10. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his conversation with the President of Egypt, Mr. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on 28 August 2017. (Question 40534/17 asked on 04 Oct 2017)
The Taoiseach: I spoke with Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi by telephone on Monday 28 August. The call was instigated at my request to discuss the case of an Irish citizen, Ibrahim Halawa. I emphasised the importance that the Irish Government places on this consular case and received assurances from the president that he would intervene, if necessary, following the announcement of a verdict, to ensure Ibrahim was returned home as soon as possible.
I wholeheartedly welcome the announcement on 18 September that Ibrahim and his three sisters have been acquitted of all charges. I look forward to Ibrahim returning home to his family as soon as possible.
Deputy Gerry Adams: As the Taoiseach has acknowledged, it was three weeks ago, on 18 September, that Ibrahim Halawa and his three sisters were finally acquitted of all charges. It was a long time coming for his family, supporters and all involved, and especially for him, who was imprisoned. I am sure the family and Ibrahim felt this was an end of a long nightmare and there was an expectation that he would be released within days. However, he has still not been released as of today and I can ascertain no hard information of when he might be released. Arguably, he is illegally held. What is the basis of holding him in prison? We are advised that there may be an issue with paperwork. Will the Taoiseach tell us if the Government has any information on the current situation? Have any Government officials visited Ibrahim since he was acquitted? If by chance, and I would be disappointed if the Taoiseach did not have information on this, the Taoiseach does not know why he is still in prison, will he, as a matter of urgency, find out and inform the Dáil?
Deputy Micheál Martin: I want to state that we warmly welcome the end of the trial against Ibrahim Halawa. There has been a sustained public campaign and support across the political divide and among the Irish people to ensure that his cause was always in the public profile and that he would be released. It is a source of concern and worry that he has not yet been released and that he is not home in Ireland. He and his family received considerable support from the Irish people, which has to be acknowledged.
In a situation like this, having been a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, I was of a view that I wanted the then Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, to have as much space as possible to engage with the Egyptian authorities to effect the release of Ibrahim Halawa. In situations such as this, it is important that we create space for those in authority and I trust the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to do everything it possibly can in such situations. I also acknowledge the role of the Ceann Comhairle and others who led a delegation to Egypt. That was important and it helped to ensure that the Egyptian authorities knew the unanimous position of the Irish Parliament. Having said that about allowing space, the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, consistently indicated that he felt that it would perhaps be a guilty verdict at the end of the trial, because there was not much faith in the Egyptian legal system, and that perhaps the President would issue a pardon and Ibrahim Halawa would be released.
It is a matter of grave concern that it took so long and this cannot be let go where it relates to our relationship with Egypt. We had a strong relationship with previous Egyptian Governments, notwithstanding their authoritarian nature, and I was privately very disquieted and concerned at the fact that this went on for so long and that an Irish citizen could be held without trial and deprived of fundamental human rights for so long. This entire unsatisfactory and disgraceful event needs to be evaluated by Ireland. It should play a factor in influencing our future relationship and engagement with Egypt. We need to have some hard discussions with the Egyptian authorities because this cannot and should not be allowed to happen again. It serves nobody, neither the Egyptian people nor Government, and it deprived an Irish citizen of fundamental human rights.
The Taoiseach: I join with others in recognising the role of the Ceann Comhairle and the all-party delegation to Egypt which, I agree, was helpful in demonstrating to the Egyptian authorities that this was an all-party and non-party campaign in support of him. He received strong support from different parties and also from across Irish society. Now that Ibrahim Halawa has been acquitted, the Government remains focused on ensuring he gets home as soon as possible. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and our embassy in Cairo are liaising closely with the Halawa family, including on travel arrangements. A number of steps remain to be gone through before Ibrahim is able to depart Egypt. A new passport has been issued to him and Irish authorities and Ibrahim’s legal representatives remain in ongoing contact with the Egyptian authorities about this process.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, has been in direct contact with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mr. Sameh Shoukry, to request his help in expediting the process and I have written to President el-Sisi about the matter.
We have no confirmation at this stage on when Ibrahim will be returning home to Dublin but his family have indicated that they wish to keep the arrangements for his return private, and I think everyone will want to respect that.
In terms of relations with Egypt being normalised, the case has rightly been the most significant issue in our engagement with Egypt over the past four years. We have maintained diplomatic relations with Egypt, and cordial relations at Government-to-Government level, throughout. This has been important in enabling us to look after his welfare and ensure that our embassy has consular access to support him. It ensured that our diplomats were able to observe the trial proceedings and engage in the crucial contacts at political level which resulted in the assurances that were given by President el-Sisi to the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, that he would be returned home.
During our engagement with the Egyptian Government over the past four years, issues of human rights and the rule of law have been front and centre in our dialogue. I have no doubt that we will continue the conversation on those and other issues of mutual interest, and build on it as we move forward.
I should point out that Ireland looks forward to moving our bilateral relations with Egypt back into the space where we can engage on the full range of matters concerned, including further developing bilateral trade and tourism relations and progressing Irish-Egyptian political relations into the future.
Deputy Micheál Martin: All is forgiven.
Deputy Gerry Adams: It was remiss of me not to mention the Ceann Comhairle’s role today, although I have done so in the past. For the record, I commend the Ceann Comhairle once again for his role in this injustice issue.
I asked the Taoiseach if any Irish Government officials visited Ibrahim in the prison since he was acquitted and he did not answer that question.
Deputy Micheál Martin: I thank the Taoiseach for the reply. It is almost as if it is business as usual with Egypt and that we have moved on quickly from where we were. As someone who, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, enjoyed cordial, productive and constructive engagement with Egypt, the previous regime notwithstanding, it is important that we do not step back from advocating for respect for human rights and due process, within Egypt itself and elsewhere. It cannot be merely all is forgiven. There has to be some evaluation of the fact that a person, an Irish citizen, was four years without any due process. That is not satisfactory. There has to be some form of protest and some process by which we communicate that and continue to raise it.
At European level and elsewhere, we need to be a strong voice in favour of continuing to put pressure on countries, such as Egypt, which are important neighbours. Egypt has an important role to play in the Middle East. Notwithstanding whatever economic and trading ties we have, this chapter must inform the next chapter, but the next one has to be a different chapter. The practices of the present Egyptian Government are unacceptable, particularly in relation to human rights and due process. That is something that we have experienced in the form of an Irish citizen being deprived of his rights. We cannot simply close the chapter and move on quickly into other areas.
The Taoiseach: To answer Deputy Adams’s question as to whether any officials visited Ibrahim since his acquittal, I do not know that for certain. I assume they have because they have visited on regularly and I imagine they would have to have been there to give him his passport. I will check that out and make sure that is the case.
I assure Deputy Micheál Martin that we will not step back from raising human rights issues with Egypt or other countries. It is not my view that relations can go back to normal overnight once he returns home. Nonetheless, it is very much the wish of the Government that we normalise relations with Egypt. Egypt is an important partner. It is on the border of Europe on the Mediterranean. We would in the future like to improve relations with the country, particularly around trade and tourism, but we will never divorce that from human rights.
An Ceann Comhairle: I am in Members’ hands. We normally take three groups of questions. That is what we have done but we have nine minutes remaining. We could proceed to take Questions Nos. 11 and 12, or we could proceed with questions to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
Deputy Gerry Adams: I propose we proceed with questions to the Minister.
An Ceann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.