Priority Questions

Deputies are all familiar with the rules, and I do not want to be interfering all the time. I ask them to keep an eye on the clock.

Is it four minutes for a reply?

That is what the Minister might like to take. It is two minutes. These are not Topical Issues. I call on the shadow Minister.

Déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall.

Diplomatic Representation

Darragh O'Brien


1. Deputy Darragh O'Brien asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his plans to double Ireland's global footprint; the meetings held and preparations made for same; if his Department is undertaking research on the costs involved; if so, the expected publication date of such research; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48485/17]

In light of the Taoiseach's repeated announcements and the Minister's follow-up announcements, will the Minister provide an update on the plans to double Ireland's global footprint, including the meetings held and preparations made for same? Is his Department undertaking research on the required costs involved and, if so, will it publish both the plan and a list of priorities as to where and when new embassies and consulates will be opened?

Go raibh maith agat. That was a good start.

The doubling of Ireland's global footprint by 2025 began with the recent Government decision to open new embassies in Santiago, Chile; Bogotá, Colombia; Amman in Jordan, and Wellington in New Zealand, and new consulates in Vancouver in western Canada and Mumbai in India, on a phased basis from 2018.

Our expanding network will enhance Ireland's visibility globally, extend our influence and enhance our position in the context of trade and investment growth in new and existing markets. It will also benefit travelling citizens and engagement with the diaspora. Expanding our presence and influence abroad is also about a broader redoubling of our effort in the fight against global poverty and hunger and for sustainable development via the Irish Aid programme.

It also involves reaching out to our diaspora and exploring creative new platforms that we could use to expand Ireland's influence overseas.

The Department of the Taoiseach is leading a steering group of relevant Departments and agencies that is preparing a plan to be considered by Government by the end of the year. The Team Ireland Conference, an initiative of my Department, is meeting today to explore ways to strengthen co-ordination across Departments and agencies involved in trade and investment to help us realise our ambition.

The question of costs is being considered as part of the annual departmental budgetary process, including with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Any additional expenditure will be consistent with value-for-money principles and provide clear benefits for the State and will depend on a range of factors, including staff and accommodation needs. The €2 million allocation in budget 2018 will cover the initial outlays.

I thank the Minister for his reply. However, it did not contain the answer I require. I know he was away on Government business at the time, but when I raised this matter with the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, following the Taoiseach's announcement of Ireland's Global Footprint 2025, she said, "When the Taoiseach speaks about doubling our footprint, that does not necessarily mean doubling the number of offices or doubling the budget." Doubling does not mean doubling according to the Minister of State. I want to know what it does mean. I would really like to know the criteria we are using to decide where new embassies and consulates will be opened. I wish to put on the record that my party very much welcomes the announcement of the six new offices to open and the additional budget allocation, but we would like to know that it is not just being drawn up or done on the Taoiseach's whim when he decides he wants to make an announcement. I would really like to see a detailed plan as to where we are going next and the rationale we are using for our new markets to capitalise with business on new opportunities that are out there with our diaspora. Furthermore, in a post-Brexit world, diversification is now even more important.

The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, was correct. Doubling our international footprint is not just about doubling the number of embassies or consulates, although there will be many more embassies and consulates; it is also about working with other State agencies, including Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Bord Bia and Tourism Ireland. It is about doubling the presence of Ireland internationally. That is why we need - and why we have - a steering group with all of these agencies represented on it. That is why it is being managed by the Department of the Taoiseach, although my Department has a big role to play.

Regarding new embassies and consulates, it will be my Department that will come forward with the suggestions as to where they should be opened. The reason we are opening in Chile and Colombia is that both countries have trade agreements with the EU. We have quite a dramatic under-representation in Latin America. The reason we are opening in western Canada is that we have a trade agreement with that country. The reason we will open a new Ireland House in Tokyo is that we have a trade agreement with Japan. The reason we are opening a new Ireland House in Mumbai is that it is the commercial capital of a huge market in India. We have done much of the necessary pre-work before making commitments and we will continue to do that as we go. I think Deputy O'Brien will have a much clearer picture of what this will look like by the end of the year.

