adoption of revised Council recommendations on travel within and from outside the European Union, stressing the importance of a co-ordinated approach on the validity of EU digital Covid certificates. We called for progress on the EU strategy for Covid-19 therapeutics which will form part of the European Health Union. Thankfully, we have weathered the Omicron storm. Ireland's world-class vaccination programme and the roll-out of boosters has utterly transformed our situation, preventing the recent wave of infection translating into much more serious levels of illness and death.
Leaders underlined that the pandemic will only be overcome through global co-operation based on trust and mutual assistance. Well co-ordinated multilateral mechanisms, such as COVAX, have proven their worth and highlight just how important it is to aim for greater coherence and solidarity across the global health architecture, with the World Health Organization, WHO, in the driving seat.
The European Union is the largest donor and exporter of vaccines in the world. The European Union, with its member states, has committed €3.2 billion to the COVAX facility in support of the equitable distribution of vaccines. The European Union has exported over 1.7 billion vaccine doses to 165 countries. To date, Ireland has committed 5 million doses to COVAX with 1.34 million doses having already been delivered to Uganda, Nigeria, Indonesia and Ghana with further deliveries planned.
With vaccine production challenges from early last year largely resolved, the imperative now is to strengthen co-ordination with partners to address the issue of distribution. Now that there is substantial production capacity, we need to focus minds on the logistical challenge of getting vaccines into the arms of those who need them to meet the WHO target of 70% global coverage by mid-2022. However, we also need to do more and to plan for the medium-term and further global health challenges. As I said earlier, Africa currently imports 99% of its vaccines and 94% of its medicines.
This is unsustainable and we will need to continue to work within the EU and with our partners in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world to change these statistics.
At December's European Council meeting, we again discussed the recent spike in energy prices and considered the impact of these price rises on the most vulnerable. We discussed this at October's meeting, and invited the European Commission to study the functioning of the gas and electricity markets with the help of the Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators, ACER, as well as the EU emissions trading system market with the help of the European Securities Markets Authority. We also discussed the Commission's toolbox of measures and how best to provide short-term relief to the most vulnerable consumers and companies.
The Government's primary response is to utilise the tax and social welfare system to counter the rising costs of living, of which energy costs are one of the biggest drivers, with a number of measures implemented in budget 2022. The budget 2022 package increased the weekly rate of the fuel allowance by €5. It also increases the qualified child payment, the living alone allowance and the income threshold for the working family payment. This is in addition to adjustments to basic welfare and pension rates. A €210 million scheme has also been approved by Cabinet to credit all domestic electricity customers with €113 in 2022. Energy prices will continue to be a focus of attention in the period ahead.
At the Euro Summit on 16 December, leaders heard from the president of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, and the president of the Eurogroup, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Pascal
Donohoe, on economic prospects for the period ahead, including the recovery as we emerge from the pandemic and the likely future trajectory of inflation. Leaders agreed that continued close co-ordination of euro area fiscal policies remains important, with the objective of firmly establishing a sustainable and inclusive recovery. We also reiterated our commitment to completing banking union and strengthening the integration of our capital markets, including providing the Eurogroup with a strong mandate for advancing further work in this area. We will review progress at our next meeting in March.
Last Saturday, 22 January, marked a significant moment in contemporary Irish history. It was on this day, 50 years ago, at the Palais d'Egmont in Brussels, that the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, along with the then Minister for Foreign Affairs and later President of Ireland, Dr. Patrick Hillery, signed the treaty on behalf of Ireland to join the European Communities. The signing ceremony in Brussels set in train a process that saw the people of Ireland voting in May 1972, by an overwhelming 83%, in favour of joining the European Economic Community, EEC, and ultimately, Ireland becoming a member state on 1 January 1973. Few events in our history as an independent State have been so transformative. It is, therefore, a welcome opportunity to encourage reflection, debate and exchange over coming months on the Ireland-European Union relationship, and how we can best contribute to a strong and shared future.
As we mark some of the significant milestones on the road to our membership in the period ahead, and as we contribute to the Conference on the Future of Europe currently considering how the Union should progress, I hope we will share the optimism, aspiration and hope that informed those who signed this treaty for Ireland fifty years ago. Is deis í inniu, áfach, fáilte mhór chaoin a chur roimh dheireadh an mhaolaithe ar stádas na Gaeilge san Aontas Eorpach ó thús na bliana seo. Tá an Ghaeilge anois ar chomhchéim le teangacha bhunaitheoirí eile an Aontais Eorpaigh. Is dul chun cinn suntasach é agus treiseofar úsáid, pobal agus cnuas na Gaeilge mar thoradh.
Leaders will next meet at an EU-African Union summit in Brussels on 17 and 18 February, and at an informal summit in France on 10 and 11 March. These will be followed by a formal European Council meeting in Brussels on 24 and 25 March. I will continue to report to the House on these discussions.
It was announced earlier this week that the joint committee on the protocol will be convened in the coming weeks. We have been calling for this for many months and I welcome it as a positive development. As I have outlined many times, the protocol is needed to prevent a hard border on our island and to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. Where there are issues that remain to be ironed out, political leaders have a responsibility to resolve these through dialogue, and I welcome that the joint committee will be a vital avenue for this dialogue. It is now up to political leaders to engage with the committee in good faith to produce solutions that deliver for communities and businesses impacted particularly in the North. The vast majority of people in the North backed the protocol and want to see workable solutions, not brinkmanship or bluster from the Brexiteers. Those who recklessly advocate for the triggering of Article 16 must not be entertained. Will the Taoiseach set out the steps he is taking at European level to make it clear to our European neighbours that the people of the North support the protocol and want workable solutions, and to make it clear that the joint committee must be engaged with in good faith and cannot be another talking shop for Brexiteers to ramp up rhetoric at the expense of people in the North? What steps have been taken to ensure this committee will meet soon and that this positive momentum - I hope it is positive momentum - can be built on?
In addition, the cost-of-living crisis is clear to see. As I raised with the Taoiseach earlier, workers and families across the State feel the pinch from all angles. Rent, childcare costs, energy costs and food costs have skyrocketed. Figures show that prices went up by 5.4% in the year to November 2021, which was the largest annual change in prices in more than 20 years. People's pay packets simply cannot keep up. As we know, energy bills are astronomical. Despite this crisis, the Government has failed to act sufficiently. When it should have taken decisive action to give workers and families a break, it has dithered. When it has acted, it has been very little, very late.
Before the Taoiseach went to Brussels, I asked him to raise the cost-of-living crisis with our European colleagues to ensure we can work together to provide solutions for hard-pressed families. Many of our European neighbours have taken bold steps to stand up for their citizens in response to this crisis. It is clear that solutions are available where there is a will and where political leadership is evident. What steps has the Taoiseach taken at European level to address the cost-of-living crisis and to stand up for ordinary workers and families who now struggle to keep the lights on and pay their bills? People need to know what solutions he is putting forward for people who need a break. We also need to know what actions are envisaged at European level in a co-ordinated way in the search for these solutions.
In recent weeks, the international community has witnessed a dangerous escalation of military presence by Russia along the Ukrainian border. This is a dangerous situation with a growing potential for conflict in the region. There must be zero tolerance for any form of threat by larger and powerful states against their smaller neighbours. Respect for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and its international borders is non-negotiable. It is for the people of Ukraine to decide democratically their destiny without impediment or coercion, without threat or aggression. It is, therefore, imperative that Ireland plays its part to see a de-escalation and a peaceful and democratic resolution of this crisis. In that spirit, I ask that the multilateral apparatus, in particular, the United Nations and all of that capacity, is deployed in full and effectively to bring about a peaceful and democratic outcome. I anticipate and hope that, as a member of the Security Council, Ireland will play its full part in making that a reality.
Undoubtedly, the most pressing issue of the moment is the potential for the outbreak of open conflict in Ukraine.
Sinn Féin is committed to the principles inherent in the United Nations resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 27 March 2014 in respect of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. This resolution calls on all states "to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, and to settle their international disputes by peaceful means". As a member of the UN Security Council and as a neutral nation, Ireland has the moral standing and political platform to actively pursue a course of action to push for a de-escalation of the current crisis in Ukraine. As a nation, we must be seen to represent and to remain a voice for calm and reason. We must use our position on the UN Security Council and within the EU to push for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
This morning, I met with the Russian ambassador to Ireland. During this meeting, I set out the points I have just made and highlighted the need for a de-escalation of the current crisis. I also raised the issue of the Russian naval exercises planned to take place off the southern coast of Ireland next week. I voiced the opposition of Sinn Féin to these planned exercises. I have previously spoken out against similar exercises conducted by the British navy off the coast of Donegal, during which Irish fishing trawlers were forced from the area by the British. Such exercises also carry a threat to marine biodiversity and wildlife. Under current legislation, the Royal Navy is required to consult with conservation groups to ensure its activities do not endanger wildlife in Britain. However, when it enters Irish waters, there is no such requirement. This is totally unacceptable and it is something Sinn Féin recently sought to change through amendments to the Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2021. Unfortunately, these amendments were opposed by the Government.
