1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress made and outcomes from the all-island civil dialogue on Brexit. [8420/17]
Vol. 940 No. 3
1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress made and outcomes from the all-island civil dialogue on Brexit. [8420/17]
2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his latest update on Brexit following the Dublin Castle event on 18 February 2017. [8466/17]
3. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the plenary session of the all-island civic dialogue held in Dublin Castle on 17 February 2017. [9987/17]
4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the outcomes of the all-island civic dialogue on Brexit. [10044/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
I hosted the second plenary meeting of the all-island civic dialogue on Brexit with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, in Dublin Castle on Friday, 17 February. The event built on the 14 all-island sectoral dialogue events, which were hosted by Ministers across the country, that have taken place since the first plenary in November.
More than 1,100 delegates have participated in the sectoral dialogues, enabling the Government to have one of the widest possible conversations on the implications of Brexit for this island, North and South. The sectoral dialogues covered the following issues: education; agrifood; transport and logistics; tourism and hospitality; children and young people; jobs, enterprise and innovation; energy; heritage, culture and rural Ireland; pensions, social welfare rights and social insurance; human rights and the Good Friday Agreement; and seafood and agriculture and forestry.
We have captured the key issues raised at all of these events and they are providing an important input to the Government's preparations for the Article 50 negotiations which will commence after the UK has triggered Article 50.
The second plenary meeting attended by over 400 representatives from across the political spectrum, industry, civic society and the public sector North and South allowed us to further develop the dialogue and to pull together the many strands that it has explored to date. It was also an opportunity to share some detail on our overall preparations for the Brexit negotiations and how we are organising and structuring ourselves around that. The plenary meeting was live streamed on the day and is available on MerrionStreet.ie.
There is a general welcome for the all-island civic dialogue, which has been a very useful initiative that is appreciated North and South. I would like to see what has come of it. It is important to hear the views of everybody but what action are we taking on foot of it? I have addressed both dialogues and put forward a number of simple measures we could seek from Europe to mitigate the impact in advance on our business, in particular. Among them is allowing expenditure under the European Globalisation Fund to support upskilling and reskilling in areas we know are under pressure. The Taoiseach said that the Government will request EU backing for measures to support business along with particular EU financial measures. Another issue will be the utilisation of structural and cohesion funding, which we have not received up to now but which should be specifically targeted at areas that will be impacted by the UK's withdrawal. The Taoiseach met the Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, when he was here. His message to me was very simple, namely, that Ireland should have specific "asks" that should be made early. What specific asks has the Government made of the European Commission to this point to mitigate the impact we know is happening now or will happen imminently to industry and employment as a result of Brexit?
What we have tried to do here is to take all the issues that were raised and put them in the different sectors to which they apply. There were some very interesting observations made at the two all-island fora. I thank Deputy Howlin for his attendance and contribution. It is important to note that based on a pretty detailed analysis of the impact of Brexit to date on SMEs, on which we had a presentation yesterday, 49% of participants said it had no impact on their business, 13% said that it had a significant impact, 24% said it had some impact and 15% said it had a minimal impact. However, the analysis of what would happen in 18 months time revealed that 17% said it would have a significant impact, 26% said it would have no impact, 13% said it would have a minimal impact and 44% said it would have some impact. In respect of the package of measures being put together by Government, including access to lower interest and longer term funding, it is not a case of having a quantity of money to give to firms. What is needed is a package of measures that will deal with the various sectors, the nature of the industry and the issue that will arise in terms of what they are exporting and selling. Clearly, none of us yet knows what the British Government will say in its letter of intent to leave. It concerns the issue about trade and potential tariffs because therein lies the analysis that Ireland must carry out and the options we must take. We have done a vast amount of work. The Deputy received his own briefing recently. We are still unclear as to the nature of the relationship the UK will have with the EU. We understand the Government wants to be as close as possible to the existing relationship but if one drops the Single Market and has a different association with the customs union, one is in a very different position. We need clarity on that.
One of the strongest messages participants in the dialogue conveyed is that there is an enormous amount of concern, fear and anxiety and that there have been many questions but not too many answers to those questions. The Taoiseach is aware that the statement from London yesterday that restrictions will be applied to all arriving in Great Britain after a certain date next month shows that the British are much further advanced in detailing new barriers than they are in proposing ways of limiting their impact. It appears that assurances concerning the common travel area are secondary to the eurosceptic-driven agenda to limit EU immigration. Have we requested any clarification from the British about how this new policy will impact on the common travel area commitment? Is it now the case that we must negotiate an exemption from a restriction rather than having the restriction based on accepting the common travel area?