This morning, the Minister referred to the conference that was held about delivering sustainable growth and showing where we are targeting new trade. Very specific figures were given there - 80% growth in indigenous exports and agrifood to increase to €19 billion by 2025. This is all very welcome, but regarding this aspect of it, which is about our physical presence in other countries, there is no plan. What I really want to know is what research has taken place and what our mechanisms are for putting that research together to make those decisions. Is the Minister planning any further announcements in the short term in the context of opening additional embassies, consulates or Enterprise Ireland offices? It is a matter of trying to get under the bonnet on this to see where we are targeting, what is next and what rationale we are using. With all due respect to the Department - and it is a good Department - all other parties and Members will have views as to where we should be increasing our global footprint. It being just announced by Government and us dealing with it ex post facto is not ideal.

There is fair comment in what the Deputy says. This ambition was only put in place in August. We then set about preparing for an initial budget to really make clear to people that we are serious about delivering on that ambition. We focused on obvious areas from which Ireland is absent, in which we should develop a presence and where there is real trading and commercial opportunity and, in the case of the Middle East, a need for an increased political presence in a country such as Jordan, which is a real stabiliser in the region.

We did initial work in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to ensure we had a response in the budget that sent a signal that the State was serious about this. I accept the need for a comprehensive roadmap, and a process is under way within Government agencies and across Departments co-ordinated by the Taoiseach, and meetings have taken place about putting a more comprehensive roadmap in place to 2025. Consultation with other political parties about that is needed and it would be very useful for me to outline to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade how I envisage it working and to get feedback from other political parties, which we would like to take on board.

That would be welcome.

Brexit Negotiations

David Cullinane


2. Deputy David Cullinane asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the meaning of the phrase sufficient progress in relation to phase one of the Brexit talks and Ireland; if progress has been met in the current round of talks; if Brexit talks will move to phase two in December 2017; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48487/17]

We are still in phase 1 of the talks on Britain leaving the European Union. Three issues are currently being addressed in those negotiations. One is Ireland and what will happen in Ireland in a post-Brexit situation. The European Union says that we cannot move on to phase 1 unless sufficient progress has been made on all three areas and we support that. What does sufficient progress mean for the Government in respect of the Border? What is the bottom line and when will we know that sufficient progress has been made? For us to know that, we must have an understanding of what sufficient progress means from the Government's perspective.

I have a written reply to that, which the Deputy will get, but I will answer directly. It is to be hoped we are coming towards the end of the first phase of negotiations but that is not necessarily the case unless the sufficient progress test can be passed. The three issues are citizens' rights, the financial settlement and Irish issues. Within the Irish issues are three core issues. The first is what is called the common travel area and we have made good progress on that, allowing Irish citizens to move, live, study, access social welfare, carry pension entitlements and vote in Britain, and likewise in respect of British citizens here. The second two issues are complicated. The first is a commitment to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement in all of its facets. We have a mapping exercise between the British negotiating team and some Irish negotiators working with the task force to map out the complexity of that. There are 142 different areas of North-South co-operation that we are trying to figure out how to deal with in full in the context of Brexit. It is not easy. The third issue is the Border. The papers that were leaked last week are negotiating and working papers for the task force and they sum up where we are.

What is sufficient progress?

We want to ensure there is no regulatory divergence in Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland. We would prefer for that to apply to all of Britain in order that we can continue to function on the island of Ireland, consistent with the Good Friday Agreement, ensuring that North-South co-operation can happen. If the rulebook changes between the two jurisdictions, that becomes much more difficult and more complicated, and we need assurances about that issue before the task force can give a signal that we can move on to phase 2 issues.

