Ceisteanna — Questions - State Visits.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 703 No. 2

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  1.  Deputy Enda Kenny  Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny   asked the Taoiseach  Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen   the foreign visits he plans to undertake in 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48399/09]

  2.  Deputy Enda Kenny  Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny   asked the Taoiseach  Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen   when he will next meet with the President of the European Commission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48400/09]

[279]

  3.  Deputy Enda Kenny  Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny   asked the Taoiseach  Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen   if he has received an agenda for the March 2010 meeting of the European Council; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48416/09]

  4.  Deputy Eamon Gilmore  Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore   asked the Taoiseach  Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen   his proposals for official trips abroad during the first six months of 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48423/09]

  5.  Deputy Eamon Gilmore  Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore   asked the Taoiseach  Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen   if he has received an agenda for the informal meeting of EU heads of state to be held in Brussels on 11 February 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1275/10]

  6.  Deputy Eamon Gilmore  Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore   asked the Taoiseach  Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen   the plans he has for meetings with other EU leaders over the coming months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1276/10]

  7.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin   asked the Taoiseach  Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen   his priorities for the March 2010 meeting of the European Council; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3459/10]

  8.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin   asked the Taoiseach  Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen   the official visits abroad he proposes for the year 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3460/10]

  9.  Deputy Eamon Gilmore  Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore   asked the Taoiseach  Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen   if he will make a statement on his participation in the informal European Council meeting on 11 February 2010. [7857/10]

  10.  Deputy Enda Kenny  Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny   asked the Taoiseach  Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen   if he will report on his attendance at the Special EU Summit on 11 February 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8793/10]

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  I propose to answer Questions Nos. 1 to 10, inclusive, together.

I participated in the informal meeting of the European Council on Thursday 11 February. As I will be making a statement to the House later today, I will give a summary account of the proceedings now.

As the House is aware, the Council agreed a statement in relation to the challenges facing the Greek Government in order to meet the targets set in the stability programme for and beyond 2010. That statement, I believe, contained two core messages. First, there is immense solidarity among the member states. Second, member states recognise that they have commitments and responsibilities which they must fulfil, particularly in regard to the stability and growth pact, and there are various agreed mechanisms to support member states in doing that.

The other main topic of discussion was economic policy. It is intended to agree a successor to the Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs at the June Council. The successor strategy will cover the period to 2020. The matter will be considered again in depth at the Spring European Council on 25-26 March. The Commission has suggested that the core elements of a new strategy should be based on knowledge and innovation, an inclusive high employment society, and greener growth. There was broad support for these elements, which resonate very well with our national efforts and priorities.

Discussion on the successor to the Lisbon strategy will continue and we expect to see a significant contribution from the new Barroso Commission in early March. We briefly considered the situation in Haiti following the tragic earthquake there, and agreed on the need for work to proceed in all relevant fora to ensure rapid progress on relief and reconstruction. In view of time constraints, the Council did not get into a detailed discussion of climate change and the Copenhagen conference as originally foreseen. That discussion will now take place at the March meeting of the European Council.

I received a draft annotated agenda for the March European Council last week. The main items on the agenda include the new European strategy for growth and jobs and the follow up to the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change. With regard to my travel plans for 2010, I [280]expect to be in the United States for St Patrick’s Day. I intend to go to the British-Irish Council Summit in Guernsey in June. I will also, of course, attend the meetings of the European Council during 2010. I hope to attend the EU Latin America and Caribbean Summit which will be held in Madrid on 18 May, and the Asia -Europe Summit on 4-5 October in Brussels.

With regard to future bilateral meetings with EU leaders or the President of the European Commission, I have no specific meetings planned in the short term but I saw President Barroso and my European Council counterparts in Brussels on 11 February and will see them again at the European Council in March.

I hope to welcome Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen to Dublin in the autumn.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  There is a report in the Irish Independent today in respect of the passport problem which was responded to last week by EU Foreign Ministers. The report was to the effect that an Israeli spy based in Dublin supplied the information for the forged Irish passports used by the team of assassins in the United Arab Emirates. It appears as if the media information is ahead of that being supplied by the Government. For instance, the reports yesterday said that seven passports were used when five were mentioned originally by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Does the Taoiseach have any evidence of the validity of this report in today’s paper to the effect that an Israeli spy supplied the information in respect of these passports?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  The Deputy is drifting somewhat from the subject matter of the question. While I am not diminishing the importance of the point he is making, it is——

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  These are about visits the Taoiseach is undertaking. He is fully briefed on everything else——

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  Visits by who? Is the Deputy talking about visits by me or the spy?