Another consistent problem, which was raised in the dialogue, is that the lack of some sort of special economic zone or free trade zone status for Northern Ireland and at least a number of Border counties will cause a dramatic disruption to supply chains and supply lines North and South. This is distinct from the much broader concept of special status for Northern Ireland, which the British Government has not supported. It has refused to seek it for Northern Ireland and Scotland. Has the Taoiseach raised the issue of a special economic zone with the negotiating team in Brussels? I agree with Deputy Howlin that there is a sense of a lack of what our agenda is and what our statement of objectives are. We have the broad principles but what about the specifics?
What was clear from the Northern Ireland panel, particularly those representing civil dialogue in Northern Ireland, was the complete absence of a coherent voice from Northern Ireland at the table. The recent calling of an election and the collapsing of the institutions starkly illustrated the void in terms of someone speaking up with a coherent voice on behalf of Northern Ireland in the ensuing discussions that are to take place. That was very evident coming out of the dialogue last Friday.
The Deputy asked a valid question. What is the result we want for our citizens? What we want is the best result for our citizens in terms of our economy, their jobs, their prospects in terms of the common travel area, the peace process and our place in Europe. It is the central issue. When unemployment is down to 6.6% today, which is the best in nine years and quite astonishing in a two-year period, we want to be able to maintain that and keep it moving in the right direction. I have put forward the proposition to the President of the European Commission, who I met last week, and the Belgian Prime Minister. This week, I hope to meet Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, and Michel Barnier in respect of his task force. There was a meeting with Italian officials yesterday. We put forward the proposition that until we know what it is that the British Government is looking for in terms of its trading situation, we are not having a return to the Border of the past. I listened to Lord Hain putting down amendments to the Bill in the House of Lords yesterday. He said that a return to that kind of Border would have serious consequences North and South. The British and Irish Governments are both agreed on that. The Deputy rightly highlights restrictions on other European nationals coming to Great Britain after a certain date. That is where the advantage lies with Ireland in terms of the Single Market and the opportunity to have that churn of talent coming here. Europe has made it perfectly clear that there will be no cherry-picking of issues that arise here. Europe has not been in a position to respond yet until the trigger is pulled in respect of Article 50. This is a letter from the British Government stating that it is now withdrawing and setting out its position. We have all our options covered here. The Deputy can obtain the most up-to-date briefing any time he wants.
The civic dialogue at Dublin Castle was clearly very successful. I believe that reflects the significant concern within communities, business and politics about the likely damage to the entire island that Brexit will cause.
In that regard, in relation to the INTERREG and PEACE programmes, I ask can the Taoiseach advise the Dáil on the Government's approach to these EU funding programmes, in particular those that have a cross-Border remit. What impact will the triggering of Article 50 have on these programmes and have any decisions been taken about funding deadlines? What contingency plans has the Government put in place and what agreements, if any, have been made with the EU to protect cross-Border funding? Finally, can we have clarity from the Taoiseach - it is an issue I have already raised here on the floor in the past week - on the contingency plans for future customs posts and checkpoints in the context of the worst case scenario presenting? Are sites being identified, as has been reported? Is there a plan for the numbers and locations of such posts, and what of the hundreds of roads that crisscross the Border, so many of which, as I knew only too well as a Border resident, were closed and cratered by the British not that many years ago?
I am conscious that we have only two and a half minutes left. Is it agreed that we take two minutes off the next set of questions to allow Deputy Boyd Barrett contribute? Agreed.
We do not want to go back there. Deputy Ó Caoláin will know about it only too well. While the independent Revenue Commissioners and customs officials who know how to operate borders have been writing and talking about this, the political challenge here is not to return to that kind of Border. We will not return to that kind of Border. I have made that perfectly clear to the British Government. We are not having those customs posts along the Border at different locations. There is no direction from Government for officials to go looking at sites for the possibility that one will have need of large car parks or sites for lorries etc. We are not going back there because it brings with it sectarian violence, as Deputy Ó Caoláin will know only too well. This is not a technological issue. It is a political issue. This has arisen because of the vote of the people of the United Kingdom, even though Northern Ireland voted to stay. We are not going to have that kind of Border and that is my starting point. I will not stand or sign for anything to do with a return to that kind of Border of the past.