There are a number of problems with that. The Taoiseach has already said that we will not exercise any veto. That is manna from heaven for those on the British side. Second, there are mixed messages from the Government about the matter. The Minister has several times told the House and me - I have been at many meetings where he has discussed this issue - that it is vital that the North of Ireland stays in the customs union and Single Market.

The Minister's view is that the best option is for Britain to stay in the Single Market but that the North should. The Taoiseach said last week that that is not necessarily what should happen. He also talked about divergence and said that it is possible, once Britain accepts the rules. How does that square with the European Union needing to protect the integrity of the customs union? Divergence of regulations is only part of the issue. If that is the case and we are to get divergence in standards, rules and so on, that is essentially a case of the North staying in the customs union anyway. We are confused about how matters stand in this regard and what the Government's position is. The only way we can avoid any hardening of the Border and the disruption of the movement of goods and services is for the North to remain in the customs union and Single Market. That should be the absolute position of the Government. It might be the Minister's position but a different position and wording is coming from the Taoiseach, which raises concerns for us.

I hope that is Deputy Cullinane's position now too. If it is, his position has changed somewhat into a more realistic position. The Government's position is that we would like to see Britain as a whole not only stay in the customs union but to stay as an extended part of the Single Market. That would solve many problems for many people and livelihoods. This is a negotiation, however, and there are two sides to it. We have to find agreement. I have said that Ireland will be firm and stubborn but fair when looking at proposals that can allow the island of Ireland to function with a consistent position on the Good Friday Agreement. A customs union arrangement for the island of Ireland does not solve everything by itself. It needs to go beyond that with regard to the regulatory environment but it would certainly help. We are saying that if Britain cannot operate under the same rules as Ireland and the rest of the European Union, there will need to be a facilitation that is unique and flexible that applies to the challenges on the island of Ireland. We have made that clear. It is also the task force's position. Unfortunately, this is now one reason we may not move on to phase 2 in December but I hope we will be able to find a way forwards between now and then.

No divergence does not make a customs union. Our position is realistic. Is it unrealistic to ask for the entire island of Ireland to stay in the European Union? Perhaps the Minister now supports one part of the island coming out of the European Union. Is it unrealistic to say that the vote in the North, where people voted to remain in Europe, should be respected? Is Deputy Coveney genuinely telling me as a Minister that he believes it is unrealistic for a party in the North to want the entire island of Ireland to stay in the European Union? We have always said that we want the North to stay in the customs union and Single Market. We want the Good Friday Agreement to stay in the legal architecture and framework of the European Union. It is complex but that has to be worked out. The people of Ireland did not ask for Brexit and we can all accept that. We are trying to come up with solutions. The Minister has been in the North for a long time, meeting Sinn Féin representatives, and he can see the work we are doing in the European Parliament to negotiate with the British Government, European negotiators and with the Minister. We are earnest and honest about what we want to achieve, which is the best possible deal for the people who live on the island of Ireland. For us, that means the entire island staying in the European Union. If that means the North staying in the customs union, then that is what should happen because, in my view, that is in the best interests of people who live on the island of Ireland.

I do not want Britain to leave the European Union. I want the island of Ireland to remain in the European Union but we are in a negotiation following Britain deciding through a referendum to leave. We need to ensure that we protect Ireland's vulnerabilities, both North and South, in that context. We are negotiating through a European task force led by Michel Barnier, who understands the Irish issues very well. We are at one with the EU task force's approach here, which is to take a tough position to protect the concerns on the island of Ireland, ensure that there is no hard border in the future and that the Good Friday Agreement in all of its facets, particularly with regard to North-South co-operation, can function in the future. It is recognised in the task force that, to do that, the same rule book needs to apply to both jurisdictions. It would make it much easier to do that if we could stay in the same customs union. I do not think we disagree on most things. We need to be consistent to ensure that the British Government understands that Ireland will stubbornly stick to this position because we must and will protect the interests of our own citizens.

