Priority Questions – Foreign Affairs

July 6th, 2010 - Pat Breen

Passport Security
27. Deputy Pat Breen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will provide details of the review of the security system on passports; if this was recommended in the Garda and Passport Service reports to him following the fraudulent use of passports in January 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30197/10]

30. Deputy Pat Breen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the representations he has made to the Government of the Russian Federation following revelations that one of those arrested in the US for alleged spying was in a possession of a forged Irish passport; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30199/10]

Minister for Foreign Affairs (Deputy Micheál Martin): I propose to take Questions Nos. 27 and 30 together.
The current Irish passport system is one of the most secure in the world. The taxpayer has made a significant investment in enhancing the security of passports. The passport has been designed to ensure that the technologies used are those strictly controlled and mandated by the relevant international body, ICAO, International Civil Aviation Organisation, in Montreal. Officers of the passport service meet regularly with other similar jurisdictions and ICAO to ensure that Irish passport meet international security demands and best practice.
While the fake Irish passports used by those suspected of involvement in the Dubai assassination were of a type produced before the introduction of the current APS passport in 2005, it must be emphasised that these passports conformed fully to the highest international standards in place at that time. The passport was further enhanced in 2006 with the addition of a biometric chip, the Irish e-passport.
As forgery techniques advance, through the availability of more sophisticated production equipment, it is essential that the security of Irish passports are kept under constant review. It is in this context I announced last week that I have requested the passport service to initiate an ongoing review of passport technology to ensure that the Irish passport continues to be a trusted and secure travel document. The review will include consultations with the ICAO secretariat.
In regard to the issue of the alleged use of counterfeit Irish passports on Sunday 27 June, United States federal agents arrested a number of people for allegedly carrying out long-term, deep-cover assignments in the United States on behalf of the Russian Federation. The individuals were subsequently charged with conspiring to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation within the United States and, in the case of some of the individuals, additional charges related to money laundering. The affidavit lodged by the FBI alleges that one of the defendants had travelled to Moscow using a false Irish passport.
Upon hearing of this allegation, I immediately asked the passport service to investigate the matter and to work in close co-operation with An Garda Síochána. Investigations are under way. They are at a very preliminary stage and, therefore, I am not in a position to provide more detail today.
At this time, what we are confronted with is an allegation in a US court that an individual had travelled from Rome to Moscow on a false Irish passport. Our own investigating officers are working to establish the veracity of this allegation and the nature of the evidence to substantiate it. Accordingly, it is premature to reach any conclusions or make representations to other Governments at this time.
I wish to see the current investigations concluded at the earliest opportunity. However, I am conscious that there is a legal process under way in the United States. I am sure Deputies would share with me the necessity not to comment or act in any way that might influence the outcome of these proceedings.

Deputy Pat Breen: We all know what the started the passport affair, namely, the incident in Dubai last February. The Minister said this incident related to one of the pre-2005 passports. I presume the passport to which he referred is the one with the plastic-covered picture. Has he any idea what passport was used by the individual on the trip to Russia? What type of passport was used by the one and only Richard Murphy in that case? It is important to find out whether the automatic passport system was used.
The Minister stated the new e-passport is quite secure. Thirty-three thousand passports were stolen, mislaid or lost in Ireland last year. This represents approximately 6% of the passports issued in 2009. Is the Minister happy that the e-passport is secure and that Irish citizens feel safe using it? That is an important question.

Deputy Micheál Martin: The investigation is at a very early stage and it is important that we get the full facts thereon as early as possible. I am loth to comment specifically on the details on the assertion that has been made.
The Deputy asked whether the current passport technology is safe. It is top class and to a very high specification.
The Deputy is correct about the Dubai incident in that the passports concerned were pre-2005 passports. Perhaps some of the passports in the current case are pre-2005 passports but, to be sure, we must await the emergence of specific details.
The Deputy’s point on the number of passports lost is a separate issue. We must acknowledge that, in the modern era, there are people, or agents, who have very significant capacity, despite the most recent technological advances, to continue to attempt to forge and steal identities. Technology experts would advance this point. That said, such offences have not occurred to date in respect of the post-2005 passport to my knowledge.

