The first group have given approval to Deputy Cullinane to substitute for Deputies Adams, Burton and Howlin, who are not present due to the death of the former Ceann Comhairle.
Ceisteanna - Questions
1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will establish a Cabinet committee with responsibility for Irish unity. [1829/18]
2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [3051/18]
3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, last met. [3062/18]
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit,) last met; and when it will next meet. [4552/18]
Richard Boyd BarrettQuestion:
5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, last met. [5691/18]
6. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, last met. [5727/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.
Cabinet committees are used to ensure a whole-of-Government, co-ordinated approach on issues, as necessary. They often allow for more in-depth examination of issues in advance of consideration by the full Cabinet.
Cabinet committee C assists the Government in its ongoing consideration of Brexit and other EU issues. It is also of use in the context of my participation as a member of the European Council. It last met on 11 September and is scheduled to meet again this month.
In the intervening period, there has been regular discussion of issues relating to Brexit at full Cabinet meetings, including in the run-up to the December agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom and at the all-day meeting in Cork on 13 October last year. In addition to meetings of the full Cabinet and its committees, I meet Ministers on an individual basis, as required, to focus on particular issues with a view to seeing how the Government can best support delivery of priorities and commitments. There is also ongoing and regular co-ordination of EU and Brexit issues at official level, including through meetings of inter-departmental senior officials groups, a number of which are chaired by officials of my Department.
The question of Irish unity is governed by the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. Issues relating to Northern Ireland are regularly considered by Ministers and the Government. We do not need a new Cabinet committee in that regard. More generally, the North-South Ministerial Council is the best forum to advance North-South issues and co-operation. I hope we will see early restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and urge all the political parties to work to that end.
In my party's view, the Government and the political parties in the Dáil need to get to grips with the reality that it is no longer tenable to speak rhetorically about Irish unity. The Taoiseach is right when he speaks about the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. It provided a democratic and peaceful means of achieving Irish unity. If we want Irish unity, however, we must put bones on exactly how that is going to be brought about. Sinn Féin put forward a practical proposal to have an all-party committee in the House to examine how that could be done. We are aware that recent population changes in the North have underpinned the need for such an approach. We also know that the census in the North, which for the first time asked about identity, revealed that those who view themselves as British are now a minority at 48%. Unionists have, for the first time, lost their majority in the Assembly. In the same census, those who define themselves as Irish were at 45%. While I wish to see a united Ireland, I also wish to see one in which those who are British and those who have a different identity are comfortable and where their rights are fully protected. I have always maintained, as does my party, that unionists in a united Ireland can never be treated like nationalists have been treated in a partitioned Ireland. We want a new republic and we want a different type of Ireland, North and South. We do not want to peg North and South together to simply have a united Ireland but not a united people. That is the type of Ireland I want to build. It makes practical sense to have a committee in this House that would look at how we can practically work towards Irish unity.
I was not surprised that the leader of Fianna Fáil rejected such an offer, given that he is the most pro-unionist leader of his party, certainly in my lifetime and possibly for longer than that. I expected, however, that the new Taoiseach would see the reality of what is before him; that this is a realistic practical proposal by Sinn Féin. The Taoiseach asks for proposals all the time, and when we give them to the Taoiseach, he rejects them. I am asking him to reconsider it because it is in the spirit of wanting to work towards Irish unity in a practical way.
The Deputy should note I want to cover as many questions as possible. We shall take all the supplementary questions together. I call Deputy Martin.
On a point of order, I thought the Irish unity issue would have been a separate question to that on the Cabinet sub-committee. Could we have a bit more time? Essentially we are asking two questions; one on Brexit and the European Union and one on Irish unity.
It was agreed to group them.
Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, have been grouped by the relevant people.
They are two very separate questions.
We will see how we get on.
I will do my best. On the question on Irish unity, one point that has caused a lot of division in recent years is that many people are getting tired of the politics of the empty gesture. The only credible way of achieving Irish unity remains in showing the majority in the North the strength of our community of interests and that we utterly reject the zero-sum sectarianism, of which there is sadly still too much in this House and in Irish politics.