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  ——-as regards the economic policies of all parties.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  In fairness, for the Deputy to get a detailed reply to that, he would need to submit a parliamentary question.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  Has the Taoiseach been invited to the White House this year? Given that the American Government has very strong associations with the Israeli Government, does he intend to raise with President Obama the fact that Irish passports were used by an assassination squad? Is he concerned about this and will he raise it during his visit to the United States, in the event? Is that in order, a Cheann Comhairle?

Deputy Phil Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan  Zoom on Philip Hogan  Hear, hear.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It would be very inappropriate to raise with the United States President a bilateral matter between Ireland and another country in which he has no involvement whatever.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  Is the Taoiseach saying he has no concern about that even though the US Government has had very close connections over many years with the Israeli Government? Given the connections between the Irish Government and the US Government over many years, the use of forged Irish passports by an assassination squad in this case should be a matter of concern to the Taoiseach.

[281]An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  The Deputy may submit this matter as a parliamentary question to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  It should be a matter of concern for the Taoiseach and for the American President as well as for the Israeli Government.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It is a matter of concern for the Government and has been taken up by the Minister for Foreign Affairs with the Israeli authorities. If I have a problem in regard to America, do I go to Israel? The situation is very clear——

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  The Taoiseach can give a smart answer if he wants.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  I am not giving a smart answer, but rather a very frank answer. I do not see any connection, whatever. I do not believe it would be appropriate. I have many things to discuss with President Obama in regard to US-Irish relations but I do not see that as one of them. That is a matter which must be dealt with by the government concerned, through which there has been an involvement or participation, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs is dealing with this, bilaterally. That is my simple answer.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  With respect, the Taoiseach should say to the American President that he is very concerned, as the leader of our country, that the international reputation of Irish passports, which were used by this assassination squad, has been diminished as a result of these forgeries.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Will the Deputy not pursue this matter via the Minister for Foreign Affairs?

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  I want him to reassure the American President that the Irish Government will do everything in its power in the bilateral discussions and arrangements with the Israeli Government, to get to the bottom of this. I started by asking the Taoiseach whether, in the context of giving that information, he will follow up on the report that an Israeli spy based in Dublin provided this information. It is important for the Taoiseach to be able to stand over the integrity and quality of Irish passports, and he should take every opportunity to keep Ireland at the top in terms of integrity. I am sure that the American President would be interested to hear from the Irish Prime Minister that we are doing everything with the Israeli Government to ensure that we get to the bottom of this.

Deputy Phil Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan  Zoom on Philip Hogan  Hear, hear.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  That is a valid point.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  It would be much better for the House if the Deputy submits a parliamentary question to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  I am making the point to the Deputy that I do not see the relevance of this to the questions that are put down here. If Deputy Kenny wants to ask a question about this, he should put it down.

As regards the matter he is raising, every citizen is concerned when the integrity of the Irish passport is compromised and it is a question of taking the matter up with the authorities concerned. The St. Patrick’s Day visit to the White House will allow us the opportunity to discuss with President Obama many issues of mutual and bilateral concern, and indeed issues of economic concern. That is the priority, I would have thought, when one gets a rare opportunity to sit down with a person of that eminence, namely, the President of the United States, [282]to discuss issues that Ireland has with the United States. The issues we have with other states we shall deal with, as appropriate.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  I shall allow Deputy Kenny a brief supplementary question. He has had a good innings.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  I am aware the Taoiseach is interested in matters of direct concern to us in the United States, many of which are related to the undocumented Irish there. I have received a couple of hundred e-mails within the last fortnight from people who are seriously concerned about the prospect of no immigration legislation being introduced in the United States, and I know this is a complex problem. One young man, whose court case was heard yesterday regarding his crossing illegally from Canada, has now been arrested and I am not sure what the outcome will be for him. Will the Taoiseach be raising the question of comprehensive immigration legislation, will he be meeting with the groups associated directly with the undocumented Irish and will he be making his efforts known in this matter to the United States Government when he goes there?

