Seanad debates

Wednesday, 2 February 2005

Tsunami Disaster: Statements.

 

11:00 am

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)

I welcome the opportunity to make a statement to the House. It is almost impossible to find words to adequately describe the tragic events that unfolded on the morning of 26 December 2004. We have all been shocked and humbled by the sheer destructive power of nature and the enormous loss of life involved which to date is estimated at close to 300,000 people. Over 2 million people have been displaced and entire communities have been wiped out. Families have been destroyed, children orphaned and parents are grieving for their missing children. Livelihoods and whole communities of friends and neighbours have been washed away leaving those who survived with nothing but the rubble of their shattered homes and the memories of an awful day which has changed everything for everyone.

Ireland has not escaped the tragedy. Our thoughts and sympathies are with the families and friends of Eilís Finnegan and Conor Keightley who lost their lives in Phi Phi in Thailand. The families of Lucy Coyle and Michael Murphy still continue their lonely wait. There is little Ireland or the international community can do for those who have perished except to offer our most sincere sympathies to the families.

There is much that Ireland can do to help those who have survived these terrible events. Our focus and that of the international community must now be to assist these countries and communities in their recovery effort, not just in the short term but over the difficult months and years ahead as they begin to rebuild their lives.

Over the past month there has been an extraordinary demonstration of sympathy and solidarity and an unprecedented expression of generosity across the world. While the power of nature has been devastating, the power of the human spirit to respond with compassion has been astonishing.

As both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs stated in the Dáil, Ireland responded immediately to news of the disaster on St. Stephen's Day. The Government was one of the first governments to respond in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and the tsunami. On St. Stephen's Day, it pledged €1 million to the relief effort. This amount was doubled two days later when the scale of the disaster became more apparent. On New Year's Eve, the Taoiseach and I announced an increase in the funding to €10 million. Within six days of the disaster, funding for immediate relief increased from €1 million to €10 million.

Following the recent visit of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to the region, the level of funding has now been increased to €20 million. I considered it useful to arrange a meeting on 4 January between the key aid agencies and the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern. This was an important meeting and was a key signal to the public which prompted a generous response to the appeal for funds. The public responded accordingly to the display of unity by the Government and NGOs, acting as true partners in the face of this terrible tragedy.

On St. Stephen's Day a crisis centre was established by the Department of Foreign Affairs to provide assistance to families and friends of Irish people caught up in the affected region. The centre's work was augmented by staff from our embassies in the region who worked in Phuket, Thailand, and Colombo, Sri Lanka, to assist in locating and helping Irish people affected by the tragedy. The Garda also assisted greatly in this endeavour and a Garda team travelled to Phuket.

The Government has made clear that of the €20 million pledged for the tsunami disaster, €10 million is additional to the overall aid budget and the remainder will come from Development Co-operation Ireland's emergency humanitarian fund. The fund is deliberately designed to be flexible to respond to disasters of this kind wherever they occur. This is the largest amount Ireland has ever pledged to a single emergency.

Ireland's assistance is targeted at the most vulnerable populations in the affected region. The key sectors being addressed are food assistance, shelter, livelihood rebuilding, care and protection of children, water and sanitation. I have approved approximately €9.5 million to date in response to requests from people on the ground seeking assistance and funding.

As in all natural disasters the most immediate response in the vital first few hours is from the affected communities, which achieved a considerable amount in appalling circumstances. The Red Cross, because of its presence on the ground and its preparations for sudden disasters, played a vital role in providing immediate relief. Ireland, through its official aid programme, Development Co-operation Ireland, has a strong partnership with the Red Cross designed to assist the organisation to build local capacity in advance of disasters.

Emergency preparedness is a vital component of effective emergency response. The public often lose sight of this fact in the zeal with which they demand action when an awful tragedy or emergency of this nature occurs. While individuals frequently want to help or even travel to the region affected, the most important response to a disaster of this kind is that of local people. The work of our aid programme on an ongoing basis is to fund the Red Cross and United Nations to build capacity in developing countries to ensure local people, as opposed to people travelling into regions affected by disasters, provide the immediate response.

The Irish agencies and their partners in the region have responded, as on many occasions in the past, to this major challenge. The life-saving work being done by members of Concern, GOAL, Oxfam, Trócaire, Christian Aid and other organisations is worthy of the extraordinary public support of so many people here at home.

The importance of the role of the United Nations system in providing help directly, co-ordinating action on the ground and planning for future protection and early warning systems cannot be overstated. The lead of the United Nations will be critical as the emphasis shifts to longer term recovery and reconstruction programmes. The tsunami disaster, more than anything else, has underpinned the centrality and importance of the UN system in global matters.

The priority now for all donors, UN agencies and NGOs is to carefully co-ordinate their efforts with nationally devised plans which reflect the views and concerns of local communities and people. It is clear the recovery of the region will take years and the Government is determined that Ireland's role in rebuilding the region and relieving its suffering will continue long after the cameras have left. While the generosity of the public has been considerable, the Government's contribution will continue long after private donations from ordinary citizens dry up and attention switches to other issues and causes.

To this end, we will send Mr. Chris Flood, a former Minister of State and the current chairman of the advisory board of Development Co-operation Ireland, as a special envoy to the region. Mr. Flood will visit the region and speak to key UN agencies and NGOs which are in receipt of Irish funds. He will monitor progress to ensure maximum effectiveness of Irish funding and will be assisted by the emergency and recovery section of Development Co-operation Ireland. The reason for this is simple. At the start of the crisis, the public spontaneously showed its generosity in response to the obvious tragedy and disaster. In parallel, concern has arisen across the globe that money and assistance should reach the target recipients and be spent in the correct manner. Mr. Flood will be involved in ensuring that this is the case and that the public receive the necessary reassurance in this regard.

