Remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Micheál Martin to the meeting of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, 16th June 2009
Mr. Chairman, Members,
Thank you for this opportunity to present for your consideration the 2009 Estimates.
With the agreement of the Chairman, I propose to discuss both Vote 28 and the Annual Output Statement.
In line with established practice my colleague, Minister of State Power, will deal in detail with Vote 29.
The context of our work has changed enormously since we considered the 2008 Estimates for the Foreign Affairs group of Votes, this time last year.
The economic and financial crisis and our national efforts to promote economic recovery provide the backdrop to everything we now do.
The current crisis means that the resources available to us are contracting.
Overall, the net Estimate for Vote 28 is down more than 11% on the figures we considered here last year.
There is some impact on the Department’s programmes: there is a cut of €2 million in the provision for contributions to international organisations; and it has been decided not to proceed with the Peace Monument, for which provision had been made in 2008.
However, the greater part of these cuts is being borne on the administration side.
In terms of pay and staff numbers, the Department is subject to the overall cost control measures put in place by the Department of Finance.
The non-pay administrative provision of Vote 28, in practice the daily running costs of the Department and the mission network, is down more than 15% on the comparable figure for last year.
Cuts of this scale – and I expect that there will be further cuts in the years ahead – will impact on how we do business. We need to adapt to the changing realities.
In a few years time, beyond the current crisis, the Department will look different.
Some changes are already evident. For example, as a result of resources constraints, we will shortly close the Consulate General in Cardiff.
Of course, change will not be driven only by resource issues. I am determined to ensure that the network of Embassies and other offices is aligned with our priorities as they evolve. The decision to open a new Embassy in the United Arab Emirates – within existing resources – is a reflection of that.
Annual Output Statement
I would like to turn now to the Annual Output Statement, to give some indication how the resources provided to my Department will be used.
You have received a copy of the Annual Output Statement for 2009.
The Output Statement sets out six programmes for my Department. Each programme corresponds to a High Level Goal in the Department’s Strategy Statement, which I discussed with the Joint Committee last November.
Promoting Trade, Investment and Culture
I mentioned briefly the changed financial and economic circumstances in which we now find ourselves. These changed circumstances bring further to the fore the work of promoting Ireland’s economic interests overseas.
There is no more important task for my Department at present.
While we work closely with the state agencies, in particular IDA and Enterprise Ireland, we have a distinctive role.
The unique status of Embassies can gain access, in most countries, to the highest levels of Government and of business.
In addition to promoting Ireland as a trading partner and a place to invest, there is the less tangible but equally important work of addressing the challenges to Ireland’s reputation, challenges which were particularly acute in the first six months of this year.
Through the network of overseas missions, the staff of my Department have been targeting opinion formers in the media, as well as in business and Government, to deliver up to date, accurate and comprehensive information about Ireland’s economy and the measures we are taking to address the current difficulties.
Ireland’s reputation took some severe hits in the first half of this year, not all of them deserved. However, my Department has been monitoring international press coverage of Ireland and supporting the efforts of Government Ministers to ensure that the true facts of the situation are known, including the steps taken by the Government to address our current challenges. I think we can now see a turnaround in the level and tone of the coverage of Ireland in the international media.
Citizens Abroad and the Diaspora
The six High Level Goals are not pursued in isolation, and there is read-across between our activities in various areas.
An important example this year, is the convening of the Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh in September.
We are building on our ongoing outreach to the diaspora to explore how the Irish, at home and abroad, and those with a strong interest in Ireland, can work together and contribute to our overall efforts at economic recovery.
This is a major and innovative undertaking, bringing together, for the first time, the most influential members of the Irish community worldwide with a record of high achievement in business, politics, culture and sport.
I am delighted by the extremely positive response to the initiative from those invited and look forward to a weekend of great significance.
Of course, the day-to-day work of protecting and assisting our citizens overseas remains a cornerstone the Department’s work.
Members of this House will be more familiar than most people with the Department’s consular work, assisting individuals and families in situations of difficulty or distress abroad. Increased prosperity and the opening up of international air travel means that more Irish people are travelling abroad and more, particularly young people, are getting into situations which require the intervention of my Department.
Last year, for example, the Department assisted over 200 families who had suffered bereavement abroad. The officials working in the Department’s Consular Division are called upon, week in, week out, to give assistance to bereaved and distressed families and friends. I would like to recognise, here today, the efficiency and compassion with which they carry out their delicate work.
