1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he held any bilateral meetings with any EU leaders at the European Council meeting of 9 March 2017; and the issues that were discussed. [13175/17]
Vol. 943 No. 2
1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he held any bilateral meetings with any EU leaders at the European Council meeting of 9 March 2017; and the issues that were discussed. [13175/17]
2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the outcome of the European Council meeting of 9 and 10 March 2017. [13188/17]
3. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his Department's preparations for the forthcoming European Council meeting in Rome. [13424/17]
4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if his attention has been drawn to the comments by President Hollande regarding the establishment of a two-speed European Union; and if he has discussed this with President Hollande. [13425/17]
5. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the informal meeting of European Union Heads of State and Government held on 10 March 2017. [13683/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
As reported to the House in yesterday's debate, I attended the spring European Council meeting and a meeting of the 27 Heads of State and Government in Brussels on 9 and 10 March. As Deputies are aware, I also held a short bilateral meeting with Prime Minister May. I had no other bilateral meetings over the two days, although I engaged with my counterparts in the margins of the EU meetings.
The European Council agenda on 9 March included a decision on the President of the European Council and on the European Public Prosecutor's office; migration; security and defence, which was primarily a report on the state of play; the Western Balkans; and issues relating to jobs, growth and competitiveness, including the economic policy of the euro area, banking union, EFSI, the Single Market, digital Single Market and trade.
On Friday, 10 March, the Heads of State and Government of the 27 member states met to continue our discussion on the future direction of the Union, in advance of the Rome summit later this week, which will mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. In Brussels, there was some discussion of the European Commission’s White Paper, which outlined the challenges facing the Union and set out, in non-prescriptive terms, a number of possible future scenarios. In our preparatory discussions on this matter, I have consistently stressed the need to remain united and to focus on those areas where we agree and where the EU can add value to the lives of our citizens. Completing the Single Market and supporting jobs through trade are good examples of where Europe really works for citizens and we will continue to stress the priority of these areas in the period ahead.
In my bilateral meeting with Prime Minister May, we discussed the situation in Northern Ireland and agreed on the need to re-establish the power-sharing institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. I underlined the importance of making progress in respect of legacy issues, in particular. We also discussed the implications of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and the need to ensure that this does not lead to the reimposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland. I stressed that this presents a significant political challenge and will require a political solution.
Since my meeting with Prime Minister May, the UK Government has completed its internal legal procedures and indicated that it will trigger Article 50 on 29 March. I hope that we will now see greater clarity on the UK approach to the negotiation process, including how it is prioritising its issues and, in particular, the UK’s proposed approach to avoiding any reintroduction of a hard border on this island. Once Article 50 has been triggered, the other 27 member states, including Ireland, will discuss and agree our guidelines for the negotiations ahead. European Council President, Donald Tusk, has indicated that the meeting of the 27 Heads of State and Government to finalise those guidelines will take place on 29 April.
I am aware of President Hollande’s comments about the possibility of a two-speed Europe, although I have not discussed these with him in a bilateral meeting. This concept has been talked about for many years; it is nothing new. Member states co-operate to different degrees. For example, not all partners are in the eurozone or in Schengen, and the treaties provide for enhanced co-operation. From Ireland’s perspective, the anniversary of the Treaty of Rome is an important opportunity to mark the real and lasting achievements of the EU, to promote unity, and to highlight the need for delivery for our citizens. I am sure that most Members agree that Ireland’s place is, and remains, at the very heart of Europe.
I thank the Taoiseach. I was in Brussels last week where I met seven Prime Ministers and four Commissioners as part of the ALDE group, when we had a particular meeting. Many people said to us that Ireland's approach to the Brexit negotiations is one where we have to move from talking about the problems to proposing solutions. I had meetings with officials as well. It is fair to say that there is a significant appreciation of Ireland's position in Europe and we will be able to win support for measures which allow us to protect the common travel area and to limit the damage and the administrative barriers at the Border, although there is a great need for specifics on that. However, beyond that, there is no obvious progress or even any proposals on the table. The Government's Brexit document sets out broad policy objectives with limited detail. When will this change? When will we be given any insight into what the Government is asking for in terms of the right to support badly hit industries or to subsidise businesses in respect of the cost of Brexit-related regulations?