Brexit Negotiations

Stephen Donnelly


3. Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the position regarding the situation in which no solution is found to avoid border controls with Northern Ireland; the status of talks to be held in December to discuss the future relationship in respect of same in view of comments made by the Taoiseach on 8 November 2017; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48486/17]

On Wednesday of last week, the Taoiseach stated, "I am now of the view that it is likely we will be able to say that sufficient progress has been made at the December meeting, allowing us to move on to discussions on transition and the future arrangements." On Sunday, Michel Barnier said that EU member states need to start preparing for the collapse of the talks. At the October meeting, the Government's position was that insufficient progress had been made.

I have two questions on this matter. What changed and what progress was made between the October meeting and the Taoiseach's statement last Wednesday that seemed to shift Ireland's position to us being able to move on? Does the Government agree with the leaked paper from the European Commission which says if the UK leaves the customs union and the Single Market, it would be impossible to see how border controls with the North could be avoided?

The Taoiseach said he was more optimistic that we could move on to phase 2 in December than he was before the October meeting, when, clearly, there was no chance of that happening. Since the Taoiseach's statements, the leaked paper from the task force points to a number of things that Britain does not seem to be accommodating, so we have a problem. The Taoiseach recognises this also and that is why he has been asked about whether Ireland would use its veto and so on. This misses the point to some degree. The European Union is at one in respect of this matter. We have fantastic solidarity across the European Union on Irish issues. The head of the task force understands those issues in real detail and in my view there will be no need for a veto. I am of the opinion that the European Union will act as one and that member states will take their signal from the task force as to what is and is not acceptable in the context of sufficient progress.

There are two serious issues that are currently outstanding, namely, those relating to the financial settlement and the Irish Border. The British Government knows this and there is a big onus on it to come forward with some new thinking regarding the Border in the next few weeks. Any government must plan for a worst-case scenario and we will do that. I am aware that Deputy Donnelly has raised this issue a number of times. We are negotiating for a best-case scenario because that is what we need to do.

To be clear, the Government's position is consistent with that of the task force. Specifically, in order for North-South co-operation to function in the future, consistent with the Good Friday Agreement, we need to ensure there is no regulatory divergence on one part of the island versus the other. That is a real danger in the context of Brexit. This is why our position of Britain being part of the same customs union, whether that is a redesigned customs union or an extended Single Market, would solve a lot of these problems. In the absence of Britain, as a whole, doing this, we need some assurance on the island of Ireland that Northern Ireland will be the subject of unique and flexible solutions.

I thank the Minister for his reply. We are all lined up in the context of what we want to see happen. Obviously, we would like to see the UK stay in the Single Market and the customs union. There is cross-party support for no controls or borders of any kind being put in place around the Six Counties. The Taoiseach said, "I am now of the view that it is likely we will be able to say that sufficient progress has been made at the December meeting". These communications are causing real concern. We met with business people from both sides of the Border yesterday. A transport business man from Antrim told us that if phase 2 happens without the Border being conclusively sorted - not as in "good faith" but still with reasonably high-level statements around regulatory equivalences and so on - he is going to move his business out of Northern Ireland. I appreciate that the Minister is doing everything he can but there is a gap in communications. I am of the view that the Taoiseach misspoke. I do not believe that sufficient progress has been made. I do not imagine that a lot more was done. The Minister has not laid out what progress has been made since the October statement and the statement last week. The Taoiseach probably misspoke. We need to be very careful. The Government needs to be very careful about the messages it is sending out in respect of the Border because business people are watching. The Taoiseach's comments were carried internationally across several news outlets. We need to be very careful about the messages we send out to people on both sides of the Border who are having to make decisions about what is likely to happen to their businesses and their communities in the coming months and years.