Ireland has an international responsibility to patrol its waters, both surface and subsurface, and its skies. As a neutral nation, we must do so with the resources available to us. The events of which we speak have clearly illuminated the failure of this Government to equip our Defence Forces to meet the challenges inherent in our national responsibilities. We must not allow this Government's failing of our Defence Forces to become a Trojan horse to shuttle our country down a road that would see Ireland further immersed in the ongoing project to militarise the EU. Ireland possesses a coveted position on the UN Security Council, which was acquired as a result of a record of decades of neutrality and peacekeeping. This moment challenges our resolve to step up to the expectations of the nations of the world that voted to put us on the Security Council.
In the few minutes I have, I wish to cover two topics. The first is the growing threat to peace in Europe posed by the massing of Russian troops, tanks and military equipment on the Ukrainian border. Nobody can look into the mind of President Putin but, if his utterances and those of his Government are to be taken at face value, it appears he wants to turn back the political, economic and geographical clock of Europe to the time immediately following the Second World War. He apparently wishes to re-establish a Russian zone of influence stretching not only into independent and sovereign Ukraine, but also into the territories of new member states of the European Union. It is ironic that he wants to do is return Europe to its state at the time of the Yalta conference when that conference took place in Crimea, which is now illegally occupied by Russia. That is a fanciful and impossible demand and one that we must resist. The annexing of a neighbouring country's territory on the pretext of a common ethnicity is something we have seen play out on our Continent before with disastrous results. Ireland must remain clear and resolute in standing with democratic Ukraine in defence of self-determination and sovereignty, principles that have underscored our country's foreign policy stance from its inception.
That brings me to the related issue of the conduct of naval manoeuvres by the Russian fleet in our exclusive economic zone. I know this is a matter of interest to the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach. The Government has stated that Ireland has no legal recourse to challenge the holding of these manoeuvres at this time. What is the Government to do? I am glad my Sinn Féin colleague met the ambassador of the Russian Federation today and I hope he can come before the committees of these Houses. He has dismissed Ireland's protests to date. A representative of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation has taken a stand. The CEO, Patrick Murphy, has rightly set out fishers' concerns about the impact of these drills on marine life and biodiversity. He has said that Irish fishers will fish in these areas, as they are entitled to, at the same time as this naval show of strength. Will the Irish Government do anything to support and protect Irish fishers should they take such a stand?
I will briefly touch on a second issue, that is, the ongoing - or should I say "not-going" - negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Before Christmas, there was optimism that the resignation of Lord Frost and his replacement by Liz Truss would calm matters and lead to an agreed settlement. The fact that the UK side would now be led by the foreign secretary, supported by a department whose raison d'êtreis negotiation and diplomacy, gave us all optimism and hope. However, to be diplomatic about it, progress remains elusive. The British position is still to stubbornly challenge the protocol. The protocol is an integral part of a negotiated agreement. It cannot be simply wished away or ignored. All of this is in danger of continuing into the Northern Irish election period, which will make it more difficult to achieve any progress. Talk of a constructive atmosphere and laser-like focus is all well and good but the protocol must be implemented as agreed. It may certainly be tweaked to meet the real practical difficulties experienced on the ground. That is what Maroš Šefčovič is most anxious to do. I have spoken to him on that issue. It cannot be undone, however. That plain and inescapable fact has to be underscored. If the British position is that the protocol cannot be tweaked and must be abolished instead, we risk undermining the work of years of negotiation which came up not with an ideal solution, but with the best possible solution to minimise the risk to the peace process that was so preciously won and which has been so earnestly guarded over the last 20 years or so.
As the Taoiseach has said, last weekend, Ireland marked the 50th anniversary of our membership of the European Communities. The treaty of accession was signed by the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, and the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Patrick Hillery. The decision to join the European Economic Community, EEC, was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Irish people in a referendum in which 83% of the population voted "Yes". It is a decision we have never regretted since, as demonstrated by opinion polls showing consistent support for the EU. In short, membership of the EU has transformed every aspect of Irish life for the better, socially, culturally, economically and politically. It has allowed us to truly take our place among the nations of the world.
I also wish to raise the issue of the proposed Russian naval exercises to be held 240 km off the south-west coast of Ireland next month.
As we know, these exercises are due to take place within Ireland's exclusive economic zone, EEZ, although not in our territorial waters. The Russian ambassador to Ireland, H.E. Yuriy Filatov, has stated that these exercises are "not a threat to Ireland", that "no harm is intended" and that this is a "non-story", which "has been hugely overblown". I do not agree with the ambassador's comments. We cannot be oblivious to the global context of this proposed action. I refer to the threat from Russia to invade Ukraine. Everyone knows there are heightened tensions in Europe now. Unfortunately, such naval exercises are routinely undertaken by Russia and other military powers. This exercise, however, is intimidating and threatening. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, was right to say this planned activity is "not welcome" and to brief his EU foreign ministerial colleagues on the issue.
The former Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, was right when he stated this move by Russia is "provocative in its timing and nature". It is intimidating. Why not carry this out activity somewhere else instead of on the western seaboard of the EU? There is also the potential for disruption to marine life and fishing grounds on the Porcupine Seabight, to whales and dolphins especially. There is also the question of possible damage to underwater communications cables. We can probably not do much about this planned activity but it increases our determination to stand in solidarity with our European neighbours in Ukraine and to support the implementation of major sanctions on Russia should it decide to invade that country.
Turning to the situation in Ukraine, the threat of a Russian invasion of the country is escalating. Some 125,000 Russian troops are being massed on Ukrainian borders. We are told that Russia feels threatened by the spread of European liberal democratic values, but those of us who subscribe to these values make no apology for doing so. Ireland and the EU have clearly supported Ukraine’s right to sovereignty and territorial integrity. The EU is united in solidarity with Ukraine, and it will support a comprehensive and severe range of sanctions and restrictions on Russia should it decide to invade Ukraine. It has also brought forward a financial package to help Ukraine, and that is very welcome. Talks between the US and Russia are continuing, NATO members are considering the threat, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, is considering the matter, and discussions have taken place among EU foreign ministers. The Taoiseach was right yesterday when he said we need a de-escalation of tensions. Every effort should be made to bring about a negotiated settlement of this crisis and to avoid a military confrontation. This approach would be far preferable to military action by Russia and NATO-led countries in the region.
Meanwhile, as we have heard, talks between the UK and the EU regarding the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol continue. Further meetings between the British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, and European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič are scheduled for next week. We are told that the latest round of talks has been constructive. While no one is willing to impose a deadline for a conclusion of these talks, they must be given added momentum now due to the added proximity of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May. We must also hope the current events involving the Conservative Party in Britain do not encroach on these negotiations. Again, this prospect highlights the need to bring these matters to finality as soon as possible.
I also take this opportunity to send my sympathy to our MEPs on the death of the President of the European Parliament in January, David Sassoli. His death brought about genuine sadness in the European Union and I extend my condolences to his family on his passing. The European Parliament has since elected a new President, Roberta Metsola from Malta. She is the youngest MEP to obtain this post and I wish her every success in her new role. I also welcome the support given at the European Council meeting in December to Lithuania, which has serious issues with China now. Again, it is important for the EU to show solidarity if any member state is threatened in this way. I note what the Taoiseach had to say regarding the eastern partnership summit and the poignancy of an empty chair representing the absence of Belarusian participation at that meeting. I again use this occasion to raise the plight of political prisoners in Belarus and to call for their release immediately. It is unacceptable that innocent people involved in politics there have been imprisoned. We must not forget their plight.
The council also dealt with the ongoing pandemic issue. Associated with that is the need for vaccine equity. The EU is the largest donor and exporter of Covid-19 vaccines in the world. In the short term, that is the way to proceed regarding Covid-19 vaccine equity. I refer to the COVAX mechanism. I welcome that Ireland is wholeheartedly participating in that mechanism. The Conference on the Future of Europe continues, and I have no doubt the Minister of State with special responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will keep us updated on those events.
The final issue raised in the debate here was the so-called strategic compass. I have a question tabled for answer by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, tomorrow on this issue and Ireland’s approach to it. My question also asks whether Ireland’s approach will involve our tradition of peacekeeping and multilateral diplomacy through the UN. It is important our unique tradition as a member state in the European Union is brought to that process, and I have no doubt the House will continue to give this issue of the strategic compass further consideration in advance of the summit meeting in March.
Regarding the recent forced displacement of Palestinian households in occupied East Jerusalem, the UN last week urged Israel to halt all evictions and demolitions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, immediately after a family was forced out of their home the previous day. I am referring to the Salhieh family. They bought their house in Sheikh Jarrah in 1967, which is a long time ago. It was before this State had joined the EU and at a time when Eamon de Valera was the President. It should go without saying therefore, that, the Salhieh's claim to this land goes way back, and yet an Israeli court has just ruled against the family being allowed to remain in their home. On Wednesday, Israeli police raided the Salhieh home, forcibly removed the family and then demolished their property. Some 25 family members and supporters who had been demonstrating were arrested.
That is just awful. Both Houses have passed a motion to recognise the state of Palestine, but the Government has not formally granted recognition and has said it wishes to do that as part of a wider EU move. The Minister for Foreign Affairs needs to start leading from the front at EU Council meetings and start pushing the EU Council to act. I ask that all diplomatic channels at EU level be used to demand that Israeli authorities stop such actions.
It is hard to know where to begin, because the plight of Palestinians grows bleaker each week. Ireland has been a leader in the pursuit of justice and fairness around the globe, and we have long recognised the importance of Palestinian civil society in pursuing justice and peace. Ireland's lack of action following the recent attacks on Palestinian NGOs is concerning.
