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Coveney rules out Occupied Territories Bill support but will discuss free vote with Independent Alliance ministers

Despite government opposition, the Bill has cross-party support from Labour, Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil as well as independent senators.

Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

TÁNAISTE SIMON COVENEY has reiterated that Fine Gael will not be supporting the Occupied Territories Bill when it comes before the Dáil at the end of this month.

He told TheJournal.ie that the advice government has received from the Attorney General says the legislation is “not legally sound” and urged Fianna Fáil to drop its support for the Bill.

However, writing on the issue for this publication, Fianna Fáil’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Niall Collins appealed to Fine Gael to “show some courage, stand on the right side of history, and support it”.

The Bill, which was passed in the Seanad in December, aims to prohibit Ireland from trading in goods and services from Israeli-occupied territories by prohibiting “the import and sales of goods, services and natural resources originating in illegal settlements in occupied territories”.

Despite government opposition, the Bill has cross-party support from Labour, Sinn Féin, and Fianna Fáil, as well as independent senators.

Free vote

The Bill also has support from some sitting around the Cabinet table. Government members from the Independent Alliance such as Shane Ross and Finian McGrath are seeking a free vote on the matter – which causes a major problem for the Tánaiste.

McGrath told TheJournal.ie before Christmas that they outlined their concerns to Coveney and a number of senior department officials, with the junior minister adding that “our strong views were made known”.

When asked if the Independent Alliance ministers will be given a free vote, the Tánaiste said:

“I have had an initial discussion with Shane Ross and Finian on this issue and we will discuss it again in Cabinet but that is a matter for discussion in a government meeting rather than through the media.”

Cabinet are due to meet today, though the agenda is set to be dominated by Brexit. 

Despite many legal experts stating the proposed legislation is compliant with EU law, Coveney continues to rely on advice he said he has received from the current Attorney General, who says it would not be lawful. 

The advice has not been published, but it warns that Ireland could stand liable to class action.

Legal opinion

A number of legal experts such as Irish Senior Counsel Michael Lynn and Professor James Crawford, who is a judge of the International Court of Justice, as well as Senator Michael McDowell, a former attorney general, all back the legislation.

Most recently, Takis Tridimas, a professor of EU law at King’s College London, attested to the legality of the Bill.

When asked if he would publish the AG advice, Coveney replied:

“The government never publishes legal advice but the government has clear advice from the AG on this issue. I as a government minister cannot support legislation when I am told by the legal advice that is available to the government that it is not legally sound.

“That is our position. I have been very up front about that. I am not shy about having firm positions on the Middle East peace process, I think my record on that is pretty strong.

“We work very closely with the Palestinian authorities and we also work very closely with the Israeli government. We have been working with the US team as well who are trying to put together a peace initiative for the Middle East peace process and we have been working in the EU and UN structures with a very clear perspective on a very clear need for a fair and balanced peace initiative that can result in a two-State solution, that is fair to Palestinians and Israelis,” he said.

He continued to state that it is his believe the legislation is not sound.

“It is not enforceable, and therefore I cant support it. I have explained that to [Senator] Frances Black (who first proposed the legislation in the Seanad) in detail, she accepts that explanation actually, there is no animosity there. I can understand where this legislation is coming from because of the frustration and lack of progress towards a peace process but I cannot recommend to the government that we support a piece of legislation when the AG has given me such clear advice,” he said.

He questioned the advice mentioned above which states that the Bill does not breach any EU directives, stating:

“If you look for legal advice, you can generally find somebody that will give you contrary legal advice, that is not the same as official legal advice to the government which the AG has a responsibility to give. I have explained that to Fianna Fail, who I believe should heed that advice and I have explained that to many others who are supporting this legislation too.”

He said there are other ways Ireland can make its point in relation to the Middle East, stating that the Irish government is supporting France in relation to rolling out much clearer labelling on products that come from occupied territories so as to allow consumers make their own decisions about where they want to buy product from.

The proposed legislation is due to be tabled in the Dáil by Fianna Fáil the week of the 22 January. 

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