I agree that we need consistency because businesses cannot plan on the basis of weeks or months; they need to plan years ahead. This is why we need a long transition period, in my view. We have been giving very clear messages for the last week, through our party conference and since then. I gave very consistent messages to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, when I was in London last week. Anybody who sees the positioning of the EU task force will see in that the Irish Government position, which is very clear and firm on the Border issues. It remains to be seen whether we can bring the British Government to accept the wording in that position. If we cannot we face a challenge and we face choices in December that will be difficult choices. It is important to say very clearly that the solidarity Ireland enjoys at prime ministerial and foreign ministerial level right across the European Union in the context of Northern Ireland issues and the Border is very strong. Nobody should make the assumption that because everyone wants to move on to talk about trade and future relationships - which, of course, we also do - that the Border issue is going to be brushed aside or fudged. I do not believe that it will be. This puts Ireland right in the middle of the issues that need to be resolved between now and December. That is where we are but we need to be firm on it.

I thank the Minister for his reply. What he said is good to hear. He has outlined a clearer position than that outlined by the Taoiseach. I thank the Minister for that.

On contingency planning, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. James Brokenshire, went to Brussels last week and said that the British Government does not support and will not seek any form of special or unique status for Northern Ireland. Mr. Brokenshire said that the UK wants convergence in animal health regulations but, at their core, his comments were, as I am sure the Minister will agree, quite negative and fell well short of addressing the issues as laid out by the Minister in respect of full regulatory equivalence and the concerns of businesses on both sides of the Border.

Fianna Fáil supports the Minister's call for a multi-year transition period but there are 498 days left and we have Monsieur Barnier and the BBC warning of collapse in the talks. All year the Government has promised to publish detailed sector by sector plans, including contingency for a hard Brexit. Now we will have to include contingency for a no-deal scenario and a disorderly Brexit. I cannot get any answer from the Taoiseach as to where these plans are or when they will be published. Plans such as these would bring comfort to, or at least engagement on the part of, various businesses regarding what sort of contingency planning and Government supports are in place. Will the Minister indicate when we and, more importantly, the agrifood sector, farmers and the tourism and transport industries will see these detailed sector-by-sector plans, including the contingency plans?

It is important to quote the Secretary of State, Mr. Brokenshire, fully. While he did say what the Deputy has outlined, he also said "[W]e have made equally clear we are determined to find bespoke solutions to Northern Ireland's unique circumstances, not least as the only part of the UK to share a land border with an EU member state." There is a recognition from James Brokenshire that these are complex issues that need bespoke, unique and flexible solutions. We can all agree that we are not where we need to be in the context of those solutions.

The Deputy referred to contingency planning. Work in this regard is ongoing. The Deputy is asking for published, specific plans for certain outcomes. There are so many outcomes that are possible from Brexit right now that we could put all our resources into trying to develop responses to each of them. A great deal of detailed contingency planning needs to happen but our main focus has to be on getting the right outcome in the negotiations. This is where our focus lies. As the Deputy rightly stated, we must see to it that if the worst-case scenario were to happen, Ireland needs to ensure that it is not fundamentally caught out and that we have a plan which will kick in. We will have this, but it is not something we want to see happen. As I have said many times, we will contingency plan for the worst-case scenario but we will continue to negotiate to try to get the best possible outcome.

Brexit Negotiations

Róisín Shortall


4. Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit situation; the contingency planning that is under way to minimise the adverse effects of this outcome on Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48584/17]

In light of growing concern in the House, among the public and in the business community, including the agribusiness community, about the worsening state of affairs in relation to Brexit, it is important for the Minister to set out the Government's assessment of the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit and explain to the House what contingency planning is under way in his Department.

