Seanad debates

Thursday, 21 October 2004

Kidnapping of Irish Citizen: Motion.


11:00 am

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann:

—expresses its serious concern, and that of the Irish people, at the abduction of Mrs. Margaret Hassan in Baghdad yesterday;

—notes that Mrs. Hassan was born in Ireland and has spent the last 30 years in Iraq devoting herself to humanitarian work on behalf of the Iraqi people;

—calls for her immediate release and the release of all hostages in Iraq;

—condemns the practice of taking hostages for whatever purpose or cause; and

—welcomes the Government's commitment, which will have the full support of this House, to contribute in any way it can to secure the release of Mrs. Hassan.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I value this opportunity to address the Seanad on this very difficult and distressing situation, the abduction of Mrs. Margaret Hassan, a very dedicated and widely admired humanitarian who was kidnapped in Iraq a number of days ago. As Senators are aware, the Dáil yesterday unanimously passed a resolution condemning this appalling act and calling for Mrs. Hassan's immediate release. This unanimity and the deep concern expressed by all sides of the Dáil and Seanad reflect the deep concern of all our people. I welcome and applaud the decision of the Seanad to have an early debate on this issue.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach and I stated that the Government would do everything in its power to assist the safe return of Mrs. Hassan to her family. In my statement to the Dáil I said that I had contacted her husband and her immediately family in Ireland, as well as governments and organisations in the region that might be of assistance. Overnight, we have been in discussion with the Egyptian and Jordanian Governments and also our Arab League contacts. Later today we will continue these efforts. I will be discussing the case in detail with the Foreign Minister of Palestine, Dr. Shaath. I know he will share my strong view that Mrs. Hassan should be released immediately.

I know I do not need to emphasise to Senators the great sensitivity attaching to the efforts to have Mrs. Hassan released. In this regard, we will be guided by the views and advice of those on the ground in Iraq. They are best placed to advise us on further efforts.

I spoke with her husband and her family in this country. They appreciate the efforts Ireland is making and emphasised the need, in this country, for privacy and space so they can come to terms with the situation. Her husband also emphasised, and was proud of the fact, that he holds an Irish passport. He regards his wife as an Irish citizen and regards our efforts as possibly the best currently being made. He emphasised the best way to secure her release is to use contacts on the ground, in particular NGOs and especially Care International and Iraqi personnel.

The Government's position on abductions and the taking of hostages has always been crystal clear. Such acts are deplorable and can never be justified. In this instance, it has happened to a person who has devoted her life to providing humanitarian assistance to the neediest people in a country devastated in recent years by war and deprivation. At the Baghdad office of Care International, Mrs. Hassan and 30 Iraqi staff do everything possible, on a daily basis, to provide emergency relief, medical aid and assistance in restoring access to clean water.

Care International is one of the world's largest independent global relief and development organisations. It is resolutely non-political and non-sectarian, and operates in over 72 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and eastern Europe. Of its approximately 10,000 employees, more than 9,000 are nationals of countries where the programmes are run. Margaret Hassan is the leading member of that group of 9,000. She is an Iraqi citizen working in an all-Iraqi office, doing everything she can to help Iraqi people. It is therefore all the more shocking that such a dedicated person should be subjected to this inhumane treatment. My officials are in close contact with the chief executive of Care International and we will continue to review all aspects of the situation with him.

Public opinion reflects this sense of outrage. The Seanad brings its own distinctive contribution to public debate in Ireland, and it is right that it should also take this opportunity to address the issue.

In my statement yesterday, I noted, with concern, the erosion of respect for humanitarian personnel as witnessed in recent conflicts. Other speakers in the Dáil echoed this concern. It is particularly disturbing. In my discussions with Kofi Annan last week regarding the possibility of UN personnel returning to Iraq following the murder and maiming of some of their staff in August of last year, he illustrated the difficulty the organisation has in going back in to that situation. The security required to protect personnel must be resolute. Before the abduction of Margaret Hassan, efforts to return UN staff to Baghdad were unfortunately put back because of explosions in the Green Zone, where it was intended these personnel should go. These explosions and the abduction of Margaret Hassan will further delay the possibility of UN staff returning to Baghdad. It is reprehensible and will ultimately lead to worse conditions for the Iraqis.

Margaret Hassan's abduction highlights the enormous dangers facing those who engage in providing humanitarian services in Iraq. In my appeal to those who abducted her to set her free, I pointed out that her abduction could serve no purpose whatsoever. On the contrary, it can only damage and disrupt the valuable work done by humanitarian organisations in Iraq and directly harm the lives of thousands of Iraqis in need of help.

When I spoke to Margaret's husband yesterday, to convey the concern and solidarity of the Government, the Dáil and the people of Ireland, he was deeply appreciative of our support which he emphasised was extremely important to him and his family. This is a dreadful time for the family, friends and colleagues of Margaret Hassan. I hope the widespread concern and outrage felt by us all at this appalling act will be widely heard and have some effect. The family are deeply grateful for our efforts, and they are equally appreciative of the respect shown for their privacy. In order to assist them, a senior official of my Department has travelled to Kerry and will act as a liaison support to the family. The Garda has also been asked to assist and has been helpful and supportive.