In respect of the funds Deputy Ó Caoláin mentions, we have got a particular set of circumstances here where there are INTERREG funds and PEACE funds, which are very necessary in respect of the peace walls that still apply in areas in Northern Ireland, and we want that to continue. I put to the taskforce already that one might be able to have an all-island solution in a number of areas such as animal health, including foot and mouth disease and BSE, water and energy, but these are issues on which nobody can yet answer the question of what is it that we will have until such time as we have clarity from the UK as to the trading relationship that it will have. That is the key to all of this. We are ready with a range of options here but we are not going back to that kind of Border of the past.
The Taoiseach will have an opportunity to come in later.
First, I agree with the Taoiseach on one matter. We need to maintain a robust stance that there should be no return to the Border between North and South. I might underline that point for our colleagues in Sinn Féin, who seem to dispute People Before Profit's absolute commitment to that. We believe there should be absolute resistance at any attempt to reimpose a border between North and South.
Is it not the case that the Brexit phenomena and Donald Trump's ascension to power and the policies associated with it highlight the need for an existential choice for this country, and indeed for many other countries, in terms of whether we join in the turbo-charged race to the bottom that Trump and the right wing of the Tory party are leading in terms of reducing corporation tax which so far both the Government and Fianna Fáil, and now even Sinn Féin in the North, supports; that it is a disastrous model the most extreme expression of which is President Trump which will have a disastrous consequence for the economy; and that we need to reject that model and set out clearly that we are in favour of a more sustainable and fairer economy where the multinational corporations pay their fair share of tax so we have enough to create jobs and provide public services and strategic investment? Do Brexit and Trump not highlight the need to break from that race to the bottom, if we are to have a sustainable economy?
The Taoiseach, in a minute and a half, if he can.
We are not changing our corporation tax rate. We have had this as the cornerstone of foreign direct investment policy in Ireland for many years. It has never moved up or down, or across any region or sector. It is 12.5%. We abolished the double Irish because of reputational perception of damage, we abolished the stateless concept and we have introduced the first OECD fully compliant knowledge box at 6.25%. President Trump is to address a joint sitting of the Houses of Congress this evening and the indications are that his speech will be quite positive.
In every country in the European Union, as Deputy Boyd Barrett will be aware, taxation is a matter of national competence. As an island, we set our corporate tax rate many years ago. I am glad to see that the line of investment continues to be strong. Only the week before last, 1,100 jobs with multinational companies, both here in Dublin and just outside, were announced and we want that to continue. The level of interest being expressed from Great Britain in Ireland, among other countries that are competing for business, is strong. We have connectivity here which is the second busiest route in the world. Ours is an English-speaking, common law system. It is the same kind of environment but there is also access to the Single Market and an opportunity for businesses that wants to be in the European Union to be located here in Ireland, either in or outside Dublin.
I take Deputy Boyd Barrett's point but we are not in a race to the bottom. We have set our standard. Everybody knows it, and that is why they are here. When I asked a chief executive last week situated in Cork, his answer was geography, culture and personality, in terms of the fit for that industry, and it had nothing to do with tax.
5. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach further to Parliamentary Question No. 1 of 24 January 2017, when the next meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Justice Reform will take place. [8460/17]
6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the next meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Justice Reform will take place. [9986/17]
7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Justice Reform will next meet. [10034/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 7, inclusive, together.
The next meeting of the Cabinet committee on justice reform will take place on Tuesday next, 7 March.
As Deputy Coppinger is not here, I call Deputy Ó Caoláin.
That is what the Taoiseach calls sharing information.
I welcome the commencement of the Charleton tribunal and echo Mr. Justice Charleton's appeal for anyone with information to bring it forward to the tribunal.
On Friday last, the chairperson of the Policing Authority, Ms Josephine Feehily, told RTE that the authority has, "a degree of confidence, but we are concerned", in relation to the ability of the Garda Commissioner to carry out her duties for the duration of the Charleton tribunal. That would hardly be a ringing endorsement of the Commissioner. When asked if the authority was concerned about the ability of senior Garda management to fulfil their duties when the tribunal gets under way, Ms Feehily said, "Yes, of course we are." The Policing Authority chairperson also said that the authority had found some deficiencies in the policy of An Garda Síochána on the issue of protected disclosures. The authority's chairperson revealed that the Garda had accepted some, but not all, of its recommendations to deal with this. Is the Taoiseach concerned by the approach of An Garda Síochána to the Policing Authority and to its recommendations? Does the Taoiseach accept - is it not obvious to him and to his colleagues in government and his partners in Fianna Fáil - that there is widespread public acceptance that the Commissioner should step aside, I emphasise without prejudice, while the Charleton tribunal to which her actions are central carries out its investigation?