Last year saw significant increases by apartheid Israel in its targeting of Palestinian civil society groups, the settlements and the use of administrative detention. Ireland nods obediently while the European Commission is giving the green light to Israel to target NGOs with no fear of any consequences. Whatever happened to the concept of innocent until proven guilty? Why is the European Commission allowed to exercise double standards when it comes to civil society groups operating in Palestine? The Commission has frozen funding for these six civil society groups following unverified claims from apartheid Israel. Organisations like Al-Haq are considered guilty until they prove themselves innocent. We have seen it before where past allegations by the apartheid authorities of the misuse of EU funds have not been validated. Ireland must raise its voice and not hide in the European herd. We must demand that funding is released and the documentation that is being offered by Israel is made public. How long will we allow the European Union to be complicit in the crimes of apartheid Israel?
I heard Deputy Haughey refer to the release of political prisoners in Belarus. The same applies for political prisoners held by Israel. The Palestinians are held with absolutely no trial - nothing. They are just arrested and held and they are literally tortured. That is not acceptable. Ireland has to stand up and make its voice heard and not hide behind the European Union.
In the brief time I have I am going to focus on two points of immediate concern. First is COVAX and the issue of vaccine distribution around the world, particularly in the developing world. The Taoiseach has mentioned in the pre-European Council statements and again today in his discussion with Deputy McDonald the continued support for COVAX. COVAX reached a milestone a couple of days ago on 15 January, when it gave out its billionth vaccine. That was half the intended target announced earlier in the year. Beyond that, only 36 of the 194 WHO states have vaccinated over 10% of their population. Some 84% of people in Africa have yet to receive a single dose. COVAX relies on the market, and the market has proven not to be a reliable source for confronting health inequalities around the world since the dawn of time. COVAX is failing yet we continue to stay committed to it. The Financial Timesreported yesterday that COVAX is no longer able to accept any more doses because of cash shortages. That is incredible. The mechanism by which we are distributing the vaccine to the developing world cannot send any more doses because of cash shortages. It needs $5.2 billion, we are told, in a time when there is militarisation happening on the borders of Europe that I guarantee is costing a hell of a lot more. That is what is holding up vaccine distribution around the world.
We have started to see a little bit of sunlight in this country in respect of the pandemic but it is by no means over. If people around the developing world are still unable to receive vaccines at an equitable level, we are going to continue to create the perfect incubation conditions for the virus to mutate, spread, transform and place us all at risk. COVAX has proven not to be an appropriate mechanism to deal with this pandemic and plague. It has demonstrated that powerful richer nations are placing their own needs before those of the rest of the world, foolishly. I implore the Government and the Taoiseach through our role in the EU and on the UN Security Council to step away from this market-led attempt to address vaccine inequity. It is not working. Epidemiologists around the world are calling for a TRIPS waiver. We have been calling for that from the very beginning of the pandemic. It is not the be-all and end-all; there are other issues. It is certainly better than what we have and what COVAX has delivered. COVAX is not suitable for its intended purpose.
We should also talk about the militarisation and build-up along the Ukrainian border and what I will call the Russian excursions. While I do not really want to focus on the military testing that is happening 240 km off the Old Head of Kinsale, I also do not want to see that in isolation. We have also seen Russian incursions into our airspace over the past two years. We have seen Russians tracking over our undersea cables. Now we see a missile test 240 km out to sea in our economic zone. How we respond to that is very important.
Nobody here is going to claim our response should be any form of engagement in creeping militarisation of the European Union, NATO or anything like that. We need to respond in the way we have always done, respecting our neutrality but also pressing forward in terms of our diplomacy and seeing ourselves as peaceful actors in the world. That is the only response we can take. Since the dawn of time it has been said that the strong do what they will while the weak suffer what we must. Ireland is not a weak country by any stretch of the imagination. Our role as peacekeepers and diplomats on the world stage means we should be people who attempt to bring others to the table, standing in solidarity with the people of Ukraine who have suffered enormously over recent years in conflict with the Russian Federation, but also saying this strong-man position that has been taken up by the US, Russia and NATO forces is not compatible with a modern world. We know how that ends. We do not want it again. It is not part of our peace. Too many lives have been lost in that regard. We need to be strong in terms of holding the diplomatic response, engaging with the Russian ambassador as far as we can, and highlighting that we do not want these military actions taking place off our coast to the detriment of our environment and our sea life. It has been said Ireland is somewhat of a weak link into the European Union or into NATO's territories. That is not what we should be. We should be forceful and strong in our condemnation of militarisation but also proud in standing up for peace in a world that seems to be becoming increasingly fragile.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this very important and timely discussion. I am grateful to the Taoiseach for his update following the Council meeting held prior to Christmas. While much has changed, much has not. There are only three areas I want to focus on this afternoon. One could focus on 300 areas if one really wanted to. First is the extremely worrying situation on the European Union's eastern flank, to pick up from Deputy Gannon. It has dominated much discussion over recent days and most recently at the Foreign Affairs Council. Despite what some people might think, this does impact us not just because of military exercises taking place 240 km off our south coast. It affects the entire European Union. The knock-on effect in terms of energy provision and supply, the possible economic ramifications, and the fact we have seen cyber attacks in this country and hybrid warfare deployed along the European Union's eastern flank over recent months is absolutely something that impacts us.
It is now that we truly need to see European unity when it comes to dealing with Russia, but we have not seen that up to this point, to be quite frank. It is time we had an emergency European Council meeting. I think we are moving to that position. Despite the amount of discussion that is being held between certain European institutional and member state leaders with allies in the US and NATO, and discussions at the Foreign Affairs Council, we need to get people together at Head of Government level to see where there can be a united response. We talk about leverage and the ability to de-escalate the conflict. Diplomacy is obviously king and the best way to go about it. No one wants to see an escalation of overt military action. However, the European Union cannot be afraid to look at the economic leverage it has over Russia. I refer to the proper use of sanctions, not blankly across the Russian Federation but targeted especially against the leadership, the elite and the oligarchs who surround the Russian President. They have worked before; we know that. That is how important they are. Targeted, impactful sanctions need to be on the table. Discussion about them needs to end. They simply need to be implemented now. It is not just the people of Ukraine who are viewing this escalation with trepidation and fear; it is all the people in western Europe, and rightly so. This is not a new phenomenon. It is an extremely worrying phenomenon. It is not something that can take a weak or light response.
It asks further questions about the security and defence capabilities of the European Union and, more pertinently, closer to home, what role we play in it.
Are we contributing? Are we overly reliant? Where can we contribute? Is it merely a matter of increased investment in our Defence Forces or is it a question of increased levels of co-operation, in particular in the sharing of security information? After the cyberattack in the summer months, we saw the importance of working with European partners. We must have an honest debate in the House about that.
The second point I would like to focus on is the ongoing Covid-19 situation. While we in this country are moving away from the emergency situation - with the relaxation of restrictions, there is perhaps a different mindset and approach, and let us all hope we are moving from pandemic to epidemic - the situation is not necessarily the exact same across Europe or the wider world, in particular the developed world. As we move into this period, we need to see an element of co-ordination and co-operation, especially on Covid passes. We know that Covid passes for second dose vaccinations are due to expire. Anyone who has travelled on the Continent knows that going from member state to member state comes with different Covid pass requirements. While there remains a requirement in Ireland in respect of travel, we have to be clear on the responsibilities. It behoves every citizen who can to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and get a booster, but it is also the responsibility of the EU and member state governments to continue encouraging their domestic populations to get vaccinated and diversifying the supply of vaccines around the world.
I do not know whether the Minister of State will be able to address my next point, namely, ensuring recognition for the vaccine status of Irish citizens, particularly those who have been vaccinated or boosted in Northern Ireland as well as those who have been vaccinated outside the EU, specifically the UK. This matter caused quite a bit of concern when vaccine passes were introduced, and now that we are requiring people to have boosted vaccination passes, it needs to be prioritised.
I had not intended to speak too long about the ongoing discussions between the EU and the UK on the post-Brexit protocol because, like others, I had hoped that the change in tone that was mentioned was real. With Deputies Niamh Smyth and Ó Murchú, we met Commissioner Šefčovič in Strasbourg and got a decent update. We were all appeased that there was ongoing discussion at a technical level. The Minister of State has been clear with the House about the progress that is being made and the opportunities that lie therein, but I have to be frank. An hour ago, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, FCO, put out the most ridiculous tweet - it can only be described as Trumpian propaganda - and I have to question why. When we need co-operation between the EU, the UK, the US, other western countries and NATO to deal with an escalating problem on the EU's eastern border in Ukraine and when the protocol talks are supposedly moving to a better place, out of nowhere a ridiculous video was put out not by a politician, but by a British Government institution - the FCO - saying all manner of things about how the Northern Irish protocol worked.
Are we being taken for mugs? The British Government is saying one thing at one meeting and dealing with its own domestic chaos in Westminster but then saying the opposite things in a video published by a civil service body. It was not published by a politician. It was not a column in the Daily Expressor the Mail on Sundayfrom a disgruntled Brexiteer from the ERG or whatever, which we could dismiss. It was from an institution of a state with which we have a close relationship, albeit a relationship that has been tested in recent years. We need to have a relationship that is based on honesty and trust. You can best be someone's friend by being honest with him or her.
