1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F (national security) last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [5521/18]
1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F (national security) last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [5521/18]
2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F (national security) will next meet. [5753/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
The committee last met on 8 February and the meeting was attended by Ministers and senior officials from the Departments of Finance; Public Expenditure and Reform; Foreign Affairs and Trade; Justice and Equality; Health; Communications, Climate Action and Environment; Transport, Tourism and Sport; Housing, Planning and Local Government; and Defence. Also in attendance were personnel from the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána.
The role of Cabinet committee F is to keep the State's systems for the analysis of, preparation for and response to threats to national security under review and provide for high level co-ordination between relevant Departments and agencies on related matters. The Cabinet committee also allows greater ministerial involvement in preparing for and managing major security threats.
Yesterday the National Cyber Security Centre issued a statement on a cyberattack on Departments and agencies over the weekend. According to a report in The Irish Times, the affected websites include those of the HSE, the Oireachtas, safefood and some local authorities. According to the report, cyberattacks have become increasingly common in recent times, particularly on Government websites and IT networks. What action has been taken by the National Cyber Security Centre in response to the latest attacks? We have to accept that it is not just a domestic issue; it is also one that needs an international response. The EU directive on network and information systems is supposed to represent a significant change in how countries in Europe approach cybersecurity and is due to be transposed into Irish law before 9 May. Will that deadline be met?
In recent days the European Committee of Social Rights upheld the right of representative associations of the Defence Forces to better collective bargaining negotiating rights and affiliate to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The Government has repeatedly blocked this on the grounds of so-called national security. Yesterday the president of PDFORRA said "the Government fought us every step of the way in respect of this complaint." Is it not the right time to do the right thing and provide proper employee rights for members of the Defence Forces to allow for collective bargaining and affiliation to the ICTU?
I will pick up on the point made by Deputy Eoin Ó Broin on the cyberattack by rogue hackers which infected a number of State agency systems, apparently mining for cryptocurrencies. I do not know how it is done, but I am sure somebody does. The impact is simply the latest manifestation of the vulnerability of State's Internet systems to external attack. Obviously, the data held by organisations such as the HSE, the Oireachtas and local authorities can be very important for citizens. What efforts are under way specifically to deal with the most significant potential assaults on us as a nation? I understand the Defence Forces have only two personnel seconded to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment to deal with this issue on an ongoing basis. Will the Taoiseach give us an indication of the structure and size of the efforts made to combat cyberattacks and maintain cybersecurity in the State? Does he believe it is enough? Do we need a new agency? Are the agencies in existence co-operating well? How could matters be improved and have they been debated?
I have two other brief questions. One concerns foreign interference with our electoral processes. We are aware from what happened overtly in the United States, France and a number of other countries that it is expected that external forces often try to influence the outcome of democratic elections by manipulating opinion online. Do we have any defence mechanism against this or is it something that is on the Government's agenda?
My third question is on a point I raised some time ago. The Taoiseach might have had an opportunity to reflect on it. If not, he might come back to me on it. In the event of a national crisis, we issue a red alert. We did it in the case of Storm Ophelia and there was a lot of confusion about what exactly it meant. The Government task force on emergency planning was to have submitted a document in January for consideration by the Government. That is what we were told at the end of last year about a national standard response that was expected when a red alert was declared.
Was that report submitted to the Government in January and will the Government issue national guidelines on how to handle a red alert?
On 22 May last year, the Taoiseach's predecessor said that the date and any element of the national security meetings should be kept confidential. The Taoiseach has obviously changed this approach by tweeting the date and attendance of a meeting. What is the current position on the public status of the committee? Has the Government moved to a system where the dates and rotating attendance, as opposed to the fixed membership, will be public? On several occasions the Taoiseach has said he wants to take time to examine what has been undertaken to neutralise cyberattacks which have been identified in the national risk as a threat of the highest level. Has there been any progress on this measure? Have any new steps been taken to join with groupings of European countries working together to identify and fend off cyberattacks?
The Government recently opposed a Private Member's Bill introduced by Deputy Lawless which dealt with addressing the threat to democratic debate posed by illegally funded disinformation campaigns using social media. This makes Ireland an outlier in Europe in saying that it is not interested in taking legislative action to protect its basic electoral financing and transparency laws. Given what he heard in Davos and from the Prime Minister of Estonia, whose democracy is under constant attack, will he reverse this position and support Deputy Lawless's Bill?