I am very glad that the disclosures tribunal has been set up and I welcome wholeheartedly the statements made by Mr. Justice Charleton in his opening comments yesterday. He is a first-class choice for this disclosures tribunal, and given his experience over many years in dealing with the Morris tribunal and his position as a Supreme Court judge, I believe he will do a first-class job. It will be complex and difficult, and he set out the parameters of that yesterday, including his reflection on the issues that might come before the tribunal.
It is important to note also that the first element of the disclosures tribunal will deal with the Garda Commissioner. I do not speak for the independent Policing Authority, nor should I, but I note the comment of the chairperson that she had absolute confidence in the Commissioner's ability to do the job in so far as the Garda is concerned. She did express some concern about keeping the accelerator to the floor at the same time as being able to deal with the issues before the tribunal. The Commissioner will respond to that and I have absolute confidence in her to be able to do that. This tribunal is now up and running. The sole member is a person of exceptional competence and I expect he will start hearings in a very short time. The Deputy mentioned-----
Can I say something about protected disclosures?
These are quite complex. I believe many of these will come in before different Ministers in the time ahead. I know the legislation was drafted by Deputy Howlin but it may be appropriate that the House would consider how it will deal with these in the future. If an array of Ministers get protected disclosures from individuals throughout the country, it may be important to have a structure to deal with protected disclosures. That is an issue the House should examine for the time ahead.
I agree. We are committed to having a review of protected disclosures in any event. We are all getting not formal protected disclosures under the Act but many submissions. I am sure other Deputies in the House are getting them, as I am, from people who have been motivated to tell us something on foot of what has emerged in the Maurice McCabe affair.
Has the justice reform Cabinet sub-committee, of which I have fond memories, had time to consider the agreement of Government that an outside expert be provided, as demanded by the members of the Independent Alliance as their ask in terms of supporting the Government position last week? Who is to deal with that because I understand it is to review issues of culture and ethos? Would the Taoiseach not agree that that runs parallel to the work currently being done by an independent body headed by an international expert, namely, the Garda Inspectorate? It has a very fine body of work, with two reports already published. What we do not want is a series of parallel reviews. The Garda is under enough stress. The Garda Inspectorate has done a sterling job. The issue will be the implementation of its recommendations and having a process to ensure that happens rather than having another cultural and ethos overview by some international expert. I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach's reply.
Regarding the Policing Authority, the Taoiseach will recall that our original plan was to give more authority to the Policing Authority than actually manifested itself in the 2015 Act. Significant additional powers were retained by the Minister that we had envisaged should divest to the Policing Authority. Is that matter being looked at again?
In the first case, what is envisaged here is not a separate parallel entity. There will be an international advertising campaign for somebody to complement and build on the work-----
What a waste of our taxpayers' money. We have done all that.
The Taoiseach, without interruption.
I thank Deputy Burton. That will build on and complement the work of the inspectorate and the Policing Authority. I believe the chairperson referred to that also. That will be an internationally advertised position.
With regard to the Policing Authority, the chairperson referred last week to the extensive powers she already has. The authority can hold the Garda Síochána to account. Senior Garda management report to the authority, including via public meetings which are already under way.
Reporting to but not accountable in this Chamber.
The authority can determine Garda priorities regarding policing services, nominate persons for appointment by the Government to the posts of Garda Commissioner and deputy Garda commissioner, appoint persons to the rank of Garda superintendent, chief superintendent and assistant commissioner and remove them for reasons related to policing services, as Deputy Howlin is well aware, and appoint persons to senior positions within the Garda civilian staff. A great deal of work has gone on already with the Policing Authority.
The Cabinet sub-committee has not had an occasion yet to consider the work that will be done to complement and build on the foundations of the inspectorate and the Policing Authority, but it will at its meeting on 7 March.
I would make the point that my position has always been very clear in terms of commissions of investigation and tribunals. The principle of innocent until proven guilty is an important one that we cannot jettison too easily in the House. It also affects future commissions. For example, we could have a commission of investigation into Project Eagle. Does that mean that the directors or the CEO of NAMA have to stand aside while that is under way? Of course it does not. When the Bill was enacted in 2004, nobody ever envisaged that the mere establishment of a commission of investigation would trigger people standing aside. It is nothing to do with the individual concerned or protecting anybody. It is an important principle that should be acknowledged across the House.
