Tánaiste's statement on 2011 Estimates to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Discussion of the 2011 Estimates – 05 July 2011
I’m delighted to have this opportunity to discuss the work and current policy priorities of my Department with the committee members. I am fully determined to lead my Department’s efforts to deal with the very demanding agenda facing Ireland on the global stage. I look forward to working closely with your Committee and would greatly welcome and appreciate your cooperation in the Oireachtas in progressing our shared foreign policy objectives.
As Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, it is my responsibility and that of my Department to restore Ireland’s international reputation. We are doing this by pursuing a very active foreign policy, by working hard within the European Union, by maintaining a world-class development cooperation programme and by pursuing every opportunity to promote Ireland’s foreign trade.
This is a very wide agenda not all of which is within our span of control. However, I will concentrate our resources on our priority areas of foreign policy, in those areas where we have acknowledged strengths and where we are globally recognized as having something to contribute. Of course, it is also important that we use our foreign policy reach to benefit and advance our national interests in an appropriate way.
I will also devote significant resources to ensure that the highest priority is given to the protection of our citizens across the globe.
In the time available today, I will not be able to address all of the policy issues facing me and my Department but would like to share some of the key priorities with you.
Middle East Peace Process
On the Middle East Peace Process, I will maintain the strong commitment of successive Irish Governments and the Oireachtas to the earliest possible achievement of a sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel. Therefore, I will consider our response to any move by the Palestinians at the UN this autumn to seek recognition of a Palestinian State when I see what is proposed. It is my belief that the Palestinian people deserve the dignity of their own state. But I want to see a Palestinian State in reality – and not just one contained in a UN resolution. As we all know too well on this island, a permanent and lasting comprehensive peace can only be achieved through dialogue and negotiation.
When we take on the Chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe next January, we will be in a position to enhance our own contribution to ongoing promotion of comprehensive security across the OSCE region. Our experience of conflict resolution will be a particular asset in this work. As you may be aware, we have decided to seek election to the UN Human Rights Council and I am confident we can win. I believe that given the global recognition of Ireland’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, we continue to be uniquely placed to facilitate other nations find common ground and achieving consensus in this area.
Development and ODA
Ireland has a deservedly high reputation in the area of development cooperation. The Government’s aid programme is inspired by the values of the Irish people. It has consistently been assessed independently as one of the best in the world. The programme is concentrated on some of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with a strong focus on the fight against poverty and hunger. I saw for myself on my recent visit to Tanzania how Ireland has been working in partnership with Governments and communities in Africa to end extreme poverty and hunger in the world. Working with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and African leaders on hunger and nutrition brought home to me just how effective Ireland is on the world stage when we take a lead internationally on an issue of importance to us a people, and when we back it up with our actions and programmes on the ground.
Ireland’s aid programme is highly effective. We are committed to it because it is the right thing to do, and because it is in our interests as a small country in an interconnected world. The Government is committed to the UN target of spending of 0.7% of GNP on Official Development Assistance. We will seek to do so by 2015, the date set by the EU. Obviously, this is represents a challenge, but I believe it is one we can meet if we can restore growth to the Irish economy.
Our colleague, Minister of State, Jan O’Sullivan recently announced the launch of our review of the 2006 White Paper on Irish aid. This will involve wide consultation, and will ensure that we have a clear and renewed set of priorities for the aid programme for the years ahead. Our programme will remain strongly focused on the poorest countries in Africa and on the fight to end global hunger. I also intend over the coming months to ensure that we strengthen our engagement with Africa. We will bring together all the strands in a more coherent approach to our development cooperation, to our political relations and to building economic cooperation as growth takes hold in the economies of sub-Saharan Africa.
I am determined to ensure that our Embassy network and the resources of my Department are more sharply focused than ever on the challenging task of restoring Ireland’s international economic reputation and bolstering the export led growth that is crucial to our recovery. I have instructed our Ambassadors across the globe to attach the highest priority to these tasks in their work.
I will be using my leadership role as Chair of the Export Trade Council to ensure the effective implementation of the joined-up approach to trade promotion this Government has adopted for the export sector, involving all relevant Government Departments and State Agencies. I will be chairing the first meeting of the Export Trade Council later this month.
Traditionally, Ireland’s major trading partners and significant markets have been the UK, the US and Europe. My Department recognizes the importance of these markets and we are working through the Embassy network and in close cooperation with State Agencies and other Departments to grow our trade levels with these countries and maintain our good relationships with them.
In keeping with this approach, we are actively looking at ways to broaden Ireland’s trade base and develop better relationships with new and emerging markets. We have had successes in these markets in recent years and I will be using the Export Trade Council, the Strategy for Trade, Tourism and Investment, our Joint Economic Commissions and all other available tools to ensure that we continue to grow our exports to these countries. Person to person contacts are essential for developing business in these markets. In recognition of this I intend to schedule a number of visits to priority markets, beginning with a visit to Japan and Korea in the Autumn.
The Irish Overseas
I know the committee members and indeed all members of the Oireachtas share my concerns for the welfare of our citizens overseas particularly those who were less prepared for the emigrant experience or have fallen on hard times after emigration. My Department has allocated almost €13 million this year to the Emigrant Support Programme which supports frontline welfare services. I am confident that this support has a very tangible and positive impact on Irish communities, particularly on the lives of our most vulnerable citizens in Britain. I have already met representatives of community organizations in New York and I am planning to visit to London next month to meet with many of these organization and to gain first-hand knowledge of the work they do and to gauge current issues to concern to those who work in the frontline.
Building strategic links between Ireland and the Diaspora will be the aim of the second Global Irish Forum in October. I also attach a high priority to addressing the situation of the undocumented Irish in the United States in our engagements with the US administration and Congress.
The restoration of Ireland’s standing as a committed and influential member of the European Union is a vital element in our strategy of economic recovery. In that context, our Presidency in 2013 is an important opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to playing an active and constructive role in EU and related global affairs. A successful Presidency can, once again, strengthen our reputation as a credible and capable partner not only to the other Member States but to other global partners that interact with the EU during the term of the Presidency. Here in Ireland, the EU Presidency presents us with a unique opportunity to lead the EU in developing policies that matter to the lives of all our citizens and to uphold the values and freedoms on which the EU is founded.
Passport and Consular Services
For most people, the only direct contact they have with my Department is in the context of obtaining a passport or when they or a family member need our assistance overseas. I acknowledged in my earlier contribution that there is ongoing unhappiness with the delays citizens experience over the summer months in obtaining a passport. Any delay is unacceptable but for the record I’d like to point out that the current delay is of up to five working days in processing applications submitted through the recommended Passport Express service. It is not the “many weeks” suggested by some media commentators. My Department has allocated exceptional resources to meet the unprecedented level of demand this year. I am confident that this turnaround time will be reduced over the coming weeks and will return to normal levels in the short-term.
On the consular front, I am pleased that my Department has continued to develop its capacity to assist our citizens in crisis situations overseas. I would recall that this year has unfortunately been particularly busy for my Department which has had to respond to political crises in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain as well as earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan. I am very pleased by the positive feedback I get from the public in recognition of these efforts.
Mr. Chairman, given our time constraints today this has necessarily been a rather brief synopsis of my priorities as Minister and of the major international issues facing the country. I will be very happy to discuss them further with the Committee today and also in more depth as specific matters arise during your term of office.