  11 o’clock

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  I have spoken recently to the Irish Ambassador to the United States about these matters. He mentioned them to me and what is the congressional view on them. Unfortunately, it is not an issue at the top of the domestic agenda in the United States, for obvious reasons. However, it is one in which I know the President has a personal interest. We will seek to obtain from him what the present position is and what he sees as the realistic political prospects for any advance on the issue, but the Deputy will be aware that this matter will not be dealt with in terms of any particular diaspora. It is a general immigration issue and a very difficult domestic political issue, but one into which we must inquire about the prospects of any further progress this year. We have to respect that, work with the authorities and recognise what the realistic prospects are in terms of where it fits into their own agenda.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  With regard to the issue of the Irish passports, I understand it has been established that nine passports were misused——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  I wish to move on. That really should be the subject of a parliamentary question to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I wish to ask the Taoiseach a question arising from his reply to Deputy Kenny and I am allowed to do so. In his reply to Deputy Kenny, the Taoiseach stated this was a bilateral matter between Ireland and Israel. I wish to pursue the matter a little further. I realise the Minister for Foreign Affairs has raised this with the Israeli authorities and the Israeli Foreign Minister. However, I heard the Israeli Foreign Minister state that he had no knowledge and could not give any information about whether these passports were used or misused. Does the Government accept that explanation, or does the Taoiseach believe it is necessary to pursue this issue with the Israeli authorities with more vigour? The use of the passports and the way in which they were used is a matter of very serious concern for the people whose passport numbers were used, in terms the degree to which their freedom of movement is compromised, by the degree to which their personal safety may be put at risk and by the damage that has been done generally. The Irish passport always had a great reputation. It was one of the best passports in the world and it is very damaging to find that they have been used in this way now. Will the Government pursue this with more vigour with the Israeli authorities or is that it? Does the Taoiseach accept what the Israeli Foreign Minister has said?

[283]The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  The Minister has noted what the Israeli Foreign Minister has had to say regarding the absence of knowledge by the authorities about this matter. He has also taken up the matter with his EU colleagues and it will be pursued. As has been said, we have no wish to see the integrity of our passports being compromised in any way. We recognise the impact this could have for the security of our citizens travelling abroad and of any suggestion that there could have been any mistaken understanding that we would be party to any such use of our passports for such nefarious purposes. I understand these passports were pre-2005, before the €25 million investment in biometric technology which greatly enhanced the security of our passport system. The House can stand united in the fact that we all accept this is an issue with serious implications, it is being pursued and will continue to be pursued to the greatest extent possible.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I have no wish to prolong the issue. However I strongly believe this issue must be pursued with more vigour by the Government. I have seen the statement issued by the EU Foreign Ministers. It makes no reference to Israel, good, bad or indifferent. A more vigorous approach to this is necessary given the seriousness of the issue.

I refer to another matter to which these questions relate, that is, the meeting of the European Commission. This is a new Commission and I take this opportunity of wishing well the Irish Commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn in her five year term of office that she is now starting. Will the Taoiseach indicate if her appointment was conditional on the employment of a member of the Green Party as a member of her cabinet? Did the leader of the Green Party secure an understanding from him that the former Senator de Búrca would be appointed to Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn’s cabinet? Did the Taoiseach offer the post of chef de cabinet of the new Irish member of the Court of Auditors to the former Senator de Búrca by way of compensation, as the former Senator de Búrca claims?

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  A very interesting question.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  No. No one has been more vigorous than the Minister, Deputy Martin, in respect of pursuing the matters that have affected the countries in the passport issue and I do not accept that there has been any absence of vigour on his part.

I refer to the appointment of the Commissioner. The nomination for Commissioner, Máire Geoghegan Quinn, was decided by Government. It was intimated to me by my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, that the former Senator de Búrca was interested in trying to obtain a position. This was something I communicated but there was no question of the independence of the Commission being compromised in any way.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  She was fobbed off.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  I made the point that Máire Geoghegan-Quinn had to go before Parliament and be accepted. She was simply our nominee. I refer to the issue of the possibility of the former Senator de Búrca pursuing a career or seeking to establish if there were prospects in that area. I sought to assist in whatever way I could after it became clear that it would not be possible for her to become a member of the cabinet of Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. I asked if there was an interest in taking up a position that would become vacant in the Court of Auditors and to establish if I could inquire into that. There was an attaché position to be filled. I emphasise that I was supportive and sought to be helpful in every way I could but at the end of the day I do not determine the membership of the cabinets of Commissioners.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  The Taoiseach made her a promise he could not fulfil.

