Tuesday, 20 September 2022
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 8, inclusive, together.
I made an official visit to Ukraine on 6 July at the invitation of President Zelenskyy. I was honoured to be the first Taoiseach to do so.
During my visit I visited the towns of Borodyanka, Bucha and Irpin, north of Kyiv, where I heard about and saw at first hand the abuses and destruction inflicted by Russian troops. As the Ukrainian army has recently liberated parts of eastern Ukraine that have been under Russian occupation, we are, unfortunately, learning of horrific and brutal acts carried out in these regions also, with the uncovering of mass burials of victims in Izium.
While in Kyiv, I visited an exhibition of artifacts from the war and artworks inspired by it. I laid a soft toy at a memorial to the children killed in the war since February.
I also visited the national memorial to the Holodomor, Ukraine's catastrophic man-made famine of the 1930s.
At my meeting with the President, we discussed the security and humanitarian situation in Ukraine and its economic impacts. I congratulated President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people on achieving EU candidate status on 23 June. He thanked Ireland for our strong support and advocacy for Ukraine's EU aspirations and for the welcome and support provided in Ireland to Ukrainians fleeing the war. I invited President Zelenskyy to visit Ireland when he is free to do so.
I met separately with Prime Minister Shmyhal. We discussed the pathway to EU membership for Ukraine, sanctions, the ongoing situation in the war and plans for reconstruction.
On 23 August, I joined President Zelenskyy and EU and global leaders at a digital meeting of the international Crimea Platform. Participants in the Crimea Platform remain committed to Ukraine's sovereignty, political independence, unity and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders, extending to its territorial waters. We reiterated our resolve to maintain pressure on Russia to end its occupation of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol without delay and to restore Ukraine's control over its sovereign territory. I reiterated Ireland's unwavering support for Ukraine in defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity. I also expressed strong support for its EU membership. I highlighted Russia's cynical exploitation of hunger, energy and migration to weaken the resolve not just of the Ukrainian people but also of those in the international community who stand with them. Russia will not succeed. I expressed my grave concern about Russian military activity at the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, which should be under Ukrainian civilian control, supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency. I welcomed shipments of grain and other foodstuffs from Ukrainian ports through the Black Sea grain initiative. I also expressed concern about the gross violation of human rights, in particular against indigenous Crimean Tatars.
To what extent did the Taoiseach see at first hand evidence of the atrocities we hear so much about? What was the reaction of his colleagues with whom he had discussions at a later stage? What is the possibility of introducing some mechanism whereby countries subject to this kind of aggression from Russia - or anywhere else, for that matter - might expect to receive assistance in a meaningful way to protect themselves?
My last point is about experiences of the past, when big countries decided to overlook national or international boundaries and decided to take it upon themselves to impose a law on allegedly subservient countries. Did any discussion on that take place?
I thank the Taoiseach for his fulsome response and for travelling to Ukraine on behalf of all of us. It was an important undertaking by him and other members of the Government over recent months, at a difficult time in the conflict. It is fundamentally my belief that as soon as this conflict is ended and, crucially, as soon as Russia is defeated, we will be able to draw a line under the serious challenges this is presenting to every household in this country, socially and economically, as well as the extremely worrying security threats that have come with it.
Further to the Taoiseach's response, I wish to ask about the collective European commitment, and indeed the Irish commitment, to providing finance to address not just the current challenges Ukraine faces but also the future challenges it faces in rebuilding, following this vicious invasion, on a path that will allow Ukraine to swiftly join the EU. Are we doing enough as a member state and as a collective Union, or could we do more?
As we know, the horrors of the war in Ukraine continue. The spirit of the Ukrainian people is extraordinary, and we are in awe of their courage, bravery and resolve in defending their country.
We should all be concerned about the threat posed by the recent military activity around the nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhia, as the Taoiseach said. The Ukrainian authorities, aided by the International Atomic Energy Agency, must be allowed to take control of this site and to defuse this serious threat. What is emerging near Izium is also shocking, as the Taoiseach said. There, a mass grave containing more than 400 bodies has been discovered. Evidence of torture by Russian forces of Ukrainian prisoners is also unfolding.
In that context I welcome Ireland's third party intervention before the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Ukraine v. Russian Federation. Russia has to be made accountable for its unlawful invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainians are heading into a long winter. What is the Taoiseach's assessment of the course of the war at this stage? Clearly, Russia is not winning it. Does he agree that we should continue to support Ukraine in every way we can in order that its sovereignty and territorial integrity can be restored?
