Seanad debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

3:30 pm

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I will just briefly touch on the issue of pay and conditions because other Members have spoken very eloquently about them. It is clear from the response of PDFORRA and it is clear from the testimony and messages people have been getting, that the Government intervention will not be adequate in the context of allowances. The core issue remains about time, about wages and about having the hours worked valued and recognised. This is why the working time directive is imperative. It is one of the key aspects to this. That should not be a battle people have to fight. It should be something the State moves forward on.

These are persons who are constrained. How we constrain people in collective organisations in the expression of perspectives needs to continue to be examined. There are a number of very good persons who are committed to public service but who should also, perhaps, be supported in making sure they are able to speak up on issues such as the minimum wage, on what is considered to be adequate, and on the relationship between pay and working family payments. Those perspectives need to be heard and they should not be pushed to crisis point to be heard. I put it to the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to move on while building on the recommendations. We now need to go further and accelerate action.

I will now focus on some other issues that are also defence matters. Even as front-line pay and conditions have been allowed to deteriorate to a point of crisis for many families, Ireland still has plans for very substantial increases in military spending that are not linked to pay and conditions. There is a proposal to move over the next few years to €125 million in capital expenditure. Perhaps most crucially, at a European level Ireland is contributing to a massive increase in European spending. Again, this is not focused on pay and conditions. It is largely focused on capital spending and research. We are looking at €13 billion committed currently to the European Defence Fund at a time when the Cohesion Fund and the European Social Fund, ESF, are being cut and reduced. Will the Minister of State specifically comment on Ireland's perspective on this issue? Does Ireland believe that investment in social cohesion may do more for peace and maybe more for our collective European project and the wider project? Do we think it appropriate that we would reduce social and cohesion funding to increase defence and military spending?

I am very concerned that the European Parliament voted not to have oversight of the €13 billion and has relegated this function to the European Council. This was something the Minister of State's party members voted for. Will the Minister of State comment on the mechanisms of oversight? How can the Irish public be assured that moneys given through the European Defence Fund will not be used for autonomous weaponry? How can the public be assured that funding given by us through the EU budget and through the European Defence Fund will not be used in the breaching of human rights or used outside the UN mandate? I believe, however, that we know it will be used outside the UN mandate in some cases. What is the assurance and testimony in this regard? This is important. These are not abstract concepts. When weaponry is developed, and there has been a focus on autonomous weaponry, it is designed to kill. It is lies. The public, as a neutral nation, deserves the clearest transparency around how our moneys are used and the clearest chain. I would like the Minister of State to illustrate how he intends to deliver that.

We already have serious concerns around certain parts of our funding that have been rerouted. We have spoken in the past about the Libyan coastguard and the significant human rights violations in Libya. In this context will Ireland procure with other nations weapons that might be used outside the UN mandate? This is still a question to which I have not received an answer and it was relevant even before we joined PESCO, which also presents major questions with regard to collective procurement projects. There are proto-fascist parties in some countries across Europe. If those parties come into government and into power, will we have contributed to joint procurement projects? We are aware that in recent years Austria had tanks on the border with Italy. Is there a situation in the future where Ireland may have contributed to the purchase of such weaponry, not only through the general sense of the European Defence Fund but through specific joint procurement projects under PESCO? Will the Minister indicate the safeguards under PESCO?

On Operation Sophia I will quote the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe. When I challenged him back in 2017 on Ireland's move away from bilateral search and rescue to Operation Sophia, the Minister of State said: "Transferring to Operation Sophia will result in the redeployment of Irish Naval Service vessels from primarily humanitarian search and rescue operations to primarily security and interception operations." The Minister of State told this House in 2017 that we were moving away from humanitarian concerns. Those missions had been a great source of pride for many in this nation. He said we were to move into security. Now we know that Operation Sophia will not be working on humanitarian rescue at all. A representative from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ms Carlotta Sami, recently said that: "If we do not intervene soon there will be a sea of blood." These are life and death decisions. These are not decisions about readiness; these are life-and-death decisions. What steps are being taken to seek other opportunities for search and rescue, and for co-operation with other navies or civilian authorities for search and rescue in the Mediterranean Sea? I believe the Irish Naval Service has also spoken very eloquently about it. During Ireland's time in search and rescue, the Naval Service personnel, on their own and separate from any other European country, rescued more than 18,000 lives from the Mediterranean Sea. The personnel involved have spoken of this as being one of the most formative and meaningful experiences of their lives. Will the Minister of State indicate the plans for resuming that co-operation?

Concerns were raised with regard to the Libyan coastguard and Libyan human rights' violations, which are funded by Europe as a substitute for search and rescue in the Mediterranean Sea. This was one of many migrant control agreements signed by Europe. I believe there were 11 such agreements. Crucially, the one I wish to speak about is one on which I ask the Minister of State to engage with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade with a view to seeking its immediate suspension. This is the funding that has been given to the Rapid Support Forces group in Sudan. Currently, even the African Union no longer recognises any government in Sudan. There is extraordinary testimony from civil society groups who will again take to the streets this weekend. Young people spoke here last week about how instead of taking up weapons, they chose to take up paintbrushes, pencils and microphones. There is a very powerful civil society movement.We have concerns that the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces group is being funded by European money in a similar way to what is happening in Libya. Funding is effectively been rerouted to groups linked with the Janjaweed militia, whose members are taking part in violent actions against protestors at a time when there is no recognised transitional government in place in Sudan.

My final question is a very specific one. We have a new nominee for President of the European Commission, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, who is a member of the same European party as the Minister of State. She has previously spoken about her vision of an army of Europeans being in place in the foreseeable future. How does the Minister of State plan to engage with Ms von der Leyen on this issue and how will he ensure that Ireland's neutrality is strongly protected within any plans for further EU integration? What assurances or messages can the Government publicly send in this regard via its engagement with the person put forward by the Minister of State's group in Europe to become the next President of the Commission? The Irish public needs more than casual dismissals of its concerns. We need to see the Minister of State's plans for diplomatic action which offers a clear assertion of Ireland's neutrality and commitment to disarmament and peace-building.

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