Things are particularly intense at the moment so people will bring up different issues. I accept that there are challenges.
The Policing Authority was established to depoliticise the-----
-----appointments but also the administration of justice and policing, so to a certain extent politicians are contradicting themselves. If there is a call to be made, it should be left to the Policing Authority to determine the issue pertaining to the Commissioner. The Policing Authority has already made a comment, which some Deputies have pointed out is perhaps of a qualified nature in terms of saying it had a degree of confidence but, nonetheless, the authority is keeping a watching brief on that.
Deputy Martin's own comments were qualified too.
They were qualified because there was a deliberate political attempt made to suggest we were protecting somebody, which we are not. Does Deputy Howlin understand? The issue was the principle that one is innocent until found guilty.
That is the principle I would have always observed in the conduct of public affairs-----
-----and particularly in the context of commissions of investigation because what could quickly follow is that when future ones are established, before we even have an investigation, everybody in a position of authority would have to step aside if that precedent is established. That is the point I am making in the calmer environment of this Question Time but I put it to the Taoiseach that it is a point on which we need to reflect.
We are way over time.
Finally, the Garda Inspectorate is that international overview body. I know the members of the Independent Alliance have to find some way out of whatever but we have to give up that kind of politics. It is the idea that they need to have a hook to hang or whatever acquiescence so therefore someone magics up an international review. We have already had that. It is ongoing and it is very good. Some of these reports have been very hard hitting. If only they were acted on with a degree of energy. For God's sake, the Taoiseach should tell the members of the Independent Alliance to back off. Let us not waste more resources on something that is already in position.
We are almost out of time, but if the Taoiseach does not mind, I will call Deputy Burton who indicated that she wants to ask a brief question.
This is a disgraceful waste of taxpayers' money. We are paying for the Policing Authority. It has produced a very detailed report which we had debated in Cabinet. Mr. Olson, who has done many briefings, came in and briefed us.
I have a lot of respect for the Taoiseach but this is a fig leaf to cover the embarrassment of the Minister, Deputy Ross, and his group. Could the Taoiseach not have given him an extra police station in Stepaside? Even Deputy Healy-Rae made a case this morning following the burglaries at the weekend in Kerry and west Cork that perhaps there is a need for a review. This is a total waste. The man who will do the review will be trundling his case somewhere along the quays, checking into a hotel for a number of weeks, and we will be paying for it.
What type of indulgence is this?
The Deputy is eating into the time for the next question in which she is involved.
It damages much of the Taoiseach's very good record on good governance.
Thank you, Deputy.
This is just a fig leaf to patch over a political row.
I must ask the Deputy to conclude.
It is a disgrace for the taxpayers.
I wish to point out to the Deputy she is taking up her own time on the next question.
I doubt that.
We are down 12 minutes. I call on the Taoiseach for a very short answer.
That was supposed to be a short comment by Deputy Burton which it was not. The strength of the Garda force will go to 15,000 and this is part and parcel of providing a strong police force which is well-equipped to keep our people safe. I am in full agreement with Deputy Martin on this, on the basis of innocence until proven guilty. The fact of the matter is the Garda Commissioner has not had any charge against her and has not been convicted of anything. Other people who might have stepped aside were the subject of criminal investigations and we know one was exonerated by the DPP, had the charge removed and was then reinstated. This is not the case with the Garda Commissioner. People who say she should just stand aside remove the principle mentioned by Deputy Martin of innocence until proven guilty and it is an important distinction. If one is exonerated by the DPP or a court it is an entirely different matter. Where people are the subject of criminal investigations it places them in a different position to someone who has no charge brought against them.
I apologise, but I cannot allow the Deputy in. I am moving on to the next set of questions.
8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to President Juncker regarding Brexit. [8461/17]
9. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the contact he has had with the Italian Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, regarding his publicly stated support for the concept of a two speed EU in advance of the EU summit to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. [8525/17]
10. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his Department’s engagements with the EU's negotiating team, led by Mr Michel Barnier. [8550/17]
11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his views on future reform of the EU. [8775/17]
12. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he has had contact since 1 January 2017 with the President of the European Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, regarding Brexit. [9988/17]
13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on any communication he has had with the Italian Prime Minister regarding the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. [9997/17]
14. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings in Brussels on 23 February 2017 with various EU leaders and with President Juncker; the issues that were discussed; and the responses that were made. [10420/17]
15. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel in Brussels on 23 January 2017. [10458/17]
16. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on 23 January 2017. [10459/17]
17. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on all of the meetings he attended in Brussels on 23 February 2017. [10424/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 17, inclusive, together.