The pace of bilaterals has increased but the evidence is that we are spread too thin and simply do not have enough people working on what will be a 27-way negotiation. We do not have the level of staff required to maintain active bilateral engagements throughout these negotiations. We also do not have the right staffing to deal with the fact that we have to approach UK relations in a different way post-Brexit and have to have a new approach to Council meetings. Has a staffing audit been carried out in respect of diplomatic and expert staffing needs for bilateral relations? If not, will the Taoiseach agree to carry one out urgently given the enormity of the challenge ahead?
It is not just about numbers. I am glad the Deputy was in Brussels and I am glad he met members of the group to which his party belongs. It is important that he, as the leader of this party, can outline to them the issues that are important for Ireland. We can agree on those - our trading relationships, protection of the peace process, the Border issue, the common travel area and our place as a continuing member of the EU in the future. We now know that the British Prime Minister will trigger Article 50 next Wednesday, 29 March. The Union will respond to that with a draft set of guidelines. We will have a part in those guidelines. There will be a particular short section relevant to Ireland. I would envisage that this draft document will go for publication and discussion, and will come back for decision on 29 April to set out what will be the foundation for those negotiations. I have outlined the priorities for us on quite a number of occasions. That section, which is prioritised, has to be a priority for Michel Barnier's task force on the European end of things, and it will be important. It will also take into account the really important issue for us of the requirement for protection of the peace process, political stability and no contemplation of a return to any hard border. It depends on the language one uses here. Other countries have different views. We cannot formally negotiate with Britain before these negotiations start but we are clear what we want here.
I have addressed staffing previously. The Deputy is fully entitled to get an up-to-date briefing on all these matters. We are in a position, if necessary, to recruit specialist staff that we might consider necessary and that will be done if necessary, but I assure the Deputy that every leader at European level knows full well what Ireland's priorities are because they have been met by all our Ministers at different Council meetings and I am glad he met some of the leaders from the socialist group.
I am talking about the level of officialdom.
I will give the Deputy the detail of that.
We had questions yesterday and statements on the recent European Council meeting. Am I to understand from the Taoiseach's response that he had sight of the draft response that will be issued by President Tusk once he receives the letter from Prime Minister May and that there is a paragraph on Ireland in that? Is that what he is suggesting?
No, I have not seen it.
The Taoiseach can come back and explain exactly. Do we have any input into crafting this particular outline of the policy platform being discussed and proposed to be adopted by the 27 member states? Are we crafting that particular section?
I was intrigued yesterday to read in The Irish Times under the headline, "Government believes it can secure Brexit deal on Border" that "... the Government believes it can secure agreement that the future of the Border should be left to Dublin and London". Under a byline of Pat Leahy, the article suggests that somehow there is an agreement on a bilateral deal. That obviously is counter to everything that was said recently - that there will not be bilateral discussions on fundamental issues like that and that once the negotiations start, there will be two sides to the table - the UK side and the 27 side. Is there any substance to that report? What, in particular, led to that being written? Is there an understanding that some sort of bilateral arrangement between Dublin and London will have to be accommodated in the overarching 27 position? Has that been discussed either formally at the discussions of the 27 or bilaterally between the Taoiseach and President Tusk?
No, I have not seen the proposed draft from President Tusk. It is a document that will be - whatever number of pages it is - a draft response from the 27 countries. Ireland has an input into it, as will the other 26.
He said he will respond in 48 hours so it must be in existence already.
Yes, but I have not seen it. That is my point. I have not seen it. As we are talking, there are discussions going on. We will craft the paragraph that will deal with Ireland.
Ireland will craft it.
We will craft it, yes. Ireland will craft it. We will also have an input directly into the general document because of the meetings that take place with COREPER and other officials. To be clear, there can be no formal negotiations before Article 50 is triggered. I do not want to be accused of having formal negotiations about Brexit with the British Government but I want everybody to understand that in my discussions with Prime Minister May, we clearly understood there should be no return to a hard border. That is accepted by the Barnier task force which recognises the unique circumstances and special case that applies in Ireland because of the PEACE funds, the internationally legally binding agreement and because the Border that was there brought with it sectarian violence. We will make that case from my point of view, the Government's point of view and from Ireland's point of view that any contemplation of a return to what was there before will bring both political instability and the possibility of sectarian violence and we are not going back there.
President Tusk will publish the draft document within 48 hours which will probably be next Friday week and it will go for circulation and discussion. We will have a specific paragraph in there relevant to our issues but also general input into the document. It will be circulated, discussed and we will have whatever rows there will be about it. It will then go for finalisation on 29 April at the European Council. It may not be concluded at that meeting.