[284]Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I thank the Taoiseach for the reply. Do I understand correctly that the Taoiseach spoke to Máire Geoghegan-Quinn requesting that she would appoint the former Senator de Búrca to her cabinet but that it was not a condition of Máire Geoghegan-Quinn’s nomination to the Commission that she would employ the former Senator de Búrca in her cabinet? I refer to the appointment of the Irish member of the Court of Auditors. Was that appointment made conditional on the former Senator de Búrca being appointed chef de cabinet, attaché or whatever in the cabinet when appointed?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  No, it does not arise because while the position was mentioned as a possibility for consideration were it to be of interest, no interest was indicated. As I have stated already, the question of Máire Geoghegan-Quinn’s cabinet is a matter for her. I was supportive of any Member who wished to be considered or who indicated an interest but I emphasise the point that Máire Geoghegan-Quinn would only be in a position to consider any membership of her cabinet after approval by the European Parliament. That important stage must be conducted in the same way in which Máire Geoghegan-Quinn’s approval by the Parliament was established. She was not in a position to make any decisions about her cabinet until she was approved by the Parliament.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I seek some clarity on this matter. Did the Taoiseach speak to Máire Geoghegan-Quinn about the possibility of her appointing the former Senator de Búrca to her cabinet before the Commission was approved by the European Parliament? I understood from the former Senator de Búrca’s radio interview last Sunday that she was offered a senior position in the office or cabinet of the Irish member of the Court of Auditors.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  It was a consolation prize.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  Did the Taoiseach talk to the Irish nominee for the Court of Auditors and establish and communicate to the Minister, Deputy Gormley, that such a post was available for the former Senator de Búrca?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn made the point very clearly that there was no condition precedent in regard to her appointment to the Commission subject to the approval of the Parliament. I indicated former Senator de Búrca’s interest in being considered for a position in Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn’s cabinet.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  Prior to her approval by the Parliament.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  Yes, that interest was conveyed. As I said, the determination of the composition of Commissioners’cabinets is a matter for the Commissioners themselves. I cannot determine it.

On the question on the European Court of Auditors, there was no question of having to speak to the nominee because there was no nominee in prospect at the time. We had not decided on a nominee. I was simply making the point that I was prepared to examine whether there were any prospects of a post that would be appropriate and suitable in the event that former Senator de Búrca would have an interest in it.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  A consolation prize.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It was indicated to me that was not the case. I had no direct contact with former Senator de Búrca on these matters.

[285]Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  As the Taoiseach said, Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn would not have been in a position to make any appointments to her cabinet until the Commission had been approved by the Parliament. The Taoiseach also confirmed that he spoke to Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn about the possibility of employing former Senator de Búrca prior to the approval of the Commission by the Parliament. What was Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn’s response when the Taoiseach asked her to employ former Senator de Búrca? Did she reject the proposition outright or did she tell him she could not talk to him at all about appointments until the Commission had been approved?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  I indicated that interest was expressed by former Senator de Búrca. The nominee to the Commission was prepared to consider it and determine whether it would be possible to accommodate her, but not on the basis of any condition precedent having been set on her part. She had yet to go to the Parliament and her independence had to be accepted. It was accepted by everybody in respect of that process. The issue of the composition of the cabinet could only arise upon her being approved by the Parliament. Unfortunately, as events turned out, it was not possible to have the outcome hoped for by the individual mentioned by Deputy Gilmore. I sought to determine whether there were other means by which I could assist but this did not prove successful.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  When did Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn tell the Taoiseach she would not be employing former Senator de Búrca?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  That would have arisen on a date about which I cannot be clear after her acceptance by the Parliament for the position of Commissioner.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  What position has the Government taken on the EU attitude towards the economic crisis in Greece? The EU has been encouraging the Greek authorities to adopt austerity measures similar to those employed in Ireland, targeting in particular low-income earners and those dependent on social welfare. Is the Taoiseach aware that recent tax returns from Greece indicate that only a handful of people in that country on an annual income in excess of €1 million are recorded as contributing to the overall tax take? Is he aware that the overwhelming majority of shipping magnates and other wealthy nationals from Greece are registered as non-domiciled residents in Britain? As a consequence, they are paying no tax whatsoever in any jurisdiction across the entire European Union. Would it not be better for the European Union, rather than encouraging the adoption of austere measures targeting the least well off in Greece, Ireland and other countries across the European Union, to take the appropriate measures to stamp out tax avoidance? The measures by which people avoid paying their fair share of tax must be considered.

