Seanad debates

Friday, 15 December 2006

1:00 pm

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment. I thank the Minister of State for attending the House. Some 2,006 years ago, there were problems with the maternity services in Bethlehem. The story of the Blessed Virgin Mary giving birth in a stable and putting her new-born child in a manger is at the centre of our Christmas celebrations. Today, however, there is little to celebrate for the people of Bethlehem, a town of 30,000 people which is in a state of turmoil with danger all around.

The Palestinians in that area are some of the most destitute people in the world. The Palestinian Government has no funds to pay salaries or provide public services. As the Minister of State is aware, yesterday, the Prime Minister of Palestine was prevented from bringing $30 million in aid that he had succeeded in raising in other countries to his people. In addition, Israel is not allowing money due to the Palestinians from taxes to be paid either. The only money that is getting into the area at the moment is foreign aid, and especially that which comes from the European Union. There are terrible problems for everyone there, but one group of people, pregnant women, will now have even fewer maternity services. Their well-being is seriously compromised by a lack of trained staff in the Holy Family Hospital and other small maternity units in the West Bank.

For a long time, Irish Aid was involved in funding postgraduate courses in Bethlehem University. Among other postgraduate courses, Irish Aid supported midwifery training for nurses. It was hoped that a course with direct entry to midwifery might be established soon because there is an international shortage of midwives. Two of my nursing colleagues have contacted me about this matter. They felt that when Irish Aid withdrew its funding for postgraduate courses, it did not understand that the midwifery course would be affected as well. In the recent past, an assessment was carried out by some British advisers who recommended that Irish Aid should stop funding these postgraduate courses in Bethlehem University and put its money into primary education, another area where there is considerable deprivation. This has happened, so I am not complaining that our money is not going there. However, even the United Nations has appealed for help to restart the midwifery courses.

I have frequently expressed my admiration for Irish Aid. It is not as if these nurses can travel elsewhere locally to attend another such course. As the Minister of State is well aware, the area is very dangerous. There is a course in Ramallah, which is 10 km down the road. That seems nothing to us but, unfortunately, it is too dangerous for people to go that far at the moment. Jerusalem is 20 km away, which is also impossible. In addition, it is out of the question to travel to Gaza city, which is 80 km distant.

The maternity unit in the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem is the only such service in the West Bank. There was a hospital in Beit Jallour but it closed recently, along with the few maternity beds it had, because staff were not being paid. I am quite sure no one in Irish Aid would want the situation for pregnant women and those delivering children to deteriorate in any way. However, the lack of money to train midwives is exposing pregnant women to greater risk. I respectfully ask the Minister of State to inquire if this aid can be restored immediately.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this opportunity to make a statement to the Seanad. I also welcome the Senator's initiative in raising this matter on the Adjournment.

This year has been a difficult one for the Middle East and, in particular, for Palestine. The difficult and often desperate situation of the Palestinian people is of grave concern to the Government. Ireland has provided development and humanitarian assistance in support of the Palestinian people since 1993.

In 2006, we provided €6.4 million to meet the humanitarian and development needs of the Palestinian people, an increase of over 40% on the previous year and the highest level of assistance in the history of our aid programmes. Ireland's core objective in providing assistance to Palestine is to alleviate the consequences of the conflict by enhancing the capacity of Ireland's partners in Palestine to respond to the current crisis and, where possible, to begin to meet future development needs.

Irish Aid does not provide direct support for maternity services. Support is provided through Bethlehem University to a wide range of training in the health sector, including occupational therapy, physiotherapy, emergency nursing and midwifery, including some support provided through the Order of Malta. Ireland has supported Bethlehem University since 1987, the longest period of support for any institution in the aid programme.

Since 2000, more than €1.4 million has been provided directly to Bethlehem University from Ireland's bilateral aid programme. The overall objective is to enhance the effectiveness of Bethlehem University as a medium of assistance to the Palestinian people by assisting the university with its community outreach projects. The focus is on the development of local capacity and assistance to the most vulnerable sections of the community.

Under Ireland's three-year country strategy for bilateral aid to Palestine, which runs from 2005 to 2007, funding of €225,000 was allocated for Bethlehem University. All this funding has been paid in full. I am aware of the particularly difficult situation in which the university now finds itself, given the severe humanitarian crisis which has affected the provision of services.

In light of the current emergency, I am conscious of the difficulties being faced by the university and I assure the House that I will continue to provide funding. Clearly, Palestine is in an extraordinarily difficult situation. The severe and intractable humanitarian crisis is rooted in a territorial conflict that is fundamentally political. The search for a lasting and peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has for many years been a central concern of Irish foreign policy under successive Governments. We are consistently active on the issue in the European Union and at the United Nations.

In 2007, the Government will maintain the level of assistance which is being provided for humanitarian and development assistance in Palestine. We are committed to the provision of support for the United Nations relief and works agency, UNRWA, which is a key partner for Ireland in the delivery of basic services to the refugee population there. We will continue our support to the United Nations development programme for programmes in rural development and to the UN office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs — known by its acronym UNOCHA — for its important co-ordination function. Last week, in New York, I discussed the Palestinian situation in detail with Jan Egeland who is the under-secretary general of the United Nations.

We will also continue to support human rights, democratisation and social regeneration programmes through our support for civil society organisations. I assure Senators that Ireland will continue to do everything within its capacity to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people.

Senator Henry has raised a matter, which, if I had known about it in detail, I would certainly have included in my reply. I will seek an answer from my officials and from Irish Aid with regard to the midwifery courses she mentioned. We provide financial assistance to Bethlehem University for such courses. I will check the details. It may be that the college authorities, or someone acting on their own behalf, decided to drop that course. I will certainly inquire into the matter, however.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for his sympathetic response.