What we understand, in particular from various British commentators, including the Prime Minister, is that Britain will be leaving the Single Market and will also be leaving the customs union. If that is so, and we can only go on what is being suggested by all the different parties in the UK, how then will there be no border? Will the border be at the ports and airports of the island of Ireland? Will the border be at the sea frontiers of the island of Ireland? We have had many different suggestions on vehicle movements such as number plate recognition and technology is very well advanced. What is the Taoiseach's understanding of what that position will be? Will the island of Ireland get a specific mention in the response led by President Tusk? The Taoiseach indicated already, if I understood him correctly, that Ireland will draft it. Will he confirm that? Will it be drafted in the context of the island of Ireland or will it be drafted in the context of the Republic?
I thank the Deputy.
A series of meetings have taken place in recent times, some initiated by President Hollande and some initiated by the Italians, indicating that post-Brexit, quite a number of the 26 are looking at new arrangements for the European Union which would potentially put countries into different groups. Not too long ago, the Taoiseach met the Prime Minister of Poland which is part of the eastern European group.
Deputy, the time is up.
It is not very keen on that kind of an approach. In terms of the Taoiseach's conversations with the other European leaders, who will be meeting in Rome at the weekend, and what is his view on the idea now being put forward of a two-speed Europe or one with three or four different European groups? Where will Ireland be in that?
I thank the Deputy.
Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to discuss with President Hollande where France stands on his specific proposals and invitations? Was the Taoiseach invited by President Hollande to any discussions or was it simply countries he felt were like-minded?
We have now overrun the time allowed for that block of questions by almost two minutes. If we are to adhere to the rules of the House, we should not allow the Taoiseach to answer. I am in the hands of the Members now. What do they propose to do when people cannot abide by the time limits set? What do they propose we do?
A rigorous Chair, I suggest.
Perhaps, but Deputies ignore the Chair, although not Deputy Howlin, in fairness.
Since most Members choose to ignore the Chair-----
We have not made our contribution yet.
Deputy Cullinane has not made his contribution. Do Members want to allocate some additional time for this?
An additional five minutes.
An extra five minutes. Perhaps we will take Deputy Cullinane's question and then go to the Taoiseach.
This issue needs to come back to the Dáil reform committee because it is serious. We had the same problem yesterday when the Taoiseach rightly said, when he had one and a half minutes to respond to four very detailed questions, that we have to look at the overrunning of time on a regular basis. It has been raised before. It cannot continue like this.
Will Deputy Cullinane put his question?
I will be very brief. I thank the Ceann Comhairle. The Taoiseach previously expressed impatience at the lack of clarity from Britain on Brexit. There was some very important clarity on Monday when the British Government announced it will trigger Article 50 on Wednesday, 29 March, which is in only one week's time. We need to get clarity from the Taoiseach. He said in a previous response that the Irish Government's position is very clear on what we want. It is not very clear on what we want in the North of Ireland and it is not very clear that this Government will support special status for the North. When the Taoiseach says there should be no return to a hard border, what exactly does it mean? We do not want a hard border or a soft border. There are very real concerns about the implications all of this will have on the all-island economy, on cross-Border trade, on agriculture North and South and on a range of other issues. Did the Taoiseach raise any or all of these issues at the informal meeting of the European Heads of Government on 10 March?
The Taoiseach has about a minute and a half to respond to those questions.
The notification will be issued on 29 March by the British Government. The General Affairs Council, which is Ministers from the 27 member states, will then adopt more detailed negotiating directives and authorise the opening of the negotiations. The European Council will remain permanently apprised of the negotiations and will update the guidelines and negotiating directives as necessary in the course of those negotiations. The Commission will lead the technical negotiations on behalf of the Union. They will be led by Michel Barnier. Representatives of the President of the European Council will be present alongside the European Commission representatives at all of those negotiation issues.
Our position is very clear on minimising the impact on trade and the economy, protecting the Northern Ireland peace process, maintaining the common travel area and contributing positively to the discussions about the future of the European Union. One section will deal with what everybody now knows, which is that there is a peace process in Ireland, which is the subject of dual guarantorship by the Irish Government and British Government and lodged in the United Nations, and that the only land border internally in the European Union will run from Dundalk to Derry. Therein lies the question of what do we mean when we say no return to a hard border. What I mean is no return to customs posts on the main arteries across the road links from the Republic to Northern Ireland. That brought with it sectarian violence. That is what I mean by it.