I assure the House we will continue with our diplomatic efforts to secure Margaret's release. I thank the Seanad for taking this timely and valued opportunity to show our concern and solidarity on behalf of the Irish people. As some Senators may have heard on "Morning Ireland", a close friend of Margaret Hassan confirmed the unanimous support of the Dáil was something her friends cherish and believe will be significant in possibly securing her release. Equally, I thank the Seanad for giving us the opportunity to be able to say that both Houses of the Oireachtas, as representatives of the people of Ireland, speak with one voice against the abduction of Margaret Hassan. Hopefully all efforts will bring about her early release.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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Discussion of the motion will continue for a period of no longer than 30 minutes. The motion must be agreed by 11.37 a.m. Each Senator has five minutes to speak on the matter.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Leader for presenting the motion, and the Minister for attending. I wish him well in his endeavours to bring whatever degree of progress he can to this sad situation. I would like to add to what he has said, but we all speak with one voice. We are so far removed from the situation in Iraq it is difficult to know what to say and more difficult to know what to do. I take on board his point that those working in Iraq with local knowledge are the best people from whom to take advice. I wish him well in working with such groups.

This is a difficult issue for us to address because we must know our limitations in what we can say or do. It must be an awful time for the family of Margaret Hassan. Her abduction, while not the first such abduction in the past number of months, is a new low in that the person has given a lifetime of work and service to the people of Iraq.

Kidnapping and abductions are appalling and dreadful acts. This is even more shameful because of her background. She has deep links with Iraq and holds Iraqi citizenship. We must recognise she has Irish citizenship, but also that she Iraqi citizenship. It is important that we try to listen to what her colleagues and friends in Iraq say.

This abduction is a major news story, not just in Ireland and Europe, but also in Iraq. There were pictures in the past 24 hours of patients at a Baghdad hospital protesting against her abduction. They obviously knew her track record and were trying to send their own message. It was a powerful image to send to her captors. They wanted Margaret released immediately.

We do not know who is responsible for her abduction. Over the past couple of months, various organisations have been involved in kidnapping. Some of the kidnappings have resulted in tragic murders. Fortunately, on a few occasions, people have been released. Let us hope and pray this is one of the cases where the result will be successful and happy.

Margaret's career in Iraq has been outlined by the Minister and many speakers in both Houses. Her work with Care International has provided significant help to the citizens of Iraq on a daily basis. It is a tragedy that as a result of this abduction the work of Care International is suspended. Our hopes and prayers are with Mrs. Hassan and her family. The message is sent from this House that Mrs. Hassan, a humanitarian worker who has given her life to the people of Iraq, should be released immediately.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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I echo the call of other Members, thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, for coming to the House and add my support to the motion. Having attended some of the Order of Business in the Dáil yesterday, I felt it extremely important that the two Houses of the Oireachtas should combine to voice an appeal for Mrs. Hassan's immediate release. Nobody who has seen her on television could fail to be moved by her fine face and demeanour as she went about her business. She clearly took the welfare of the Iraqi people to heart in her work on behalf of Care International.

Abduction is a heinous crime and, as the motion states, we condemn all instances of hostage taking. In this case in particular, it is wrong that a woman who worked constantly for the Iraqi people and had their care at the heart of her work should be so abused. One can only imagine how her husband, sister, other family members and her colleagues must feel. There is not much we can say only to add our voice to the international voices which have been raised. It is of great value that Mrs. Hassan was born in Ireland and holds Irish citizenship. Her husband is an Iraqi and she is combined with him in that citizenship. The work she has done serves to make her name an international one.

It is worrying that no information has been received as to the group responsible for her abduction and its purpose. The group responsible for the abduction and murder of Mr. Kenneth Bigley and his American colleagues claimed its purpose was to secure the release of Iraqi women prisoners. What can one say if it is the same group which has abducted Mrs. Hassan? It cuts no ice anyhow and serves no purpose. I can only imagine Mrs. Hassan going to work each day in her business-like manner, distributing care to the people of Iraq, whom she clearly loved. That work has been suspended because of this heinous crime. All Members join with the Minister, Taoiseach and Government in sending our prayers and solidarity to those who wish to secure Mrs. Hassan's release.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I propose to share my time with Senators Ross and Norris.

I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and support this motion, which is broad and generous, involving a Government commitment to contribute in any way possible to secure the release of Mrs. Hassan. From what we have heard of Mrs. Hassan, it is clear she would like us to emphasise that we are not just calling for her release but for the release of all hostages in Iraq. The motion emphasises this by condemning the practice of hostage taking for any purpose or cause. Sadly, we have experience in Ireland of this type of crime. Paramilitary groups have taken hostages in the past and, on some occasions, murdered them. It is all too real and relevant to us and we understand it is a terrible situation.

