Wednesday, 7 March 2018
Foreign Affairs: Statements (Resumed)
The next item is statements on foreign affairs, which are resumed. All remaining Senators have five minutes and the Minister is to be called no later than 4.52 p.m., but he has expressed a wish to come in before then if possible. I call Senator Gavan.
I thank the Chair and appreciate that. I begin by addressing the Syrian crisis. I am appalled at the escalation of violence in Syria in recent weeks. The ongoing conflict there has created one of the worse humanitarian crises in modern times. We know approximately 500,000 people have been killed in the conflict and countless numbers maimed. An estimated eight million people have been displaced inside Syria and 4.5 million refugees are beyond the Syrian border.
Sinn Féin has condemned, and continues to condemn, the Turkish and Saudi funding, arming and training of extremist jihadist groups in Syria. We have strongly criticised the United States, Britain, Israel and France's decision to intervene militarily in this war. We also echo the abhorrence of United Nations at the complete lack of adherence to international law by all sides in this conflict, including the Syrian Government's action against civil protests.
In recent days, we have seen eastern Ghouta come under sustained bombardment and aid convoys have been unable to reach those who desperately need humanitarian supplies. There is an urgent need for a ceasefire. In recent week's the Turkish army has also invaded Afrin and carried out sustained military attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians and Kurdish combatants from the YekÌneyên Parastina Gel, YPG, who were successfully fighting Daesh.
This invasion is a breach of international law and will undoubtedly hamper the fight against Daesh. This should not be a complete surprise given the many questions surrounding Turkey's covert support for radical jihadist groups in Syria. Ireland, as a priority, must assist efforts to end the conflict, persecute those suspected of committing war crimes and tackle the huge humanitarian crisis this brutal conflict continues to cause. We must continue to send aid to Syria and support humanitarian efforts in there and in neighbouring countries.
Turning to Palestine, I want to reiterate Sinn Féin's call for the release of the Palestinian teenager, Ms Ahed Tamimi. She remains in an Israeli military prison while she awaits trial for slapping an Israeli soldier who entered her illegally-occupied village in the West Bank. Ms Tamimi was reacting after her 15 year-old cousin, Mr. Mohammed Tamimi, was shot in the head with a tear gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier. He had emergency surgery to save his life and still needs further surgery to reconstruct his skull.
Last week, heavily armed Israeli soldiers broke into his home in the middle of the night and arrested him. He was taken in for interrogation, in just another example of the apartheid Israeli state arresting, detaining and interrogating children. Mr. Tamimi was put under so much pressure in this interrogation that he stated that he was not shot at all but instead fell off his bike. This lie was repeated by the Israeli military command and some within the Government. It shows the extreme lengths the Israeli Government will go to in an attempt to shield its horrific actions, continue its illegal occupation of Palestine and discredit all those who challenge it. Will the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, condemn Mr. Tamimi's arrest and interrogation? Will he protest it directly with his Israeli counterpart and call for Ms Tamimi's release?
War in Yemen has claimed over 10,000 lives and created such devastation that the country is continually on the brink of famine and in desperate need of humanitarian aid. More than 11 million children, nearly every child in Yemen, now needs daily humanitarian assistance. I welcome the Government's response in supporting aid and humanitarian efforts in the country. However, we need to do more to end the conflict. Ireland should support calls to place an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia until it ends its brutal attacks on Yemen and lifts its crippling blockade.
We must also look at what is happening at Shannon Airport. In the first six months of 2017, 427 permits were approved by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, for military-contracted planes to stop off and fly through Irish airspace. We know from the permits that these planes were on their way to Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Is a coincidence that all these countries are members of the Saudi-led coalition waging a savage war against the Yemeni people?I genuinely do not understand how, on the one hand, the Minister can do good work calling for humanitarian aid but, on the other, turn a blind eye to the fact that our airport in Shannon is actively engaged as a forward base in the perpetration of that war against the Yemeni people.
Speaking of Bahrain, is the Minister aware that the Bahraini human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, was sentenced to five years in prison last week for criticising the Bahraini Government in posts on Twitter in 2015. I am deeply concerned about Nabeel's prosecution and lengthy sentence. It shows that the Bahraini Government will go to severe lengths to crack down on even the smallest amount of free speech. We cannot be seen to tolerate such totalitarianism. All of us must be free to criticise authority and call out injustice when we see it. I call on the Minister to directly protest Nabeel's conviction with his Bahraini counterparts and to publicly speak out in favour of his immediate release.
