Thursday, 19 January 1989
Seanad Éireann Debate
At the outset, I would like to put on the record of the House my gratitude — before I know the outcome — that at least we have been given the opportunity to discuss this pressing, topical and urgent matter. It is important to state that the outcome of this discussion, the response of the Minister and the direction the Government take will have very grave and serious consequences for this man.
We are discussing Mr. Viraj Mendis, a Sri Lankan who has been living for more than a decade in the UK. He arrived there as a student and has since married there. I want to stress he is not an illegal alien nor was he ever an illegal alien. He arrived there on a visa properly and correctly issued. I also want to state for the record that as a Parliament we have discussed the need to protect our emigrants in other countries, particularly those not protected by the laws of the land they are living in and what I am proposing on this particular occasion is that we would now take a look to see what we can do to relieve this man's plight.
The position is that this man, Mr. Viraj Mendis, is going to be deported tomorrow from the UK to Sri Lanka where he believes his life will be at risk. Let me say immediately, as I want to give both sides of the argument, that the Sri Lankan High Commission in London have said that his life will not be at risk from the Government in Sri Lanka. Let me say two things in connection with that. First, the Government of Sri Lanka, as is well  known and I do not say this in a patronising way, are not in control of their country at the moment. The world knows that. One only has to look at the news to become aware of that fact. Therefore, they cannot speak about the possibilities. Secondly, his life has already been threatened by an anti-Tamil group in Sri Lanka — I should stress that he is not a Tamil but does support the Tamil cause — who are responsible for somewhere between 200 and 1,800 deaths during the past few years. That fact needs to be put in front of us and recognised. What I am proposing here today is that the Minister for Foreign Affairs should intervene in the case of Mr. Viraj Mendis who is due to be deported from the UK to Sri Lanka tomorrow where he is likely to be extrajudicially executed and to offer him sanctuary in Ireland.
I want to make it quite clear that despite the fact that the British authorities say that his life will not be at risk in Sri Lanka and despite the fact that the Sri Lankan High Commission in London say his life will not be at risk on returning to Sri Lanka, nevertheless Church groups, civil rights groups, emigrant groups and many other groups in the UK have taken up his cause. It is important to recognise that up to 200 people have been deported to Sri Lanka during the past year or so without any of them creating a fuss. We are not talking here about the right of a state to deport as states have that right but rather about the case of somebody whose life will be put at risk. Despite what has been said, I think we should recognise that other groups, particularly the Irish community in Manchester, have taken very much to their hearts his cause and oppose his deportation.
Within the past few hours I received a telex from Amnesty International who have expressed concern about the decision and fear he may be arrested and possibly subjected to ill-treatment and torture because of his political activities. I certainly noticed that two of the quality  newspapers in London, The Guardian and The Independent, supported the view that this man should not be deported.
We should not forget either that we are signatories to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, Article 33 of which states that no contracting state shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. There may well be a discussion and a debate on whether this person is a refugee, but certainly the spirit of the Article I have just referred to is quite clear. This person feels that he is in danger of being extrajudicially executed, which I suppose is the polite international expression for being either murdered or executed without trial by the security forces. He is due to be deported to Sri Lanka which still has a Prevention of Terrorism Act in operation. The military, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, have the power to dispose of bodies without a post mortem examination, autopsy or inquest having to take place.
We need to keep in mind that we are a nation with a long history of caring for Third World and developing countries. We have been providing aid to Africa for generations and proportionately have provided more funds for the Live Aid project than any other nation on earth. Dealing with this problem means bringing the Third World to us, something we have always been careful not to do. While the problem is out there, it is easy enough to deal with it. We can save this person's life or take the threat away from this person's life — whichever way you want to take it — simply by offering him refuge in this country.
The Minister will obviously refer to the extraordinary — I mean extraordinary in the true sense of that word and not in any pejorative way — agreement between the UK and Ireland on the movement of citizens and people between both islands  and that because of this we have to act in concert with the UK authorities. It is implied that if we allow people into this country they would also be able to move to the UK. Whether that is implied or not that is the de facto position. There is no passport control when travelling between the two states and that is another manifestation of that particular agreement. What I am proposing to the Minister is that this person be offered refuge or sanctuary on the condition that he stays within this State.