When the leader of a party that claims to want unity says the equality agenda is "the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy", or when his hand-picked successor honours sectarian killers, that party shows an attitude that directly stands in the way of building support for unity. That is a fact.
No. That is not a fact.
Sinn Féin represents the greatest barrier-----
That is Deputy Martin's propaganda.
-----to Irish unity. As a former Minister involved in North-South infrastructural development in education, health and enterprise, I regret very much the lack of progress on North-South infrastructure over the past eight or nine years. Will the Taoiseach tell the House of the North-South projects the Government is identifying, with the British Government and the Northern political system - as it now exists in the absence of the Executive - and about these developments. I believe that the failure to deliver the Narrow Water bridge project concretised and encapsulated in a nutshell the lack of energy and impetus regarding North-South co-operation on all sides, including Sinn Féin, the unionists and the Irish and British Governments. It was a classic project that had both communities from different traditions urging it on but through inertia and a lack of commitment, it failed to be delivered.
On the issue of the EU, I have a number of questions on Cabinet committee C. It is striking that the Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit has not met since September. This means that the Government's proposals on Europe were not cleared by the Cabinet sub-committee or the ideas were not discussed there initially prior to the Taoiseach speaking to the European Parliament. Were they agreed with the Taoiseach's colleagues beforehand?
As for the studies on the impact of Brexit, last week the Taoiseach listed a range of documents, including studies not carried out by the Government, but having reviewed the list the fact remains the Government has not produced any report that goes into detail about the possible impact of likely scenarios or mitigating activities that might be required. We know about sectoral exposure because of work that was completed before the Taoiseach came into office but we do not know the sectoral impacts under various scenarios, including, for example, under a Canada-type trade deal or a South Korean-type trade deal. There is no clarity in respect of the services sector. We have had no debate about it. While everyone goes on about merchandise, hard borders and physical infrastructure, services are a huge part of the trade between east and west and North and South. We have not had enough focus on that and I question whether there is a whole-of-Government approach to Brexit or whether the other Departments are lagging far behind in engaging with the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
My main question is about Palestine but I will briefly ask about the united Ireland issue. I agree with having the committee but if we want to further the drive towards Irish unity, we need to immediately separate church and State, get our schools and hospitals out of the hands of the Catholic Church and do something about the appalling lack of a universal, proper national health service that does not have people queuing for years on lists. In general, we need to improve social services, especially in the areas of housing. This would make the prospect of unity attractive and would be the best preparation to forward the struggle for Irish unity.
On Palestine, I am aware there were some discussions about the outrageous moves by the Trump Administration to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in what was a flagrant provocation of the entire Arab world and the Palestinian population. It reinforced even further the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem and the illegal occupations of the West Bank by settlers. Is the Taoiseach willing to follow the example of Denmark? Whenever we ask why the Irish Government does not unilaterally show a bit of backbone on the issue of Palestine, recognise the state of Palestine and boycott Israel for what under international law and UN security resolutions is illegal activity in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the Government always hides behind the European Union. The Irish Government states it cannot do anything because Ireland is tied into the foreign policy of the European Union. Denmark, however, has proven that this is not the case. This month, Denmark has made a decision to boycott any companies that have any involvement whatsoever in the occupied territories. If Denmark can do it then we can do it. We should do it immediately. It is simply unconscionable how countries in Europe that claim to uphold human rights can stand by while Israel flagrantly acts in defiance of international law and flouts the human rights of Palestinian people in the occupied territories. Will the Taoiseach respond on whether we could follow the lead of Denmark and take independent, unilateral action to boycott Israel for its actions in the occupied territories?
I shall address the first matter on Irish unity. I reiterate the Government is committed to the Good Friday Agreement and we see ourselves as - and are - co-guarantors of that agreement. We should not forget that when the Good Friday Agreement was approved, it was approved by 97% of people voting in a referendum in this State and more than 70% of people voting in a referendum in Northern Ireland. Talks are under way in Stormont at present. As I speak, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, is in Belfast representing the Government.