In respect of the section, for Deputy Howlin's information, dealing with the Irish problem that is about the peace process and the Border situation, it impacts on the island of Ireland, obviously, but it is specifically referenced to our wanting the peace process protected and no return to that kind of Border of the past.
The second group of questions ranges from Nos. 6 to 15.
On a point of order, it makes no sense to have 15-minute slots for nine questions and 15-minute slots for two questions.
Revert to the Business Committee.
We do not group the questions, I am afraid.
Let us go, please.
We know well who groups them.
I would not mind taking the questions individually, if that is what the Deputies want,-----
Keep going, Taoiseach.
-----but there will be overlaps on all fronts.
No. Groups just need adequate time.
We are wasting time.
I will have to try to read this in three minutes flat.
Off you go.
6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his trip to the USA to commemorate St. Patrick's Day 2017; the bilaterals that were held; the issues that were discussed directly with President Trump; and if the Irish undocumented were discussed. [13176/17]
7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with President Trump and his other engagements during his visit to the United States of America for St. Patrick’s Day. [13186/17]
8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with President Trump in Washington. [13423/17]
9. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to the United States of America. [13681/17]
10. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach the outcome of his discussions with President Trump and with members of the US House of Representatives and Senate in relation to immigration reform. [13876/17]
11. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he had discussions with Irish representative organisations in relation to immigration reform during his recent visit to the US. [13877/17]
12. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on is recent visit to the Unites States of America and meetings with President Donald Trump and members of his Administration. [13921/17]
13. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his trip to the United States of America as part of his St Patrick's Day visit. [13924/17]
14. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if discussions arose in his recent meetings in the United States in relation to the implications for the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement following Brexit. [14183/17]
15. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if discussions arose in his recent meetings in the United States in relation to the implications of Brexit for all of the island. [14184/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 15, inclusive, together.
As the House is aware, I travelled to the United States last week for the annual St. Patrick's Day visit. My visit from 11 to 17 March encompassed four cities: Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and New York. Unfortunately, due to very adverse weather conditions, my programme in Boston was curtailed and a scheduled visit to Rhode Island had to be cancelled. Nevertheless, my programme for the visit included over 30 different engagements, including bilateral meetings, formal speaking events, and media and civic engagements.
I had an extensive set of meetings and engagements with political, business and civil society representatives. My main focus was on advancing Ireland's economic and political interests in the US, including continuing to make the case for US immigration reform, highlighting the importance of the European Union and Ireland's commitment to membership, our priorities in the context of Brexit and promoting Ireland as a location for jobs, trade, tourism and investment.
In Philadelphia, I attended the 247th St. Patrick's Day parade before meeting the board of the Irish immigration centre. At an event at the Irish Famine memorial, I announced the Government's decision to hold a referendum on the matter of Irish citizens residing outside the State voting in Irish presidential elections from 2025. In Boston, I had meetings with Mayor Walsh and Governor Baker. I participated in a number of engagements arranged by IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland with existing and potential client companies.
My political engagements in Washington DC included bilateral talks with President Trump in the Oval Office. Issues discussed included bilateral economic relations, the importance of free trade, immigration reform, the implications of Brexit and the future of the EU as well as Northern Ireland and the peace process. I highlighted the plight of the up to 50,000 undocumented Irish and the importance to us of finding a solution to regularise their situation. These issues were also discussed during my meetings with Vice President Pence, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Paul Ryan, Senate minority leader Mr. Chuck Schumer, Senator Patrick Leahy, the congressional Friends of Ireland group and General John Kelly of the Department of Homeland Security. I also presented President Trump with the traditional gift of a bowl of shamrock at the White House St. Patrick's Day reception.
In Washington, I attended and spoke at the American Ireland Fund dinner and the enterprise agencies economic promotion lunch, at which I launched the creative.ireland.ie portal. I also presented two SFI science medals at a Science Foundation Ireland event. While in New York, as well as attending the 255th St. Patrick’s Day parade, I attended a number of business engagements, including Ireland Day, a major event to promote Ireland at Bloomberg, as well as participating at the greening of the One World Trade Centre.