When they took this decision I think the UK authorities expected that the deportation would proceed quietly but instead there has been outrage. The Prime Minister and her government in a sense have put themselves on a hook and are now faced with what would be for them the awful prospect of a climb down. In my view they would prefer to deport this unfortunate individual and let him worry about his own life rather than having to publicly climb down on this issue.
For that reason, I ask the Minister to offer a golden bridge, a face saver, to Mrs. Thatcher to ensure that she can at least find a middle line, to take the opportunity to act as an honest broker in this particular case, and to resolve the problem in such a way that the UK authorities do not have to publicly climb down on the issue. In doing so we will be acting in consensus with the other countries of the EC in as much as no other country is deporting people to Sri Lanka at present. I hope the Minister will deal with that point in his reply. Since I have been elected to this House I have been told time and time again that certain foreign affairs issues are the policy of the Twelve. I do not object to that response despite the views I have on our foreign policy but the policy of the Twelve on this occasion, if there is a policy, would appear to indicate that one does not deport individuals to Sri Lanka.
I want to give the Minister an example of the kind of publicity I have come across  in regard to this case. I read about this matter in the media yesterday and when I arrived home last night my children had seen the 9 o'clock news on RTE which had shown police charging into a church, grabbing a man and landing him into prison, saying he is going to be deported and that his life is at risk. My children told me about this and asked why he cannot come here if he cannot stay in England. Of course that is a child's response but out of the mouths' of children very often come words of wisdom. There are many Irish people who have concern for the Third World and developing world issues who believe that if his life is at risk — there is an argument about whether it is or not but he feels it is, and many impeccable sources, including Amnesty International, say his life is at risk — we should move in and take a stand on his behalf.
Every nation, Parliament and citizen has a duty to ensure that the civil and political rights of individuals, wherever they may be, are upheld. This has been our proud record. In the case of Viraj Mendis we have a young man afraid for his life, and who Amnesty International believe may well be subjected to ill-treatment and, at the very least, torture if he is deported. Every other member state of the EC Community is opposed to the deportation of refugees or aliens to Sri Lanka at this time. The Irish Government should intervene on this matter and offer refugee status, sanctuary, asylum or whatever is appropriate to Viraj Mendis. He has until tomorrow morning to find a country that will take him. Because Irish people have always been concerned with Third World and developing world issues, and the Irish community in Manchester support Viraj Mendis on this matter, the Minister would simply be representing the views of Irish people by intervening positively at this time on this issue. Intervention now will save a life later. Both the UK and Ireland are signatories to the UN Convention and acting in the spirit of that convention we could  show real concerted international concern for the saving of a life. I call on the Minister to give sanctuary and a home in Ireland to Viraj Mendis and I urge the British Government at the very least to reconsider their decision in view of the continuing reports of human rights violations taking place in Sri Lanka.
Finally, things in Sri Lanka are beginning to settle down. Could we at least buy time for this man until his country settles down and offer him, if not permanent asylum or refugee status then some sort of transient papers that would allow him to remain here until such time as we are satisfied that the situation in Sri Lanks had settled and that his life is not in danger? In the meantime as we discuss this matter time gets shorter and we need to act now. I again ask the Minister to take this matter in hand.
Mrs. Bulbulia: I will be brief because Senator O'Toole whose idea it was to raise this under Standing Order 29 has outlined the arguments for the motion he has put down. I am pleased that the motion was allowed because clearly under Standing Orders it is a matter of urgent public importance. I am glad the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs has come here this afternoon to give his considered reponse.
The case of Viraj Mendis has captured world attention although questions can be asked about whether under UN Conventions he qualifies for refugee status. What has appalled me about this matter, and why I speak on this is that the whole concept of sanctuary has been breached in such an extraordinarily jack-booted manner by the forces of the Crown in our neighbouring island. Sanctuary is a very ancient concept. I did not have time to check but from my knowledge of it, it is a medieval concept, and perhaps goes back even further. Although it was abolished in the UK in 1623 by an Act of Parliament, nevertheless in the public consciousness it still remains a fact that people can seek and be guaranteed a  certain protection and sanctuary within the confines of a church or monastery.
