Friday, 6 November 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Election Monitoring Missions
I welcome the Minister of State. Election counts are to the fore of most of our minds at the moment as we watch the continuing drama in the United States, and we hope this will resolve itself sooner rather than later. There are many countries, however, in the Third World and the former Soviet bloc where, sadly, we can never be certain the democratic process will be carried out freely and fairly. Ireland plays its part in helping to ensure that elections are conducted properly by taking part in election monitoring conducted by, among others, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE. The Department of Foreign Affairs maintains a list of approved election observers for this purpose, as the Minister of State will be aware. I understand that Ireland generally sends between 12 and 18 observers abroad per year but that this practice has been curtailed due to the restrictions on international travel because of Covid-19.
I have a particular interest in the area because I have had the privilege of being involved in election monitoring during my time as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as a parliamentarian. What is done under the auspices of the OSCE involving volunteers - non-parliamentarians - is an even more significant and worthwhile activity, and those involved are very much to be commended on what they do.
The Minister of State spoke previously about efforts that are made to refresh and replenish the list of volunteers through a periodic recruitment process. Is this enough and is it being done often enough? My understanding is that the existing Irish roster largely comprises retired persons who sometimes cannot be deployed for medical reasons. Observers require a GP to sign them off for duty and this will not happen in the current climate. Should more be done?
The Minister of State issued a reply to a parliamentary question from Deputy Connolly on 15 October, which was repeated in a reply to a question from Deputy Richmond earlier this week, on 3 November. The reply stated that OSCE missions for upcoming elections in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova "have been reconfigured as limited election observation missions not requiring volunteer observers due to the difficulty which OSCE members have in nominating volunteers given the extent of the pandemic." I have copies of two lists published by the OSCE that give the names and nationalities of what are called long-term observers being sent to each of these countries. A total of 117 long-term observers from 14 countries were sent to observe these recent or upcoming elections. Clearly, these countries have had no difficulty in nominating volunteers notwithstanding the pandemic. It is my understanding that all these long-term observers are volunteers.
In view of this, why did the Minister of State tell the Dáil twice in recent weeks that OSCE member states are not sending volunteers when it seems they are? I am not for a moment imputing dishonesty to him but it seems there is a crossed wire in respect of the issue somewhere in the Department and it is important that be clarified. If 14 other countries are sending observers even with the Covid pandemic ongoing, why is Ireland not taking part? I hope Covid is not being used to shirk or dodge our responsibilities in this area.
Should we not offer Irish volunteer observers the opportunity to travel if they wish to do so, even if this meant they would have to quarantine voluntarily as a result? The Department has travel insurance in place for observers it deploys, which should cover the costs.
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.
The Minister of State has not addressed the contradiction between what has been said in the Dáil already about OSCE member states not sending volunteers and the fact that I have demonstrated that they have been sending volunteers. They are also facing the challenges of the pandemic.
It is to disrespect the important work of election monitoring to suggest that the pandemic would be a reason for putting a stop to Irish people going abroad on this important work. It amounts to colluding in a situation where, because many people are unable to do so for medical reasons, the Government would not expand it.
The next review of observers is in 2022, as I understand it. This issue needs to be prioritised. There needs to be a change of criteria and outlook. There is also potential for doing some of this work online. That has to be looked at.
There is something wrong here. I take the point of the Minister of State. If people are raising significant concerns and generating voluminous correspondence, it may be because something is wrong or something is rotten in what is going on. A further reply is needed to this because I do not believe the Minister of State has addressed the particular issue. Other countries are doing it. Other countries are facilitating volunteers and it is important.
I will start by putting something immediately on record. There is not something rotten going on. That is a regrettable choice of words by Senator Mullen.
It is a key cornerstone of the way in which we operate that we are conscious of ensuring the well-being and safety of members of the Irish roster when selected. We are also conscious of ensuring the safety and health of everyone in our country. People who engage in international monitoring have to engage with large numbers of people in the country they visit. They have to engage with many international people when they are there because there is an international set of monitors. They will then return to our country.
Like almost everything else in our country at the moment, we must consider the primacy of healthcare, which I presume Senator Mullen is supportive of, to ensure we tackle Covid-19. This is always at the heart of everything we do. I thank Senator Mullen for his comments.
I want to clarify one point. I have no wish to say something is rotten but I did mean to say something may be rotten. I am concerned because, as I said, other countries are doing it and they are facing the pandemic. There is something unexplained that needs to be dealt with.