I will conclude by speaking briefly on the subject of Catalonia. I am concerned that the Spanish Government is continuing to suspend home rule in Catalonia. Ministers in the previous Catalan Government remain in prison or in exile abroad and two Catalan civic society leaders remain in jail, all on serious charges of rebellion and sedition for holding or supporting a democratic referendum on independence. Their continued imprisonment and exile is completely unacceptable and anti-democratic. These prisoners should be released immediately and those in exile allowed to return home.
I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister back to the Seanad and to raise a number of issues in the areas of foreign affairs and trade with which my group and my party are concerned.
Two weeks ago, the Minister's former Department opened a public consultation on the plans for a new nuclear reactor at the Hinkley Point plant in Somerset in the United Kingdom. I raised the issue of the cross-border impact from such projects at the time and asked that all parties in the Seanad would take an active role in ensuring a strong Irish voice is heard on these issues. Concerns remain about safety, waste and crisis impacts of such facilities, a mere 500 km off our coast. I hope the Minister's Department will continue the long-standing cross-party tradition of tackling successive UK Governments on nuclear policy.
On the topic of neutrality, we saw the publication of a policy document last week from all four of his Fine Gael colleagues in the European Parliament that advocates for a radical alteration to the Irish approach to neutrality and a common European defence. That would see Ireland seek to access EU defence fund moneys and increase our involvement in joint military operations. That would be a significant move away from the position as laid out in the 2015 White Paper on Defence and is part of the erosion of the official position on neutrality I believe the average citizen would still assume is official State policy.
Neutrality matters, not just in the abstract. It is not just a nice idea. It is and has been a long cornerstone of our foreign policy that has allowed us play an outsized and positive role on the international stage, particularly as a member of the United Nations where we were seen as a fair and dispassionate arbiter throughout the Cold War and in its aftermath. Were we to sacrifice that position, we could offer next to nothing to either NATO or the European Union in terms of military capacity yet would be sacrificing much of the serious diplomatic and soft power our world class diplomats have wielded so effectively since the foundation of our State.
Regarding Permanent Structured Cooperation, PESCO, my colleague, Senator Higgins, previously raised several pertinent questions about the role of Ireland with the new organisational agreement. I join her in urging the Minister to lean in further to Ireland's role as a peace-building nation driven by humanitarianism principles in our foreign affairs policy and to strongly defend our proud record of neutrality. I ask the Minister about the implementation plan for PESCO. Will it be published and will it be brought to these Houses and voted on?
Regarding procurement, will that be subject to parliamentary review? Will we be setting aside categories of equipment which Ireland will not procure such as drones? Will the Minister assure us that weapons or equipment we help fund will always be used within a UN mandate? I am interested to hear his views on those questions and on the wider area of neutrality in the context of the statements by his colleagues in the European Parliament.
On the issue of trade, there have been other significant developments, with the European Court of Justice finding that investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms in inter-state trade deals are incompatible with EU law. While this is a welcome development in terms of democracy within the EU, it will not affect international agreements between the EU and other states or organisations. This is particularly significant as we approach the next stage of Brexit negotiations, which will take the form of trade negotiations. What model of trade agreement will be pursued and, crucially, will it include an investor-state arbitration method such as investor-state dispute settlement, ISDS, or an investment court system?
It is clear also that we cannot move forward with full ratification of the comprehensive economic and trade agreement, CETA, with the legality of elements within that awaiting judgment. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will, as appropriate, await the European Court of Justice ruling on the investment court system, ICS, before proceeding further?
The campaigners from the Bantry Bay kelp forest group were outside Leinster House today protesting and appealing to the Government to review the licensing of such a large area for harvesting of kelp in Bantry Bay. In June, the United Nations will convene in New York to discuss a new process for the international management and protection of our seas and oceans, which I expect the Minister will attend. I ask that he might briefly outline the Government's thinking on marine protected areas in an international context, which is especially relevant now in the face of Brexit.
I am deputising for Senator Joe O'Reilly. I had not intended to speak but I am glad to contribute briefly to the debate and to signal the opportunities and challenges posed by our relationships in Europe and with our colleagues throughout the world. I will not go into the detail of individual issues that have been raised here but whatever criticisms there may be of Irish participation, either in Europe or beyond, it is very important that as an island nation we cannot be self-sufficient or follow an isolationist economic policy.