Viraj Mendis who is almost certainly not a Christian saw that in the protection of the Church of the Ascension in Hulme, Manchester, he could claim a certain sanctuary, protection and safety for his life in the UK and so he remained in that church and has not left it for two years. While self-inflicted that is nevertheless a form of constraint and restriction on his movements which must have been very difficult to bear. We have to remember that he has not borne that alone, because he has been backed and increasingly supported by civil rights activists, by churchmen, by Amnesty International and by the community of Christians attached to that church in Hulme in Manchester, who brought him meals, have visited him and maintained a lifeline and a contact. From my reading of the situation he has become something of a cult figure and a focus for such people in the Manchester area. That is not necessarily a bad thing. He has probably evoked an awareness and a consciousness of the plight of an individual human who finds himself, through force of circumstances, repressed, oppressed and unable to make a move. It is for those reasons that I speak about this matter.
Viraj Mendis is a self-confessed Communist. He is entitled to be a Communist; he is entitled to those political views. He is not a Tamil although he has espoused the cause of the Tamil separatists: he is a Sinhalese. He is now in Pentonville prison facing certain deportation to Sri Lanka by midday tomorrow unless a third country can be found which will offer him at least a temporary reprieve and a stay of what he feels is almost certain execution if he is deported to Sri Lanka.
It would be an imaginative and a creative gesture on the part of this Government if such an invitation was forthcoming to Viraj Mendis from the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Taoiseach. As Senator O'Toole has so ably outlined we have a very proud record in  the area of awareness of Third World people and their situations, be it hunger, oppression or difficulty. This man is a living example of a repressive régime in Sri Lanka. I understand that this case has been reviewed by each level of the judicial system in the UK and each one has rejected his plans for asylum.
I should like to refer again to the act of seizure which was depicted graphically in several of the quality British newspapers. It would appear that 50 plus Crown forces accompanied by immigration officers descended on the Church of the Ascension in Hulme, Manchester, and by using sledge hammers they broke down the doors and obtained access to the area in which Viraj Mendis was living. He in turn handcuffed himself to a radiator but his handcuffs were cut and he was seized. Meanwhile the telephone wires to the church had been cut, the burglar alarm system had been disabled and Viraj Mendis' 14 year old daughter was kept isolated on a landing where she was wrapped, I understand, in a towel. The whole thing sounds bizzare, extreme and unnecessarily harsh and repressive and certainly is no illustration of how the forces of the Crown should go about their business.
I would also reiterate the point made by Senator O'Toole that Britain is the only country in Europe currently deporting people to Sri Lanka. We cannot support that kind of singular approach by the British. Amnesty International have spoken out very clearly on this and they are not in the business of making wild and unfounded claims. They fear, and they have warned the Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, the dangers which may await Viraj Mendis should he be deported. He was dragged from the Church of the Ascension by his hands and feet and that is just such a distasteful picture of what occurred in Britain yesterday.
It is the first time in 350 years that something like this has happened in this manner in the United Kingdom and the  question must be asked, irrespective of how one views Viraj Mendis' case in particular, what future awaits a Sinhalese Marxist dissident who has espoused the Tamil separatist cause in Sri Lanka? We all know that Sri Lanka is volatile and violent despite the recent Indo-Sri Lankan peace accord which was signed recently. The net effect of this has been to strain relations in Britain between the Church and State. If anything good has come of it it will have focussed the attention of the public on the deportation procedures in Britain. The number of deportees in 1988 was in fact over 700. These, presumably, have all gone quietly. Certainly nothing like the storm which has surrounded Viraj Mendis has ever erupted in the past. I was interested to read a quotation from a priest in charge of the Church of the Ascension, Fr. John Mathuen, who said that not only had the Christian building been violated but that in his view Christian and democratic values had been violated by this action.