How in the name of God are we going to progress relations and get a solution on the protocol when the British Government once again and on an official basis trashes the very agreement it agreed to just over a year ago on the same day the DUP yet again threatened to pull down Stormont because it was not getting what it wanted in the protocol? The very architects of Brexit - those who forced it through and convinced the people to vote for an absolute myth and nonsense - are once again failing to pick up their duties and implement their responsibilities.
I know how personally engaged and involved the Minister of State is in this matter, as are the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and I know the frustration I am showing from the backbenches probably goes a little further - I am in a position to do so as a backbencher - but we have to be clear in the upcoming discussions with Commissioner Šefčovič and European allies and colleagues, and directly with British Government ministers, that we want to see the deal implemented and we need to do this with a level of trust that quite simply has not been displayed so far.
I will begin by expressing my deep concern about the current situation at the Ukrainian border, where an estimated 100,000 Russian soldiers are gathered. I note among the conclusions of December's meeting that the European Council reiterated its full support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and has warned that any further military aggression against Ukraine will have major consequences and incur a severe cost in response. I wish to reiterate Sinn Féin's opposition to the act of aggression against a sovereign state.
Ireland has particular roles it can play in terms of being a neutral country and by using our position on the United Nations Security Council. We need to use these roles to play our part in achieving a peaceful resolution to the crisis and avoiding an escalation that would cost lives and international relations and all that go with those factors. Calm and reason are needed. The situation is balanced on a pinhead and, therefore, we must use our unique position to highlight the need for moral awareness, political dexterity and the ultimate goal of a peaceful resolution that has the sovereignty of Ukraine foremost in our minds.
In December, the European Council also discussed the matter of security. In particular, discussions were had on taking more responsibility in this regard, yet we are in a situation where Russia is set to carry out naval drills off the coast of Ireland next month. This is yet another deeply concerning situation and is not helped by the fact our Defence Forces are overstretched and have been subject to underinvestment. Our Naval Service is a case in point. We also lack primary radar, thereby enabling agencies of other states to probe our airspace. Now we find ourselves in a situation in which missile tests are to take place in relatively close proximity to Ireland and in our exclusive economic zone and we are ill-prepared to deal with them. Many see it as a posturing exercise with old Cold War actions, but it is also placing increased pressure on our underfunded and overstretched Defence Forces, which lack key monitoring infrastructure. When are we going to address our own deficiencies? Are we just going to discuss ambitions at an EU level without dealing with our own issues? Effectively, what is now being expected of our Defence Forces is to police a presence they are unable to see, detect or hear. It only adds to the level of disillusionment that personnel feel. Do we have to find ourselves in situations such as this before any action is taken to fund the Defence Forces adequately or is the Government going to continue ignoring the 2015 White Paper, which recognised that radar surveillance was a priority?
What efforts are being made to protect our rights to fish? Under current legislation in Britain, the Royal Navy is required to consult conservation groups to ensure its activities do not endanger wildlife in the area. We have no such requirement and we can we see the ease with which the Russian navy can carry out its activities in Ireland's exclusive economic zone. Our fishing industry is on its knees as a result of poor negotiation by the Government and EU rules that do it a disservice. With quotas slashed, things were bad enough for the sector, but now we have military activity taking place in fishing waters that will disturb the catch and have profound implications for livelihoods in the fishing sector.
I wish to mention the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, waiver, to which the EU was described as the "biggest roadblock" by former President Mary Robinson. Lower income countries do not want to rely on donations alone. They want to be able to manufacture their own vaccines, but we are still meeting opposition to this from the EU. Covid is not over for anyone until it is over for everyone.
We are supposed to be a neutral country but the way in which the Government is articulating its position on the dangerous brinkmanship and escalation by two major military political blocs - NATO and Russia - suggests that, for the Government at least, there is no question of being neutral or objective but that the Irish Government is taking sides.
I did not interrupt the Minister of State or the Taoiseach. I wish to put to bed the nonsense that Government Deputies come out with. I cannot put it more baldly. They would not put it as baldly as that.
We were out criticising what the Russians were doing in Kazakhstan last week, and there is not much action from the Government on that. I stood at many a protest over what the Russians did in Chechnya and the carnage they inflicted there and I did not see Members opposite there, so they should not try to confuse the issue.
While I object absolutely to the Russians' massing troops on the Ukrainian border, to the whole nature of the Russian regime and, for that matter, to the carrying out of military exercises in the Irish maritime area, the problem is that I have heard not a word about the NATO military exercise on 24 January in the Mediterranean. There has been no criticism of that military exercise, in which NATO flexed its muscles. It was the first time since the end of the Cold War that an entire US aircraft carrier fleet came under NATO control. What is it doing there except ratcheting up the tensions? The Russians are massing troops on the Ukrainian border; they should not be doing so. The Americans are planning to send troops into Ukraine and are arming the Ukrainians, as are many of the NATO powers - not Germany, notably, but many European powers are arming the Ukrainians with weapons that the Russians, as much as I criticise them, have a reason to be concerned about. James Baker promised at the time that an eastward expansion of NATO would not happen. That promise was broken and NATO was expanded aggressively, encircling Russia, inevitably provoking an escalation of political and military tensions. There has been not a word on that from the Irish Government and no balance in its criticism. That is why I say it is not being neutral or objective in this.
Some of the world's media outlets that do not have an axe to grind for one side or the other are objective in their assessment of what is going on. Ireland is not. Why? Because the Irish political establishment has always, in truth, wanted to facilitate the US-led western bloc, as it does at Shannon Airport, allowing it to prosecute the utterly disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered and we facilitated it. We facilitated the kidnap and torture programme that is US rendition. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and some of their coalition partners stood over that and allowed that to happen and continue to allow it to happen. They want to sign us up to the permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, when the European military project being pushed is all about deepening the integration with NATO, which is a first-strike military and nuclear alliance. I ask the House to just think about that. NATO has a policy of first-strike use of nuclear weapons against states that do not have nuclear weapons. That is an actual policy of NATO. We should be railing against that kind of stuff.
Let us uphold our shattered tradition of neutrality and call this out for what it is. These are two nasty, expansionist military-political big power alliances. Neutrality means calling them both out and calling for people to step back from the brink of war, to demilitarise the area, to de-escalate and to say that weapons and the deployment of same as well as military advisors and troops from either side are not acceptable and are adding fuel to the fire.
Since the last European Council meeting, things have escalated significantly, certainly insofar as the potential conflict in Ukraine is concerned. It is very alarming every single evening to see the build-up of tanks and 100,000 troops on the eastern border of Ukraine and Russia. It is very intimidating. We see President Putin repeatedly put it up to all countries in the West, including Ireland this week with the potential of ballistics testing in our exclusive economic zone at sea. I was watching the news last night like many people in this country and saw how a small group of fishermen in the south west of our country will take their own stand. It is important that Ireland also take a stand. We might be geographically a minnow nation but, geopolitically, we pack a punch and we need to use our seat as a member of the European Union and a member of the UN Security Council until 2023. It is crucial that we use all voices we have to bring calm to the situation and to say in the clearest possible terms that we absolutely condemn what the Russian state is attempting to do.
Before coming over to the Chamber, I took a look at the Russian exclusive economic zone at sea. It encompasses a huge body of water of approximately 8.5 million sq. km. Why can the Russians not do their training exercises there? You would not see the Irish Navy going off the coast of St. Petersburg or the Irish Army playing war games. It is the civilians of Ukraine and the people who depend on our fishing waters who will pay the price here because marine life will be hugely damaged by what is to happen.
I have repeatedly raised the issue of Afghanistan in this Chamber. The European Union and Ireland as a member state of the UN Security Council cannot take our eye off this. One thing has bothered me hugely since taking up a seat in the Dáil. I have contact with a number of families in Afghanistan. We talk every second day or two on WhatsApp. They often send me voice memos. You can hear what is going on in the background. I probably got too personally involved with them and, as an elected representative of the Dáil repeatedly raising their cases here, I probably give them too much hope that Ireland could bring them over as refugees and give them some safety. It is harrowing each evening to hear what goes on. I hope it is permissible to show this photograph in the Dáil. There is no face shown in it, but this is a ten-year-old boy in Afghanistan who was whipped within a few inches of his life only last week. People in the media say continuously that the Taliban has turned a corner and is now at the table, that they are serious politicians and that we should talk to them and engage with diplomacy and dialogue. The Taliban is anything but. They are the same thugs and bullies they were a decade ago. They are whipping ten-year-old boys. I also have WhatsApp voice memos on my phone of machine gun fire going off on the street and a bullwhip being used to drive people into their homes when it got dark one evening in Kabul. This is going on every single evening. Because it has disappeared off RTÉ News: Nine O'Clock, Sky News and BBC News, it is crucial that we at least at a political level keep this high on the agenda not only domestically but also internationally.
A number of people who have been employed by an Irish-headquartered company are still in Kabul, having their lives put at risk daily. We owe it to them, because of their long-established links to Ireland, to bring them over on the refugee programme and to give them the safety here that they deserve.
In the past few minutes I have been sitting in the Chamber the focus has been on the tension between Ukraine and Russia and the huge impact it is having. We think back to stories we heard about the Cuban crisis and the standoff there was there between the United States and Russia in the early 1960s.