There are not many positives in terms of Britain's decision to leave the EU but one positive is that results of opinion polls here on the importance of remaining in Europe range from 80% to 90% in favour of remaining. I very much welcome that. One of the weaknesses of the European Union over the years is that it did not connect with ordinary people in the street in the member states. If there is any lesson to be learned from Britain's decision to leave it may be that Europe failed to reform and connect with the individual member states.
I welcome the Minister to the House and wish him well in his negotiations on Brexit. We are not certain how all of it will play out but he has played a very important role so far and it is hoped it will end in a situation where Ireland will be a stronger part of Europe and that our future economic viability will not be affected. If the relevance of Europe to the ordinary member states and that connectivity had been assured in the past 40 years since Ireland and Britain joined and it became a larger unit, we may not be facing the current situation with Britain leaving the EU.
I very much welcome the Government's recent policy to increase our embassy presence across the world and establish new trade with countries outside the EU.In the next couple of weeks Ireland will have a unique part to play in spreading its message throughout the world. In recent years, in particular, this has been done to maximum effect. I want the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach, Ministers and all others who represent the country abroad to send a very strong message in the coming weeks.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the Chamber. I am pleased to see him back in Seanad Éireann. Given the limited time available, I will focus on three specific points. First, as he is aware, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement recently spent two days in Belfast meeting a number of community groups. Such outreach activity is a vital part of our work in dealing with the remaining legacy issues of the conflict and the visit was really impactful. I was blown away by it. In particular, I was blown away by the testimonies, especially on the Irish language. There are more than 6,000 children in Irish-medium education across Northern Ireland and for many in Belfast, it is such a central part of their identity. This issue is often politicised to the point where it is viewed mainly as a political football or an institutional stumbling block, but that is far removed from the ordinary concerns of those who speak the language daily and care deeply about its development. I was especially stuck by our meetings with Protestant, unionist and loyalist communities. I was delighted to speak to these groups that are often forgotten and marginalised. Their focus was on unemployment, housing, mental health and the legacy of the conflict. One could feel their passion for regenerating their communities, which was amazing.
While the Irish language is often associated with nationalism, the Lower Shankill Community Association actually runs a weekly class. One of the first comments from a participant was that the language should be neutral and belong to everyone and that it was often politicised far beyond that. I saw a real focus on social issues. In that sense the Irish language was not always the biggest priority. That was a huge shock to me also. Many were happy to see such classes being offered and were more concerned with the availability of housing and social and economic opportunities for their children. It really made me see that the political focus, particularly on the language, did not always reflect the reality on the ground. That was an eye-opener. What we hear in media coverage down here does not correspond with what was said at our meetings in east and west Belfast last month and I do not want those marginalised voices to be unheard. Is the Tánaiste willing to meet such groups and provide greater chances for direct engagement? They would love to meet him also. I noted previously my admiration for the fantastic work he is doing on this issue and know that the current situation in the North is something about which he cares deeply, especially in the context of Brexit. Such community engagement could only enhance it.
I wish to touch briefly on the situation in Palestine, about which we have spoken a lot. I welcomed the robust debate we had on the Occupied Territories Bill which I had tabled in January. I am pleased that the Tánaiste has committed to facilitating the use of Government time to resume the debate before the summer recess. Much of the focus was on our legal capacity to pursue such a policy on settlement goods. I am very happy to work with Oireachtas Members in outlining the strong, coherent legal basis of the legislation. I will be reaching out to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, in particular, as many members have a deep interest in the issue and the Bill, given that in 2012 the committee strongly endorsed a ban on settlement goods. During the debate the Tánaiste noted that his preference was for co-ordinated EU action on settlement expansion, something I would welcome strongly, but he also told the Dáil that there was no reasonable prospect of it happening. I have spoken to him on the issue previously and think it is at this point that we differ - when the question becomes how Ireland should react to gridlock in the European Union. I appreciate and recognise his position on the issue, but I believe we can show leadership on it. It was in that spirit that I tabled the Bill. We can and should be willing to act first if others will not do so in the face of injustice.
On the point about the European Union, Senator Mark Daly noted in the debate in January that the Tánaiste had made a commitment to raise the issue of settlement expansion at the Foreign Affairs Council last week. I would welcome an update on that point. Was the issue raised and, if so, what was the response of Foreign Ministers?