I am sure the Minister has given careful consideration to this case. I will be interested in seeing if he can exhibit imagination, and above all, compassion in this instance. I would like to end by saying that the reason discussions on this, and indeed the ongoing debate here on the plight of the Tibetan people, arises in the Seanad and that we have so many debates here on matters of foreign affairs is that there is an overall frustration in this House and in the other House, too, at the absence of a Foreign Affairs committee where issues such as this could be brought forward, considered and debated and where specialist expertise and background research and briefing could be made available to Members of the Oireachtas who have concern and an interest in matters of foreign affairs. I regret to say that it is my view that in the whole foreign affairs area Ireland is not living up to its past reputation in taking a lead and in having policies on certain issues. We are conveniently standing under the umbrella provided to us by  virtue of our EC and UN membership. We are failing to exhibit a clear individual coherent well thought out foreign affairs policy. By adopting such an attitude we weaken our own sovereignty, a sovereignty which has been dearly won. I for one am not particularly proud of our foreign affairs policy direction at the moment.
Mr. Norris: I would like to say at the outset that I agree very much with the powerful speech of my colleague, Senator Joe O'Toole, whom I would like to congratulate on having today demonstrated very clearly the capacity of this institution to respond immediately to matters of critical national importance, and also the speech of my distinguished colleague, Senator Bulbulia. I would of course remind her that there is in fact a Foreign Affairs committee of Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas although regrettably it has not yet at least received Government support. I certainly agree with her that tonight's debate illustrates and underlines very clearly the necessity for the Government to recognise now that they are in power, as they so clearly recognise when they are in Opposition, that there is an overwhelming need for the proper and formal establishment of just such a committee. I have no doubt that in debate after debate this point will be made. I would like to simply underline that by saying that it is a matter of regret to me as secretary of this committee that members of certain parties have been intimidated out of their membership, because there is all party support for this. I deplore this fact as I deplore the fact that there will apparently be no Government speaker on this important motion involving a matter of principle. That is greatly to be regretted.
It is clear that this is a matter of life and death. It concerns us all as human beings. Yesterday I spoke, albeit briefly, in celebration of a man, Raoul Wallenberg, who disappeared 44 years ago yesterday and who was a tireless campaigner for human rights. This was the  man, as I am sure the Minister will recall, who protected people in danger of loss of life in the most appalling circumstances and he did so by precisely the kind of measure that Senator O'Toole has honourably proposed here this afternoon, the extension of the diplomatic protection and the moral power of his country to people in a very critical situation. This is the situation in which this man, Mr. Viraj Mendis, finds himself and it is clear that it is his wish that there should be third party intervention. I draw the attention of the House to the newspaper reports of this morning which indicate very clearly that he has asked through his representatives that the Danish, the Dutch and the Swedish Governments should be contacted with a view to providing a refuge for himself. It would be an accolade for this country if we were to be joined in that distinguished company, the Danish, the Dutch and the Swedes, all of whom in one way or another, particularly during the last World War, showed a very honourable face in attempting to protect their minority citizens, in particular the Jewish population, against the ravages of the Nazi troops and the Gestapo. We should now take this opportunity, precisely because we failed so lamentably in the period both between the two wars, during the last war and after the war to exercise in a responsible way our capacity to protect people on a human rights basis. We have in many ways an honourable record but this is one area in which I believe we are deficient and where I think it is important that we establish a reputation that is honourable and outstanding; I believe this provides us with one opportunity.
I greatly regret that Mrs. Thatcher has apparently chosen once again to place herself outside the parameters of international law and decency. I was persuaded by Senator O'Toole's argument that there has been here a breach of  Article 33 of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and certainly there has been a breach of the spirit if not of the letter of that law. I deplore that but it does not surprise me. Somebody who can change the rules of engagement in the middle of a battle is certainly quite capable of being cavalier in an attitude towards a mere convention on human rights. One could exhaust quite a lot of time in placing that in a particular context but I will resist the temptation to do so. I do, however, permit myself, as a practising member of the Church of Ireland which is in an important member of the Anglican communion, to register my strong protest that a Church of my denomination should be placed under attack by the forces of the British Government. I consider it an absolute outrage that a place of religious worship should be attacked by the forces of the State in a western democracy.
