Thursday, 23 June 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
The Minister will agree that the position of Irish ambassador to Britain is very important, especially at this time of crisis in our relationship with Britain. I was surprised to hear of the Minister's decision to appoint the Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach, Martin Fraser, to the position of Irish ambassador to Britain.
As Deputies know, there is an investigation into the leaking of a confidential document by the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, to his friend - the head of a rival general practitioners' organisation - relating to certain negotiations. If Martin Fraser was in the position of ambassador, he could not be subpoenaed or give evidence in a court case because he would be outside the jurisdiction. It would also be a significant scandal for the country if a sitting ambassador was to give evidence into a criminal court case relating to a former Taoiseach.
This line of questioning is not only inappropriate, it is also in bad taste. I have worked closely with Adrian O'Neill, our current ambassador to London, since he took up his post in September 2017. This has been an especially busy period in British-Irish relations, which has seen the UK leave the EU and enter into a new post-Brexit relationship with the latter and Ireland. In this period, the ambassador, Mr. O'Neill supported the 17 in-person visits I have made to Great Britain. During these visits, the ambassador generally accompanies me for meetings with British Government representatives as well as with other political, Irish community, commercial or cultural contacts. He often meets me separately, or together with other embassy staff in the course of programmes. On a regular basis the ambassador also participates in calls and virtual meetings with high-level British contacts. Such forms of engagement were particularly important in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the second half of 2020, the Ambassador facilitated and participated in a number of calls with British Ministers and a virtual visit by the metropolitan mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City regions. I also hold weekly video calls with the Mr. O'Neill and other senior officials from across my Department to discuss the outworkings of Brexit. I also meet occasionally with the ambassador at the Department of Foreign Affairs headquarters and at major British-Irish events in Ireland, including those that take place during official high-level inward visits from Britain.
The role of our diplomatic network in Great Britain is especially important at this time as we work to advance Irish interests in a period of change and challenge, and seek to continue to strengthen British-Irish relations in the post-Brexit era. I will use this opportunity to thank Mr. O'Neill for an extraordinary job through a very turbulent and difficult period in terms of British-Irish relations as opposed to using it, as the Deputy has tried to do at the start of his contribution, to cast aspersions.
Beidh mé cúramach. I just want to clarify what I said. The Garda has sent the Tánaiste's file to the DPP, and there may be a case. That is clear and factual. My concern about this is that I have submitted a great many questions to the Minister in regard to the appointment. My worry about the appointment is that it may be the case that the individual may need to give evidence in the future. This appointment has echoes similar to the Katherine Zappone affair. Many questions have been left unanswered. I asked if the Cabinet was notified about this particular appointment by 12 noon on Friday, 23 July of 2021. Martin Fraser had a responsibility to notify the Cabinet about his appointment. I understand, however, that the Cabinet was not fully aware of that information in the same way as it was not aware of the Katherine Zappone appointment at that time. I looked to find out was this post advertised. How many people applied for the job? Were curricula vitae submitted?
While the Deputy is trying to use this floor to damage people's reputations, I will say that we are lucky to have someone of the calibre and experience of Martin Fraser to take over as ambassador in London. His appointment was approved by Cabinet in the appropriate way along with the appointments of other ambassadors that day. We need experienced people who already have connections and relationships within the British system. We have serious issues to resolve with the British Government in the months and, potentially, in years ahead. To have experienced people who know how British-Irish relations work, who have a good understanding of Northern Ireland, who know how the Irish Government works across multiple Departments, not just within the Department of Foreign Affairs, is a great asset for us. I look forward to working with Martin Fraser as ambassador in the months ahead. In the interim, I continue to work with Mr. Adrian O'Neill, the current ambassador, who continues to do an extraordinary job.
I submitted these questions to the Minister in written format first and they were not answered. I have a responsibility as an Opposition Deputy to look for oversight in respect of appointments of this nature. One of the questions I asked that was not answered - and that has still not been answered today - is: when did the Cabinet become aware of that decision and when did the Minister become aware of it? I also asked questions about who was interviewed for the position, the dates on which the interviews took place and whether the Government had received a curriculum vitae from Martin Fraser. I asked what Martin Fraser's diplomatic background was. Did he sit diplomatic examinations? Does he have another European language other than Irish or English, as is usually the case for the diplomatic corps? These are questions that an Opposition Deputy would be expected to ask in order to understand whether the process relating to a particular appointment is fair, just and open.
I would expect an Opposition Member of the Deputy's experience to take some time to understand how ambassadors are appointed, how they are recommended and the process whereby recommendations come to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, predominantly from the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and then have to go to Government for approval in the normal way. That is what happened here. As I said, there is an assessment as to suitability for certain roles. The way in which Ireland appoints ambassadors is predominantly by means of an internal process within the Civil Service. Within the Department of Foreign Affairs, most of the time people move between different posts on the basis of their skill sets, experience, suitability and the relationships we have with the relevant countries at particular times.
We are now appointing perhaps the most experienced civil servant in Ireland in recent years to perhaps the most important position in terms of international relations and diplomacy. He is more than qualified for that job.