As those talks are at a very sensitive stage, today is not the day to be asserting our unionism or nationalism. I do not think any good purpose would be served by giving anyone any cause to take offence. I think that is all I will say for now. The Tánaiste is working very hard today in Belfast to try to help the parties, particularly the two largest parties, to come to a compromise in order that the Executive and the Assembly can get up and running again.
Even though the Executive and the Assembly are not functioning, a great deal of good work is still being done with regard to North-South projects. For example, the cancer service at Altnagelvin Area Hospital in Derry is seeing patients from County Donegal who need radiotherapy every day. There is an agreement in place to ensure patients from County Donegal who have particular types of heart attacks can get primary percutaneous coronary intervention treatment in Altnagelvin in Derry, rather than in locations like Galway or Dublin, which are much further away. We are making very good progress on integrating cardiac surgery for children in order that children from the entire island of Ireland will have their cardiac surgery in Crumlin and subsequently, in the new national children's hospital.
The A5 project has received approval in Northern Ireland at long last. I anticipate that the sod will be turned on the first phase of that road this year. We are co-funding that. We are very keen to complete that project, which will connect Dublin to Derry and Letterkenny. It will pass through Northern Ireland and counties Monaghan and Meath. When I was looking at the travel times the other day, I noted that when the road has been completed, it will take an hour to drive from Emyvale to Derry. It will be quicker to drive from the northern part of Monaghan to Derry than to Dublin. This shows how infrastructure of this nature can change a country. We are very committed to this project.
Does the Taoiseach have a timeline for the N2?
Obviously, the ten-year infrastructure investment plan has not yet been agreed. It will be published when it has been agreed. As Deputy Donnelly will be aware, the Government is very committed to the A5 and N2 upgrades. Deputies will be aware that the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is very committed to the Ulster Canal project. Approval is now in place for the North-South interconnector, which will integrate our energy markets. There was a lot of support for the Narrow Water bridge project, but there was also a lot of opposition to it.
It came from different groups, including the fishermen who use the Narrow Water.
This is a new one on me.
No, it is not new at all.
The Taoiseach's predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny, said the Government was in favour of it all along.
I had a little involvement with the project when I served as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. There were objections from the fishing industry in the area and, more recently, those who operate a ferry service there.
That is not why it was not built.
This project has certainly not been ruled out. I think it is a very attractive project but it would require support from the Executive in Northern Ireland when it is up and running. The Government will be supportive of it when it gets to that point.
The Government lost the chance for direct funding. The Taoiseach is being disingenuous and dishonest.
Funding has been released to allow progress to be made with the north-west gateway project between Derry and Donegal. A great deal of low-key co-operation is happening under the radar. Maybe that is sometimes the best type of co-operation that happens between North and South. On the health side, some patients are now attending the new hospital in Enniskillen, which is helping us with our waiting lists.
Cabinet committee C involves approximately 40 people including some, but not all, Ministers and many officials. As a Cabinet sub-committee, it is not empowered to make any decisions on behalf of the Government. We use it, by and large, as a clearing house to make sure everyone is informed about what is going on. When decisions have to be made, they are made by the Cabinet. There have been a number of special Cabinet meetings on Brexit, including one in December at which Government support for the EU-UK report was approved. I imagine there will be further meetings of that nature in the coming weeks as well.
Speeches that are made by me, the Tánaiste or the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs do not require Government approval. I have spent seven years serving at Cabinet level and I have never seen a speech being agreed by the Cabinet.
I was not referring to the speech itself but to the Government's policy on the future of Europe.
Perhaps it was different in the past.
Is it the case that the policy on the future of Europe does not require any discussion at Cabinet level? If so, that is an extraordinary statement.
The Government's position on Palestine is clear. We support the establishment of a Palestinian state. No such state exists at present. The Palestinian territories are occupied by Israel. We have taken a decision not to recognise a state that does not yet exist. It is very much our view that Jerusalem and the state of Jerusalem should be settled as part of a final stated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. In the meantime, our embassy will stay in Tel Aviv. I am not up to date with the foreign policy position Denmark is taking in this regard, but we have to bear in mind that when a country recognises Palestine, Israel interprets that in the same way as the Palestinians have interpreted the US Government's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I understand this has happened in the case of Sweden. The Israeli Government has a tendency to disengage with countries that recognise the state of Palestine. That could undermine the important humanitarian work we do in that region. We have plans to intensify and increase the humanitarian work we do in the Palestinian territories. We have to consider that this work could be undermined.