Will the Taoiseach undertake to raise this matter at an appropriate level in the European Council so the European Union will make a real and appreciated contribution to tackling current difficulties, such that those who can pay will pay their fair share? This is a very important matter.

In the context of the questions tabled for reply this morning, will the Taoiseach take the opportunity at the next European Council meeting to raise the criminal activity of the Israeli regime? I refer not only to the recent illegal employment of Irish passports and related matters but also to the regime’s illegal imposition of an apartheid regime in Gaza and West Bank and to the blockade affecting the transport to Gaza of critical supplies of medicine, food and other products needed and wanted by the people in their daily lives. Will the Taoiseach take the opportunity at the next European Council meeting to call for the Israeli regime’s conduct [286]towards the Palestinian people in the areas to which I have referred to be addressed seriously, thus reflecting the views of the overwhelming majority of Members of this House?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  On the question of the Greek economy, the two major points emerging from the European Council, including ECOFIN, focus on showing solidarity and recognising that every member state in the eurozone has responsibilities to discharge under the Stability and Growth Pact. The monitoring and work that will take place on the part of the Greek authorities, European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF need to be allowed take their course. There will be a progress report in March. A very significant commitment is being made by the Greek Government to reduce its deficit by 4% during the course of 2010. This will involve a very significant change in policy.

Prime Minister Papandreou, whom I know for many years since he was a Minister for Foreign Affairs in a former Greek Government, is seeking to ensure the intentions of the Greek Government are understood and accepted. He is working very hard internationally and domestically to achieve this. He, as a committed European, is determined to work with European colleagues to determine how he can discharge the responsibilities of his state in the present circumstances in a way that will allow for the provision of assistance, where possible, by fellow member states in the eurozone and European Union generally. There is an ongoing process of surveillance, monitoring and statistical evaluation and a report will be produced thereon in March. It is best to allow the process the time and space to develop.

I have addressed the issue of the passports referred to by Deputy Ó Caoláin. I am glad the Deputy supports my view that people should not be using false passports in these circumstances. It is very important that the integrity of our passport system be upheld by all at all times.

Government policy on the Middle East, including, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has been consistent under all Irish Administrations. It is a question of the right to self-determination by the Palestinian people in a viable Palestinian state and of recognising the similar right of Israel to live in peace and security. We should continue with this policy, which is balanced and seeks to protect the rights of everyone where there have been abuses of rights or where disproportionate counter-measures have been taken to deal with threats of terrorist attack. While recognising the difficulties involved, one must ensure international law is respected. Irish Governments of all persuasions have been very consistent in that regard and will continue to be so in all international fora.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  With regard to the Greek economic situation, the Taoiseach did not reply as to whether he would tackle the very obvious situation in that economy, which is also very obvious in our economy, the evasion of tax by the most wealthy people in the respective jurisdictions. It is particularly evident in Greece, where major shipping magnates who are household names make no contribution to that economy by using the mechanism of declaring themselves to be non-domiciled British residents. This is something the European Union must address, if it is to have any credibility and to approach these matters cohesively. It is not enough to encourage the Greek regime to ape our approach in terms of targeting the least well off workers, that is, those in the public service, low to middle income workers and those on social welfare. There is a responsibility to ensure that those who can afford it pay more. Will the Taoiseach take appropriate steps to have this matter addressed on a collective European Union basis?