In the few brief minutes I have I wish to focus on the huge impact this is having on people's economic lives in this country and on energy costs. What can we do to alleviate the hardship that is happening at the moment and the continuing crisis that energy costs and the way they have spiralled will impact every household and every business in this country? The most vulnerable in society will feel electricity costs the worst. Whether it is heating oil, diesel for the car or electricity, there has been huge inflation in recent months. In every industry, whether hospitality, manufacturing or whatever else, the spiralling energy costs will have a huge inflationary effect that will be felt by all sectors of society. I was talking to a publican the other night. He is very glad to have his pub reopened but says his electricity bill has gone up by 250%. After an extremely difficult two years, this will be a huge economic burden for publicans.
Last week, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, of which I am Chairman, was briefed by Mr. Fabien Santini of the European Commission on what the Commission intends to do on energy costs. Specifically, we were focusing on the cost of fertiliser to the agri sector. I definitely got the impression at the meeting that the Commission is not overly concerned and feels the matter will sort itself out. If the usage of chemical fertiliser dropped by 15%, 20% or 25%, the Commission would not shed too many tears. However, it has far more implications than that. First of all, we see food inflation at the moment. I think we are going to have food inflation definitely in excess of 25%. There has been no recognition of what impact it is going to have on the poorer nations of the world. There are 800 million people currently in starvation in a famine situation. There are 2 billion more living on an inadequate diet. If there is a curtailment of food production, those countries are going to feel it the worst. We will have many more people in a starvation situation around the world.
Food security was one of the key cornerstones of EU policy for a long time. It is something that I have not heard mentioned for a long time. I think we will start to hear it again. Food security is going to become an important cog of policy once more. The cost of the production of food is going to increase dramatically this year. There is an onus on us to ensure that the underprivileged in world society do not feel the greatest brunt of it and that we do not end up in a situation where there are billions of people around the globe who are starving because of this energy crisis. It is beyond our control as a country to solve, but in my view, it is not beyond the control of the EU to try and resolve the issue and reduce the cost of energy. It will affect the most vulnerable in world society.
I wish to raise concerns around Russia and the planned military exercises off the coast of County Cork in the coming weeks. I know that for some of my constituents, and in particular fishermen in Cork, there are a lot of concerns about these exercises. While there are no rules to stop the Russians from doing them, it is deeply concerning that they are choosing to do them off the Irish coast. The Minister of State needs to push his EU colleagues to support us in making it clear that these exercises are not welcome and should not happen. Given the current tensions between Russia, Ukraine and NATO, now is not the time or the place for these sorts of exercises. There is some frustration at the impact that they could have on fishermen, especially at a time when they are already struggling. There are also real concerns about the potential environmental and fish stock impacts that these exercises could have. Ireland is a neutral State, and we ask Russia and all other military powers to respect our neutrality.
I also want to take the opportunity to mention the Women of Honour, for whom I have huge respect and admiration. The Minister for Defence is refusing to listen to the Women of Honour, who are asking for respect and for a proper and full inquiry. I want to pay tribute to my colleague, Deputy Sorca Clarke, for the phenomenal work she has done in raising this issue here. It is really disappointing to once again see survivors treated with disrespect and a lack of empathy by this Government. The Women of Honour have attempted to work constructively with the Department of Defence and the Government, but are being shut out. I urge the Minister for Defence to listen to these concerns now and to act urgently to take them on board. The Department must accept that it is undermining the Women of Honour group's trust and it needs to work to repair it. There can be no delays or attempts to sweep the issue under the carpet. Have we not learned from the mother and baby homes, the CervicalCheck scandal and the Kerry babies case? The way that we treat women in this State never seems to change. Women like those in the Women of Honour group must be listened to and respected.
Finally, I want to use my remaining time to ask what the EU is doing to help and support the people of Yemen. There are 21 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, 11 million of whom are children. Some 10,000 children have either been killed or maimed because of the ongoing war. It is said to be the worst place in the world to be a child, and still the war continues into its seventh year. What is the EU doing? There is an onus on all of us to act. They are being bombed, killed and starved and the world looks idly by.
The Covid defence and supports that the Taoiseach mentioned earlier, which were approved by the EU, have clearly shown to Ireland the benefits of EU membership. Membership has granted us access to vaccines as soon as the technology was developed. Indeed, our membership also allowed us access to EU purchasing power which we could not have achieved on our own. It has also provided us with boosters for younger age groups, along with the latest in antiviral medicine, which allows us to continue to combat this serious disease. Indeed, access to vaccines and boosters is the primary reason we, in Ireland, are now emerging from the worst ravages of Covid and the Omicron wave.
The Taoiseach outlined how the EU is now the largest donor of vaccines to the developing world and acknowledged that 1.7 billion doses had already been delivered to developing nations. Indeed, he said that the manufacturing was at such scale that potentially global distribution and roll-out can now be achieved. He stated that we have to work with our EU partners in terms of distributing Covid vaccines. This also highlights the potential for the emergence of a variant of concern while the developed world remains unvaccinated. It also calls into question the present policy of Ireland and the Government to not support the TRIPS waiver that would allow for mRNA vaccine technology manufacture to be implemented under licence in the developing world, ensuring a faster roll-out of vaccines. Has the Government taken any time to reconsider its position on TRIPS?
The Taoiseach also spoke about energy and the rising energy prices, particularly in oil and gas, that are of concern across the EU. He mentioned the Cabinet approval of €210 million to provide a rebate to all households to offset rising energy costs. Unfortunately, it is a fact that energy costs are here to stay for some time. I would imagine that there will not be another rebate for a very long time. What is the future of our overseas gas supply, given the European dependence on Russian gas? We have made much of Ireland's potential to generate electricity from offshore wind, but in truth, we are more than a decade away from seeing this implemented to any great scale. Therefore, we have to depend on the supply coming through the UK and from our EU partners.
The developing situation in Ukraine must give us all pause for thought. The Russian amassing of troops and tanks close to the Ukrainian border is a deeply symbolic act of potential aggression against its neighbour. Indeed, the proposed Russian navy live fire exercises to be conducted in Ireland's marine economic zone is also an unwelcome act of sabre-rattling to the EU. The issue of Ukrainian sovereignty and its potential right to join or align with NATO appears to be the main concern of President Putin and his Kremlin officials. What is the official Irish policy? I ask the Minister of State to enunciate it and how it relates to our European partners. Does this latest international emergency not yet again question Ireland's ability to defend itself, and for our Defence Forces to monitor our land and sea areas effectively, as well as to patrol our skies? We may be neutral, but does this mean that our Defence Forces must remain neutered due to years of underfunding? When will this situation be resolved?
In terms of financial recovery post Covid, the Taoiseach mentioned the concerns in the EU regarding rising inflation and the headwind it represents to future Union economic growth. It appears Ireland is to support further and deeper banking union and mandates. It must be said that at present, the choice available to domestic customers in Ireland is at an all-time low.
It is not uncommon at present for small builders in this country to access finance from larger builders at an annual percentage rate of up to 10% simply because they cannot borrow from the remaining pillar banks which have zero appetite for any risk and are only willing to support small home builders when they have a contract in place with a local authority for the sale of the houses. For all its strategy, I suggest the Government must find a way to address the issue of builder finance.
We signed our accession treaty in 1973. It has to be said that Ireland has come a long way in terms of economic growth, improved standards of living and greater diversity in our population as a result of our membership of the EU. It also has to be said that we have benefited from EU law and EU standards. We hope this will continue to be the case. We will continue to be a strong advocate of EU cohesion and EU policy. It appears that at present the financial landscape is favourable or proving favourable but we must take every step in future to ensure any uplift in the tide lifts prosperity for all boats in our society.
As we sit here today the spectre of war once again looms over Europe. We can but hope that it will amount to sabre-rattling of old superpowers and that the dreadful vista of another conflict on our continent on the edge of the European Union does not come to pass. Throughout history, wars have been fought ostensibly over territory, identity, religion and a myriad of other excuses or reasons but at the heart of many if not most wars has been resources, specifically access to and control of resources. Europe is dependent on Russian gas. It brokers for peace and stability with one hand tied behind its back knowing that the heat and electricity that flows to millions of homes throughout the continent can be curtailed and that the price of heat and electricity can be driven upwards.
This is not a hypothetical scenario. We know it is already happening. The energy crisis we are experiencing and the deteriorating geopolitical crisis are two sides of the same coin. As a member of the Green Party I have spoken many times in the House about why we must reduce our dependence on all fossil fuels as quickly as possible for inarguable climate reasons. However, it is clear that energy security is another reason we must do so. True energy independence and security of supply will come from developing our indigenous energy resources, with those resources being clean and renewable.
We have more energy in the confines of our borders than we will likely ever need but we have barely started to harness it. The events on the Ukraine border as much as the climate crisis compel us here in Ireland to expedite our efforts. We should not and cannot do so alone. The scale of the challenge to develop this infrastructure is such that we need Europe's help through financing, labour, expertise and regulation. It is in Europe's interest that we in Ireland build up as quickly as possible our deep water port capacity to stage arrays of thousands of large wind turbines off the Atlantic coast and that our interconnection capacity is ramped up so that we, and not the Russians, can send vast amounts of power, and clean power as opposed to fossil fuel power, to Europe when it needs it.