Deputy Pat Breen: There are a few questions that need to be answered. The pre-2005 passport had the same name and details as the original passport but a different serial number. How come this was not picked up by the authorities in the countries in question?
I am disappointed the Minister said he will not publish the report on the Israeli passport affair, or that he has not published it yet. He promised Deputy Timmins last May that he would publish it as soon as possible. A report was produced by the Garda and the Irish Passport Office. Have they recommended that the report be published? It is important. We know of eight or nine fake passports and do not know how many more there are. Is Ireland a soft touch in terms of superpowers faking passports?

Deputy Micheál Martin: Is the Deputy referring to the Dubai report?
Deputy Pat Breen: Yes.
Deputy Micheál Martin: We said we would provide a redacted version for the Deputies concerned. Members opposite, with the exception of Deputy Michael D. Higgins, were preoccupied over the past fortnight. I will revert to Deputy Pat Breen.
We must be careful about our remarks because no issue arises in respect of millions of Irish passports. There are approximately 2 million valid passports of the pre-2005 type held by Irish citizens on this island and around the world. We do not have correspondence details for every one of these people and must be practical. The Deputy may rest assured that from 2005 the investment in this area was very significant. On foot of advanced technological input, we have a very good high-quality passport. Understandably, the Irish passport is held in very high regard internationally and is not a soft touch.
Deputy Pat Breen: When does the Minister hope to have the review on passport security carried out?
Deputy Micheál Martin: It is an ongoing review. I hope it will be ready in a matter of months.
Passport Applications

29. Deputy Pat Breen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the steps he will take to clear the backlog of applications for passports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30198/10]
Deputy Micheál Martin: On 2 July, 59,452 applications were in the system, representing a reduction of more than 8,500 applications in the backlog since the middle of June. I am conscious that the level of passport applications in the system remains excessively high. However, one contributory factor is the exceptional demand for passports this year. To date, passport demand is running at 13.8% higher than this time in 2009.

Passport service staff continue to work overtime to assist in keeping the number of applications in the system to a minimum. Recently, 50 additional temporary staff commenced work in the service and are working with permanent staff members to clear the backlog. These measures alone have allowed for more than 68,000 additional passport applications to be examined over and above those considered during normal hours. I am also prepared to recruit additional temporary staff if necessary.
I fully accept that the current service is less than satisfactory and is not of the standard that the public has been used to and is entitled to expect. However, the effects of the prolonged period of industrial action and the increased demand have made it difficult to return immediately to the excellent service normally offered by the passport service. However progress is being made. The service has re-introduced a guaranteed turnaround time for passport applications. Applications submitted via the passport express service – Swiftpost in the Republic and NIPX in the North – available through local post offices are now guaranteed to be processed within 20 working days. This guarantee will be kept under review and it is intended that time required will reduce over the coming weeks. The new guarantee turnaround time will help re-establish trust in the operation of the service.
A new service to prioritise applications for those with immediate travel plans has also been introduced. Applications with proof of travel are guaranteed to be processed within three working days. Applicants should make contact with the passport service and provide this proof where applicable. An additional fee may apply in respect of such new and urgent applications, as was the case before the dispute. This is the fastest turnaround time for all applications except for those whose travel is required for urgent humanitarian reasons. While clearing the backlog will take some time, every effort is being made to minimise the inconvenience to the travelling public.
Deputy Pat Breen: The Minister mentioned an increase of 13.8% in the number of passport applications being processed this year. However, it is highly unlikely that the increase is due to people going on holiday. Rather, it is down to people emigrating because Government policies have left them with no hope.
I have a number of concerns. For example, that it still takes 15-20 working days to process a passport application is not good enough. I welcome the important agreement between the Government and the public service, as the situation was frustrating for those seeking passports. We all remember the queues earlier this year. As someone who attends the Passport Office on a weekly basis, that applicants must still spend hours queuing is frustrating. It is also frustrating for the staff. Every time I have been in the office, I have seen an argument because of people’s frustrations. This problem must be eliminated.
What options is the Minister considering to speed up the process? Doing so would be important. Has the Minister taken on temporary seasonal staff and how many are there? We are in the height of the season for people seeking passports.