The Taoiseach used the terms “surveillance” and “monitoring” regarding the situation in Greece. I wish to apply that to the second matter which I and other colleagues have raised with regard to Irish passports. Does the Taoiseach believe that in the identification——

[287]An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  There is so much latitude being——

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  I am responding to what the Taoiseach said. I am not seeking any more latitude than you have already granted here this morning, a Cheann Comhairle.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  It is not relevant under this group of questions.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  With regard to surveillance and monitoring, does the Taoiseach have any reason to believe, and is there not a possibility at least, that Mossad is operating in this jurisdiction? There was not only the acquisition of passport numbers but also the use of addresses of vacant properties owned by members of a well known political family in this jurisdiction. How would somebody know this other than through surveillance and monitoring?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  The Deputy is getting into detail on this matter. It is much more appropriate for a parliamentary question.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  It is extremely important.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  It is much more appropriate for a parliamentary question.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  I beg your pardon, it is totally relevant. Yesterday, the so-called Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the European Union met and, according to reports this morning, our Minister and this country’s representatives did not seek to have Israel named and the specific charges that can now be directed at that regime included in the statement following the Council meeting. Will the Taoiseach confirm that the Irish Government did not seek to include Israel in that statement and explain to the House why——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy, that is not encompassed by this group of questions.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  It is. We are talking about European Council meetings——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  The Deputy should put down a separate parliamentary question to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  ——and this is absolutely relevant. Why did the Government not seek to name Israel and to address the issues and charges that can be directed at that regime in the statement agreed yesterday by the Foreign Ministers?

I will conclude as I do not wish the Ceann Comhairle to get into consternation as it is already tough for him. With regard to the relationship between the European Union and Israel, and in recognition of the fact that the people of the Gaza Strip have been left without the necessities of life, such as water, sanitation, food, medication and even the materials to rebuild their homes and schools, which were devastated in the Israeli air attacks over last year, will the Taoiseach now urge at European Union level that the preferential EU trade agreement with Israel be lifted, to impress on that regime that its conduct towards the Palestinian people is absolutely unacceptable? Will the Taoiseach give the lead in that, given that I believe the overwhelming majority of the Irish people hold that view?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  The reference to European Council meetings in the question has no relevance to foreign and general affairs meetings, which is outside the scope of these questions. The problem is that when one shows the courtesy of answering questions even if they are outside the scope of the relevant questions, it is then used as a precedent for the next set of questions by the next speaker. One cannot win.

[288]With regard to the matters the Deputy raised, I have made the point previously, and the Deputy will be aware of this, that if we wish to influence the situation we can go about it in two ways. We can seek access to both sides of the argument and put forward our positions or we can decide to take one side of the case exclusively and not have a very fruitful relationship with the other protagonists in the conflict. If one wishes to influence events, one must take the former course, make one’s points and try to influence events in that way. One could stand on the sideline and talk about issues that will win favour with elements of one’s audience but one will not influence the situation very much. It is called diplomacy.

Diplomacy is not about compromising on principle but about trying to bring a greater number of people to the point of view one holds and which one believes provides the prospect of a solution to the problem under discussion. Ireland has a very honourable tradition in that respect with regard to this conflict. As a former Minister for Foreign Affairs and knowing what predecessors and successors have done, I can state that despite the intractability of this problem Ireland has never been slow to put its position bilaterally to the parties concerned when, where and if necessary.

The EU has a common foreign and security policy. It is not based on majority vote but on consensus. The consensus position of the European Union on this matter is articulated at EU level, and where we are in a position to be a little more robust on some issues of concern we do that bilaterally. However, in the context of the Council meeting of foreign ministers, the common foreign and security policy position is the one that has been articulated. Ireland has a particular interest and position in this matter. We have the goodwill of all sides and are well regarded in the region. We are seen as honest players who do not have an agenda and are simply calling it as we see it. There have been atrocities on all sides in this conflict, all of which must be condemned. There is no hierarchy of victims of terrorist violence or of violent conflict generally.