I will briefly raise a third matter. Last month the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade produced an extensive review of the Irish Aid programme and made a clear call for "enhanced oversight measures" in multilateral programmes. I am so proud of Ireland's aid work, but we must ensure agreements to which we sign up respect human rights and the humanitarian principles of this country. I am thinking, in particular, of the EU-Turkey deal on migration and the atrocious treatment of refugees fleeing persecution. We need coherence between our aid programme and foreign policy on issues such as this. Given the committee's report, will the Tánaiste agree to increased enhanced oversight of the multilateral system for which it called?
I reiterate the questions posed by my colleague, Senator Grace O'Sullivan, on joint procurement under the PESCO arrangement. How can we be sure nations with which we jointly develop or buy military equipment will not use it outside UN mandated missions? For example, Germany has troops in Afghanistan.
I thank the Tánaiste and look forward to hearing his response.
I welcome the Tánaiste and thank him very much for coming back. Given his brief, I could raise 1 million issues with him, but as I only have five minutes, I will skip Brexit, on which I have 1 million opinions.
I commend the Government's commitment to the provision of overseas development aid. I had the genuine privilege of visiting the South Sudanese-Ugandan border with Irish Aid in autumn 2017 where I saw the work being done by our people on the ground and through our agencies. It is testament to the rich history of Ireland in terms of the work of our development agencies and missionaries and something we need to maintain and continue. That responsibility feeds into the general Irish narrative, on which I would like to focus, namely, Ireland's place in the world. I accept that we are a very small nation and that this is a very small island, but the slogan is "An island at the centre of the world". That is a very good and relevant slogan when so many other nations and states are closing themselves off, most notably the United States where the President has made worrying comments about tariffs on steel imports and our nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom. Ireland can be the bastion of brightness that believes in an open, tolerant society; that will always welcome people from other countries and that will send its people abroad to work, play, study and give so much to the world.
On the Irish global footprint, I have a few questions for the Tánaiste about the Department's strategy when it comes to increasing our diplomatic footprint throughout the world in the context of the Ireland House concept in bringing together not just our diplomatic and consular efforts but also the efforts of agencies such as Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, Irish Aid and so many others, to show that what Ireland can bring to the global stage is a very strong and powerful tool, not just to get our message out but also to sell Ireland to bring people and businesses here and support Irish people, businesses and entities working and operating abroad. I very much welcome the announcement made by the Tánaiste before Christmas on an increased diplomatic footprint through the opening of five new embassies and consulates. Will he indicate which is next?
I welcome the prioritisation of New Zealand, but there is so much more we could do to strengthen existing embassies both within and beyond the European Union. However, there is also a lot more we could do to strengthen our consular footprint beyond embassies. There is huge scope in that regard in the United Kingdom. The embassy in London is one of the busiest, if not the busiest, of our embassies. Last May I visited the consulate in Edinburgh and it is doing excellent work with the Irish diaspora and also in promoting increased engagement between Ireland and Scotland, economically and educationally. That work is reciprocated here by the very strong Scottish office. Is there scope to look at the northern English powerhouse which is supported by the United Kingdom Government. For want of a much better word, could we devolve some of the responsibilities from the embassy in London and consider having a new operation in Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds to focus on the north of England and, in turn, consider an administration in Cardiff and also in the midlands where historically there has been a very strong Irish population in places such as Coventry, Birmingham but which are also places to which Irish businesses are increasingly going. As the United Kingdom, regrettably, leaves the European Union, we must be sure we will maintain the closest possible relations through our EU membership but also through our existing diplomatic relationship which is as strong now as it has ever been, as highlighted by the various state visits. I commend the Tánaiste, his Department and Ministers of State on all the work that is being done. Many thousands of Irish people are working through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in very difficult situations. The role our diplomats, peacekeepers and aid agencies play abroad shows Ireland in the best possible light. We have an opportunity now to double, triple or quadruple that impact, and that could benefit our small country in very many ways.
As there are no more speakers, I call the Minister to respond to the debate. He has, in accordance with what has been laid down, eight minutes but, in essence, we have 30 minutes remaining, although I am not asking him to take all that time.