Overall, this visit to the US was extremely important. It presented a valuable opportunity to highlight Ireland’s key policy priorities and interests with the new US Administration, including on immigration, as well as to promote Ireland as a location for trade, tourism and investment. I believe I succeeded in achieving these objectives during my visit.
I thank the Taoiseach. In recent months, there has been a sense of some Deputies being almost relieved that Donald Trump is the US President because it allows them to revert to their default position of attacking the US for everything while ignoring the behaviour of other countries. Before November, I was clear about where I stood. We must manage the situation as it is.
Ireland's connection and relationship with the US is a broad, historic and deep one that does not depend on one President or electoral cycle. We do not choose other people's leaders. We must protect, enhance and nurture long-term relationships. I supported maintaining the tradition of the Taoiseach visiting the US and its President, Donald Trump. I did not join Deputy Howlin and others who sought cheap ways of attacking the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach's remarks in Congress were welcome and appropriate. The reality is that, at the moment, the US Administration is not one that accepts the idea of critical friendship.
The Taoiseach has outlined the issues that he raised. In his address, he managed to uphold our values while getting messages across and maintaining a deep relationship. In Washington, he managed what was a difficult situation well. In the overall national interest, it was important that he made the visit and conducted it in that manner.
Are there questions?
What did Congress say about some of the issues that the Taoiseach raised, for example, the benefit that countries got from current trading arrangements? Were there indications of when the US would start reducing its corporate tax rates? What practical response did the Taoiseach get on the issue of undocumented immigrants? Mayor Marty Walsh stated his belief that a special deal could not be achieved for Irish immigrants. What was the Taoiseach's response to that when he met him? What is the Taoiseach's sense of the undocumented question now?
I thank the Deputy for his comments. I said at the beginning that he understood fully the importance of maintaining the traditional links with the United States, which go beyond the occupancy of this seat by whoever or the Presidency of the United States. These are very valuable opportunities to promote the country in so many ways, given the extraordinary impact of Irish contributions to the United States over the years and the fact that Irish companies now employ over 100,000 people across 50 states.
I did notice Deputy Howlin's comments, which I think were probably issued before I ever emerged from the White House, but somebody pushes the button. In any event, let me say that my feeling is that what the Administration will follow in sequence will be the health issue arising from the original Obamacare schedule, the taxation issue and immigration, plus all of the other issues that will arise, but that seemed to be the sort of sequence of priorities that the Administration was focusing on.
I do think, a Cheann Comhairle, that we have a duty here as Members of the Oireachtas to continuously explain to American representatives the nature and the value of what the European Union actually stands for and how it does its business. This is a new Administration. There are still several thousand people to be appointed to it. It is important that, when Vice President Pence came to Brussels and Europe, he made a very good impression in the sense of wanting to understand, and showing an understanding of, the mechanics of how Europe actually worked. I hope to arrange a meeting between the President of the European Parliament and Speaker Ryan in Congress. With the European Parliament representing so many countries and so many people, these are important opportunities for people to understand each other.
I made the point directly to the President that I did feel that a proper trading relationship for the two most developed economic regions on the planet would yield several million jobs on either side of the Atlantic. I think that is a priority that we should pursue, both as Irish people and as members of the European Union.
I make no apologies at all for fulfilling my role as leader of a political party outlining the values for which this country stands, values that are the absolute opposite of those of the current President of the United States. That provides a valuable counterbalance to the role of the Taoiseach and doing otherwise would have been remiss of me and others in opposition who should set out the real values of this country, which we should assert with pride and clarity whenever we meet anyone abroad. Consider the opening of the statement by Chancellor Merkel, who is not in my political family. She outlined clearly the European and German values on which she would base her engagement with the US. That was the approach.
Interestingly too the comments of former Governor, Martin O'Malley, re-echoed those points. Those are really important things to say. One cannot always fumble in the greasy till. Commerce is not everything. We have valuable connections but they are not the only values we have.
I welcome the fact the Taoiseach raised the issue of the undocumented but what will come of that? I ask that having listened to all the commentary from Mr. Spicer and others after the visit. Does the Taoiseach have a commitment to legislative change on the undocumented?
In regard to taxation policy, did the Taoiseach raise with anybody on his visit the so-called border adjustment tax, which would be devastating for this country, or corporation tax reform? Does he have any indication of what is likely to be proposed by the Trump presidency in those regards?
I noted the comments of former Governor O’Malley, who I know well. He made attempts himself to the get to the White House but the effort was not successful.