If we proceed now to the next group of questions, comprising Questions Nos. 7 to 10, inclusive, I think we will get to the third group of questions.
7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach to set out his Department's priorities for 2018. [2111/18]
8. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his Department's priorities for 2018. [3052/18]
Richard Boyd BarrettQuestion:
9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach to set out his Department's priorities for 2018. [3091/18]
10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the priorities of his Department for 2018. [5417/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 10, inclusive, together.
The Department of the Taoiseach recently published its revised statement of strategy, which reflects the priorities for the period ahead and the changes that have taken place since my appointment as Taoiseach. The establishment of a new configuration of Cabinet committees encompasses the Government's national priorities for the coming years. The statement of strategy reflects the Department's role in supporting the Taoiseach and the Government to develop a sustainable economy and a successful society, to pursue Ireland's interests abroad, to implement the Government's programme and to build a better future for Ireland and all of its citizens.
The statement of strategy, which is aligned to the Government's key priorities and policies, sets out six strategic priorities: providing excellent support services for the Taoiseach and the Government, ensuring Ireland has a sustainable economy, helping to ensure Government policies and services support a socially inclusive and fair society, ensuring Ireland maintains strong relationships in Europe and the world, ensuring the best possible outcomes for Ireland from the Brexit negotiations across all four priorities identified by the Government and planning for the future in the context of the many uncertainties arising in the international environment. It also incorporates the work of the Department linked to specific initiatives, including work relating to the Citizens' Assembly, data protection, strategic communications and a number of statutory inquiries.
Arising from the work to date of the Citizens' Assembly and the work of the previous Constitutional Convention, the Government has published an indicative timetable for a number of referendums in 2018 and 2019. The Government has a number of key priorities for the immediate period ahead. The Department of the Taoiseach, along with other relevant Departments, will assist in making progress with these priorities, which include Northern Ireland, the publication of the national planning framework and the ten-year infrastructure plan, the Brexit negotiations, the ongoing reform of the justice and health sectors, the doubling of Ireland's global footprint, reform of the Seanad, climate change, pension reform and housing. The protection of Ireland's growing economy is critical to ensuring Ireland is an equal society that creates equal opportunities for all of its people to participate and share in its prosperity. The new revised statement of strategy will guide the work of the Department in achieving these goals in the years ahead.
On the priorities of the Department of the Taoiseach, I referred during our discussion on the previous group of questions to the need for sectoral impact studies in the context of Brexit. I put it to the Taoiseach that we do not know what the sectoral impacts will be under the various scenarios that may emerge from the EU-UK deal on Brexit, if such a deal emerges. I am thinking particularly of the possibility of a Canada-style or a South Korea-style deal. There is a lack of clarity in respect of the services sector. I ask the Taoiseach to indicate whether further work on the sectoral impacts of Brexit will be published as part of the Department's priority work. If so, when will it be published? The Taoiseach gave commitments in that regard when he was appointed as Taoiseach. He said that detailed sectoral impact studies would be done under various scenarios.
I make the point that the Taoiseach's speech to the European Parliament was about the future of Europe. The entire purpose of Cabinet committee C on European affairs is to discuss that issue and issues like it. I am not talking about the mere speech itself; I am talking about proposals about the future of Europe emanating from the Government on behalf of the country. The Taoiseach promised that there would be consultation with the Dáil on such proposals. Is he now suggesting that when he goes off to speak about Ireland's position on profound issues like the future evolution and development of Europe, he does not have to consult his Cabinet colleagues, a Cabinet committee or indeed the Dáil?
I do not think that is the case. There is an onus to have full engagement with the Dáil on key issues about the future of Europe. For example, can the Taoiseach tell us if he has commissioned any studies on the impact of new digital taxes since this matter was last discussed? We know the Taoiseach is against harmonisation as we are and as are the people. What we do not know is whether concrete steps have been taken to move the discussion on digital taxation from broad generalities to hard specifics. Only when this is done can there be any idea about the implications for Ireland and other countries.
