Week’s events: Athens, Portugal, PQs & National Reform Plan

6th April, 2014

Monday began by joining the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn TD, at St Joseph’s School in East Wall for the announcement of €60,000 for anti-bullying training initiatives. This funding will be used to help parents to better support children who are being bullied, and to make those who are engaged in bullying aware of the affect their behaviour has on others. In the afternoon, I attended the Cabinet sub-Committee on EU Affairs and engaged with fellow Ministers present on European issues.


That evening I hosted a working dinner for my Portuguese counterpart, Bruno Maceas, who was in Dublin to meet me and to address the International Institute for European Affairs. Getting an insight into Ireland’s economic situation and our exit from the Troika programme, I think, proved useful to Minister Maceas, whose country is due to exit their bailout later this year.


On Tuesday, I appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on EU Affairs to outline the Government’s National Reform Programme (NRP) as part of the European Semester, which is the way we engage with Europe on coordinating our Budgets. This document, which is still in draft form and which is being shared with interested groups for their views, charts the way forward on employment, innovation, climate and energy, education and social inclusion. The hearing was more than 2 hours long and covered everything from nuclear power to the applied leaving certificate! Later that day, I took Topical Issue Debates in the Dail on a proposed new settlement in Hebron, Palestine.


On Wednesday morning I spoke to the Hungarian Minsters for European Affairs for Hungary, Eniko Gyori, and Finland, Alex Stubb by phone. I engage regularly with my opposite numbers this way. Later in the afternoon, I had a brief meeting with the US charge d’affairs, Stuart Dwyer, with the rest of the afternoon devoted to planning for the latter half of the week, which would take me to Athens and again to my feet in the Dail.


Thursday morning I took Parliamentary Questions in the Dail for the Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs. The topics debated ranged from the use of Shannon by the US, the situation in Ukraine and the Haas talks and the need for all Parties in Northern Ireland to deliver on the stalled process. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it – a proper debate with plenty of lively exchanges.


Following that, I led what was intended to be an all-Party motion on Ukraine in the Dail. In the end Sinn Fein did not support the motion (which was passed) due to a difficulty they had with welcoming the signing of the political elements of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine.


Later that afternoon I was Athens bound to attend the biannual informal meeting of EU Foreign Affairs Ministers, called the Gymnich, which was taking place on Friday and Saturday. The informal element allows for a freer exchange of views among Ministers who are not constrained by a set and rigidly defined agenda.


As expected, Ukraine, EU-Russia relations and energy independence and security dominated proceedings. The threat to energy supply and price as a consequence of the recent annexation of Crimea by Russia has underscored the need to diversify energy sources, as an over reliance on Russia is now leaving many countries vulnerable.


How the EU can better support Ukraine was also discussed, as was the need to help the people of Ukraine on their journey towards a more inclusive and stable government. Elections are due to take place in May.


The candidate countries of Turkey, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia were present for part of the morning session on Saturday, which provided an excellent forum for engagement. Before proceedings began on Saturday, I had my first bilateral meeting with the Turkish Minister for EU Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu. I stressed the fact that Ireland is a supporter of Turkey’s aspiration towards EU accession. However, I emphasised the concerns we had in relation to the recent blocking of Twitter and YouTube as freedom of expression is a core value of EU membership.


All in, the Gymnich was an excellent forum for discussion and our Greek friends, who currently hold the Presidency of the Council of the EU, did an excellent job in welcoming Member States, as did The EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton, who chaired the event.

Light relief this week was supplied by reading the new Charlie Parker novel by John Connolly. He has continued with his orientation away from horror and more toward a fusion of the supernatural and thriller genres. He had to battle for attention with reading material on all of my parliamentary and ministerial appearances – and occasionally won…..