I will start by responding to the questions about cyberattacks and cyberterrorism. The director of the National Cyber Security Centre attended the Cabinet subcommittee meeting last week and gave us a presentation on the work of that centre, what is being done and what more needs to be done. Deputies will understand why I cannot disclose what is being done and what more needs to be done. It is a relatively new centre, based in University College Dublin, UCD, and has approximately 20 members of staff. It is fair to say there are real risks to information and data held by public bodies such as the HSE, the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection when it comes to cybersecurity and cyberattacks. We saw the impact of the WannaCry attack on the National Health Service, NHS, which thankfully we avoided in Ireland. Given the many technology companies and data centres based in Ireland, we do have a particular responsibility to enhance and increase our actions in this area.
On the cyberattacks, over recent years, having identified cybersecurity as an issue of national importance, we have steadily been building our cybersecurity capacity to ensure the State is protected against threats of security, confidentiality, integrity and availability of the network and information systems of critical national infrastructure operators and providers. The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment published a national cybersecurity strategy 2015-17. That formally established the National Cyber Security Centre, which is now up and running. It is focused on the protection of critical national information infrastructure in sectors such as energy, health care, financial services, transport, drinking water supply, digital infrastructure and communications. Recent cybersecurity incidents that have occurred globally were responded to and contained in Ireland but there was no cause for complacency. By comparison with other jurisdictions the impact in Ireland has been limited.
Significant progress has been made in transposing the EU directive on the security of network and information systems. That includes measures such as establishing a list of potential operators of essential services, OES, and the Department has published a consultation paper on the proposed security measures and incident reporting guidelines that these entities, once formally designated, will have to meet. It will be on them and their obligation to provide such security but we will oversee it. Work is progressing on the second area of legislation regarding the transposition of the directive and that will be finalised in quarter 1 of this year. The current threat assessment for Ireland continues to be moderate. That is, an attack is considered possible but not likely.
The European Committee on Social Rights has considered a complaint submitted in 2014 by the European Organisation of Military Associations, EUROMIL, on behalf of the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, concerning the lack of certain rights for military representative associations in Ireland. Having considered the submissions made in 2015 and early 2016, the committee published its findings yesterday. The committee concluded that prohibiting military personnel from the right to strike was not a breach of the European Social Charter but that the charter was breached in prohibiting the representative associations from affiliating with the national employee organisations such as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, and in respect of the right to bargain collectively. The Government acknowledges the committee's findings and specifically the conclusion that the prohibition on the right to strike for members of the Defence Forces is not a violation of the European Social Charter. The taking of any form of industrial action is irreconcilable with military law, which is critically important for security and for the Defence Forces so that they are not restricted in undertaking their operations.
Since the submissions which were the basis for the decision were made, the Government has taken steps to begin to deal with these issues. The representative associations were invited to make submissions to the Public Service Pay Commission and were involved in the most recent pay negotiations that led to the Lansdowne Road agreement or its latest iteration. The Minister of State with responsibility for defence, Deputy Kehoe, has commenced a review of the Defence Forces conciliation and arbitration scheme. That is being chaired by Mr. Gerard Barry and PDFORRA is participating in that. At the Minister of State's direction, the terms of reference require that the review now consider the committee's findings from yesterday. This is the appropriate forum in which to consider the issues that arise from the committee's decision. The Minister of State has also recently announced a review of the schemes and an initial meeting with the parties to the scheme will take place on 26 February 2018. The committee's findings will be considered as part of that approach.
3. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his engagement with the Prime Minister of Estonia, Mr Jüri Ratas on 31 January 2018. [5522/18]
4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach his planned meetings with foreign Heads of State over the next two months. [5692/18]
5. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the Prime Minister of Estonia in Dublin; and the issues discussed at the meeting. [5977/18]
6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Estonian Prime Minister on 31 January 2018. [6882/18]
7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his travel plans over the next two months. [6905/18]
8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the details of his forthcoming meetings with Heads of Government, Heads of State and EU Presidents over the next six months. [7296/18]
9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Chancellor Merkel since she has formed a government. [7443/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 3, to 9, inclusive, together.
I met the Estonian Prime Minister, Mr. Jüri Ratas, during his official visit to Ireland on 31 January. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence. As a small EU member state approaching its own centenary, I congratulated the Prime Minister on Estonia's achievement and on the dynamic space it has created for itself in modern Europe.