In terms of the Taoiseach's departmental priorities, clearly propaganda will be a core priority with €5 million being spent on priorities decided by the Taoiseach before any public consultation was launched. When this was last discussed, the Taoiseach laughed at the idea that he was deciding on ad buying. Of course he is not buying ads; he has an entire section created within his Department to do that for him. We were promised last year in the Dáil that the market research commissioned to guide the new unit would be made available to us before the marketing campaigns were implemented. This has not happened. Can the Taoiseach explain why it has not happened? Can he confirm that no campaign will be rolled out before the background documentation is made available for scrutiny?
There are many priorities for the Taoiseach's Department in the coming year. I would imagine that the publication of the national planning framework and, more significantly, its implementation are massively important. My party has engaged very extensively with this process and we have made a number of detailed submissions. We know it is important that we get this right. We all want a thriving capital city in Dublin, where there are huge pressures on public services, housing, public transport, infrastructure and population growth. We also need a release valve in different parts of the country and in the regional cities to ensure that we have significant population growth in areas outside Dublin.
There are concerns about the plan. We have an issue about the serious imbalance between the plans for urban and rural areas. We also have significant concerns about its proposals for the north west and the vagueness of the North-South dimension. Given the Brexit issue we discussed earlier, I imagine that an all-island and North-South impact and focus would need to be front and centre in any national planning framework.
In respect of the south east and my constituency, there is hope for a very important project as part of the national planning framework. That is the North Quays, where €300 million of private sector investment is being put on the table and €60 million to €70 million of State funding is necessary to realise the project and get it over the line. This is one of a number of projects which need to underpin any national planning framework if it is to be successful and if it is to be aligned with capital infrastructure. Can the Taoiseach inform the House if plans and proposals like the North Quays project will feature and be properly funded so that we can actually allow those cities that will be identified as regional cities to grow their populations, provide leadership and provide the capacity that is necessary for the entire region and, in that case, the south east to grow and develop? I would appreciate if the Taoiseach could give a response specifically on that issue but also more widely on the national planning framework and its impact on the entire island.
There are many priorities one could talk about but I want to focus on one of them. I believe the Cabinet is, sadly, 11 years on, still discussing the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I hear that we are close to the moment when the Government will ratify it. While I hope that happens, I want to know what the Taoiseach intends to do to actually implement it and to ensure that people with disabilities receive the equality of treatment, support and services that they need to make the convention a reality.
I will cite one example of what I mean. We submitted a parliamentary question in the past week or two about waiting times for walk-in showers for elderly and disabled people in Dún Laoghaire. Quite to our shock, we discovered the waiting time is 18 months. Many of those people cannot be released from hospital and are blocking up beds because they cannot get a walk-in shower. The waiting list for ramps is ten months. People often cannot be released from hospital because of this and the council says it is because it has difficulty getting contractors to do the work. They are absolutely unacceptable waiting times for people who really need things such as ramps, grab rails and showers in particular because of the difficulty getting contractors; in other words, the outsourcing process is preventing it.
The obvious answer is to return to directly employing people in the maintenance departments of local authorities so they do not have to spend six or eight months trying to identify a contractor. We would then have people employed by the local authorities directly to go out and install these things for people with disabilities and the elderly. Would the Taoiseach consider that? The unacceptable situation in Dún Laoghaire is almost certainly replicated right around the country and it is people with disabilities who are suffering the consequences.
Beginning with the sectoral analyses with regard to Brexit, last week I listed the documents and studies that have been published already. I think there have been 20 or 30 and more are forthcoming. We need to acknowledge that they are largely speculative. We do not actually know what the new relationship between the UK and the EU is going to be or whether there will be a different relationship between Britain and Ireland specifically. I think we will have a better idea in that regard in the next few weeks. The most important thing and our priority at the moment is to ensure that there is a transition period so that we actually have time as individuals, as a Government and as businesses to prepare for any long-term permanent changes that may take place in the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
In terms of my speech to the European Parliament, it very much reflected my own views on the future of Europe but was also in line with Government policy. The draft and text of the speech were shared with other Ministers and there was certainly nothing I said about tax or the multiannual financial framework with which the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, would disagree. Nothing I said about the future of Europe contained anything with which the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, or the Minister of State, Helen McEntee, would disagree. On Brexit, my words absolutely and totally reflected Government policy and priorities.