He is entitled to his opinion. He may well decide to stand again. That is entirely his business.
I agree that commerce is not everything, which is why it is all the more important that we focus on what politics is always about, namely, people. We have some who are not in a position to contribute in the way they know they can. I do not support situations where Irish citizens, documented or undocumented, continuously break the law in other countries, nor would Deputy Howlin, but in respect of those who want to play their part and do so, it is a case of finding a method of legalisation for them.
By definition, everybody who is there who is not documented is breaking the law.
The President himself made the point to me that he wants to hear from the Democratic Party on this issue. I had a lengthy conversation with Senator Schumer, who introduced a Bill in the previous Administration for 10,500 E3 visas for Irish people on an annual basis. The Bill was passed by the Senate but did not get through to Congress. That is an issue I would like to see raised separately from immigration reform. The President himself is very interested in dealing with the number of Irish there.
I had a very good conversation with General Kelly, a four star general, who is apolitical. He is dealing with homeland security. He made his views perfectly clear. He said he put on their websites on so many occasions that legislators must find a way, as Deputy Howlin pointed out, to deal with the undocumented Irish who contribute to American society.
A Cheann Comhairle, the Taoiseach is talking the clock down.
The point is that this requires co-operation and political will from the parties involved. We had a very straightforward, constructive conversation with the President and his full team and I thank him for that. I intend to follow through very strongly on the matters we discussed and how we should go about them. I hope that is in the interests of significant numbers of Irish people and that we can proceed on that basis.
The Taoiseach is talking down the clock.
Clearly, comprehensive immigration reform was attempted by John McCain and prior to that Edward Kennedy and so many others but because it was so broad and complicated it never reached the conclusion we know could happen.
Did the Taoiseach have an opportunity to seek President Trump's views on the Good Friday Agreement? Does the President accept that it is an international agreement which has been supported by the United States? Does he have a position on the Agreement, and specifically, does he have a position or does he or his advisers have any thoughts on the consequences of Brexit, for which he has vociferously tweeted his support, as have other parties here? Could the Taoiseach enlighten us as to what the discussion was?
In regard to his interest in Northern Ireland and the continuation and development of the peace process, was there any conversation about President Trump appointing an envoy to assist with the Northern Ireland process? That approach has been very successful in the past. On occasion, the envoys do not have very much to do but at other times, they are very busy. At the moment the talks are under way in some form and the expiry date is soon. Did the Taoiseach find that the President was interested in the Good Friday Agreement and in developments specifically relating to Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland? I am aware that the President is very friendly with people such as the MP, Ian Paisley Jr., who was present, as well as others. Did he specifically reference those issues in the discussions with the Taoiseach?
If Members are amenable, I will take all the questions together and then ask the Taoiseach to respond. Is that agreed? Agreed. I ask Members to please be brief. We have just eight minutes remaining.
I will be very brief. I welcomed the Taoiseach's commitment when he was in the US to hold a referendum in respect of voting rights in presidential elections for citizens in the North and the Irish diaspora. That is long overdue. I note the Taoiseach was not in a position to respond yesterday when he was asked for a timeframe. Given that this issue was considered by the Constitutional Convention and that the Taoiseach himself was the one who made the announcement it is important that he would inform this House as to exactly how the issue will be progressed. The Taoiseach must have some notion as to how the measure will be implemented. Will he commit and explain to us even in broad terms what type of timeframe he envisages and what type of structure and process will be put in place to make that happen?
I am very pleased the Taoiseach raised immigration reform in his meeting with the President and other members of Congress. Has any structure been put in place to follow it up at political level? We all know the embassy is in ongoing contact with decision makers but does the Taoiseach propose to put a structure in place in order that this particular issue will be followed at political level between the Government here and in the United States?
With regard to Brexit, in her early days as Prime Minister, Theresa May, indicated that Britain would leave the European Convention on Human Rights. The Minister of State for Brexit, in winding up the debate in the House of Commons, indicated the opposite, namely, that the UK would remain as a member of the convention. Could the Taoiseach provide some clarity in that regard?
The Secretary of State, David Davis, stated there will be customs controls between North and South. The Taoiseach is aware we have a Border of 499 km with 300 formal crossings plus numerous informal crossings. If border controls are restored in any form they will do immense damage to trade and social and economic development. One point I made in this House on numerous occasions is that we cannot adequately quantify the progress that has been made in the Border area and all over the island as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. Let us remember that due to the lack of economic development of the Border region, predominantly due to the Troubles, our enterprises are small and medium sized and they are almost totally dependent on the sterling market to export their products. Any hindrance to trade would cause us very serious economic damage.