There are parallels today with the oil crisis of the 1970s. Back then it was other European countries, notably Denmark and Germany, that seized the opportunity and ultimately developed major renewable energy industries. Ireland faltered. Instead we flirted with the idea of nuclear power at Carnsore in Wexford before settling on building a hugely polluting coal power station at Moneypoint in Clare. Neither nuclear nor coal are the answer for Ireland now when we have vast quantities of realisable energy off our shores.
In future our homes can and I believe will be heated with Irish renewable electricity. For this to happen we need to undertake a massive retrofitting programme. We will learn the details of this in the coming weeks. The programme will set a plan for hundreds of thousands of homes throughout Ireland to remove fossil fuel boilers and install heat pumps. We will reduce the need for energy by retrofitting installation and replacing windows with low u-value glazing. The homes of the future will be airtight with heat recovery ventilation systems to ensure fresh air while reducing heat loss to outside.
Everything I have said today indicates the direction we are going. It will be a Herculean effort. The question remains as to how quickly we can get there. For climate reasons as well as for energy security reasons we must get there as quickly as possible. It is urgent. We must apply every lever at our disposal and turn to Europe to assist us.
I have to raise the issue of the impending missile testing due to take place off the west Cork coast by the Russian army. At this point I have to outline the devastating impact this missile testing will have on marine wildlife in the area. The area in question is known as the Porcupine Seabight. To describe the Porcupine Seabight, it is almost like a chunk taken out of the continental shelf. It is where the continental shelf eventually drops off into the deep. It is a rich and incredibly important area of biodiversity in the north-east Atlantic. It is important for whales, dolphins, fish species and other marine wildlife.
To give an example of how important it is, I will go through some of the species that can be encountered there. It is one of the most important areas in the north-east Atlantic for the blue whale. The blue whale is the biggest animal that has ever roamed this planet at well over 30 m long. This area is incredibly important for it. Blue whales, like all cetaceans, hunt acoustically. They use sound to hunt. The impact of the high decibel volume of missile launches and missile testing will have a huge impact on this beautiful species.
Another example, and perhaps an even better example of how it will impact wildlife, is the sperm whale. The Porcupine Seabight is one of the most important areas in the Atlantic for sperm whales. Sperm whales dive down to the depths to hunt where there is no light. It is completely dark. They use a high frequency click, like a sonar, to hunt and source their prey. As we can imagine, as the Russian military amass off the west coast of Cork it will be monitored. It will be monitored by NATO, the UK and the rest of Europe. Therefore, we can be absolutely assured there will be Russian submarines pinging sonar at a high rate and a high frequency. For a species like the sperm whale this is known to have a detrimental effect. We will have mass strandings.
Another species that is a good example is the long-finned pilot whale. The Porcupine Seabight is one of the most important areas of the sea for this species. When long-finned pilot whales were massacred in their thousands in the Faroe Islands, we in Ireland and the rest of Europe were astonished and absolutely shocked but now we propose to stand by and watch while the Russian army conducts missile tests that will have a devastating impact on a species such as the pilot whale that feeds at the deep. We will have mass strandings of pilot whales, sperm whales and other deep sea beaked whales. It will be an ecological disaster. We must do everything possible to stop it.
It is not just marine wildlife that will be impacted. It will also impact on livelihoods. We are all now well aware that a flotilla of 50 boats intends to go out to the Porcupine Seabight to peacefully protest this activity. I am firmly behind the fishers of west Cork and the rest of Ireland who will do this. The Porcupine Seabight, because it is such an important area for biodiversity, is one of the most important fishing grounds in Europe for species such as nephrops, prawns and blue whiting. It is incredibly important. Fishing is due to start in February but this cannot happen because the Russian army will be active there. This will impact coastal livelihoods as well as wildlife, which is why we need to intervene.
I have heard it said on a few occasions that there is no law we can invoke in Ireland to stop this happening. Paragraph 1(a) of Article 56 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that in the exclusive economic zone of the coastal state, the state has sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring, exploiting and conserving and managing the natural resources whether living or non-living. This is in the exclusive economic zone. Fish species are a living resource and this says to me that we have the rights to conserve them and if we see a threat we can invoke Article 56. I urge the Government to do so and to use our seat at the Security Council to do so and ensure there is not an ecological disaster on the Porcupine Seabight.
With the little time that I have, there are a number of issues that I need to raise. The urgent one, of course, at this point is off the south-west coast and the Russian military exercise and the damage this will do to Irish fishermen as they fish in these areas, as well as the damage to so much marine life. There is no doubt that this Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government has destroyed the income of so many fishermen in the sell-out of Irish fishing rights in a shocking Brexit deal last year. Now we find that more difficulties are being heaped on our fishermen with this Russian military exercise bringing 140 warships and 10,000 sailors to take part in this exercise. It looks like it is the fault of this and previous Governments to allow this to happen as the Irish have a lack of primary radar. Other countries know this and some have been probing our air spaces and seas for years due to this. It is high time, therefore, to stop talking and chasing Russians who are falling around and laughing at us but instead to cut out any blindspots we have in our own country itself.
As I said earlier when talking about Europe, fishing and farming, of course, very much comes to mind. The price of fertiliser has gone through the roof for farmers. Many will go under if the Government stands idly by. We are talking about increases for some farmers of between €10,000 and €20,000 for fertiliser this year and perhaps even more. At last week's meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which I attended as a member, there were many ways that Mr. Santini, deputy head of unit at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, explained where Ireland can intervene itself in its own State. We are talking today, however, about European intervention and, yes, the Government will say that the price of gas is the issue, as Europe’s green agenda is pushing us near the edge. The issue of tariffs on fertilisers is another nail in the coffin for the Irish farmer. Can the Minister of State tell us what the Government has done in Europe to ease the pressure on Irish farmers caused by the high cost of fertilisers? Perhaps he might answer that question later because it is a very significant and worrying issue for many farmers who are trying to buy fertiliser at the moment and cannot.
Why have negotiations on the fishing industry not yielded success? We all know the filthy deal this Government signed up to last year. When the dust has settled now, how can our fellow European countries involved in fishing call this a fair deal? Some European countries fared fairly well but the Irish were left with a shocking bad deal and I ask for him to explain where and what has happened since.
I would like to say a few words on these statements. The Taoiseach told the Dáil earlier and again yesterday that the Government could not do anything about the price of fertiliser when it was raised with him by Deputy Danny Healy-Rae. That conflicts directly with the evidence of the EU Commission representative given to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine last week, as referred to by Deputy Collins. Of course we can. We blame Europe all the time, saying that we cannot do this or we cannot do that. We are the first country then to implement their punitive legislation and to add more statutory instruments to it. I hear Deputies such as Deputy Cahill and other backbenchers blaming everything on the Russians in respect of the crisis at the moment. We had a vote 15 months ago on the carbon tax. Some ten Deputies supported my vote on that and all of the parties voted for the tax. Now they are wringing their hands in saying that this is all to do with Russia. We will blame the man above next. A perfect storm has been created by the Government. It does not want people to live and it is trying to force people into penury, hunger, starvation and God knows what. We will not have a food supply.
I come from a mixed farm and we grew everything every kind of crop. These farms will not survive because they will not be profitable. There must be a small profit margin but it will not be there.
When I heard Deputy Leddin, a Green Party member, saying in committee that he was delighted that the price of fertiliser had gone up, I had to ask what type of thinking was that? What kind of respect is that from a man who lives in Limerick city but quite close to the country. This is the madness that is going on here for two years, supported by RTÉ and everybody else, about climate change. I am not a climate change denier but we are rushing and forcing people through all of these cuts to go electric but they perish when there are power cuts because they have no other form of heating. Now the Government wants to stop turf and coal burning and to take chimneys off houses. The lunatics are running the asylum here and it is time that someone called a halt to it. It is shameful the way Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are being dangled on a string by the Green Party and are being supported by some of the rural-based Independent Deputies in the Regional Group,on a daily basis. I do not know how they are going to face the people.
They have run amok and rushed to implement Green Party policies with no thinking being done. Our power plants must be closed down, coal burning must be stopped and we have nothing to replace it. A Deputy said earlier that it would take ten years before we have any energy from the sea. What will we have in the meantime? We will have penury, going around with bags on our back like the mná caoineacháin with shawls and begging and bringing a bag of leite on their backs. Is that it? The Government is driving people to despair and it has no shame in it where Europe and everybody else is blamed for everything. The Government then sits on its hands and does nothing. Someone said to me that the Government's hands will be shrivelled from the length of time that it is sitting on them because it is doing nothing about anything and is only penalising our people and our nation.
I just have two and a half minutes. I will use my voice to say I am horrified at the sabre rattling, and not by Russia alone but by NATO, America and England. It is completely unacceptable. I will quote from Afri who have written to us all and pointed out, on the death of Desmond Tutu, where he "identified war and the war industry as one of the great evils of our time [and] pointing to the immoral wastage of resources which it represents as well as the extent to which it destroys people and wreaks havoc on our precious planet". I agree totally with Afri, which also stated: “On the occasion of the burial of such a great peacemaker, we ask: why is Ireland increasingly joining the war mongers club?” That is exactly what we are doing. At that point in January the question was: why are we increasing spending on weapons of death and why are we encouraging Irish businesses to get involved in producing weapons? If I had longer I would go into that with the Minister of State.