My Department is currently co-ordinating two information campaigns. One is the Healthy Ireland information campaign, which is a cross-Government initiative to encourage people to take charge of their health, improve their health as individuals and also to improve the health of our society. Another campaign that is now under way targets the self-employed and informs them of the supports that the Government provides for setting up businesses, the tax changes we are making to bring about tax equality for the self-employed and also the new benefits we have extended to the self-employed in recent years, such as paternity benefit, dental treatment benefit, invalidity pension on a non-means tested basis for the first time-----
Has the market research been published?
As I said to the Deputy previously, I am not involved in buying any ads or doing any market research, and I have not seen any market research either for that matter
The Taoiseach said it in a formal reply to the House. I am not being flippant about this - he said it, not us.
That market research would be commissioned by this famous strategic communications unit to inform the campaigns that were going to be launched. The Taoiseach has launched campaigns without any market research being published from what we can see. That is all I am asking. Can the Taoiseach make it available?
As I said, I disengaged from any personal involvement in the operations of the communications unit some months ago-----
After the Taoiseach appointed the head person.
Certainly if any market research has been done, I have not seen it myself but I have absolutely no difficulty with it being published.
In respect of the matters raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett, there is a labour and skills shortage across the construction sector which is causing difficulties. It is driving up tender prices and making it harder for us to accelerate house building to the extent we would like, notwithstanding the fact that there were probably more houses built last year in Ireland than in any year of the past decade.
That is a problem and it belies the fact that so many people here promise that if they were in government, they would be able to build tens of thousands of houses overnight or next year. That is not the case.
If the pay was better we would get the workers.
We have a labour and skills shortage but we are dealing with that by expanding the number of apprentices very considerably. We are seeing skilled construction workers migrating into the country again because they are paid better here than in other countries. Whether local authorities want to take people on as direct employees is entirely a matter for them and they can do so if they wish. However, let us not forget there are many sectors in which there is direct employment by the State, like health care, for example, where there also are skills shortages and labour shortages. The assumption that moving back to direct employment will eliminate a skills shortage is incorrect.
11. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the President of the European Parliament, Mr Antonio Tajani, on 17 January 2018. [3003/18]
12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the European Parliament; the meetings he attended; and the issues that were discussed. [3060/18]
13. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his address to the European Parliament on 17 January 2018. [3125/18]
Richard Boyd BarrettQuestion:
14. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his address to the European Parliament on 17 January 2018. [3129/18]
15. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if his statement to the European Parliament represents the Government's official position for the forthcoming negotiations for the European Council. [3174/18]
16. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the European Parliament on 18 January 2018. [3378/18]
17. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the meetings he attended while in Strasbourg; and the issues that were discussed. [3443/18]
18. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the meetings he attended during his recent visit to Strasbourg. [4385/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 18, inclusive, together.
I was honoured to be the first EU Head of Government to be invited to take part in the European Parliament debate series on the future of Europe. My speech to the European Parliament took place in Strasbourg on 17 January. In my intervention, I spoke about the achievements of the European Union, the benefits for Ireland of EU membership, and my thoughts about how best the Union should evolve for the future. I also spoke in some detail about the Brexit negotiations.
I stressed the importance of our values - respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law – and the principles of solidarity, partnership and co-operation and how we need to keep these to the fore as we respond to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. I said that Europe needs a forward-looking agenda with ambition and direction. Acknowledging the achievements of the European Union, we can lead the way with imagination, creativity, and courage and create opportunities for all our citizens.
Rather than looking for great institutional changes, we should focus on implementing what we have already agreed. This should include completing the Single Market, the digital Single Market, the capital markets union and banking union with a view to delivering concrete benefits for our citizens in areas that directly affect their lives.