I gather from media reports that the Taoiseach was put out that the positive media coverage he received internationally for the speech he gave last week in President Trump's presence was not replicated in Ireland. He had the benefit of Channel 4 and The New York Times not being too well acquainted with how his fine words in Washington square up to the reality in Ireland. Conversely, the Irish media, being aware of the manner in which undocumented migrants are treated in this State, knew the ridicule to which they would be open if they were as effusive as the international media.
The reality in Ireland is that if a St. Patrick were to arrive today, depending on his country of origin, he could well find himself caught up in our inhumane, degrading and racist system of direct provision. If he was an adult, he would be permitted a pittance of €19.10 per week or €15.60 if he was a minor. He would have a 40% chance of languishing in this position for five years and a 20% chance of still being unregularised after seven years. Between this and the constant threat of deportation, it should come as no surprise that direct provision has proven to be deleterious to the physical and mental health of people caught in it. The 5,000 people in direct provision in Ireland would be equivalent to over 300,000 people in the US. The plight of 50,000 undocumented Irish in the US is bad enough but could we imagine for a moment what it would be like if an equivalent or greater amount of undocumented Irish were kept in the conditions that migrants experience here on the Taoiseach’s watch?
I put it to the Taoiseach that ending the inhumane regime of direct provision might escape the attention of Channel 4 and The New York Times but it would be an act of infinitely greater significance than the speech in Washington if it could be ended. Is it not the case that by not ending direct provision and providing a scale of amnesty the likes of which the Taoiseach correctly demands for the Irish in the US, the Taoiseach will correctly be seen by the 5,000 people in direct provision in Ireland as being two-faced and hypocritical?
I am not really interested in the comments of Deputy Barry except to say that the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, has done quite a deal of work in respect of the Mahon report and I have asked him to consider having a conversation in the House when it is appropriate on the changes that have been made and the work that has been done in his unceasing efforts to deal with the issue of direct provision.
Deputy Brendan Smith raised a number of important points. I have set out that I do not contemplate any return to that hard Border of customs posts where they used to apply back in the time of the Troubles, as the Deputy is aware, with unapproved crossings blown up or impassable. We are well acquainted with the Deputy’s point about the impact on the economy North and South. There is an agreement and understanding of there being no return to that kind of Border. It is a political issue that requires a political solution. In my mind and that of the British Prime Minister, there must be a way found to deal with that. Until she writes her letter, we do not know the exact issue about customs union from the British perspective. We know the British Prime Minister wants as close a relationship as possible with the European Union, which we support. It will be known in the next couple of days and the Deputy’s point in that sense is valuable.
I will follow through on the issues I discussed with the US President, the US Vice President, the Speaker of the House, Mr. Ryan, and members of the Senate and House, including the Ireland caucus and Friends of Ireland. It is about contact and follow-through in respect of the issues I discussed with the US President.
Deputy Cullinane raised the point of voting for members of the diaspora, including those in Northern Ireland, in presidential elections. We will publish the options paper this week on that. There are a number of legal, policy and practical issues and we must have a debate about this. The paper will be one of the topics for discussion at the Global Irish Civic Forum to be held in Dublin in May. I will not name a date for a referendum as we must get all of that together in the first instance. We will look at how the register is compiled and how people will vote in an international setting. Would a welder in Alaska have to travel to Washington to vote? One needs to be able to do this online safely. We will publish that this week and get it moving.
Deputy Burton also raised an important point. I spent quite a deal of time in my discussions with the US President talking about the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland, including how this came about with support from America when President Clinton appointed Senator Mitchell to be the lead negotiator. I asked him in the context of what happened before to have a desk in the Administration available for Northern Ireland with a person at that desk and, if necessary, to follow through with the appointment of an envoy. He was very interested in this and there was a very clear understanding of the nature of how sensitive this was and the troubles that existed which were ended by negotiation. I hope he will follow through on that.
I made the point that it is very important for the European Union to engage continuously with the US Administration on the basis of the potential of setting down trade conditions for the next 50 years between the two most economically developed regions on the planet. There are potentially millions of jobs either side of the Atlantic in this regard. That part of the conversation was very important, constructive and informative for the US President and his Administration.