For today I am using my voice to say that I do not agree with what Russia is doing. I certainly do not agree with what NATO is doing. What we have here is absolute warmongering, with games of war without any reality, or the voice of Ireland being neutral, and the use of that voice in a positive way.
The website of the Department of Foreign Affairs states in respect of Russian-Irish relations that: "Ireland’s election to the UN Security Council for the period 2021-2022 has enhanced high-level links between Ireland and Russia." On those enhanced high-level links, what have we done with that role and how have we used that role? Perhaps the Minister of State might enlighten us today rather than joining the voices of the warmongers. Consensus has got into trouble before with information that led us – not me - to the invasion of Iraq, which was completely based on false information. I am using my voice today to say that Ireland is a neutral country. There should be no troops through Shannon Airport. Let us make clear that we will not allow Shannon to be used.
In my last few seconds I want to raise the issue of Palestine again. Was that raised at the Council and what action are we now taking? We have expressed concern as to the organisations that were designated as terrorist organisations. Let us go beyond our concern and make a statement now as an independent sovereign country ourselves. What have we done to help those six organisations that have been unacceptably and deplorably designated as terrorist organisations? I understand that we fund two of them.
My time is limited so I will mention just two brief points. First, I want to strongly voice my support and call for intensive and sustained dialogue between the EU and Russia, NATO and Russia, and the US and Russia in an effort to de-escalate the current situation which is a real and present threat to peace in Europe. At every opportunity, especially at the UN Security Council, we must make our views heard loud and clear to ensure that negotiations are front and centre of all approaches to de-escalate this potential conflict.
I am not giving Russia a free pass here. We all recognise what is happening with the severe and imminent threat that Vladimir Putin poses to Ukraine and to its territorial integrity. Respectfully, I have to disagree with some of my colleagues who spoke about NATO manoeuvres and compared them with Russian military aggression. I do not support NATO manoeuvres but they take place on the territory of countries and with the agreement of sovereign states. Sovereign states also have a choice whether to be part of NATO. That is very different from annexations and what is happening with Russian military aggression. We need a tough, determined approach because we all recognise that military might is only part of the equation. If tough, co-ordinated sanctions, financial and otherwise, are put in place, it will provide some deterrent.
My second brief point refers to the need for the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, waiver, which is the waiver on intellectual property rights on vaccines. The Taoiseach mentioned COVAX earlier.
Today, COVAX is pleading for funds to assist in its roll-out of vaccines to the world's poorest countries. While it has some vaccines available, it does not have syringes or other necessary elements to ensure the roll-out of the vaccine. The WHO has said it needs $5.2 billion to support it in rolling out vaccines globally. A TRIPS waiver on vaccines will not solve the problem overnight, but it would be a massive leap forward and provide the momentum for vaccine production globally.
We will now proceed to questions and answers for a period not exceeding 20 minutes. I ask Members to be concise in their questions given the short period of time for both questions and answers. I call Deputy Brady.
Much of the focus this afternoon has been on Ukraine and the naval exercises off the southern coast and, obviously, much of that was aired at the EU Council meeting. What was said about Palestine and specifically the designation last October of the six civil society and human rights groups as terrorist entities? Things have evolved even further and it has now come to light that the EU Commission has suspended funding to these six organisations. On the one hand, I welcome that we are prepared to stand up for human rights, self-determination and territorial integrity in Ukraine, but the silence is deafening with regard to the rights of the Palestinian people, who deserve and need the same rights and the same priority to be given at EU level. What mention was there about Palestine and the Palestinian organisations that have been designated terrorist entities? What specific documentation has been furnished to the EU from Israel to substantiate the false claims that have been made about the six organisations? What has been asked and what detail has been given?
That is not the responsibility of Ireland. The Middle East peace process is a key priority for Ireland at EU level and on the UN Security Council. Indeed, with regard to the Security Council, which I am delighted has been mentioned on multiple occasions today, it was raised most recently on 19 January. The Minister for Foreign Affairs visited Israel, the occupied Palestinian territory and Jordan in the first week in November and he set out our continued support for a two-state solution. The House should not forget that Ireland was the first country in the world to advocate for a two-state solution. Ireland has a tremendously supportive track record for the people of Palestine and for peace between Israel and Palestine.
I will take this opportunity to answer a question put from Deputies Mairéad Farrell and Andrews, and others about the evictions. The Government is deeply troubled by the evictions and demolitions which took place in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem on 19 January. Israel must cease evictions and demolitions and comply with all obligations under international humanitarian law. These actions undermine the prospects for peace and risk increasing violence. Ireland's representative in Palestine continues to monitor the situation closely. Ireland's ambassador in Tel Aviv has communicated our concerns directly to Israel. We issued a joint press statement with France on this issue after the UN Security Council meeting on 19 January.
On the designation of the NGOs as terrorist entities, we are continuing to raise our concerns about these organisations, which are in receipt of funding from Irish Aid and the EU. We are committed to funding civil society organisations and human rights defenders in Palestine-----
The Deputy should restrain from contributing. If any other Member has a related topic to the question being asked, he or she should raise a hand and I will try to include the Member on the same topic. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.
On a point of order, I am very happy to answer questions on this, but it was not on the agenda of the European Council so I am limited in what I can say. If the Deputy wants to table further questions on the specific issue for further elaboration on what I have said, he has the opportunity to table foreign affairs questions for the Minister who deals directly with these issues at the Foreign Affairs Council, FAC.
The point I am trying to make is that the Minister of State is giving a false answer to the question I asked regarding the funding from the EU to these organisations that has been suspended. The Minister of State said, correctly, that Irish Aid directly funds two of the organisations but he also said that the EU funds them. That has been suspended. That was the question I put to him, which he clearly failed to answer.
I have two questions. I have charged that the Government is betraying our tradition of neutrality. It did that with regard to Shannon and regarding numerous US military adventures. It is doing it again. It rightly criticises Russia for what it is doing off our coast with military exercises that are unwanted and should stop - Russia should be told we do not want them - and for Russia's often aggressive stance, military escalations and massing troops on the border, but has the Government any word of criticism about NATO? If we are trying to be balanced and objective, has the Government a single word of criticism for the eastward expansion of NATO and for the US putting troops, military advisers and so forth into Ukraine? Does it approve of that? Does the Irish Government think it is a good idea that NATO is doing military exercises in the Mediterranean Sea while these tensions are ratcheting up? Does it think these are good ideas, given how they will contribute to the escalation? The Minister of State should give us a straight answer on that. I suspect he has not got a word of criticism of NATO, but I ask him to prove me wrong.
On foot of what he said earlier, and I realise we do not have time for a broad debate on it, I would not be so proud of defending the two-state solution. Many Palestinians do not support the two-state solution. Frankly, the two-state solution is the equivalent in Palestine of arguing for maintaining partition in Ireland. That is what the two-state solution was, the partition of Palestine along ethnic and religious lines. Some would argue, Israelis and Palestinians, that this is the main source of the conflict and that what is actually needed is equality and respect for human rights regardless of whether one is a Jew, an Arab, a Christian or a Muslim, and that a state where everybody has that equality would be a far better solution. I would say most Palestinians now subscribe to that view.
With regard to NATO and NATO's presence in various countries, we respect the sovereignty of other countries to decide what they want to do for themselves. If Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, almost all the countries in the EU along the Mediterranean and Turkey want to be part of NATO, that is a matter for them. We decided not to be because we have a policy of military neutrality. We are not part of NATO. NATO has not expanded. These countries decided to join NATO, mainly because they reasonably see a massive threat to their territorial sovereignty beside them.
I am not advocating for Ukraine to join anything. Ukraine can do whatever its people and government decide to do. The Deputy talked about NATO expansion; I am talking about countries that decided to join NATO and we must respect their decisions. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and other countries have very good reasons to be in military alliances, if that is their wish. We are not in military alliances.
However, the Deputy should not confuse military neutrality with taking no sides when there is a clear question of right and wrong. If a country like Ukraine, a proud country with a proud history, has tanks on its border from Russia that are poised to act, no right-minded person can be neutral. If one is for democracy and for countries' self-determination and the self-determination of their people, but not in Ukraine, then one is not for democracy and self determination. There is no neutrality there. There is no impinging whatsoever on our military neutrality. The British are sending weapons and so forth. Ireland is not doing that, but we certainly are taking a stand in international bodies, primarily at the European Council where the Taoiseach took a very strong stand about this. Yes, the issue arises at the United Nations Security Council. Of course, we cannot forget that the five great powers have a veto power in the Security Council, so that brings its own complications there. That is not Ireland's fault.
There has been a formal meeting on Ukraine, usually once every year in February, that Russia holds when it holds the presidency. As I understand it, there will be a formal meeting on 17 February this year. There have been other side meetings under the Arria formula as well on Ukraine. We are in constant discussions but our diplomatic actions will be primarily focused with our European colleagues, primarily because Ukraine is on the European continent.
The Minister, Deputy Coveney, when discussing this matter made clear his rejection of what Russia is doing in our exclusive economic zone. The European Council, with the Taoiseach, decided in December that any action from Russia would result in massive consequences. The truth is the potential for conflict is having a very destabilising effect around the world, particularly in respect of fuel prices. The Deputy correctly mentioned the cost of fertiliser, for example, which is huge. One of the biggest factors in producing fertiliser is natural gas and the price of natural gas is going up and up. One of the current reasons for that is the potential for conflict and our dependence on Russian gas. This relates to another point, which is that one way to avoid those types of price increases is what Deputy Leddin advocates, a rapid change to renewable energy. That is the way out of this.