I will certainly take more than eight minutes to answer some of the questions that were raised today. First, I take this opportunity to address the Seanad on matters relating to foreign affairs to wrap up on the debate that took place on 6 February. Unfortunately, I was not able to be here, but the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, was here in my place. I would like to make some remarks on the permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, as I am aware that issue dominated the debate on 6 February. I would like to address some of the issues that were raised today and the previous day. As the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, outlined, Ireland joined PESCO because it is in our interests to do so. Participation adds value to the work of the Defence Forces serving in peacekeeping operations in particular. It also keeps our troops safer. Our Defence Forces participate in multilateral missions in service of international peace and security in what can often be very challenging environments. It makes sense that they train together and work efficiently with their partners, and PESCO will help that.
Participation in PESCO is voluntary and decided on a project-by-project basis. The kinds of projects we are interested in reflect Irish foreign policy priorities. They include, for example, co-operation on counterterrorism and cybersecurity, a centre of excellence for EU training missions, disaster relief, and harbour and maritime surveillance and protection, which I suspect Senator Grace O'Sullivan would be very interested in given her commitment to the marine.
PESCO is also seen at EU level as a political demonstration of unity and inclusivity inthe face of Brexit, the continuing EU ambition to provide global leadership in support of the multilateral system, and to foster regional peace and stability. PESCO fully respects the differing security and defence policies of EU member states. The Council decision establishing PESCO specifically states that "the decision of Member States to participate in PESCO is voluntary and does not in itself affect national sovereignty or the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States". Other EU countries which, like Ireland, are not members of any military alliance are also participating in PESCO.
The issue of PESCO, procurement and the triple lock was raised. Under the Defence Acts, the deployment of the Defence Forces overseas on peacekeeping missions requires the approval of the Government and Dáil Éireann and the specific mission must be authorised or supported by the United Nations. That is what we term the triple lock. Any capabilities developed or equipment procured under PESCO remain solely and entirely with the member state, and decisions on their deployment remain a decision solely for and by the member state concerned. In Ireland’s case, this will continue to be governed by the triple lock. I trust that this will clear up any confusion regarding that issue.
We will have to pick and choose the areas if there is joint procurement in terms of trying to get value for money. We have, for example, a memorandum of understanding with the United Kingdom on defence, and procurement is one of the areas on which we work with it, but that does not mean we do not procure inappropriately or with respect to weaponry that is inappropriate in terms of what Ireland aspires to do from a peacekeeping and defence perspective.
The establishment of PESCO is just one aspect of the implementation of the EU's global strategy. Another is the integrated approach which aims to enhance the EU's international crisis management capabilities through using all of the Union's policies and instruments, including diplomatic, development co-operation and humanitarian aid tools.
Our core foreign policy approach and priorities remain. Our long-standing policy of military neutrality is valued by this Government and will be upheld. This policy of military neutrality has gone hand in hand with our belief that international engagement is critical to enhance co-operation and reduce conflict around the world. In other words, military neutrality for us does not mean non-engagement or leaving somebody else to do the difficult things. We have a very active policy of neutrality where Ireland chooses on a voluntary basis to get involved in multiple, very complex and, in some cases, very difficult peacekeeping missions.
Support for multilateralism and the UN is another aspect of the EU's global strategy, and Ireland will continue to champion this. PESCO has the potential to strengthen and enhance the international peacekeeping efforts of our Defence Forces in support of the UN. The UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping has welcomed PESCO as potentially providing additional capabilities for UN-mandated operations.
The UN is the cornerstone of the multilateral rules-based order, and it is facing particular challenges at present, as referred to by Senator Richmond. We believe Ireland should contribute to and participate to the fullest extent possible in the work of the UN, which is why our candidature for a seat on the UN Security Council is a reflection of the centrality of the UN to our foreign policy ambitions. A seat on the UN Security Council would serve as a platform to amplify the projection of Ireland's values and priorities on international relations. PESCO in no way compromises these values. We are continuing our leadership on disarmament and non-proliferation, the promotion and protection of human rights, humanitarian intervention, sustainable development, conflict resolution and the pursuit of a fairer, more just and more secure world.
Several Senators raised their concerns about Brexit during the debate in February. The Government welcomed the publication of the draft withdrawal agreement by the European Commission last week, including the proposed protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. The protocol, a part of the withdrawal agreement, translates into legally binding terms the firm commitments made in December. The draft withdrawal agreement will now be discussed internally among EU member states and will then be discussed with the UK via the task force in the Article 50 negotiations. We hope that it will be possible for substantive engagement to begin as soon as possible. The European Council was clear in December that negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken in phase one are respected in full in legal terms.
