Coveney/Woulfe
© Niall Carson/PA Wire/Zuma Press
Irish FM Simon Coveney • Legal advisor Seamus Woulfe
Ireland's foreign minister Simon Coveney may have misled his fellow lawmakers during a debate on forbidding goods from Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank. Coveney has been the key obstacle to introducing such a ban.

Two of the three parties forming Ireland's new government have supported the Occupied Territories Bill - as the legislation banning settlement imports is called. Yet Coveney vetoed its inclusion in the program for the new coalition.

The bill had previously been approved by a majority in both houses of Ireland's parliament, the Oireachtas. Despite how the bill had won such broad support, Coveney and his colleagues in the right-wing Fine Gael party prevented it from coming into effect.

Coveney remains foreign minister in the new government, a post he has held since 2017. Last year Coveney made a statement against the legislation when it came before the Dáil, the lower house in the national parliament.

He alleged then that the Occupied Territories Bill was at odds with European Union law and if it was implemented Ireland "would be exposed to potentially very significant fines." Penalties imposed by the EU could be as high as "tens of millions of euros" per year, he said.

Coveney claimed that Seamus Woulfe, then Ireland's attorney general, had "confirmed clearly that passage of the bill would put Ireland in breach of EU law and would expose Ireland to legal action by the European Commission." But, Woulfe's advice was not as clear cut as Coveney suggested.

In a 10-page briefing, Woulfe argued that the Occupied Territories Bill was "contrary" to the EU's core laws - or treaties. He wrote that there was "significant legal doubt" Ireland could act unilaterally against settlement goods without being challenged by the European Union, as that bloc has a collective policy on trade.Yet Woulfe's paper does not contain any warning about Ireland facing major financial penalties.

He only mentioned fines in one paragraph of his paper. The paragraph in question referred to a fine of up to $280,000 that a business owner could face for importing or selling settlement goods - if the Occupied Territories Bill is enacted.

"Scandalous"

Woulfe's paper was not published by the Irish government but it was recently obtained by Sadaka, a group campaigning for Palestinian rights. Gerry Liston, a lawyer working with Sadaka, said "it is scandalous to suggest that Ireland would be exposed to massive fines."

Campaigners in favor of the bill believe that Ireland would have a strong case if the legislation were contested by the EU authorities. All of Israel's settlement activities in the West Bank violate international law, which prohibits the acquisition of territory by force. Furthermore, the European Union has officially accepted in the recent past that restrictions on trade may be introduced for reasons of public policy.

The EU itself has previously imposed trade restrictions on Russia as a response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea. After a Russian oil firm Rosneft started a lawsuit against these restrictions, they were upheld by the European Court of Justice in 2017.

If the EU authorities have agreed that "trade restrictions can be applied in respect of Russian breaches of international law, then they can be applied to breaches of international law generally," Gerry Liston from Sadaka said.

Asked for a comment, a spokesperson for Coveney said "we have nothing further to add" beyond the minister's public comments on the Occupied Territories Bill.

Some of those comments have lacked credibility.

Disingenuous

In May this year, Coveney replied to a parliamentary question on the Occupied Territories Bill by claiming that a ban on Israel's settlement goods could only be introduced by the EU collectively and
"the political will for such a policy does not exist. For that reason, I have focused my energies at EU level on other aspects of the Israel-Palestine issue in order to ensure the best possible policy outcomes."
Coveney's statement was disingenuous. The colonization of the West Bank is central to what Coveney called the "Israel-Palestine issue." Israel's settlement exports cannot, therefore, be shoved aside so that "energies" can be concentrated elsewhere. And besides, there is no real evidence that Coveney is taking a strident approach toward "other aspects" of the Palestine question.

Ireland has not exerted any real pressure on Israel - such as sanctions - to lift the siege of Gaza, for example. Instead, the Irish government and its diplomatic service have worked to increase trade with Israel.

Kyle O'Sullivan, the Irish ambassador to Tel Aviv, recently celebrated investments made by Israeli technological and medical firms in his country. Israeli firms should regard Ireland as having a "very business-friendly environment" and as "an entry point to the European Union single market," O'Sullivan told Calcalist, an Israeli financial publication.

By offering new opportunities to Israeli investors, Ireland has effectively rewarded the state building illegal settlements in the West Bank and imposing a brutal siege on Gaza.

"Caved in"

The new Irish government sees Fine Gael sharing power with its historical rival Fianna Fáil, as well as the Green Party. The Occupied Territories Bill proved to be one of the thorniest issues during negotiations on establishing the coalition.

Fianna Fáil and the Greens both advocated that a commitment to the bill should be contained in the legislative program for the new government. Both, however, ultimately agreed to support a program which omitted any such commitment.

Niall Collins, a Fianna Fáil lawmaker who has supported the bill, admitted that his party and the Greens "caved in" to pressure from Coveney on the final day of government formation talks. Collins - a junior minister in the new Irish coalition - predicted that the bill will nonetheless be resurrected if Israel's government goes ahead with plans to annex a large proportion of the West Bank.

"The agenda of annexation and the agenda of the Israelis is ultimately going to deliver this legislation, because they are driving on with impunity," he said.

Patrick Costello, a Green Party lawmaker, spent a few months living in the West Bank during 2014. He was among a minority of Greens who opposed entering a government with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Costello said:
"It's hugely disappointing for me having stood on the West Bank, having seen the checkpoints, the house demolitions and the brutality of the occupation up close, that we are not holding up our obligations under international law."
Frances Black was the first Irish lawmaker to formally propose the Occupied Territories Bill in the Oireachtas. She has pledged to keep on pushing for a ban on settlement exports.

Black argued that Ireland must go beyond the hollow words of criticism offered by the EU against Israel's settlement activities, adding:
"I don't want to look back in 20 years and say that we didn't do everything in our power on one of the defining human rights issues of our time."
About the Author:
Ciaran Tierney is an award winning blogger and a former newspaper journalist. Twitter: @ciarantierney. Website: ciarantierney.com.