Currently, this is a real problem. It will be a problem for the people of Ukraine and the Russian families of dead soldiers if they go in. That is the reality. There will be issues with refugees and, from a price perspective, with consumer goods and food in particular. It is a major crisis and Ireland will do everything it can diplomatically to avoid it. We have a proud tradition of diplomatic efforts around the world that every Member has referenced. We are one part of this but we certainly support the rights of people to defend themselves. They are entitled to do that.
I have two questions for the Minister of State. The first relates to the TRIPS waiver on vaccines and the second relates to COVAX. Have we pushed for a TRIPS waiver within the European Council and the other bodies in which we operate? If we have, what are the blockages? Rather than saying to the Minister of State that we are wrong for doing this, that or whatever, my question is how we might dismantle some of those blockages. How can we move this forward? I am interested in his view but if we had a TRIPS waiver on vaccines, it would act as a catalyst for the global production of vaccines, not just in this pandemic but for what we might face in future. It is not just about now. What is the Minister of State's opinion on that?
My second question relates to COVAX, which the Taoiseach mentioned earlier, including our support for it, etc. As I said, just today COVAX indicated it cannot distribute any more vaccines because it does not have money to buy syringes or other basic necessary accoutrements. What is being done to deal with that and the fact that the WHO is calling for more funds? My main interest now is COVAX and what is being done right now so it can distribute the vaccines it has.
I thank the Deputy for raising the very important question of COVAX. It is always worthwhile remembering that nobody is getting everything right in this pandemic but with vaccine distribution around the world, the EU is getting much right. We are the biggest exporter and donor of vaccines around the world and we should be proud of that. As the Taoiseach said, we must do more, and all this is under consideration.
The Deputy is correct that COVAX has sounded the alarm in recent weeks about the availability of funds to cover so-called ancillary costs. As she said, this includes the cost of syringes, swabs, etc. Ireland was an early donor of ancillary costs and we added €1.5 million to our donations late last year to accompany the commitment to the dose donations. We have received private messages of thanks from COVAX for being an early mover in this regard, in contrast to a number of other countries that have not given this funding that is required to go along with vaccines. I am very proud of that and I am glad to be able to tell the House that. The matter was raised by Deputies Shanahan and Gannon, I believe, and other Deputies. It is very important. Deputies Cahill and Crowe have also mentioned it.
To date, we have provided €8.5 million to COVAX and in the coming week or so we will disburse another €5 million, bringing our total to €13.5 million. Ireland has a proud track record in this. We want to get the vaccines out there as quickly as possible and there is more we can do. A TRIPS waiver is definitely a potential part of the solution but there are other elements to consider as well. We can simply give vaccines to these countries but we can also build up manufacturing capacity to ensure that if intellectual property waivers are given, there can be capacity to manufacture these complicated products. That is all in the mix for what we believe the world should be doing. Ireland is to the forefront of advocacy in this regard and getting practical results for people across the world.
I will return to the question of the Ukrainian crisis. We are in a unique position geographically on the western flank of Europe and we are also neutral. I wonder if we are all getting caught up in a sound bite. We have seen the problems in the UK currently for its prime minister and perhaps having something else to point to is a good deflection for him. It is possibly the same in France, with elections to be held soon. We know absolutely that Russian President Vladimir Putin is pushing back against NATO expansion.
Ireland has a long record of being seen as a quality intermediary and a party of high integrity. The Minister of State has indicated there have been major diplomatic missions, meetings and what have you but has our Government done enough at this time? We might have retired ambassadors who could take up a role to ensure the middle ground argument is heard. There is always the left, the right and then the middle ground.
I do not know what is being said in the Russian media now but it is probably bellicose and anti-Western. We are not far behind on the other side. The question is whether we have looked at trying to put some emissaries on the ground and offering to put some people into the mix that could be seen to use our neutrality, integrity and relationship with the UN to try to level some political space so people might talk in a more mild-mannered way.
I thank the Deputy. We are involved in various efforts to bring a resolution to this, particularly with regard to our membership of OSCE. There are a number of formats under that organisation to try to bring a resolution to this matter. OSCE provides a space for discussion between East and West, effectively Europe and Asia. It is a very important format. We have been to the fore in trying to ensure OSCE has a proper budget to do its job.
I do not have an update today on the Normandy format talks that are under way. That involves France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. We certainly want those to succeed. We do not want war. We are the middle ground but that middle ground for me is that we do not support invasions of other countries. We want those talks to succeed and the Normandy format is there as part of the Minsk protocols. There is much potential there to bring peace and stability to the region.
France has the Presidency of the Council and European Union now and I understand French President Macron will have a phone call with Russian President Putin on Friday. We support President Macron's efforts as well on behalf of the EU, as France has the Presidency, in trying to bring a peaceful solution to this. We are certainly available to do whatever is required. Our traditional policy of military neutrality is very important in this respect. The other side of this is that when countries have military alliances, we are not at the table. NATO is an example of this so we are not part of the NATO discussions. There are, of course, other formats where we are involved, including the European Council, OSCE and the UN Security Council, if it can be discussed there. I certainly agree with the Deputy's comments and the services of the State are at the disposal of any of the parties involved in these discussions.
Before I conclude, I will briefly answer one or two of the other points. Deputy O'Sullivan raised some interesting environmental and ecological points, which I will certainly bring those to the attention of our officials, regarding potentiality under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Deputy Cathal Crowe referred to Afghanistan. The situation is, obviously, very challenging. We in Ireland continue to support the Afghan people by working to address the dire humanitarian situation there. On 22 December, we supported the resolution at the UN Security Council exempting humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan from UN sanctions. This is very important. We continue to demand that the Taliban allows unhindered access to humanitarian personnel. Today at the Security Council, and probably while we speak, Ireland will express its grave concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation for women and girls in Afghanistan. In 2021, we provided €5.3 million in humanitarian aid.
Deputy Jackie Cahill mentioned food security. We do not always remember how important the issue is. It is one of the reasons the EU was founded. It was because of that lack of food security after the Second World War. It is always worth bearing in mind that this was one of the reasons we are in the Union, and one of the fundamental reasons for the Common Agricultural Policy, which is to protect food security in Europe. The Deputy raised very important points that need to be discussed on an urgent basis.
I join in the sympathies expressed by Members on the death of Mr. David Sassoli, the President of the European Parliament.
On crisis management and resilience, the December European Council endorsed the conclusions agreed at the General Affairs Council on 23 November, which I attended, and they invited our Council to take this work forward, and we are to do that. This followed the earlier discussion in June taking stock of work to enhance our collective preparedness, response capability, and resilience to future crises. The integrated political crisis response arrangements developed in 2013 have been flexible and useful for addressing the Covid-19 pandemic. Building resilience against future crises means working now to strengthen the Single Market, particularly by removing unnecessary barriers to trade in services, where there is so much untapped potential. We will keep this topic under review.
I will now turn to external aspects of migration. I believe that this issue deserves much greater debate and focus in Ireland. Strengthening the external dimension of migration covers a number of issues such as returns and readmission; border management; targeting people smugglers; protection solutions and dignified reception facilities, which is a major topic of discussion in Ireland; legal migration pathways; and addressing the root causes of migration. Leaders discussed the importance of addressing migration in a whole-of-route and comprehensive approach. Nine priority countries have been identified for action plans: Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Nigeria, Niger, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Taoiseach will attend the EU–African Union Summit next month. This will be an important milestone in our relationship with Africa. Ireland wants a more ambitious and effective EU-Africa partnership. At the European Council in December, EU leaders discussed the preparations for the summit and the possible themes and deliverables. The EU aims to establish an ambitious future-oriented alliance with Africa that can build an area of prosperity and stability, underpinned by a transformational investment package. Ireland will be strongly supportive of those initiatives. Leaders also discussed the situation in Ethiopia. Leaders were in agreement on the urgent need to ensure the protection of civilians and to ensure unhindered humanitarian access, and called for an unconditional ceasefire and for all parties to engage in an inclusive dialogue. Ireland has played a leading role in the international response to the crisis, in particular at the UN Security Council and at the EU. A coherent EU response is critical. Such a response should include a strategy to increase political and financial pressure on the parties to de-escalate and to incentivise humanitarian access.
On the issue of EU-UK relations, while not discussed specifically at the Council, discussions are continuing between the EU and the UK. I note that some issues have arisen today around statements by certain parties, but we have had a very calm. firm and listening approach to this. We want to make sure we can deliver solutions to some of the problems that Brexit has caused in Northern Ireland. I am confident that we have seen a move from the UK towards real discussions. From what the UK is saying, I detect a focus on fixing problems rather than simply, as some used to say, scrapping the protocol, which was never going to happen. The protocol is here and is a legally binding international document. We have the full support for and confidence in Maroš Šefčovič and the Commission team. They brief us regularly at the General Affairs Council, and the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and our colleagues who were in Strasbourg at the weekend also. It is very useful dialogue and engagement, and we are very grateful for that. We will let those negotiations continue knowing that they are in good hands.