Whether the Deputy accepts our position is a matter for himself but this Government, as its predecessors have consistently done, will continue to be an influence for fair play, self determination for the Palestinian people and the right of the state of Israel to exist peacefully.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Everybody would agree that diplomacy is the way to approach the issue, if it could be demonstrated that it would work. However, in the situation vis-à-vis the Israeli regime and the rights of the Palestinian people——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  The Deputy has moved on to a different subject.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  ——we are looking, in terms of the European Union, at a reward for the total disregard of the rights of the Palestinian people when the EU maintains the preferential trade agreement between it and the Israeli state. With respect, the Taoiseach made the point that taking such an approach would not have much influence, but it would have influence, give leadership and add to the world pressure regarding addressing these matters. Let us not forget that a small group of young employees who were trade union activists in Dunnes Stores many years ago took a stand in this country which contributed to regime change in South Africa and the end of apartheid——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy, I allowed you to refer to it but I will not allow you to move the subject material on to the subject of the Middle East.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  ——under that regime. There is apartheid in the attitude of Israel to the Palestinian people. It is no different and, in order to address it, it is to be hoped [289]that we are not depending once again on ordinary citizens taking action in their employments to urge the Government to give leadership in the European context to address this matter. I hope more can be achieved and greater leadership given, that is, appropriate action which, it is to be hoped, will create a real change for the Palestinian people. That is the objective and I urge the Taoiseach to reconsider the action he proposes to take. He did not answer my question regarding the failure of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, to seek to include Israel in the joint statement yesterday following the meeting of European Ministers for Foreign Affairs. Will he answer the question?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  As I said, it is outside the remit of these questions, since they relate to the Council.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  The Taoiseach can still answer them.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  No, I do not have to answer them. That Deputy Ó Caoláin demands I answer them, even though it is outside the remit of the country——

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  It is more that he does not want to.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It is outside the remit. Deputy Ó Caoláin does not dictate.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy Ó Caoláin, please.

Deputy Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Nobody is dictating. We are asking questions.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  The Deputy does not dictate how I answer questions or what questions I answer, if they are outside the remit. It is outside the remit.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  That is very convenient.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  No, it is outside the remit.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  I do not see it as outside the remit.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  Of course the Deputy does not; that is his opinion.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Not at all.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  That is his opinion.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy Ó Caoláin, can we have the Taoiseach without interruption?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It is not convenient for me. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, is in Gaza this week. He has my full confidence. He articulates the position of the Government at all times.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  He did it last week.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  We have a very good position in this regard. I welcome the fact Deputy Ó Caoláin has a position. That I do not agree with him does not mean I am less right than he is.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  We have spent a lot of time on this group of questions. Deputy Costello can make a brief contribution.

Deputy Joe Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  As the Taoiseach said, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, is in Gaza this week but he is not there by courtesy of the Israeli Government. I remind the [290]Taoiseach the Israeli Government, on 9 December, flatly refused access to Gaza for the Minister. Will the Taoiseach raise this matter at the Council next month? Why, out of 27 member states, was Ireland refused access by Israel to Gaza through Israeli territory? Why does the Minister have to——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy.

Deputy Joe Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  ——access Gaza through Egypt? This is a matter which should be raised.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy, that is outside the remit of the questions.

Deputy Joe Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  It is a very important issue, namely, why Ireland should be picked out by the Israeli Government and refused what should be regarded as a courtesy call by our Minister for Foreign Affairs to visit Gaza. He now has no choice but to go through the back door, through Egypt.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy, you should raise the matter with the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  The matter raised by Deputy Costello sets the contrast to the contention to which we listened for the previous ten minutes, that is, that the Irish Government has had a less than robust position regarding these matters. In fact, it gives a lie to that contention because clearly the Irish Government is perceived by some authorities as being more robust than others regarding these matters. The critique to which I listened for the previous ten minutes was that Ireland is not, a view which has been held by elements of the authorities in Israel for some time. I have always sought to ensure our relations with Israel were such that we could be frank friends with it. If one wants to influence what is a very difficult situation, one has to keep open the lines of communication. One can be robust and frank but one also has to have a position which is seen as credible and relevant.

On the point made by Deputy Costello, it is a matter of concern any time an Irish diplomat or politician is denied access when others gain it. Other Irish citizens, as we know, have been doing Trojan work — humanitarian and otherwise — in Gaza for many years under the flag of the United Nations and have been equally vociferous when they have seen injustice or violence perpetrated on a population which was not in compliance, in their view, with international conventions or rules of conflict. That will continue to be the case. The Minister is simply displaying our determination to be with the people concerned and physically present in order that we can see and assess for ourselves, apart from the many reports we obtained from our diplomatic personnel, the situation in Gaza and how we can help and influence events by being robust but fair with all.


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