Ireland and Estonia are like-minded on many issues, and we exchanged views on further intensifying our co-operation across the EU agenda. This is particularly important in light of the debate on the future of Europe. Our approaches are similar. We both believe the EU needs an ambitious approach with a focus on implementing measures in areas that directly benefit our citizens' daily lives. This means, for example, that we want to see completion of the Single Market, the digital Single Market, the capital markets union and the banking union. We want to develop our trade relations with other parts of the world beyond the European Union.
Estonia and Ireland have worked especially closely together on the digital agenda. The Prime Minister and I agreed to continue our co-operation here, and we discussed some innovative new ideas, such as eprescriptions. We also, of course, discussed the Brexit negotiations. I thanked Prime Minister Ratas for his support for our unique concerns, and highlighted the need to ensure that the commitments and principles agreed in December are translated into legal text in the withdrawal agreement, which is under negotiation. We welcomed the negotiating directives on transitional arrangements that were agreed by foreign and Europe Ministers on 29 January, and looked forward to starting negotiations on these with the UK, as the EU 27. We both agreed that the future relationship between the EU and the UK should be as close as possible while ensuring a level playing field and protecting the integrity of the Single Market.
The Prime Minister and I discussed a range of other EU issues, including security and defence, where Estonia has some real concerns and where I noted our decision to participate in the permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, as a founding member, and the EU budget, where we agreed on the need to ensure continued funding for agriculture and cohesion and to be open to looking at funding other new areas.
Engagement with our EU and international partners is crucial to Ireland's interests, particularly as Brexit advances and as we seek to form alliances around a range of issues. I travelled to Vienna on 8 February where I had a bilateral meeting with the new Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz. We discussed several issues of shared interest, including the forthcoming Austrian Presidency in the second half of this year.
I also had the opportunity to meet the Austrian President, the Foreign Minister and the European Affairs Minister.
I have not yet had an opportunity to speak with Chancellor Merkel since the conclusion of government formation negotiations. As the House is aware, Chancellor Merkel and I had a bilateral meeting last June and I look forward to meeting her in the near future once a new government is established in Germany.
I have met and spoken with Prime Minister May on several occasions, including most recently yesterday in Belfast where we assessed the state of play in the negotiations to restore the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly and encouraged the parties to reach an agreement so that functioning institutions can commence work again in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. We are hopeful that the two main parties will be able to come to agreement this week allowing other parties to join thereafter and establish an inclusive Executive for Northern Ireland. We also discussed Brexit and I made clear that we want and expect to see the agreement reached in December fully reflected in the withdrawal agreement. This means spelling out the regulatory alignment option in detail but does not preclude exploring the other options proposed by the UK Government in parallel. This is option B.
I will meet with President Mattarella of Italy tomorrow during his state visit to Ireland. On 23 February, I will attend an informal summit of EU Heads of State and Government in Brussels as part of President Tusk's leaders' agenda.
I also plan to visit the US for the traditional St. Patrick's Day celebrations. This provides a unique opportunity for us to advance our interests with a country with which we have deep connections and many shared interests. I look forward to the visit during which I will meet with President Trump in Washington DC.
I will attend meetings of the European Council in Brussels on 22 and 23 March and on 28 and 29 June. As usual, I will report to the House both before and after those meetings. I also hope to attend an informal EU summit which has been scheduled to take place in Sofia in Bulgaria on 17 May. Further bilateral engagements are being planned, including a visit to Dublin by the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel. I will, of course, announce these when they are finalised.
On a point of order, I have noticed in the past two weeks the lumping of questions that are quite different into one group, which is not acceptable. We stopped this way back. I noticed that the same thing happened last week. This week, we have lumped together Estonia, Germany, travel plans all over Europe and the US into one group.
We will take questions anyway. The Taoiseach will refer to that when he responds.
It does not help us to plan in terms of preparation for questions to the Taoiseach.
I will take supplementary questions as they are tabled. Deputy Micheál Martin will have an opportunity to put one.
I appreciate that but I would like some-----
The Taoiseach might respond.
I will certainly take it on board. The reason they are all grouped together is that they all relate to bilateral meetings with Prime Ministers, who I met, when I met them and where I met them, but I will take that on board.
The Taoiseach will take it on board. There are seven supplementaries. Could Deputies take about a minute each? It is in their own interests.
We will be taking seven questions-----
We will be flexible.
Just give more time.
If Deputies so wish, but let us be pragmatic and see how they develop.
