Thursday 18 October 2018

TDs stumble into Gilmore's desert storm

Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

TANAISTE Eamon Gilmore is at the centre of a diplomatic row that led to the temporary withdrawal of the Moroccan ambassador.

The row has been described as "embarrassing" for a delegation of TDs and senators who were on an official visit to Morocco when it erupted.

The Moroccan government decided to recall their ambassador to Ireland in protest at Mr Gilmore's recent meeting with the self-styled leader of Western Sahara, a territory controlled by Morocco.

Mr Gilmore made it clear at the meeting with Saharawi Republic President Mohamed Abdelaziz that he supported the right of the Saharan people to self-determination.

Annoyed

Mr Abdelaziz is based in Algeria and is the leader of Polisario, the group which represents the Saharan people.

The Moroccan government was further annoyed when it learnt that Mr Abdelaziz also met with President Michael D Higgins, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams.

It recalled its ambassador, Anas Khales, last week "for consultations" -- the diplomatic way of making a protest. Mr Khales has since returned, but a spokeswoman for the Moroccan embassy in Dublin said no one was available for comment.

In recent days a delegation of TDs and senators was quizzed about the matter during a visit to Morocco.

It was raised during meetings with the Moroccan prime minister, the country's foreign minister and the leaders of the lower chamber and senate.

A member of the delegation said: "It was embarrassing arriving out there and the ambassador withdrawing. The govern- ment in Rabat weren't happy."

The five-person delegation flew out last Sunday and are due home tomorrow.

They include Independent TD Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, Fine Gael Mayo TD John O'Mahony, Labour Dublin North West TD John Lyons, Fine Gael Senator Imelda Henry and Seanad Cathaoirleach Paddy Burke.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said it has been long-standing policy to meet representatives of the Saharawi people and to support a referendum on the future of the region.

"The Moroccan government does not like our position on Western Sahara. It's just one of these things," a spokesman said.

Western Sahara is the scene of Africa's longest-running territorial dispute. It was taken over by Morocco after Spanish settlers left in 1975.

Polisario was set up in 1973 and established itself as the sole representative of the Saharan people. Around 100,000 refugees still live in Polisario's camps in Algeria.

The Moroccan government has protested before when a representative of the Irish Government met Polisario, but it is unclear if it has withdrawn its ambassador before. Mr Khales yesterday met Mr Gilmore along with a group of ambassadors from Arab countries.

An Oireachtas Commission spokeswoman said the visit by the five politicians to Morocco was at the invitation of the President of the Moroccan House of Representatives.

She said it was designed to strengthen links with a parliament just beginning to chart a more democratic course following constitutional changes.

"As this is a bilateral visit, all costs, other than flights, are met by the hosts," she said.

Irish Independent

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