Seanad debates

Wednesday, 2 February 2005

Tsunami Disaster: Statements.


11:00 am

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)

I warmly welcome the Minister of State on his first visit to the House on development matters. This time of year in this part of the world is never all that cheerful but a pall has been cast over the beginning of this new year by probably the worst instant natural disaster that has occurred in our lifetime. The Minister of State has cited the latest figure of an estimated 300,000 people killed in a matter of two or three hours. Our sympathies go to the Irish families affected but also to those inhabitants of what are generally poorer parts of the world.

In previous times it was said that natural disasters were evidence of God's anger at humankind. One commentator has observed that nowadays we are more likely to hear environmental doomsters pronounce that such occurrences are punishment for our environmental mistreatment of the earth. Nobody can make such a claim about this disaster, involving a natural earthquake which has nothing to do with the interventions of man.

However, because these types of disaster can occur in different parts of the world, there is a duty on us to take the preventative measures that will mitigate them. The absence of any type of early warning system contributed greatly to the level of casualties in this instance. This is something that must be corrected and will not even involve excessive expense. This applies to situations in other places, for example, the issue of building standards in Turkey in view of the risk of earthquakes in that country. Every area that is vulnerable must look to the way in which it plans housing development and so on to ensure the best possible protection against such occurrences in the future.

It does the country and the Government great credit that there was a tremendous outpouring of help, with €20 million coming from the Government and €50 million — the figure is probably still rising — from the public. The Minister of State said that the extraordinary response of the Irish public is clear evidence that the Irish people care about those who are less well off than themselves. I hope this will be quoted at the Cabinet table the next time allocations for overseas development aid are discussed.

The diplomatic service, to which in the distant past I once had the honour to belong, acquitted itself outstandingly on this occasion and showed that we have a superb public service which even during what is a holiday period pulled out all the stops to provide maximum help and information. When it was necessary to speak on a daily basis to the media, which is not perhaps very usual, public servants acquitted themselves exceptionally well. I ask the Minister of State to pass on the congratulations of this House to all those involved. While no one would wish that a disaster should occur, there is probably no disaster from which some good cannot subsequently be extracted. One of the effects has been to mainstream overseas development aid in a way that it was not beforehand.

The Minister of State spoke about producing a White Paper. I remember working in the mid-1990s with former Deputy Ray Burke, who is now in another place, on an interim target for overseas development aid, which was to be 0.45%. I regret that possibly because of very high growth in the intervening period, we have yet to achieve that target. Professor Jeffrey Sachs, the special envoy for the millennium goals, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine on 20 January, stated that the rich countries, of which Ireland obviously is one, should in the immediate future set aside 0.5% of GNP for overseas development aid. In the period between now and 2007 we should certainly not settle for anything less. While we all would have preferred to be even further ahead, that would be both a defensible position and represent substantial progress.

I reiterate a point I have made a number of times in this House. In an interview with The Irish Times on 12 January, the Minister for Foreign Affairs said that the emergency aid would likely focus on Sri Lanka, a country I visited in connection with its peace process two or three years ago. I would very much like to see us take on the challenge of making Sri Lanka an overseas development aid country that we help. It is a relatively small island, obviously with a much larger population than Ireland, which has divisions and a conflict not totally dissimilar from ours. While I realise that we have already encountered difficulties and obstacles in getting aid to the Tamil area with the agreement of the Government, we should not be deterred and should take on the challenge.

The Minister of State said that the Government was determined that Ireland's role in relieving the suffering and rebuilding the region would continue long after the cameras had left. Sri Lanka has no special relationship with the United States. The United States takes a very limited interest in Sri Lanka, whereas it takes significant interest in Indonesia, the Philippines, etc. We need to focus on this area. I very much welcome the appointment of Chris Flood as Irish tsunami aid envoy. I can think of no better choice given his track record in dealing with deprived and marginalised people at home. In years gone by I had the opportunity to visit one or two of our overseas development aid projects with the Taoiseach. We have a healthy concentration on the basics and essentials of life, which is very good.

Our young people in particular travel considerably. They should not be deterred by what has happened from travelling to these regions. It is very unlikely that something of this sort will happen again in the near future. Some of these places depend absolutely on tourism. My daughter is planning to go there in the summer. I hope that young people and people of all ages will travel to that area as this would be another way to show some solidarity.


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