We have always been clear that our preference is to avoid a hard border through a wider future relationship agreement between the EU and the UK, and this is a view shared by the UK Government. We are also committed, however, to exploring specific solutions to be proposed by the UK, if necessary. At the same time, should it prove necessary, there is now a legal provision to implement a backstop if there is no agreement on option A or option B. We are very clear on what that backstop would be and the detail of how it would work.
I welcome Prime Minister May’s reiteration in her speech last Friday of the UK's commitment to protecting the peace process, achieved through the Good Friday Agreement, and to the commitments made in the agreement reached last December, including on avoiding a hard border. She has given a number of important reassurances in her speech, including restating her overall goal of a very close relationship with the EU, but also recognising that the UK will face hard choices given constraints between some of the UK aims and the consequences of withdrawing from the European Union. We look forward to the UK presenting its position officially across the negotiating table in Brussels and considering it together with the Commission and the other EU member states.
Ireland is continuing to work closely with our EU partners and the task force to ensure that the commitments made in phase one are delivered in full and that Ireland’s interests are advanced in the EU's position for the negotiations on transitional arrangements and the future relationship. The European Council plans to adopt additional guidelines at its next meeting on 23 March as regards the framework for the future EU-UK relationship.
Work in support of the negotiations in Brussels is continuing across Departments, co-ordinated by my Department. The solidarity of our EU partners for Ireland has been really impressive and consistent. I will continue to engage regularly with my EU colleagues in the weeks and months ahead on issues of key concern for Ireland as the negotiations progress.
While the UK’s decision to leave the EU has serious implications for Ireland, we maintain a strong and constructive bilateral relationship with the UK. We are fully committed to developing and enhancing this relationship over the coming years, despite the challenges that Brexit will undoubtedly pose.I am aware that several Senators raised issues about the Middle East, including the Middle East peace process, which is a particular priority for me, as I hope this House will understand from previous debates. In recent weeks, I met again with the US team working on the Middle East peace process to explore what we can do both nationally as Ireland and at EU level to make progress on the Israel-Palestine conflict. As I have stated previously, I was disappointed by the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In all my US contacts, I have been clear about Ireland's commitment to a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine at some point in the future. Senator Black's Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill was born from a desire to end settlement construction on Palestinian land. The Government and I share this objective fully. However, the matters touched on in this Bill relate to international trade, which falls under the common commercial policy of the EU. We will return to this issue in the Seanad in a few months time and I look forward to that. Ireland does take action on settlements where possible. For example, regarding the matter raised by Senator Feighan, I deplore the demolition of Palestinian structures in Area C and I have seen the consequences having visited the area. Ireland is part of a group of EU states that have called for compensation for the destruction or confiscation of structures and other humanitarian aid, which is contrary to international law. We raised all these issues at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting last week when we had a number of Arab League foreign Ministers with us for a lunch time discussion. Senator Ó Donnghaile raised the important issue of the treatment of minors. During my visit in January, I did raise Ireland's concerns about the detention of minors directly with the Israeli authorities. During my visit to the Middle East, I raised the case of Ahed Tamimi. Ireland and other EU diplomats have attended her hearings in the military court. The handling of this case is worrying. The arrest was carried out in the middle of the night with the latter broadcast on Israeli television. She is being held without bail pending trial, which may result in a very long period of detention on the basis that she is a danger to the public. I think this allegation lacks serious credibility but we will continue to monitor that case with interest.
Regarding Syria and Turkey and Russia in particular, the situation in Syria is of the utmost concern. I think that in ten, 20 and 50 years time, the world will look back at how history is written regarding Syria and it really will be a stain on the capacity of the global powers to prevent mass bloodshed and misery. The siege of eastern Ghouta has been utterly horrifying. Somebody talking about it in the aftermath of the worst of that violence last week told me that they simply could not watch it. It was just too horrifying to think of the detail, particularly the impact on women and children. I found it difficult to watch myself and I utterly condemn in the strongest possible terms the attacks on civilians that have taken place. I was at the UN Security Council when the Secretary General referred to eastern Ghouta as hell on earth and called for an immediate ceasefire there. Russia's support for the Assad regime has prolonged the suffering of the Syrian people. In October 2017, I relayed Ireland's concerns to the Russian deputy foreign Minister. These messages have also been conveyed to the Russian ambassador on a number of occasions. Regarding the situation in Afrin, which was mentioned earlier, I understand Turkey's desire to protects its citizens from spillover from the conflict. However, military action risks being counterproductive and a de-escalation is undoubtedly needed. Officials from my Department met the Turkish ambassador in January and highlighted Ireland's concerns about the protection of civilians.