As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade with special responsibility for Brexit, I am working closely with colleagues across Government to address the many challenges resulting from Brexit. This co-operation also involves the relevant State agencies. Work at Cabinet level is being prepared through cross-departmental co-ordination structures. All relevant Departments are providing research, analysis and overall policy input to the Government's wider response to Brexit, including its priorities for the ongoing Article 50 negotiations between the EU and the UK, as I outlined to Deputy Donnelly. An important focus of planning and preparation is deepening the Government's analysis and understanding of the exact consequences of a range of different possible scenarios, including one in which no withdrawal agreement is concluded. This represents an intensification of the Government's previous contingency planning. All Departments are assessing in a very concrete way the immediate legal or practical consequences of a no-deal Brexit in their areas and what mitigating measures might be possible. It will then be necessary for the Government to consider the situation in the round and discuss whether specific actions are required at that stage.

Aside from its wider co-ordination responsibilities, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has lead responsibility for planning for, preparing positions on and following the EU-UK negotiations. This requires research on and analysis of very many legal, institutional and political issues. The eventual outcome of negotiations will, of course, be decisive in determining the shape and effects of Brexit. Our permanent representation in Brussels and our embassies in all member states send us a constant stream of reports describing and analysing the concerns and priorities of EU institutions and our partners. I will come back with supplementary answers.

The Minister has not actually provided his assessment of the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit. That is what we are all keen to hear. Recently, the European Commission called on the UK to commit to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, including by ensuring no emergence of regulatory divergence from the rules of the internal market and the customs union which are or may be necessary in future for meaningful North-South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement. We all agree with that. However, Mr. David Davis took a very different position earlier this week. We all heard his assertion that Northern Ireland cannot remain within the customs union. These are two absolutely divergent positions and the fundamental question is how they can be reconciled. No one can see how it can be done.

While David Davis said that, he also published a paper during the summer which explored the concept of a customs union partnership to allow Britain, Ireland and the rest of the European Union to remain within the one customs union. While he is saying, consistent with the British Government position, that they are leaving the customs union, the Single Market and the European Union, it does not mean they will not commit, having left, to a redesigned customs union and new trade partnership arrangements which, I hope, allow for barrier-free trade between Britain and the European Union. Let us see how that develops. We are not at that stage yet.

As to the chances of a no-deal Brexit, personally, I think that it is unlikely. It would be very, very bad for Britain and for Ireland should that happen. I do not believe the British Government will allow it to happen. The EU task force will negotiate in a way that is consistent but fair and which shows some understanding of British difficulties around some of the issues they face. I do not believe the negotiating teams will allow a situation to arise wherein we have no deal and Britain crashes out of the European Union with no contingency planning in place. That would be madness and I do not believe it will happen.

We all agree that it would be madness from our point of view and from that of the EU. While we all hope for the best, however, we must clearly prepare for the worst. The worst is becoming more and more likely as time goes on, unfortunately. It is important to recall the comments of Mr. Michel Barnier in the House earlier in the year. He was confident about free movement of people and services but not of goods. He is not becoming any more optimistic as time goes on.

I listened to Mr. Danny McCoy of IBEC during the week after he and other business interests had a meeting in Downing Street. He said that while "the" customs union might not survive, we could be talking about "a" customs union. Can the Minister provide the House with more detail on the possibility of a customs union? Is there a model we might follow?

On the general issue of a breakdown, there will come points in any negotiation cycle with which very significant stakes are associated where things are really difficult. This is a really difficult negotiation and we are coming to one of those points in December. Britain wants desperately to move on to phase 2, as do many other countries, including Ireland, and as do businesses. We have an annual east-west trade relationship with Britain of €65 billion and 38,000 Irish businesses trade with Britain every week. They all need certainty, which they cannot get until we move on to phase 2. However, these negotiations are structured in such a way that we must deal with some issues before we can move on, one of which is a really important issue for Ireland. That is creating tension because some people are not ready to move on some of those issues. We need to hold firm, trust in the process and the experienced negotiators on both sides and ensure we uphold the Irish interest through December.

The British paper was not a bad starting point. This concept of a customs union partnership is one we could further explore, but that has to happen between the task force and the British negotiating team. It will not happen in earnest, however, until we move on to phase 2.