Seanad debates

Wednesday, 2 February 2005

Tsunami Disaster: Statements.


12:00 pm

John Minihan (Progressive Democrats)

I too welcome the Minister of State to the House and welcome the opportunity to speak about the extraordinary and tragic events that unfolded in the Indian Ocean at Christmas. The tsunami affected a vast geographic region and caused such loss of life so quickly that it is difficult for those of us who did not witness it to appreciate fully the extent of the tragedy. There is no need to remind the House of the consequences of the disaster. We have all seen and read graphic accounts of the tragedy by various media outlets, depicting the dead and, most tragically, the countless children who have been orphaned.

At a time when relief efforts begin to slip from the media's radar, it is opportune for us to examine how we in Ireland reacted to the tragedy, determine the lessons that can be learned and ascertain how we should view the disaster in a global context. The Irish reacted in a way that exemplifies our generous response to all such disasters, whether they be extraordinary, such as the tsunami, or ongoing, such as those that afflict Africa. In giving to established charities or projects aimed at bringing relief to specific communities in the Indian Ocean area, we have been both generous and imaginative. While I am loth to single out any specific charity, I will take the opportunity to mention two that captured my imagination. The Hope Foundation in Cork, which primarily works with children in Calcutta, has raised in excess of €200,000 to provide emergency medical supplies, food, water and clothing to 30,000 people in 11 villages in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Such local efforts have been replicated throughout Ireland, which is to be commended. National charities have also been hard-working in raising funds for the relief effort. Amanda Hughes's Irish Sri Lanka trust fund particularly caught my imagination. I believe Vincent Van Gogh stated: "The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore." For Sri Lankan fishermen, fishing is not just a way of life because the fish they catch are vital to their daily diet. Amanda Hughes's project aims to use funds raised in Ireland to purchase locally built boats to put fishermen back to sea.

The most appealing aspect of this project is that schools can raise funds and name their own fishing boats. In this way Irish communities can form a lasting relationship with beleaguered families and communities thousands of miles away.

I compliment the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the staff in his Department. From the moment the true impact of this disaster was known they have worked tirelessly to identify and bring relief to the Irish citizens in the region. In particular, we should acknowledge the sometimes harrowing work of Dan Mulhall, the Irish ambassador in Thailand, and his dedicated team of voluntary and Civil Service staff. Seldom have Irish citizens served this country so well.

We must now examine how we can best reach and react to future disasters. In the aftermath of the tsunami there was much talk of sending Defence Forces personnel to aid the relief. While I echo the comments of Senator Dardis, and have the highest regard for the skills of the Defence Forces, the scale of this disaster was such that even the US military had difficulty bringing relief to areas of Indonesia. It has been suggested that in future disasters of such magnitude our Defence Forces could specialise in one aspect of relief, for example, supplying clean water. I am sure the Government and the Defence Forces will take this suggestion on board.

Another approach could be to incorporate Irish efforts into those of a European rapid reaction force deployed to give humanitarian assistance under the Petersberg Tasks. There has been opposition to Ireland's participation in such a force. Disasters such as this, however, require rapid response and we cannot wait for a UN debate or resolutions. The triple lock mechanism should never apply to humanitarian work. It has also been suggested that, given our size, we should concentrate our relief efforts where we can make a real difference. This too has merit.

The Maldives have perhaps been neglected because of the scale of the disaster elsewhere. One third of the population there — 100,000 people — have been affected by the tsunami. More than 15,000 remain homeless. Major work is required to restore this country. The World Health Organisation has identified the supply of adequate clean water, sanitation and the building of its public health infrastructure as priorities. We could adopt one area affected by the disaster and undertake this work.

The death toll following the tsunami was only a fraction of that suffered in Africa every year. The Government has correctly targeted six African and one south-east Asian country, East Timor, as major beneficiaries of the Development Co-operation Ireland programme. We should now add the Maldives to this programme. Lest we affect those countries already receiving aid, the Government must reinstate its pledge and redouble its efforts to reach the target of 0.7% of GDP for overseas aid by 2007.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, for coming to the House today, and the Leader for organising the debate. I congratulate the Government, the non-governmental organisations and the citizens who responded so rapidly and efficiently to this disaster. In light of the sum of money collected we should redouble our efforts to bring forward legislation governing charities and the collection of money. It is imperative that we do this.


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