Friday, 6 November 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Election Monitoring Missions
As the Senator noted, the Department maintains an election observation roster comprising highly qualified volunteers who are competitively selected. The roster is a demonstration of Ireland's contribution to the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law as a member of the EU and the OSCE. Roster members are expected to discharge their responsibilities to a high standard. There are currently 199 appropriately qualified and trained volunteers on Ireland's election observation roster. The number of observers on the roster is more than adequate as the numbers deployed do not usually exceed 60 in any year. The current roster will expire at the end of 2023.
As the Senator will be aware, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, public health advice is to avoid non-essential travel. This obliges the Department to pay particular attention to the risks to volunteer observers and to the many people they will be in contact with arising from overseas travel, compounded by the extensive interactions with local populations and observers from many other countries. Having said that, and taking account of his contribution, I presume the Senator, being fully aware of the various stages of risk we have gone through with Covid-19, would not advocate anything that would be necessarily damaging to public health or our efforts to tackle Covid-19. I, like the roster members, look forward to public health circumstances enabling the safe nomination of members from the Irish roster for consideration by the EU and the OSCE for participation in observer missions. When we can do that safely, we will keep it under active review to ensure it can be done. I commend to the Senator a detailed note on the operation and mustering of the roster, which the Department sent to the Oireachtas last year.
I will take this opportunity to set out for the House some important considerations regarding the effective operation of Ireland's roster. In 2013, the Department decided to professionalise the membership of the roster through introducing competitive mustering of rosters and limiting the lifespan of a given roster, which has greatly improved the quality of Irish election observation. One individual, however, and recently a second individual, who failed to be selected in an open competition for the roster have, through their actions, actively tried to undermine the credibility and smooth operation of the roster. Both individuals generate considerably more correspondence than that from actual members of the roster, taken together, with the Department. One of the individuals has sent 120 messages to the Department since the lockdown began in March, which averages at about one per working day during the pandemic. The burden this creates, by voluminous correspondence and transparency requests and appeals, has significant implications for operational efficiency. This has also substantially increased the cost to the State of the operation of the roster. An additional full-time staff official has been employed to deal with the workload generated by these individuals. The cost last year of dealing with the volume of work generated by individuals significantly exceeded the annual budget of €180,000 for Ireland's participation in international election observation.
Given that there have been so many parliamentary questions and freedom of information issues relating to this, it is important to state we owe enormous thanks to the volunteers whose membership of the roster does Ireland such honour. We will continue to work with them to ensure that when they can be safely deployed and we can take part in a way that is safe for the people taking part but also in a way that will not damage our policy of having no non-essential travel overseas to reduce our exposure to Covid-19, we will do so and return to that.This is not only for the people taking part. We must ensure they can safely take part in a way that does nothing to damage our policy of having no non-essential travel outside the country. The reasons are obviously to do with lowering our exposure to Covid-19. We will of course do this and return to it.