Wednesday, 30 November 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 30 to 36, inclusive, together.
On 10 November, I welcomed a delegation from the US House of Representatives for a courtesy meeting at Government Buildings. The delegation was led by Congressman Bill Keating, a member of the Congressional Friends of Ireland Caucus and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber. Congressman Keating was accompanied by Congressman Brian Higgins and Congressman Juan Vargas, all recently re-elected members of Congress. The delegation was visiting for a four-day programme in Ireland and Northern Ireland, which included a number of economic, civil and community engagements, with a particular emphasis on education and social inclusion. At my meeting with them, the delegation was accompanied by the US ambassador, H.E. Claire Cronin.
Our discussions covered a broad range of issues including the political situation in Northern Ireland, prospects for implementation of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, international support for Ukraine and the outcome of the recent midterm elections in the United States, as well as Ireland-US bilateral relations. We also discussed cybersecurity, data privacy, and the global energy crisis. Congressman Keating and the other members of the delegation expressed their firm commitment to peace, prosperity and progress in Northern Ireland. They accepted that there are genuine concerns about aspects of the implementation of the protocol among some parts of the community in Northern Ireland, but shared our assessment that these can be addressed through substantive good-faith engagement by the United Kingdom with the European Union.
We noted the decision of the British Government to introduce legislation to delay the need to call elections in Northern Ireland and welcomed the space this creates for reaching agreement solutions that facilitate the formation of an Executive. We also discussed the programme of work of the shared island initiative since its launch in October 2020, including its aim of building a shared island agenda, fostering inclusive civic dialogue, commissioning research on the future of the island and delivering beneficial all-island investment projects, backed by a shared island fund of more than €1 billion. I expressed my appreciation for the continued unequivocal support of the US Administration and both Houses of Congress for the peace process and for the Good Friday Agreement. This has been of enormous value over decades and reflects the deep and historic ties between our countries.
As the Taoiseach is aware, the Senate and House of Representatives have consistently passed motions unanimously reaffirming their support for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. All those motions have referred as well to the need to ensure that this international agreement is not diminished in any way as a result of Brexit. They have outlined clearly the parameters of a potential British-US trade agreement. In all engagements with US politicians, be it from the President to members of his government or with Members of Congress, we must always emphasise the urgent need to make progress on regularising the status of the undocumented Irish in the US.
The best estimates are that there are fewer than 10,000 people but the overwhelming majority of those Irish people are working, paying their taxes, rearing families and contributing very well to US society, yet they do not have residency status. We need to make progress in that regard. President Obama brought in legislation but, unfortunately, it was rejected by the US Supreme Court. Subsequently, the House of Representatives passed a motion but it was delayed at the last minute. We need to have that legislative agenda moved on again.
It is clear the EU and the US agree on many foreign policy issues since the election of Joe Biden as US President, particularly as regards Ukraine. As far as Ireland is concerned, we enjoy close ties and historical bonds with the US. Irish people follow US politics closely, including the recent midterm elections. In this context, I pay tribute to the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, on her upcoming retirement from politics. She was a great friend and ally of Ireland.
The US has an important role to play as regards Brexit, the Northern Ireland protocol and the protection of the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement. Several US politicians have stated that there can be no free trade agreement between the EU and the UK unless these issues are resolved. Does the Taoiseach agree it is very important for the Government to continuously press its case on Capitol Hill, because there is no doubt other parties coming from a different perspective are also doing this?
At the Taoiseach's recent meeting with the US congressional delegation, were the ongoing human rights abuses in Iran raised and, in particular, was there agreement on international action to be taken against the Iranian regime on the basis of its dreadful ill-treatment of protesters there? On that note, will the forthcoming proposal to reopen the Irish Embassy in Tehran be reviewed? This has been raised in this House previously, and the Taoiseach and others indicated that the idea the Government might even contemplate reopening an embassy in Tehran, Iran, would now be under review in light of what is going on there.
Last Monday week, Mahmoud al-Saadi was shot in the stomach as he made his way to school by the Israeli occupying forces while they were conducting a raid on a refugee camp in Jenin. He is one of 47 children who have been murdered by Israeli forces just this year, as well as a massive escalation that has claimed the lives of hundreds of Palestinians.
When the Taoiseach met the US congressional delegation, or whenever he talks to his American counterparts, does he ask them the very simple questions as to why they continue to arm the Israeli State to carry out these criminal and murderous actions against Palestinian people, why they continue to give billions of dollars in military aid and why they continue to veto every effort to bring sanction against Israel for its crimes against innocent children going to school and being shot down by murderous Israeli forces?
I want to give my time to expand on the point of order I raised earlier. I have studied the Salient Rulings of the Chair and I believe the Taoiseach was clearly out of order in describing Deputies Boyd Barrett and Barry and me as puppets of Putin. Salient Ruling 417 states, "Member may not say that another Member is taking orders or instructions from outside interests or is representing or speaking for such interests". It is clear that was the smear involved in the comment "puppets for Putin's regime". Salient Ruling 413 states, "If an allegation impugns the character, integrity and good name of a member it must be withdrawn". Salient Ruling 412 states, "Chair protects Members against innuendo, insinuation and allegation". I am asking the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to instruct the Taoiseach to withdraw those remarks.