This is a challenging year for the Department’s passport service. In previous years, the Department has recruited additional temporary staff to enable it to cope with the seasonal surge in demand for passports in the peak period from April to July. However, as a result of economic constraints, the Department was unable to recruit temporary staff for 2009 until very recently.
To cope with demand, staff from within the Department have been re-deployed to the Passport Offices, but capacity remains well below 2008 levels. At the same time, demand for passports last month was five per cent greater than in May 2008.
The Passport Offices are experiencing a very high level of customer demand at present and I want to place on record my appreciation for the hard work of staff in these offices.
In terms of financial resources allocated to Citizens Abroad and Diaspora activities, I am pleased to say that the Emigrant Support Programme allocation has been maintained at its 2008 level this year. This is a clear indication of the high priority the Government attaches to our overseas communities.
When I addressed this Committee this time last year, we were in the immediate aftermath of the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
Following the referendum, an all-party Oireachtas Sub-Committee was established to examine Ireland’s Future in the European Union. This Committee established the broadest possible political consensus on the best way forward and recommended strongly that Ireland should remain at the heart of the European Union.
Also following the referendum, the Government commissioned independent research to identify the reasons behind the vote. The research showed that, while the Irish people remain extremely supportive of our EU membership and want to maintain our highly positive approach to the Union, many felt they did not have the information and knowledge they needed. The research also pointed to a number of issues which gave rise to uncertainty in the minds of the electorate.
These included the composition of the European Commission, corporation tax, neutrality, abortion and workers’ rights.
The Taoiseach reported to the European Council last December and set out our people’s concerns relating to the Lisbon Treaty. Our fellow EU Member States agreed that the concerns of the Irish people should be addressed. We secured the agreement of all partners that, if the Lisbon Treaty enters into force, all Member States will retain the right to nominate a Commissioner. The other Member States also agreed that Ireland would be given legally binding guarantees in the areas of taxation, defence and neutrality and on certain provisions of our Constitution relating to the right to life, education and the family. EU leaders also agreed that the high importance which the EU attaches to issues, such as workers’ rights, would be confirmed.
We have been working intensively with the Czech Presidency, our EU partners and with the EU institutions on the texts of these legal guarantees with the objective of successfully concluding discussions on those guarantees at the European Council later this week. If the Government is satisfied with the outcome, we are committed to holding a further referendum before the end of October.
Last year, the Department of Foreign Affairs was allocated a budget of €5.8 million for the referendum.
In light of the current economic circumstances, if a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is confirmed for later this year, I believe that a budget of some €5.2 million should be sufficient for both the Department and Referendum Commission to fulfil their respective responsibilities. To date, provision of €4 million has been made in the 2009 estimates expenses related to a further referendum and efforts are underway to source the remaining €1.2 million from within Departmental resources.
My Department continues to work to consolidate peace on our island and to ensure the full implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements. Great progress has been made in recent years, including the restoration of the Institutions and the bedding down of the Executive. That said, we must be mindful of the work that remains at the political and community levels.
A key political challenge this year will be the devolution of policing and justice powers and I am in close contact with the First and deputy First Minister and with the Secretary of State on this issue.
We were reminded in March that a small number of individuals - in taking the lives of three men - still wish to pull Northern Ireland back to the days of violence and despair. But the people stood together and answered this challenge – indicating clearly that there is no going back.
However, it is clear that there is a continuing need for reconciliation work, now and into the future.
Sectarianism remains a real challenge to the future stability of Northern Ireland. Sadly, we were reminded of the worst manifestations of sectarianism with the recent death of Kevin McDaid who was beaten to death in a vicious attack by a mob in Coleraine. Our thoughts and prayers are with his widow Evelyn who was badly injured during the attack and the family of Damien Fleming who still lies critically injured in hospital.
We can make a valuable contribution to the process through my Department’s Reconciliation and Anti Sectarianism Funds. The Estimates provide for an allocation of €3 million to North-South and Anglo Irish Cooperation (Subhead F.1), the bulk of which will be disbursed through these two Funds.
Through the mechanisms of the Reconciliation and Anti Sectarianism Funds, the Department is well placed to assist groups on the ground engaged in this vital work and help to build the foundations of a truly shared society.