It astonishes me that Mrs. Margaaret Thatcher feels at liberty to attack the Soviet Union for human rights violations, to preach to President Gorbachev about religious freedom and, earlier in the year, to disdain participation in human rights meetings because of the human rights record and the respect for individual freedoms obtaining at present in Russia and then to mount this highly dangerous and contentious attack. I would remind the House that this kind of attack in other states has precipitated very dangerous and volatile situations. One only has to think, for example, of the attack on the Golden Temple of the Sikhs at Amritsar. This is a most umpleasant and unfortunate business for Mrs. Thatcher to have engaged herself in. It is clear to me, from reading the context in which this incident took place, that this is not accidental. This is part of a clear, thought-out and deliberate attack on the Church of England by the Thatcher Government simply because they do not like the independence of mind currently being  displayed by a number of Anglican prelates and by the Anglican Church in general on a number of human rights issues. There is clearly an antagonism building up between the Tory Party and the Church that used to be described as the Tory Party at Prayer. I welcome this separation of interests and I wish, as an Anglican, that there would be a total separation, a disestablishment of the Church of England to enable a greater degree of difference to be established.
I take very seriously the statements of the British Home Secretary, Mr. Douglas Hurd, who yesterday chose to warn the Church of England to “think very carefully” before entering into any habit or custom of giving shelter to those defying the law. The Home Secretary, Mr. Douglas Hurd, is apparently going to set limits on the operation of the Church of England in protecting, as an extreme measure, the human rights and possibly the very lives of people who appeal to it for sanctuary.
I am very worried and concerned by what I read between the lines as being a clear ideological element in Mrs. Thatcher's decision to go for this man. I would like to ask the House the rhetorical question, if Mr. Viraj Mendis were instead Mr. Mendis Virajski, a member of Solidarity, the trade union in Poland, would he be subjected to this kind of harassment? If in other words he were not, as he has been described, a “self-confessed Communist”— I would slightly query the phrase self-confessed because you confess to a sin and I do not think that Communism is any more a sin — would he be subjected to this particular form of harassment? I am rather inclined to think that he would not.
I would like also, in the context of this debate, to say that I hope very much that the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, the Most. Rev. Dr. Eames, who is a prominent member of the Anglican Church in Ireland and who has been widely tipped as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, may be motivated  to express an opinion in this matter, one which will be favourable to the granting of sanctuary to Mr. Mendis. There is no point in my repeating the arguments that have been so ably entered into the record by my distinguished colleagues but I would like to end by saying that I hope the Minister will be able to look favourably upon this matter. Once again, I congratulate Senator O'Toole on having used the available machinery of this House to draw to the attention, not just of the Seanad but also of the Irish people through news broadcasts that took place during the day, this extremely important and urgent matter concerning human rights.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Mr. Calleary): First, I wish to thank the Senators who have spoken and who have so very ably put the case. I do not intend to comment on some of the matters that have been mentioned quite often by all the Senators because they are outside the actual terms of the motion. I am by no means being argumentative when I say that I cannot see how a foreign affairs committee, no matter how ably the matter has been put by any of the Senators, would have made any difference in this case. As Senators know, the case of Mr. Mendis has been fully considered by the British authorities under the terms of the UN Convention of 1951 and the Protocol of 1967 which relates to the status of refugees. As everybody knows, his request for asylum in Britain has been turned down. As has been mentioned in particular by Senator O'Toole, Ireland is a party to the convention and the protocol and we employ similar criteria to Britain and indeed to the other member states of the European Community in considering applications for asylum under the convention and the protocol.
I wish to say to Senator O'Toole that unlike other cases, the Community has not adopted any common position in relation to the deportation of Mr. Mendis  to Sri Lanka. I think Senator O'Toole is aware, and certainly Senator Bulbulia was quite clear, that the position of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is that Mr. Mendis does not fall within the definition of a political refugee under the United Nations Convention. As was pointed out by Senator O'Toole, Mr. Mendis is not a Tamil although he does claim to support the cause of Tamil separatism. The Sri Lankan High Commissioner in London has specifically stated that Mr. Mendis is not wanted for  any criminal or indeed civil offence in Sri Lanka.
In all these circumstances, but particularly in view of the position of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I do not consider, while taking on board fully everything that has been said, that it would be appropriate for Ireland to intervene with the British authorities in this case or to offer a home to Mr. Mendis here in Ireland.
|Last Updated: 24/05/2011 04:04:32||Page of 9|