In a parliamentary question some time ago, I asked the Minister whether he had progressed his proposal to establish an additional passport office outside Dublin. Speaking as someone who deals with the offices in Cork and Dublin, the former seems to be running more efficiently. I do not know whether this is because the Minister is from Cork.
Deputy Micheál Martin: It is down to DNA.
Deputy Pat Breen: The Dublin area contains a larger population. The Minister stated that he would examine the option of providing another passport—–
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy has asked a number of questions and we are running out of time.
Deputy Pat Breen: I really only asked two questions.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I will call the Deputy again.
Deputy Pat Breen: I would like to elaborate on my last question, as it needs more time.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy is entitled to one minute for a supplementary question, but he has had two and a half minutes.
Deputy Pat Breen: My supplementary question will be on the additional staff.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Many of the Deputy’s questions were answered by my original reply. We have recruited the additional 50 staff. The passport service receives approximately 2,900 applications per day. However, I stated that passport demand is running at 13.8% higher than it was at this time in 2009. The main reason for this is the publicity around the delay owing to industrial action. Many people decided to get their applications in for fear of the length of time the process would take. That is the logic.
Deputy Pat Breen: They see no hope.
Deputy Micheál Martin: In view of the back-logs being dealt with, I expect things to return to more normal patterns in due course. The advent of overtime and the recruitment of additional temporary staff has had a positive impact because the number of passports being issued per day now is in the region of 3,200, which is considerable.
The Deputy made reference to people queuing up and so on. We are saying, unequivocally, that the recommended method for submitting passport applications is via the passport express service, or the Northern Ireland passport express service, available through the local post office. We would recommend to people generally that this is the best and optimum methodology. Public counter or the wire services should only be used by those who have a necessity to travel for reasons of family emergency. All other applications should be submitted via passport express channels.
Deputy Pat Breen: I have two brief questions. What progression has the Minister made in regard to the provision of an additional passport office? Being parochial, I should like to see a passport office being set up in the mid-west region, building on the success of the Cork passport office, particularly given the fact that the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food office in Ennis is closed, and staff have not been reassigned to other duties. The Government owns the building in Ennis, so perhaps I can lobby the Minister in that regard this afternoon, given the success of the Cork initiative.
When does the Minister expect the passport processing service for Oireachtas Members to resume, whereby they could leave passports here in the Dáil and they would be collected the following week?
Deputy Micheál Martin: In terms of the extension of the service this is subject to capital funding, and funding generally but I indicated on the last occasion that priority would be given to the north west because of the Northern Ireland demand and so on. I do not envisage anything beyond that in the medium term. Prior to the difficulties we have had, the passport service was working very well, the turnaround time was exceptionally good and customers were well served. I am confident we shall return to that.
In terms of the facility that was available for Members of the Oireachtas, as soon as things return to a more normal pattern I envisage that service returning as well. Members have been accommodated as much as humanly possible in emergency cases that they have brought to the attention of the passport office. As I said in my original reply, the prioritisation of those who have immediate emergencies will be accommodated within a three-day period. That again will meet many of the concerns and issues that Deputies have.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Question No. 30 is in the name of Deputy Breen.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Questions Nos. 27 and 30 were taken together.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: We were not advised of that. We shall take the answer to Question No. 27, then, as given.
Deputy Pat Breen: Can I ask a few questions, as regards Question No. 30?
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Yes.
Deputy Pat Breen: The Minister in his reply to Question No. 27 said how serious the fraudulent use of an Irish passport was. It is a very serious matter and it came to light last February and again recently with the name of the famous Richard Murphy. In light of the previous case in Dubai, the Minister called in the Israeli Ambassador for questioning, as regards what happened there, as he was justified in doing. The Minister spoke with Foreign Minister Lieberman at one of the Council Meetings in Brussels in regard to this.