Ireland and the world
Looking back over the last year, one of the key diplomatic successes for Ireland was the agreement on the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The adoption of this Convention by 107 States in Dublin in May 2008 was a landmark achievement for Irish diplomacy. We will continue our efforts to ensure that the Convention comes into effect as soon as possible.
A top priority for me as Minister for Foreign Affairs, and for my Department, is the role to be played by Ireland in the pursuit of international peace and security.
Two regions of conflict which are the focus of much current concern are the situations in Sri Lanka and Burma respectively.
In Sri Lanka, the final months of the conflict between Government
forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have exacted
a bloody toll. The cost in terms of human life has been
It is essential that the Government of Sri Lanka begin a peace process with the Tamil people. However, the immediate priority must be the welfare of the internally displaced population, now estimated at roughly 400,000.
I greatly appreciate the interest which members of this Committee take in the situation in Sri Lanka.
The appalling situation in Burma is an issue of grave concern to me and to the Government – as it is, I know, to this Committee. The wanton disregard of the regime for the views of its own people – and those of the international community - was demonstrated once again by the arrest on 14 May and subsequent trial of Aung San Suu Kyi. It is difficult to be optimistic about the future. There seems to be little chance that the parliamentary elections scheduled for next year will be free or fair. Nevertheless, I can assure Deputies that I personally and my Department will continue to try to encourage positive change in Burma.
The international agenda which we are facing this year is
formidable. Ireland has, I believe, an important
role to play, along with our EU and UN partners, in the search for
a peaceful and stable world order and the lasting resolution of
conflict, not least in the Middle East.
While I have already made clear my concern at the negative trend of developments on the ground in the region since the end of the conflict in Gaza, there are also opportunities in the present situation to make progress, not least thanks to the welcome engagement of President Obama. The President and his Administration are seeking to revive peace negotiations and are putting valuable pressure on both sides, and particularly the new Israeli government, to honour Road Map obligations.
The EU is resolved to work closely with the US and the other members of the International Quartet (UN, Russia) to achieve meaningful progress in relation to such issues as settlements, Gaza and the need for Palestinian reconciliation. We must deliver clear messages to the Government of Israel. We must also make clear that the EU’s relations with Israel will continue to be determined by progress towards realising the overall strategic priority of a comprehensive peace settlement based on the two-State solution.
On Iran, this is a situation which we will need to continue monitoring closely. Clearly, there are concerns over the conduct of the Iranian elections and the extent to which the principles of fairness and transparency were adhered to. These are concerns which must be addressed.
The descent into violence yesterday is troubling and underlines the need for the Iranian authorities to respect the legitimate right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression. More generally, we must continue to encourage Iran to engage more with the international community on such issues as its nuclear programme and human rights.
Minister of State Power will deal in greater detail with Vote 29 later. I would like to make a few brief points at this stage.
As the Members are aware, the economic situation, and the absolute requirement to stabilise the public finances, have had implications for the allocation of funds to Vote 29. ODA spending this year by the Department of Foreign Affairs under the banner of Irish Aid will be €571 million. When additional spending on ODA by other Departments is taken into account, total Government spending will be of the order of €696 million.
To place this in context, the allocation for 2009, even after the reduction we have had to make, represents a 300% increase on our expenditure on ODA in the decade since 1999.
On current projections, this level of funding will represent approximately 0.48% of estimated 2009 Gross National Produce (GNP) and should maintain Ireland’s position as the sixth most generous donor internationally, on a per capita basis.
We recognise that the recent budgetary adjustment will make it more difficult to achieve the target of spending 0.7% of GNP on ODA by 2012. Nevertheless, we are continuing to work towards the target.
The Irish Aid programme remains one of the most effective in the world. The OECD’s Development Assistance Committee last month described Ireland as “a champion in making aid more effective” and described Irish Aid as “a strong cutting edge development programme”. This welcome and positive endorsement of the Irish Aid programme should be a source of pride for the Irish people.
I wish to make one final point in relation to the aid programme. In the Annual Output Statement, the Country Strategy for Malawi is one of the planned outputs for this year. Detailed work on the Country Strategy is ongoing and I want to record my Department’s appreciation for the Committee’s report on Malawi, published in March, which is an important input into this work.
In the time available it is not possible to address all of the issues that might be of interest to the members.
However, I hope that I have provided you and the Members of the Select Committee with adequate information for your consideration of the Estimate.
I am happy to take any questions and I look forward to our discussion.