I stressed that the needs and expectations of our citizens must inform thinking about Europe's future and that a wide debate is therefore crucial. I outlined Ireland's Citizens’ Dialogue on the Future of Europe, which I launched in Trinity College last November and which will run until 9 May, Europe Day. Our aim with this is to facilitate an open and wide-ranging debate with our citizens which will help to inform our approach on a range of key issues.
On Brexit, I highlighted the unique challenges this poses for Ireland and thanked the European Parliament for its strong support and solidarity in the negotiations to date. I also stressed the need to ensure the commitments and principles agreed in December are translated into the withdrawal agreement. I also noted our ambition for a close and comprehensive future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
In their interventions, Members of the European Parliament reiterated their support for Ireland in respect of Brexit. President Juncker's statement that we are all Irish was particularly welcome, as is the Commission’s commitment to propose continued PEACE funding beyond 2020.
In addition to the debate, I had a bilateral meeting in Strasbourg with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani. I thanked him for his strong support with regard to Brexit. We also exchanged views on the future of Europe and I expressed appreciation for his initiative in bringing forward the series of debates in the European Parliament. I also had a bilateral meeting with the European Parliament’s chief Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt. We discussed developments since our last meeting in Dublin in September, and I expressed my sincere appreciation for his understanding and his commitment to ensuring that Ireland's unique concerns are addressed. I also attended a lunch hosted by the first Vice-President of the Parliament, Mairead McGuinness, which was also attended by party group leaders and other MEPs.
I met briefly and exchanged a few words with President Juncker and Michel Barnier, although I did not have a formal bilateral meeting with either. I had a short bilateral meeting with Commission Vice-President Katainen in relation to Mercosur. I emphasised our commitment to free trade generally but highlighted our strong concerns around the very sensitive beef sector and our views on what should and should not be included in any agreement.
I find how the Taoiseach has articulated this to be extraordinary. He said that he spoke on his thoughts about how Europe should evolve and on the future of Europe. He said two or three times today that he did not share his speech to the European Parliament with any of his Cabinet colleagues. I must remind him that the constitutional framework under which he has his position is far different to that of President Macron or indeed President Trump. Those leaders are directly elected by the people. The Taoiseach is not directly elected by the people. Parliament elected him as Taoiseach and when he speaks to the European Parliament on the future of Europe he speaks as Head of the Irish Government, not in a personal capacity. I find it extraordinary that he has presented a case today that, in speaking to the European Parliament, he was essentially speaking in a personal capacity.
The future of Europe is not an issue of conscience. It is an issue of substantive policy and it is extraordinary that in preparing a presentation to the European Parliament on a live debate on the future of Europe, he does not feel any necessity to convene a Cabinet sub-committee, which is specifically in place, on Europe. He did not consult with his Cabinet colleagues or the Parliament here in terms of the future of Europe, including issues such as federalisation and a closer banking union or what will happen if there are further issues with banks concerning guarantees of deposits. There is a whole range of issues out there. Some of the European leaders are pushing for closer harmonisation and closer integration, while others are pursuing different agendas.
From the Taoiseach's perspective, only his personal thoughts were articulated. That is an extraordinary take on the situation and in my view is an incorrect approach that is not in keeping with the constitutional framework governing the position he holds as Taoiseach of the country. We function with collective responsibility in this Parliament. He is a member of Government and he speaks on behalf of that Government. He should not speak in a personal capacity on such a key issue, which involves all of our futures. He committed to prior consultation with this Parliament prior to major European debates, and he did not do so on this occasion. He might indicate the reason why that happened.
I will focus on the Taoiseach's address in the European Parliament and the meetings he attended in Strasbourg and will turn to the theme of Brexit, which dominated and underpinned both of those events. Downing Street has unfortunately restated its determination to leave the customs union and Single Market in the past 48 hours. Mr. Barnier stated yesterday that Britain will face unavoidable barriers to trade if that happens. The Taoiseach and I can agree that both of us want Britain and the North of Ireland to stay in the customs union and the Single Market. We both desire that and notwithstanding any backstop agreement that might be in place, that is the best outcome for Ireland. I appreciate there is a difficulty where there is a negotiation between Britain and all of the other member states while within Britain, the Tory Party is divided with different opinions held within it. It is very difficult to know who has the upper hand and what exactly is happening and what exactly the British Government wants at any given time.
