Dáil Éireann - Volume 674 - 12 February, 2009

Priority Questions. - Official Travel.

Deputy Billy Timmins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on his recent visit to the Middle East. [5341/09]

  Deputy Micheál Martin: I completed a very constructive visit to Syria, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates between 1 and 5 February last, my second visit to the Middle East as Minister for Foreign Affairs. The visit was timely given the recent conflict in Gaza and the prospects for efforts to revive an overall peace process in the region. The primary focus of the visit to the UAE, where I accompanied the President on her official visit, was on the promotion of trade and investment, although we had important discussions on political issues.

In Damascus, I held extensive discussions on regional political issues with President Assad and with Foreign Minister Muallem. I also met with Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Al-Dardari to discuss bilateral economic issues, and with the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr. Hassoun. I also briefly met with Irish officers serving with the UN Truce Supervisory Organisation.

In Lebanon, I held meetings with President Suleiman as well as Prime Minister Siniora, Foreign Minister Salloukh and Parliament Speaker Berri. At Naqoura in southern Lebanon I was briefed by the UNIFIL Commander General Graziani and met with Irish Defence Forces and other personnel serving with UNIFIL.

In addition to accompanying the President in the UAE, I also met with the Deputy Foreign Minister, Dr. Al-Gargash, to whom I formally communicated the Government’s decision to establish a resident embassy in the country.

Discussions with President Assad covered the recent Gaza crisis and the role of Hamas, the Turkish-mediated Syria-Israel dialogue, relations with Lebanon, Iran, human rights and bilateral relations. President Assad expressed optimism that a durable ceasefire in Gaza was in [701] prospect and offered assurances that Syria was working to encourage Hamas towards greater political engagement and to accept a process leading to a negotiated two-state solution.

President Assad was also quite positive about the prospects for increased engagement between Syria and the United States, with the change of Administration in Washington DC.

Strong appreciation was expressed by Lebanese leaders for the Irish contribution to UNIFIL and also for the Irish role in the negotiation of the cluster munitions convention agreed in Dublin last May. Prime Minister Siniora urged greater EU engagement in the Middle East peace process, while warmly welcoming the appointment of Senator George Mitchell as US Middle East envoy. Confirmation was offered by all leaders I met that relations between Lebanon and Syria were now improving. At the same time, there remains considerable inter-communal tension in advance of the general election scheduled for June.

  Deputy Billy Timmins: Can the Minister give me any indication of the economic activity between Ireland and Syria? He mentioned a discussion on the relations between Syria and Lebanon. What is the status of those relations? My view would be that they would not be too cordial, but I would like to hear what the individuals concerned had to say.

The Minister will recall we had a difficulty with the Irish consul to Lebanon some time ago. Is he still in situ or has he been replaced? I ask for an update on that matter.

  Deputy Micheál Martin: The trip to Syria was primarily a political trip to the Middle East region and to ascertain the Syrian perspective on the Middle East political situation. That said, we raised some economic issues and there are some Irish companies endeavouring to secure business in Syria, and Syria is anxious to develop strong economic bilateral relations with Ireland. To that end, the Deputy Prime Minister indicated that he wished to lead an economic mission to Ireland in the latter half of 2009 and I invited him to do so. We can increase the level of economic activity between our two countries and we should do so.

On the honorary consul issue, that person, as I indicated some months ago, has resigned from the position and we are close to appointing a successor.

  Deputy Billy Timmins: The Minister stated that the visit to Syria was primarily for political reasons. However, in his statement of 2 February he said it was primarily for economic reasons. Was there a reason for the change from political to economic?

  Deputy Micheál Martin: The visit to the United Arab Emirates was primarily for economic reasons, but not the Syrian one. There were different aspects to the programme.

  Deputy Billy Timmins: There must be an error in the Minister’s statement. I have it before me. The visit to the United Arab Emirates was an economic one.

  Deputy Micheál Martin: It covered both political and economic issues. There are three elements to the United Arab Emirates visit. We were indicating to the authorities that we were opening an embassy. I was accompanying the President on her official visit to the United Arab Emirates and there was work with Enterprise Ireland in that context in terms of engagements both in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. There were political discussions as well in terms of the wider issue, post-Gaza conflict.

  Deputy Billy Timmins: Can the Minister confirm that the President only visited the United Arab Emirates? Did she visit anywhere else and is there any co-ordination between trips involving the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the President? How does the President’s itinerary operate? Does she agree to undertaking a Government-proposed itinerary or would the Government suggest to her a possible itinerary she might undertake?

[702]   An Ceann Comhairle: In accordance with precedent, questions in relation to the President do not arise in this House.

  Deputy Billy Timmins: That is fair enough, a Cheann Comhairle. If possible, can the Minister tell me where he linked up with the President during his trips?

  Deputy Micheál Martin: I have told the Deputy.

  Deputy Billy Timmins: Was it just the one trip?

  Deputy Micheál Martin: That is correct. The President had been in Bahrain before that with Irish education officials and the Royal College of Surgeons. They were opening a college and the Minister for Education and Science was there because of the relevance of the activity to his portfolio.