I will be brief. I support Deputy Micheál Martin's point of order, which is well made. Estonia is a country with a history not unlike our own. It has endured centuries of occupation and, as the Taoiseach said, celebrates a very significant centenary this year, which is the anniversary of its declaration of independence. We have a relatively small but very vibrant Estonian community in Ireland and I think we will all extend our solidarity to it on this significant milestone. In more modern times, Estonia is very similar to this country in that it is a small northern European country with an open economy that is heavily reliant on IT and technology sectors. In that respect, it has many of the same objectives as us in the context of Brexit. It is important that we build new and strong alliances and I welcome the Taoiseach's comments in respect of that. I know the Taoiseach has met with the Estonian Prime Minister as well as other Prime Ministers from northern Europe and that in advance of the European Council meeting in October, he participated in a meeting of the leaders of the Nordic-Baltic Eight group of states, which includes Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. At the time, the Taoiseach referred to states as like-minded so did he attend the same meeting in December and does he intend to do so in March? Does he intend to join this group on a permanent basis?
Pretty much every week that goes by, the US President, Donald Trump, provides us with further evidence of the threat he represents to the world, peace, the environment and whole swathes of the world's population. I assume the Taoiseach will meet Donald Trump on St. Patrick's Day in the White House. I would prefer if he did not and made it clear why he should not but I wonder whether he has any thoughts about what he will say to Donald Trump. If we just take two recent instances, in the past few days, Donald Trump has indicated that any discussion about Jerusalem is off the table. He is not even willing to discuss what the whole world recognises as a dangerous development, namely, the recognition by his Government of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel with all the connotations and provocation that represents for the Middle East. He does not even want to discuss it. He is saying it is off the negotiating table. Donald Trump has also simultaneously ramped up further aid to Israel. While he has reduced the overall US international aid budget by a third, he has increased funding to Israel by $200 million, a clear indication of what he is up to, which is backing Israel in its aggressive and provocative stance.
In the past few days, on another issue about which the Taoiseach has spoken, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency - you could not make this stuff up - has said that global warming is actually a good thing and that it may be beneficial for humanity. Donald Trump recently tweeted that the US needs more global warming-----
The guy is mad and has mad people in his Government-----
-----but the madness is threatening peace in the Middle East and the global environment. How is the Taoiseach going to make a statement against these sort of crazy policies?
With the UK leaving the EU, it is very important that Ireland build up new alliances in Europe. The Taoiseach mentioned that in his reply. The UK and Ireland have traditionally been in agreement about many of the big issues confronting the EU. Brexit is a big concern for us and other EU states adjacent to the UK from the point of view of trade but it is not a big issue for many other EU states. I note that the Taoiseach recently met with the Prime Minister of Estonia in Dublin and the Chancellor of Austria in Vienna. Estonia is part of the Nordic-Baltic Eight while Austria is a neutral country. Their support for the prevention of a hard border on this island is most welcome.
Of course, all of this is against the backdrop of a wider discussion on the future of the EU. The Taoiseach is gradually outlining his vision in that regard. I have noted his comments on such matters as the need to safeguard cohesion funding, particularly for central and eastern Europe, having regard to the principle of subsidiarity; the future of the CAP; our low corporation tax regime; the completion of the Single Market; the digital Single Market; the capital markets union; and the banking union. Immigration is, of course, a big issue for Austria having regard to the composition of its new Government. Security and defence are obviously big issues for the Baltic states given their proximity to Russia. What were the main issues of concern to Estonia and Austria as outlined to the Taoiseach and what assurances did he give the Estonian Prime Minister and the Austrian Chancellor in this regard when he met them recently as Heads of Government? Can the Taoiseach also give us an outline of the main issues that will be the basis of new EU alliances going forward?
I tabled a question about the meeting with the Estonian Prime Minister and prepared my supplementaries on that basis. Now I find that I can ask questions about meetings with the British Prime Minister, the options presented after the December discussions or even the St. Patrick's Day visit to the US. It is really not a good way to do that. I am profoundly concerned about the viability of the December agreement and I think we need some opportunity in this House to debate that in a very frank and clear way. It is important for both our UK and EU interlocutors to hear clearly the views of this House on that because it became crystal clear over the weekend that none of the options - a, b or c - can be achieved by the British Government or will be sustained by a majority in the British Government. We need to have very frank discussions about that and where we lie in respect of that.
My own question related to the meeting with the Estonian Prime Minister.
Despite the distance, there are many synergies between Estonia and Ireland. I acknowledge the important milestone in Estonian history.