On 23 February, I travelled to Brussels to meet Prime Minister Charles Michel of Belgium; to participate in a business event organised by the Ireland Belgium Business Association, supported by Enterprise Ireland and the embassy of Ireland; and then to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker.
My discussions with Charles Michel focused on Brexit and the future direction of the EU. I explained Ireland's particular concerns arising from Brexit for our trade and economy; Northern Ireland and the peace process; the common travel area; and Border and citizenship issues. The Belgian economy, like Ireland’s, will be seriously affected by the UK's exit. We agreed on the need for the EU to retain a united, values-based approach in the period ahead, and to deliver effectively for our citizens.
At the Enterprise Ireland event, I met key representatives of Irish and Belgian businesses. I delivered a positive message of support for their activities and for Ireland’s role as a committed member of the European Union and a leading promoter of free trade.
My discussions with President Junker focused on Brexit and the future direction of the EU. I set out in detail our particular concerns and outlined our approach, and we exchanged views on the negotiations ahead. Michel Barnier, head of the Commission's task force, joined us for part of our meeting. I was very clear the unique circumstances relating to Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement must be recognised from the start and reflected in the final agreement. I am satisfied the Commission, which has been very open to hearing our views, has understood this message very clearly.
Deputies will recall I met Michel Barnier in Dublin last year. There has also been ongoing engagement with Michel Barnier's task force at official level, involving officials from my Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, other relevant Departments and, of course, our permanent representation in Brussels. This engagement is aimed at setting out the details of Ireland's concerns about Brexit, including Northern Ireland and the other issues I mentioned.
I plan to travel to Brussels again on Thursday for a further series of meetings. As part of this visit I will have further more detailed discussions with Mr. Barnier.
Since the UK referendum last June, I have had a series of bilateral meetings with my counterparts in EU member states and with the heads of the EU institutions. I have also attended all meetings of the European Council, formal and informal. At the recent informal summit in Malta, as at all meetings of the European Council, I engaged with my European counterparts, including President Juncker and Prime Ministers Michel and Gentiloni, during the course of the event and in the margins of the meetings. We agreed on the need for unity and on the importance of our core values, which are central to our future peace and prosperity. We also agreed on the importance of delivery for our citizens and, in that context, the need to press ahead in areas of particular relevance, including jobs and growth and investment as well as migration and security. The exchanges at Valletta will feed into preparations for a meeting in Rome on 25 March to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, at which it is expected that the EU will set out plans for its future direction.
I have stressed the EU must remain united if we are to effectively confront the many challenges we face. While there may be a difference of emphasis, this view is shared by other leaders, and I expect this will reflected in our discussions in Rome.
I want to ensure the three Deputies get in on this. Seven minutes and 38 seconds remain. I ask the Deputies to stick to the time.
The three of us could ask our questions collectively.
Is that agreed? Agreed. I also ask the Taoiseach to stick to the one and a half minute time limit.
The Minister for Finance appears to have given a very aggressive statement at a private dinner, and I note he often seems to be more aggressive in private than in public, concerning the Commission's agenda on corporation tax. The report states he said the Commission would undermine agreed OECD anti-evasion rules and was failing to keep to previous agreements respecting tax sovereignty. Did the Taoiseach raise these matters with President Juncker or are the comments intended to make us appear tough without there being any follow-up? In other words, was it a co-ordinated approach between the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Noonan, with the Commission in terms of its strategy on tax sovereignty and tax issues in general?
The repeated assurances of Mr. Barnier concerning Ireland are very welcome, particularly in Northern Ireland, but, as we have said earlier, we need to go from generalities to specifics. Some items clearly require the British to present their position first and I acknowledge this, but others are purely between Ireland and the European Union. Whatever is agreed, there will be a need to support communities and businesses hit by Brexit. I heard the Taoiseach state earlier it is not a question of giving support to companies, but there is no scenario where all negative impacts can be avoided. There will be negative impacts and in some cases we are already being hit. Has the Taoiseach raised the need for special funds, perhaps a relaxation of certain state aid rules, to help companies diversify markets and products during a transitionary phase? If Britain is not in the customs union it will be trouble for domestic companies, particularly in the agrifood sector. All of the warning signs are there and we need to do something about it.