I was in Westminster a couple of weeks ago with the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Westminster is pushing ahead with its Troubles legacy Bill, which will give amnesty for the murder of Irish people. Before the Taoiseach leaves office, will he say to the British Government that the Irish Government will take it to the European Court of Human Rights if it proceeds with that Bill?
I was also in Washington with the Good Friday Agreement committee, speaking to senators and congressmen and women. They expect to come to this State for the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next April. All the political views in the North at the moment expect there is going to be no Executive in place on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Will the Taoiseach start the process now of changing the manner in which the Executive works so that it cannot be crashed or stopped ever again? That work has to happen now; otherwise, we are going to bust through the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement with no functioning Executive.
The context of the meeting, for all Deputies, related very much to Northern Ireland, the Brexit issue and the protocol, and their commitment to underpinning the Good Friday Agreement and making sure that the United Kingdom gets an understanding from us and also from politicians in Northern Ireland as to the issues relating to the protocol itself. We never lose the need to continue to raise those issues.
Deputy Brendan Smith raised the issue concerned the undocumented Irish in the United States. We have been close previously to getting a resolution to that issue, falling short by just one vote on one occasion. We will continue to pursue that because it is very difficult for those who are undocumented.
I agree 100% with Deputy Haughey in regard to pressing our case on Capitol Hill and the need to continue to do so, because others also press their case and we need to keep the Irish perspective on these issues to the forefront of legislators’ minds on Capitol Hill and those of American representatives on both sides of the aisle, as well as that of the US President. I concur with the Deputy regarding the fulsome praise he gave to the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, on her intentions to retire from politics. She has been a great friend of Ireland and has been steadfast, loyal and supportive of the Irish cause on Capitol Hill. She has also been very influential on the protocol issue and on trade issues more generally, as the delegation was also.
Turning to Deputy Bacik's questions, we did not discuss in great detail the human rights situation in Iran, although we had a general discussion about the global situation. On the issue of the embassy in Tehran, I would advise some caution. We might need to have a debate in the House about diplomacy more generally and what we mean by it. Diplomacy is not an endorsement of a regime. If we were to base policy on whatever transpires in a given country at a given time, we might end up ending diplomatic relations on a number of fronts. I think that perhaps we need to give a bit more thought and reflection on the purpose of opening diplomatic channels. In the context of our broader understanding of the world and of how the world works, our diplomatic network is very important and gives us insights into what is happening in various societies across the globe, as well as serving the needs of Irish citizens in different locations around the world through consular services and so on. There is an issue we need to examine and I would respectfully put that forward as an issue meriting more reflection and debate.
To respond to Deputy Boyd Barrett, we do raise human rights issues in respect of Palestine. We have been very forthright-----
Yes. We have been very forthright with all interlocutors on the UN Security Council. António Guterres stopped me two years ago and thanked me for Ireland's role on the UN Security Council regarding Palestine. We are known internationally for always raising the issue of Palestinians on the international stage. I have been consistent in my condemnation of any attacks on Palestinians and particularly the killing of innocent Palestinians, and likewise the killings and attacks in Jerusalem and the attacks on civilians in Israel, which are wrong as well.
In respect of Deputy Paul Murphy, I again make the point that he and others have constantly made all sorts of allegations and assertions against me and against others in the Government and he seems to have no issue with them at all. In the context of debate within the Chamber, it is important we do not try to suppress debate-----
I know the implications. They have associated us with all sorts of killings and so on. By the way, I do not deny the Deputies' right to say things. I have never attempted to interfere with their right to say things. I cherish the right to free speech---
---and I think the Parliament is a bastion of that. We need to be careful now of going too far in trying to suppress a legitimate debate in the Chamber-----
In Deputy Tóibín's case, we raised the issue of the proposed amnesty in terms of the legislation and we will continue to do that. There is engagement going on between the two Governments.
In terms of the Executive, the current election has to be vindicated. People have voted so the structure should stay. Then, if it is restored, we should certainly consider reform for the next one.
We have gone way over time. I have been more than flexible. I have let the debate run on to get all the questions in. I am conscious that there is none next week.
An issue has been raised. To clarify, the Taoiseach has been asked to withdraw the comments. He has clarified that he is not withdrawing those comments.
There are two things. The comments were made yesterday. No one asked to have them withdrawn yesterday. In that time, the Taoiseach said it was in the rough and tumble of politics. That was accepted yesterday to a certain degree. The Deputy came back today legitimately and asked for the questions to be withdrawn. He came back a second time during a question, which was possibly inappropriate. I hear what has been said. The Taoiseach said it is in the rough and tumble of politics. Allegations have been made on both sides. I am going to leave it like that for the moment. The Deputy asked us to consider it; I hear that. We are over time.