Now there is another serious situation, where an Irish passport was issued in the name of a Donegal citizen and picked up in Rome which was allegedly used by Russian spies. Has the Minister made any contact with the Russian ambassador here in Dublin in relation to this incident, and if not, does he propose to do so? Will he say whether the Irish ambassador in Russia has made similar contacts with his counterparts there as well?
Deputy Micheál Martin: The Garda and the passport service are investigating the allegations that were raised in a US court. What we have is an allegation and we have to establish the veracity of that assertion. We are not at that stage yet. We have not had access to much of the material because obviously it may be used in the court case. This will involve liaising with the US authorities, and following up with any citizen whose passport details might have been misused. Again, we shall look at the travel histories of any such persons and I shall report to the House when these investigations have been completed.
I will come back to the House in regard to those matters. My position in regard to the fraudulent use of Irish passports is well known, and has been articulated on the floor of this House. The Deputy can take it that we take any misuse of an Irish passport very seriously, indeed, and will act appropriately.
Deputy Pat Breen: The fact is an Irish passport was allegedly used in a given situation, and this has more or less been confirmed by the authorities. I ask the Minister to talk to his Russian counterpart because Ireland does not want to be seen as a soft tough on the international scene. Here we have Israel and Russia, two so-called superpowers allegedly using Irish passports for fraudulent purposes. That is a very serious situation, as the Minister has acknowledged. The fact that these passports were used puts the safety of Irish citizens at risk. How come it was not a case of passports from any of the Eastern Bloc countries, but rather Ireland? I ask the Minister to call in and talk to the Russian ambassador about the situation. I understand he has to find out the facts, but he must emphasise to the Russian ambassador how serious is the situation.
Deputy Micheál Martin: In terms of the flow of information, in the Dubai case when our ambassador went to the Dubai authorities, significant details were provided in terms of numbers and so on. Before one sees anybody one needs to establish the veracity of the assertion being made. We must also be mindful that in the US jurisdiction, as we speak, a court case is ongoing, and we have to be very careful.
Deputy Pat Breen: Why cannot the Minister act in regard to the Russian Foreign Minister?
Deputy Micheál Martin: Equally, there is a report that a British passport was used but I do not know whether that is the case.

Gaza Humanitarian Flotilla
32. Deputy Olwyn Enright asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the discussions he has had with the Israeli Ambassador following the interception in international waters of an international flotilla destined for Gaza; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29617/10]
33. Deputy Jan O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has sought, or received any communication from the United Nations relief and Works ASgency regarding the position on the delivery of essential building items for housing and other infrastructure to the people of Gaza [29658/10]
64. Deputy Joe Costello asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he is seeking the return of vessels and property of Irish citizens seized in international waters by Israeli forces [29667/10]
75. Deputy Pat Breen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the request by Israel to the UN to shelve plans for an international independent investigation into Israel’s interception of a humanitarian aid flotilla en route to Gaza which led to the death of nine activists; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29583/10]
88. Deputy Ciarán Lynch asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the position regarding his calls for an independent international investigation into events surrounding the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza; if he is working to ensure that a credible investigation will take place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29645/10]
384. Deputy Jim O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the recent Israeli attacks on an aid ship bound for Gaza on which Irish citizens were onboard; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27876/10]
397. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the extent to which it is expected to achieve progress in the issues arising from the destruction of Gaza; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30179/10]
Deputy Micheál Martin: I propose to take Questions Nos. 32, 33, 64, 75, 88, 384 and 397, together.
I reported to the House on 1 June 2010 on my reaction to the events of 31 May 2010 involving the killing of nine Turkish citizens on board the MV Mavi Marmara. This vessel was part of an international flotilla heading for Gaza. The Government at its meeting that morning condemned the killings and expressed its condolences to the Turkish Government. I conveyed my condemnation of these events to the ambassador of Israel when I called him in to my Department on 31 May, which I then reported in detail to the Dáil.