Regarding Yemen, which is in a similar category to Syria in some ways, I believe the only way to bring about a long-term sustainable improvement in the situation for the Yemeni people is through a negotiated end to conflict. I welcome the appointment of Martin Griffiths as the new UN special envoy for Yemen and wish him well in the almost impossible job he must do. Ireland has provided over €11 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemen since 2015 and we are committed to maintaining that support. Ireland has provided over €20 million in core global funding to UNICEF since 2015. Ireland was part of the core group that secured a landmark resolution at the UN Human Rights Council last September establishing an international group of eminent experts to examine and report back on the human rights situation in Yemen and whether or not war crimes have been committed there. As I stated previously in this House, there is no consensus at present at EU level on an arms embargo to Saudi Arabia or any other members of the coalition but to be clear, Ireland does not export arms to these countries.
Several Senators addressed development issues, including our 0.7% of gross national income overseas development aid target and the sustainable development goals that are very much linked to that. Preparations are under way to produce a new White Paper on international development policy in 2018. This will inform an ambitious pathway towards making sustainable progress on that 0.7% UN target. What Senator Richmond said earlier is true. This Government has an ambition to dramatically change the ambition levels relating to getting to where we promised we would be, which is 0.7%. That is a discussion that needs to take place between my Department, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Reaching this target will involve significant increases in the overseas development aid budget and careful planning and consultation with other Departments and stakeholders because not all of the overseas development aid comes through my Department. Some of it goes through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; some of it goes through the Department of Health; and some of it goes through a series of other Departments such as the Department of Education and Skills. When we have clarity on that pathway to the 0.7% target, I would be delighted to come back to the House and talk through it in detail as I would like to get feedback regarding the White Paper we will progress. Clearly, the work of the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade did in this area and the report it published last week will help to inform what I hope is a non-party and non-partisan debate on how we do that and provide a much more generous approach that I believe Ireland should be taking towards overseas development aid financing.
Regarding the national implementation plan for sustainable development goals, the Department of Climate Action, Communications and the Environment is co-ordinating the interdepartmental working group that drafted the plan and will be drafting a voluntary national review. The review will include input from civil society, business groups and individuals. As with the national implementation plan, my Department plays an active supporting role in this process and has responsibility for targets that involve supporting developing countries to achieve their sustainable development goals, including in the key areas mentioned, which are gender, education, climate change and agriculture, areas where I believe Ireland has international relevance and impact.
Senators also raised issues relating to the diaspora and returning emigrants. This day last year, on 7 March, the Government approved, in principle, the holding of a referendum to amend the Constitution to extend the franchise at presidential elections to include Irish citizens resident outside the State, including citizens resident in Northern Ireland. We are committed to holding a referendum on this issue, which is likely to be in June 2019. We are also committed to reducing the barriers faced by citizens seeking to return to Ireland from abroad. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade commissioned an economic report on difficulties experienced by Irish people returning home which has recently been finalised and makes 30 recommendations for Government. We are going to publish that report this evening. That is the plan.There will be statements in the Dáil on it tomorrow. We are also working to address the recommendations in the report, including through the interdepartmental committee on the Irish abroad which works to facilitate a whole-of-Government response to issues affecting Irish people abroad.
This Government also continues to identify with and support the needs of Irish emigrants living in the United States, including undocumented Irish citizens. We remain wholly committed to working with the US authorities to resolve the plight of the undocumented Irish, while respecting the right of the United States to set its immigration policies. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has worked closely with Irish immigration centres in the United States for many years on this issue, and continues to fund many centres through the emigrant support programme. These centres provide front-line services to many undocumented communities.
In addition to emigrant support programmes, we continue to raise the plight of the undocumented at the highest level, including through my recent visit to Washington. The ongoing work of Deputy John Deasy, who is a special envoy on this issue, is paying dividends. The matter will be raised by the Taoiseach during his St. Patrick's Day visit in the days ahead. Once again, I thank Senators for the opportunity to address some of these issues.
One or two other points were raised regarding our global footprint. The Taoiseach has outlined an ambition to double our global footprint, that is, Ireland's impact and reach internationally, by 2025, which is a pretty ambitious target. We have started in an ambitious way and this year new embassies will open in Santiago in Chile, Bogota in Columbia and New Zealand, which should have happened before now. New consulates will open in Vancouver and Mumbai. A new embassy will open in Amman in Jordan, which reflects our interest in the Middle East peace process and how it will develop into the future.