The Government sent a technical team, mainly comprising officials from Development Co-operation Ireland, to the region to carry out an assessment of the most pressing needs and the key challenges which lie ahead. The team has now returned and its recommendations are being examined by myself and officials. The team's report will guide Mr. Flood's work over the coming months. As a result of one of the recommendations, it is noteworthy that Ireland has provided the services of a number of skilled personnel from the Defence Forces who are working with the United Nations in Sri Lanka.

At European and UN levels, we will drive the issue of independent monitoring of assistance. We want to ensure pledges made internationally are followed up by delivery on the ground. I have requested the OECD, through the chairman of the development assistance committee, Mr. Richard Manning, to offer assistance in monitoring the delivery of pledges. Members would be aware that following previous disasters, such as that in Bam and the flooding in Mozambique, there were very serious concerns at an international level that pledges and commitments entered into by sovereign governments and states were not followed through in terms of donations. To that end and on my way to the Indian Ocean to a conference attended by a number of countries affected by the tsunami, I visited Mr. Manning in Paris and raised this specific point, that is, the need to track and monitor international donations so that recipients receive the money. As Members know, there are unscrupulous countries which, in the past, were prepared to pledge in a showy way but not deliver when the delivery was expected and required.

The EU has an important role to play in regard to this disaster. Earlier this week, EU Foreign Ministers met and approved an action plan developed by the EU Presidency. The plan is designed to better co-ordinate available EU resources at all levels to provide more effective follow up to the tsunami and possible future similar disasters. Ireland fully supports the action plan.

While at present we are all quite rightly concentrating on south Asia, funds are not being diverted away from other parts of our aid programme. Our long-standing focus on the eradication of poverty in the world's poorest countries, particularly in Africa, will not be diluted by the effort and spending we have engaged in to date.

Emergency assistance is a small part of our overall assistance programme. Of the total of €545 million we will spend this year on development assistance, over three quarters of our spending will be directed at long-term programmes in the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This has always been the focus of our aid programme and this year will be no different.

The events of St. Stephen's Day have shown both our shared vulnerabilities and our linked destinies as an earthquake in one continent has left families devastated in every continent. Rarely has the world witnessed such a sudden and appalling disaster. I say witnessed because with the speed of modern communications, this shocking tragedy unfolded in the homes of millions of people throughout the world over the Christmas period. It has united people as nothing else could in shared feelings of grief and sympathy.

There is a common thread of poverty and vulnerability between many of those affected by the tsunami and those struggling against grinding poverty in Africa. The extraordinary response of the Irish public is clear evidence that the people care about those who are less well off than themselves. As a public representative, that is heartening to see and I think all public representatives would share this affirmation of confidence. So often over the past few years, because of the boom in our economy, many people have tried to assert that the Irish value system has been lost with affluence and prosperity. The example of the tsunami and the volunteerism we witnessed during the Special Olympics suggests that we have not lost our values.

If one looks back to 1984 when Live Aid occurred, this was a country of mass unemployment and emigration but it is now a society of high employment and immigration. The value system has not changed in 20 years and the people remain robust in their solidarity with people who are in difficulty and remain generous. We were both a generous and welcoming nation during that period despite the huge disparity in income terms.

The Government is committed in the fight against poverty and the reduction of vulnerability across the world. The past four years have seen a greater increase in our ODA programme than at any time since the programme's foundation in the 1970s. Despite intense pressure on Government finances, the growth in our ODA programme in recent years is without parallel in any other OECD member state. Over the next three years, we will spend a minimum of €1.8 billion on aid to the world's poorest countries and most vulnerable people.

The Government remains strongly committed to achieving the UN target. The issue of how best to meet the UN target and in what timeframe is actively under ongoing review. In the coming months, Development Co-operation Ireland will launch a consultative process which will lead to a White Paper on development assistance. All interested stakeholders will be asked for their views.

Overall, in terms of overseas development, Ireland is in good standing internationally. During his visit last year, Kofi Annan told me that Ireland is viewed as a model UN country both in terms of the contributions it makes at UN level and its role in development matters. Ireland is a key partner of key UN agencies such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme. Indeed, we are among the largest donors in the world to these agencies. Only yesterday, the president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn — a president who has refocused the bank towards a poverty reduction agenda — stated that Ireland was a remarkable example to the world in terms of the response to the tsunami and in relation to development matters and issues generally. It is worthwhile quoting Mr. Wolfensohn because of his stellar reputation in development circles. In an interview on "Morning Ireland", Mr. Wolfensohn stated:

. . . and I must say here, that I am deeply impressed by what Ireland has done. I mean quite apart from your Government contribution of €20 million, the public has come up, as I understand, with €50 million. And so this €70 million from a country of 4 million people is quite remarkable, and I was able to tell the Taoiseach tonight how much of an example Ireland is, and also to talk to the Finance Minister and the development Minister, because your country has shown tremendous capacity and a tremendous heart, and I think the Irish people are to be congratulated on your approach to development.

I put great stock on a recommendation, endorsement or validation of that kind. That validation reflects on all of us in this House, both Government and Opposition, but, more than anything else, it reflects well on the public which has maintained a strong sense of the value system in which it was inculcated early on. It is still there and it is a matter of great pride for me that the public responded in this fashion.

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