From the start of Putin's horrendous invasion of Ukraine, we have raised the need for the State to call clearly for debt cancellation as a significant act of solidarity with the Ukrainian people. We tabled a motion in the Dáil to that effect, pointing out that, annually, 12% of all Ukrainian state budgetary income is currently going on debt repayments and that that was utterly unsustainable. At the start of the war the IMF said that Ukraine's economy could contract by as much as 35% in 2022 but that the debt would remain sustainable if there were a fast end to it. Unfortunately, and tragically, there has been no such fast end to the war, and the result is a deeper crisis for Ukraine. The consequence, in the absence of a full debt cancellation programme, is that Ukraine has been forced to apply for a new special IMF loan programme, which will come, as we understand from our own experience, with onerous restrictions, if the country is even able to get it. Is it not past time, therefore, for cancellation of Ukraine's debt? Let us look at who the debt is owed to. The biggest creditor is the IMF, which was due to be paid more than €2.5 billion in 2022. Then there is a series of private creditors, hedge funds, including the likes of BlackRock, Fidelity International, Amia Capital and Gemsstock Limited, all holding Ukraine's foreign debt. Is that not a real act of solidarity that could be made with the Ukrainian people to lift this unsustainable and odious burden?
Deputy Durkan raised the first question. What was interesting about the three towns just outside Kyiv that I visited was that none was a military town and, therefore, there was no militarism there. There was no need to undertake the atrocities carried out by Russian forces on the people of those towns. I went to the town of Bucha and to the church there. I met with the priest and the people there. They had a photographic exhibition of young men, hands tied behind their backs who were murdered. It was quite horrific, graphic and shocking. If a young man was caught with a mobile phone in his hand, the Russian forces might suggest that he was ringing somebody in the Ukrainian army. He would be taken out and killed; summarily executed. In Irpin, likewise, there were just residential blocks bombed. There was no military context whatsoever.
In many of the cases, citizen defence committees were trying to hold things together. The economic prospects of these towns is very bleak. Much of our meeting focused on reconstruction and how the EU can help as it is committed to that. Other countries are helping out Ukraine. There are the issues of immediate supports and then reconstruction.
We have given assistance in a variety of ways. We have given direct humanitarian funding to Ukraine. We have provided funding to the Red Cross. In the context of international war crimes, we have allocated an extra €3 million to the International Criminal Court, which Deputy Haughey and others raised, to improve its capacity. There must be careful gathering of evidence of war crimes by the courts and the International Criminal Court has the expertise to do that. That needs to be followed through on. Deputy Richmond raised a similar issue and asked whether we are doing enough. We are in my view. The Ukrainian Government asked EU member states to help specific regions, almost in a twinning relationship, to recover and reconstruct basic services, such as schools and hospitals and so forth. The Government is examining that proposal, as well as providing supports more broadly with our European colleagues.
On the financial issue raised by Deputy Paul Murphy and others, EU leaders agreed to support Ukraine via exceptional macro financial assistance of up to €9 billion in 2022. Disbursement of the first €1 billion was agreed before the summer break. EU finance ministers recently agreed to accelerate the next tranche of €5 billion, which is in addition to the €1.2 billion emergency loan provided to Ukraine earlier this year.
The EU will be the key player in the reconstruction of Ukraine. Along with international partners, we will work with our EU colleagues. Through our Presidency of the Council of Europe, Ireland has worked with the other 45 member states of the council on an action plan to assist rebuilding work in Ukraine. We made a €1 million contribution to a specially established Ukraine donor fund in the Council of Europe Development Bank.
On the liquidity questions, it is not as simple as saying that the debt should just be cancelled. There are various mechanisms, via the IMF, World Bank and so on, whereby Ukraine is being facilitated. Its economy has collapsed by approximately 50% so efforts have been made, in the allocation of European funding to Ukraine, that they will be able to pay the basic wages of citizens.
One of the biggest challenges facing Ukraine is that many of its workers are on the front line fighting and many millions have left Ukraine. This in itself is having an impact on the country and, therefore, President Zelenskyy is anxious that people will come back to Ukraine to provide childcare and various services.
We will do everything we can to pursue the war crimes issue. I pay tribute to Ms Justice Siofra O'Leary, on her elevation to the position of President of the European Court of Human Rights, which is significant and fantastic achievement for an Irish woman. I had the privilege of meeting her on my recent visit to Strasbourg. It is tremendous news indeed.
Looking at what has happened in recent weeks, two nuclear plants have been threatened by Russia. A bomb fell within 300 ft of a plant. This is deadly and dangerous stuff in Ukraine with nuclear plants being put at risk as a result of Russian aggression, bombs and so forth. A reservoir dam was also destroyed in retaliation.
I think I have covered most questions. We will continue to work with the Ukrainian Government to do whatever we can to support Ukraine, in particular its application to the EU, reconstruction and in respect of its interaction with the IMF, EU and World Bank. All member states have a role on those bodies in terms of guarantees we give. One cannot say, "Let's cancel this." That would have repercussions across the system. There are structured ways to deal with this and help Ukraine financially, which people in all organisations have been responsive to at all levels.