Given those meetings, is the Taoiseach in a position to update the House on his assessment as to where Downing Street and the British Government stand on any trade deal that might emerge and on what are their intentions? It seems that those who advocate a hard Brexit are again gaining the upper hand and that is playing out in a potential leadership struggle within the Tory Party. We cannot become collateral damage in any of that. We cannot allow Ireland to become collateral damage in any of that. It is important that we have as much clarity as possible.
Can the Taoiseach update the House as to when he expects the distinct strand of discussions on the Irish issues to take place? We were promised trade talks between Britain and the European Union on the future trade agreement to be put in place but also parallel talks about how we put flesh on the bones of the joint report on Ireland that was agreed and when that will be put front and centre.
I find that there is regularly an Orwellian disconnect between the pious rhetoric often associated with these set piece speeches in Europe and the aspirations that are articulated and the reality of what is actually happening in Europe.
The Taoiseach spoke about a Europe which respects the rule of law and human rights, and about peace. He then contrasted that with 90 emigrants drowning in the Mediterranean. This month, 246 people on one boat drowned because Europe does not want to let them in and because of what European states have done to wreck Libya and the consequences of that. Where is the respect for human rights and the sense of solidarity in all of that? I do not understand it.
Similarly, to return to the issue of Palestine, I do not understand how we can talk about respect for the rule of law and yet the European Union does nothing whatsoever about the fact that Israel acts flagrantly in breach of United Nations security resolutions on the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. There is ongoing ethnic cleansing but it does nothing. It does nothing about the fact that it continues its murderous siege of the people of Gaza, and sanctions are not taken. I genuinely do not understand it. At a certain point, the world acknowledged that apartheid South Africa was a regime that could not continue. At what point will the European Union say that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians cannot continue, that we will no longer continue to treat it as a normal state and that we will impose some sort of sanctions? We have tried conciliation for decades and it has not worked. The situation just gets worse.
Before the Taoiseach comes in, I would not want to inadvertently mislead the House. The Taoiseach tendered for market research on that issue and we were told it would be published. He might check that.
None of my Department's tenders are run by me, nor do they have to be-----
I am not saying that. The Taoiseach said it in the House.
-----but I am happy to confirm once again that I have no difficulty whatsoever in publishing the outcome of any market research commissioned by my Department. I am happy to give that commitment.
In terms of my speech to the European Parliament, I was not speaking in a personal capacity; I was speaking as Head of Government. I was invited there as Head of Government but it is not required and has never been required that speeches made by a Taoiseach, a Tánaiste or a Minister in any international forum, whether it is the United Nations, the Council of Europe-----
I am not saying that. The Taoiseach knows what I am saying. I am talking about the policy on the future of Europe.
-----the European Parliament or any other parliament requires a Government decision or parliamentary approval. Anything that requires a Government decision has to go to Cabinet and anything that requires parliamentary approval has to come to this House and the Seanad. I did not make any policy commitments on behalf of the Government or the country and anything I said was very much in line with Government policy. If there is something in particular I said that Deputy Micheál Martin objected to or that was contrary to Government policy-----
-----or against the wishes of the Oireachtas, he might inform me because I would like to know. However, it seems that----
It is extraordinary, from a policy perspective, that the Cabinet committee would not meet to discuss such a matter. The future of Europe is a very important issue.
Surely the Taoiseach would accept that, and yet he goes off on a soliloquy.
It seems that the Deputy is more interested in process than substance.
If there was anything of substance that-----
I am more interested in substance than public relations.
-----Fianna Fáil objected to, I would have thought it would have been mentioned or raised by now.
There are just ten seconds left in this process.
Is the Taoiseach saying that the speech had no substance?
I am saying that the criticisms the Deputy offered relate entirely process and not substance.
No. It is more process.
If the difference between us is process rather than substance, fair enough. If the Deputy has any substantial criticism of anything I said to the European Parliament, he might have mentioned it. However, he did not.
Sadly, the process of Taoiseach's questions has come to an end.