When the Taoiseach met the Prime Minister of Italy, Paolo Gentiloni, did he discuss the proposals by Italy and others in the original European group that they want to return to a form of federalism and that they will not dilute their federalist plans to keep reluctant members on board? The Taoiseach spoke to me briefly about this previously, and he feels it is part of the normal chat down the decades in the EU, but it is not. It is members of a core group stating they will do it their way. We also have the members of the Visegrad group of eastern European states saying if this happens they will do it their way. Whatever will happen, we all know that in the years to come the EU will not be the same EU as it is today. The Taoiseach's EU strategy is an enigma wrapped in a mystery because we cannot get any details from him. He has bits of chat about various sectors but we lack a sense of strategy. The sense of strategy the Taoiseach must outline, because we are a democracy, is his proposals on Ireland and the forthcoming Brexit.
We are still in the dark and while we have had a lot of conversations with the Taoiseach we have had almost no clarity on strategy. We know what his concerns are but we want the strategy.
Brexit presents the greatest challenge to the people of this island for many decades. The British Prime Minister will trigger Article 50 within the next fortnight and I welcome the Taoiseach's declared objective that there must be a clause in any Brexit deal to allow the North to rejoin the European Union in the context of a united Ireland. However, the Irish Government's rejection of a special designated status for the North within the EU is deeply disappointing and is at odds with his own stated position in this Chamber. Last week, when asked about this by Teachta Adams, the Taoiseach said we had special circumstances, a special arrangement, a special peace process, special peace funds and special INTERREG funds, about some of which we spoke earlier. He stressed the importance of all-island solutions to water, electricity and animal health so does it not make sense to have a special designated status for the North within the EU? In my opinion, and that of many others, we need a special status for the Six Counties within the European Union, not outside of it.
Did the Taoiseach raise the case for a special designated status with Mr. Juncker and his chief negotiator, Mr. Michel Barnier? Last Tuesday, the Taoiseach said the Government would publish a white paper on Brexit. Can he indicate when we can expect it to be published and when does he expect the negotiations to commence? Will he be leader of his party and Taoiseach when that point is reached?
Deputy Martin asked about the comments by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan. He was pointing out the difference between the approaches of the European Commission and the OECD. We have been to the fore in dealing with base erosion and profit shifting and we have been up front about it. We abolished the stateless concept and the double Irish and this is why the Minister made his comment about the common consolidated corporate tax base. We are holding onto our corporation tax rate of 12.5%. I did not raise this with the President, Mr. Juncker, the other day because we were focused on the commencement of negotiations and how to maintain our priorities. I raised the question of special funds because there may need to be a transition period and the country will need them, though we cannot define the scale just yet.
Deputy Burton has gone completely native. Our priorities are for our economy, our citizens and our jobs. Our priorities are Ireland's place as a future member of the European Union and to maintain the common travel area.
I asked about the strategy, not priorities. What is the strategy?
Our priority is to maintain the peace process and to build on it, and to continue the good work which has meant that unemployment has fallen from 15.2% to 6.6%, our deficit will be eliminated next year and there is a very strong line of investment in this country, with it being seen as an attractive cauldron of enthusiasm with young people from all over the world working here.
I deliberately made the point that we want to see the wording of the Good Friday Agreement put into the negotiated settlement so that, at some time in the future, if the people decide to have a united Ireland the current entity of Northern Ireland can rejoin the Republic as a member of the European Union in a seamless fashion and without having to wait 20 years in an application process. I am glad the Deputy supported that. I noted Lord Hain's comments in the House of Lords the other day to the effect that provision should be made for this if the people, at some point in the future, give their consent to a united Ireland.
We have a special status and the way the European Council works is by building on foundations, which we have with the peace process and the INTERREG funds. We are the only place in Europe to have such a peace process and we have a unique set of circumstances. I want to build on that in the future by making a case for a common island within the European Union, with co-operation in the areas of water, disease eradication, animal health, energy, electricity etc. When the British Prime Minister writes to the European Commission, we will be able to respond in full because we will then have heard the statement of intent for the future relationship, which is really important.
In the short term also, it must be recognised within the EU.
You collapsed the institutions in the North.
That will be sorted out by Friday.