That such a good woman who has given so much to Iraq should be abducted indicates the terrible chaos into which that country has descended. We should ask the occupying forces to redouble their efforts to restore law and order. I understand it is almost impossible for women civilians to go anywhere in safety. I was disturbed to hear that Mrs. Hassan's Iraqi driver and assistant were both beaten up during her abduction. This demonstrates the lack of concern of her hostage takers for anybody's welfare. The House should emphasise that all hostages are important, not just Mrs. Hassan with her important Irish connections. A parliamentarian friend from the Turkish Parliament told me recently that every day one or two coffins are returned with the remains of Turkish lorry drivers who have been murdered while trying to deliver supplies for people like Mrs. Hassan. Supplies cannot be distributed until they are delivered. These people are being murdered by criminals who want their loads, insurgents who are fighting the occupying forces, and others. It is important to bear in mind the chaotic situation in Iraq and encourage the occupying powers to redouble their efforts to guarantee the safety of civilians.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I add my voice to the unanimity behind this motion. It is difficult for anybody to say much in this situation. I am doubtful of the value of having a debate not because of any wrongful intent, but because, by making public statements, we may add to the appetite of the kidnappers when they find they are having an effect around the world. I feel slightly ambivalent about this entire business because international political leaders, this House, houses of parliament around the world and so on are prepared to publicly highlight the activities of these evil people. This affords some degree of efficacy to the latter.

Anything one says could be interpreted as being inflammatory and encouraging of the perpetrators so we should be reasonably circumspect in what we say and regard this as something outside the normal political area of jousting. It certainly has been so today and I commend Members on that attitude. I appeal to anybody involved in this to restrict what they say and be careful they do not exploit it for any political motives. They must ensure everything they do will help Mrs. Hassan. It is obvious the perpetrators of this kidnap will take some pleasure that they have drawn worldwide attention to their crime. People must exercise responsibility on this subject.

It is difficult to know where humanitarian aid will come from in the future if these types of crimes continue. We must look to the future after the appalling situation of Mr. Kenneth Bigley and others and consider whether we do in some way tolerate or unwittingly assist the cause of the kidnappers. Where in the future will we find those brave people who for no personal reward will go to places like Iraq where it is absolutely chaotic and where nobody, however good their intention and however partisan they may be, is safe?

Tom Morrissey (Progressive Democrats)
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I take the opportunity with other Members to express my solidarity with the family of Mrs. Hassan at this dreadful time. I compliment the Minister for Foreign Affairs wholeheartedly on his endeavours in this situation and in the recent case of Mr. Kenneth Bigley where, upon assuming office, he immediately entered into negotiations to seek the release of that unfortunate hostage. I share the concern of Senator Ross with regard to our helplessness in this situation. These kidnappings take place for publicity reasons. For parliaments around the world to supply more oxygen to that publicity may be just what the kidnappers wish. With our support, our Minister for Foreign Affairs will continue his valiant efforts in seeking Margaret Hassan's release.

It is more important that we express our solidarity with this humanitarian aid worker. Ireland is renowned for its humanitarian aid around the globe. Therefore, it is important we express solidarity with all those great people who have left our shores to provide humanitarian aid to the most needy. Our voice will be heard in this area and will give those people the support they need, especially at this difficult time. I wish the Minister well in his endeavours. He has the support of this House.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senators for their sentiments. I empathise and agree with what Senator Ross said. From my contact with the members of Margaret Hassan's family in Ireland, I know they have been upset by the invasion of privacy, especially at a time when it is difficult for them to get their heads around what is going on and what they can do at so far a remove. From that point of view the Senator is correct in what he says. He is also correct with regard to the global reaction.

There was some criticism of what we endeavoured to do in the case of Kenneth Bigley. However, I felt we had to do what we did. We had to make every effort within our power. In that instance, by providing him with a passport we were only providing something to which he was entitled. A passport is only a document. He was entitled to Irish citizenship under our laws. Therefore, whether he did or did not have a document made no difference. We, as we do in emergency circumstances where, for example, people have lost passports abroad, cut through the red tape on that occasion. Unfortunately, that was not successful.

In this instance, the initial view, as outlined to me by both her family here and her husband, might be that the fact that Margaret Hassan is so widely known in Iraq and that she worked with and helped ordinary Iraqi people, which does not in any way reflect on other people who were kidnapped and murdered, may mean that the best people to judge the type of contacts that should be made are those people on the ground. Having spoken to Mr. Hassan yesterday, I know he hopes to speak to a number of key people in the area whom he believes have significant influence. This belief was exemplified by the statement of one of Mrs. Hassan's friends to the media. Another friend who worked with her for a number of years in Iraq also confirmed the same to me privately. However, they very much welcome the support the Oireachtas is giving and believe it will be key in the release of Margaret Hassan.

Question put and agreed to.