Speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Dermot Ahern TD, at the official opening of the Consular Crisis Centre at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Tuesday 9 January, 2007
I am delighted to open the new Crisis Centre in the Department of Foreign Affairs here in Hainault House. This new facility will ensure that the Department has a state of the art facility in responding to the needs of Irish citizens caught up in emergencies overseas.
The Centre will contain, at its core, a call area of 24 desks which can be activated within minutes during normal work times and within an hour over weekends or overnight. While the Department has responded outstandingly to past emergencies, we will now be in an even better position to look after Irish citizens during any future crisis, as well of course as keeping in active contact with their families.
There is now a considerable body of experience within the Department in dealing with crisis situations. In recent years, we have had a range of emergencies - 9/11, the Tsunami in Asia, and the bombings in Bali, Egypt and London. After 9/11 we responded to, and followed up on, some 5,000 calls. During the Tsunami we had a crisis team in place at 11am on the St Stephen’s morning of the catastrophe. Our most recent large scale operation was the evacuation of Irish citizens from the conflict in Lebanon. We also have had some Irish citizens kidnapped in troubled regions, the most well known being the abduction of the journalist Rory Carroll in Iraq.
During the Lebanon crisis, the Government decided at a very early date that we would launch our own national rescue operation. This was the first time that we had undertaken such an ambitious operation, and it resulted in the safe evacuation of some 200 Irish citizens and their families. I also believe we were probably one of the first countries to evacuate our citizens. Our success reflected both the increasing capacity of our Consular Division and the extra resources that the Government is putting into services for Irish citizens overseas.
I was also delighted that we were able to assist in evacuating other nationals from the Lebanon, including Australians, British, Dutch and Americans. A small number of Irish citizens in turn were accommodated in later evacuations by other countries. The whole operation was an excellent example of international cooperation on a humanitarian project.
I would like to reiterate my deep appreciation for the support that the Defence Forces gave to the Department in the Lebanon, especially through the Aer Corps and members of the Irish Army who were stationed with UNIFIL. I would also like to thank the Gardaí in Cyprus who assisted the Irish Embassy there in receiving the evacuees and facilitating their transfer back to Ireland.
Operations such as that in the Lebanon will in future be carried out from the new Crisis Centre. The senior staff organising and monitoring such operations will be based here and will be supported by volunteers from throughout the Department, and the wider civil service if necessary. Information will be passed quickly and efficiently between the call area and those overseeing operations.
This is an important consideration since there is a need for the public, and especially for the families of our citizens caught in difficult situations, to be kept fully up to date about development.
The Centre will, in addition, have video conferencing facilities connecting the Department with crisis centres and similar facilities in other EU countries. In an emergency situation, it is crucial that we keep in constant contact with our fellow EU countries and the intelligence and resources available to them.
The Centre will also have available the most up to date software; this will enable the rapid tabulation of information on the status of individual citizens and their contact details. The flow of information will be further strengthened when the on line registration for citizens abroad comes on stream. Registration will, of course, be voluntary but we will strongly urge our citizens to register.
Every Embassy and Consulate has been instructed to draw up emergency plans for evacuation. These will be stored in the Centre and will help guide our response to any crises.
The Centre will also work very closely with the Department’s new website which will carry all the latest news during a crisis. The website proved invaluable during the Lebanese evacuation; while other means of communication were out of action, the internet continued to operate even in the worst affected areas.
Emergency Citizens Assistance Team
In conjunction with the opening of this Centre, I am also announcing that the Department is establishing a specialised consular emergency team – ECAT (Emergency Citizens Assistance Team). This team can be brought together at short notice to fly into an affected area and assist the local Embassy or Consulate in providing assistance to Irish citizens, including if necessary, evacuating them.
The team will be highly visible, as evidenced by the sample jacket on display here.
Throughout the world, Foreign Ministries are undergoing change and facing fresh challenges. One of the biggest has been the growth in demand for consular services. As Irish people become more affluent, they travel a great deal more. This means that when a crisis occurs in far flung parts of the world, there are usually quite a number of Irish citizens in the affected region. As a rich European country, our citizens rightly expect that the Government attach the highest priority their safety. They also expect that we will commit the resources necessary to carry out that task. I want to emphasise that they can be fully assured on this. Judging from 99% of the letters I receive, be it after a major catastrophe, an individual accident or even a replaced passport, our citizens are very appreciative of our efforts.
While the upgrading of our technology and equipment is critically important, the most valuable resource we have is people. I cannot over - emphasise how important the human factor is in crisis situations. In Ireland, we have a special ability to empathise with the victims of disasters. Indeed, in the Tsunami and other crises, citizens from a number of countries have paid particular tribute to the generous and caring reception and advice they received from our officials. We must never, ever lose this distinctive trait.
Finally, it may surprise many people that over half of all those employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ireland are engaged in the delivery of consular services to the public, including :
- issuing passports – some 628,000 were issued in 2006;
- assistance with consular problems – our Missions provide a 24 hour, 7 day service for our distressed citizens;
- assistance with deaths and injuries overseas;
- deportation matters and prisoner welfare issues;
- legalisation of documents, especially for those buying property abroad;
- registration of foreign births; and
- certificates of freedom to marry abroad.
The Consular area directly touches on the lives of many of our most vulnerable citizens, and can sometimes be literally a life saving operation. It is for this reason that I have given this critical and strategic area my personal priority since becoming Minister for Foreign Affairs, and I will continue to do so at all times in the future
I am now delighted to declare the Crisis Centre officially open.Top