In the days following, we remained in close contact with the Israeli authorities both through the Israeli embassy to Ireland and our own embassy in Tel Aviv. Our priority concerns at that point were consular access to the Irish citizens detained from the flotilla, their immediate and unconditional release and also the safety of the further group of Irish citizens on the MV Rachel Corrie, which was then still approaching Gaza.
The MVRachel Corrie was intercepted on 5 June and taken into the Israeli port of Ashdod. On this occasion, thankfully, there was no violence. The detainees from the flotilla were all released and deported. I had the opportunity to meet several of them on their return and hear their account of events. I was impressed by their sincerity and the absolute commitment to peaceful expression of their views on the Gaza blockade.
I have called for a credible international investigation of Israel’s unacceptable interception in international waters of a humanitarian aid convoy, an operation which resulted in nine deaths. I fully support the UN Secretary General’s proposal for an international investigation which, I believe, has the best chance of gaining international acceptance. It is the best proposal on the table. I hope it will be pursued and that pressure to withdraw it will be resisted.
There are several outstanding issues which the Government is pursuing or where we are providing assistance to those involved with the Gaza flotilla. The UN has agreed terms with Israel for the carriage into Gaza of most of the cargo from the initial group of boats seized. Some of that cargo has already been moved into Gaza and distributed. It is hoped that a similar agreement can be reached for the cargo of the MV Rachel Corrie, although this has not been finalised yet. We are also awaiting the return of some or all of the personal effects of the Irish citizens detained. We will be pursuing further the allegations of ill treatment of some of those detained.
The release of the ships themselves is likely to be a longer term issue, particularly if, as seems likely, there are further such sailings in the coming weeks. I have stated clearly, however, that I consider that the ships should be returned to their owners.
The background to all these events is the blockade of Gaza, which I have consistently opposed and condemned over a long period. My Department is in regular contact with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency about the situation on the ground, and I have often drawn attention to the urgent need to allow reconstruction materials into the territory.
In the aftermath of the tragic events of 31 May, there has at last emerged a general consensus that the blockade cannot go on as it has done. Under pressure from the international community, especially the UN, the United States and the Quartet representative Tony Blair, Israel has agreed to some easing of the restrictions on Gaza, while retaining the right to inspect goods entering the territory. The list of excluded items was published yesterday; in general, restrictions on all purely civilian goods have been removed.

However, the new Israeli provisions allow only for supervised transfer of building and reconstruction materials to the UN for use on agreed Palestinian Authority-approved work, including infrastructure and repair of housing. I continue to argue strongly that there should be no restrictions on construction materials required for the building or repair of schools, homes or hospitals. We will be monitoring closely how this works in practice, as well as the practical impact of these measures on the lives of the people of Gaza.
Deputy Pat Breen: The Minister’s discussions with the Israeli ambassador appear to have dealt only with the flotilla. Did he also discuss the issue of passports? Today’s news of the partial lifting of the blockade is welcome. It will allow more humanitarian aid, which is badly needed, into Gaza. The Minister was in Gaza previously. Will he return there as one of the foreign Ministers who will supervise this?
The Minister answered a question about the Rachel Corrie. I appreciate that the issue is complicated, but how soon would the Minister expect the ship to be out of the dock?
Did the Minister bring up, in his discussion with the Israeli ambassador, the issue of settlements in the West Bank? I understand the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, and the US President, Mr. Obama, are discussing that today. Given that the freeze on the construction of settlements in the West Bank is due to expire in September, did they discuss the possibility of an extension?
Deputy Micheál Martin: The meeting I had with the ambassador was specifically about the flotilla. I had earlier meetings, as the Deputy knows, with regard to the issue of Irish passports being used in an assassination in Dubai. I reported that to the House and there was considerable debate about it. I have had frequent discussions with the Israeli ambassador over the last number of months on different but related issues, and I have raised the issue of settlement in the context of those discussions. It is our view that Israeli policy, particularly in more recent times, has undermined the voice of moderation, particularly in the Arab world and among Palestinians. This has in many ways been counter-productive in terms of obtaining a peaceful resolution to the Middle East conflict and is slowing down the momentum behind proximity talks and full direct talks. I have made those points repeatedly to the ambassador and will continue to do so.
I was the first European Minister to go into Gaza following the Israeli decision not to allow Ministers in through its borders. With regard to suggestions in the last couple of days that there could be a further visit by EU Ministers to Gaza, I welcome any visit by EU Ministers, but the terms of the visit must be correct. We must be cautious about how such visits occur. I am all in favour of it because the more people who go in, the more the issue is highlighted and the higher its profile.