We are close to announcing a series of new embassies in other parts of the world where Ireland needs to increase its presence, such as in places like west and north Africa, and east of the European Union. I do not want to start naming names, but there are diplomatic and strategic engagements in which Ireland needs to get involved in parts of the world where we have been light in terms of our presence until now.
The final issue is protecting the marine environment. When I was in a previous ministry, I committed to Ireland banning microbeads, something about which Senator O'Sullivan feels very strongly and continues to campaign on. We are going to do that. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Murphy, about the matter. We are going through the necessary processes with the Commission to be able to do it, but I am very confident that the required legislation will be passed before the end of the year.
I am also a big supporter of marine protection areas. We will progress special protection areas at sea in the future. We are also the first Government to progress marine spatial planning, which is very much part of the Ireland 2040 plan. Unfortunately, people have chosen to focus on other issues relating to Ireland 2040 in terms of how it is being sold and marketed rather than the detail of what would change Ireland for the better. That is primarily politics rather than anything else. Some mistakes were made, but nothing which would justify the level of criticism and coverage.
The level of ambition around the development of our marine resources in the plan shows a fundamental change in ambition in Government policy which is very welcome. It will not surprise people who know me well to know that I have a real commitment to the marine as a resource which needs to be protected and which can give a lot more to its people than it is currently giving. With those comments, I hope I have addressed most of the issues.
With respect, on a point of order the Minister inquired as to whether he had addressed all questions. In terms of detail, there were two specific questions on the implementation plan for PESCO and whether it would be published and laid before the Houses. There was a question on the European Court of Justice ruling in regard to-----
I am very conscious of the Minister's background. He cares very much about the developing world and has visited many of the places in receipt of overseas development aid from Ireland. Given his background expertise as a former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, he will know that Gorta-Self Help Africa has called for a new initiative, namely, the creation of an African agri-investment fund of €50 million over the next five years as a pilot to provide loans and access to credit for small and medium African enterprises.
Ireland has achieved something in which it is very interested, in that we grew from a largely smallholder farmer base to a leading agri-economy. Of the 1.4 billion people in the world who could be described as extremely poor, 70% live in rural areas in basic subsistence farming situations and need to be connected to markets. Is that something on which the Minister can make a commitment?
I note the Minister also cares about getting back to 0.7% of GDP for overseas development. We have fallen from 0.58% to 0.32%. We are a First World economy. If the Minister was a betting man, when will we make it to 0.7%?
I will have to come back to the Senator on the national implementation plan because I do not know the answer to the question. I can check with the Department of Defence, which is a former Department of mine, and we can revert to him.
I think I answered a pretty broad-ranging group of questions. I dealt with about a dozen different issues. If the Senator has specific questions on the two matters she raised, I said I would come back to her specifically. I cannot be expected to give her an answer when I do not have the details in front of me.
On Senator Mullen's question on an African agrifood fund, we have such a fund. When I was in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine we set one up, in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We are putting Irish taxpayers' money into grant aiding Irish food companies to set up locally in Africa, employ local people and build local management capacity. There are a number of examples of companies which have used that finance to set up successfully.
We initially focused on Kenya, but also looked at Uganda and Ethiopia. We would like to do a lot more of that. The concept around funding agrifood development to help countries make the agricultural progress we have made over the past 50 years within the next ten to 15 years is exactly what Ireland would like to do. When one sees a significant expansion of the Irish Age programme, one will see a lot of extra money going into education and gender equality issues, in particular the education of girls.Additional funding will be also be provided for agriculture and agrifood and the links between development and some of the generational issues we face, particularly on the continent of Africa in areas such as water, food security and rapid population growth. These issues will continue to create severe pressures.
I spoke this morning on the future of Europe. In my view, the big idea for Europe in the area of external global policy should be to establish a new and much more ambitious and structured political relationship with Africa through the African Union. I hope Ireland will be a leader in that debate.
On the point raised by Senator Mullen regarding the target of 0.7% of GDP, I will provide a much more detailed statement when I have something approved by Government, hopefully in the coming weeks. I will be pleased to debate the issue in both Houses because it will be part of a broader White Paper process for expanding our overseas development aid programme.