Did the Taoiseach discuss the notion of the transition arrangement with Mr. Ratas? He said they had discussions on future relationships, in other words the final agreement between the European Union and the UK. Did they discuss the interim agreement? What is the Estonian position on free movement in the interim? I presume Mr. Ratas's position is that Estonian citizens would continue to enjoy access to the United Kingdom. Is that also our position?
As the Taoiseach knows, Estonia has been a leader in the digital economy. It developed a concept of eresidency, which has been in place since 2014. That allows non-Estonian citizens access to services, such as company formation, banking, payment processing and taxation. I think it is a very good idea. It gives eresidents a smart card that they can use for signing documents. It is aimed at attracting entrepreneurs into the country. Is it something the Taoiseach has reflected on and could we have something similar?
Did the Taoiseach discuss the EU digital tax with Mr. Ratas? Obviously the issue of changing how corporation tax works into a sort of sales tax would have a profound, negative impact on countries such as Ireland and Estonia. Did they discuss that and does Mr. Ratas have a view on it?
There are four questions in this group, ranging from Estonia to Washington. I agree with Deputy Howlin that we need a specific session on the December deal, which we were told was bulletproof. I am not talking about the common travel area or the recognition of European citizenship rights; they were always there and non-contentious. The key issue was the regulatory alignment and essentially for the purposes of the North-South Border irrespective of whether the UK was in or out of the customs union there would be regulatory alignment.
The bulletproof deal has since become a default deal that we do not want to get to. This is in the Taoiseach's own words. Michel Barnier and Commissioner Hogan have put it very starkly that if the UK stays out of the customs union and outside the Single Market, there will be a border. That is in sharp contrast to what we were led to believe before Christmas. Irrespective of whether it was over-hyped or oversold before Christmas, there was a clear sense which was communicated to us by Government personnel that what was agreed before Christmas was legally fireproof. We need clarity on that and a specific session on the matter would be useful.
Estonia has been very close to Ireland since it joined the European Union in 2004. I note its Prime Minister specifically referred to the role of Ireland's then Government in welcoming Estonia and the other Baltic countries into membership.
Who was in government then?
The Deputy would never guess. He tried to wipe it out of the historical narrative on one occasion.
I do not know about that. I thought it was the collapse that wiped out Fianna Fáil.
On a substantive issue, at the bilateral meeting the future of the European Union's budget was discussed. The Estonian Prime Minister subsequently outlined his Government's policy. What is the status of the Taoiseach's comments concerning the next European Union budget? Last week the Taoiseach told us his speech to the European Parliament was a personal statement and not a statement of agreed Government policy. Does Ireland specifically support the simple maintenance of the budget post Brexit, its contraction or, indeed, its expansion?
The forthcoming European Council meeting will consider a formal proposal concerning digital taxation. A number of Commissioners have recently ratcheted up their rhetoric on the issue in anticipation of the Council. We are fully aware that the Taoiseach is maintaining the position concerning tax harmonisation which has been in place since the schedule of reductions in our domestic corporation tax was finalised 20 years ago. However, we have no idea about the Government's specific policy on digital taxation. So far there has been no attempt to explain what the Commission is proposing. There is no sign of any basic study concerning the impact on Ireland and other countries of different models of a digital tax. Will the Taoiseach announce a policy before the Council meeting? Will the Government publish an impact study on this issue so that we can properly understand it before final decisions are made?
On a historic note, the Taoiseach probably knows that this is the year of Vótáil 100 commemorating women getting the vote and women being elected to Parliament. There were lovely photographs of the Taoiseach and his British counterparts in all the newspapers. There was a particularly divine one in The Irish Times of six men on the Republic of Ireland side as though nothing has changed since the British left, and three women and two men on the UK side. In the year that is in it and given the nearly €6 million being spent on the Government's media communications unit this year, could we ensure gender sensitivity when it comes to delegations? It was not beyond the wit of Ireland to have had two or three women on that delegation and at that meeting. As the Government arranges these photo opportunities so meticulously, what happened yesterday? I would really like an explanation.
Nobody else was to get the glory.
It was an historic meeting and it is a disgrace that there are no women in that picture representing the Republic, just as it was 100 years ago. The Taoiseach owes us an explanation and I am sure the men in the Chamber will support me-----
-----as I am sure will the woman Minister of State who is present. It is a disgrace and it is not acceptable anymore. I will object. I object when the Department of Finance comes in with an all-male team, suggesting that women do not know anything about finance and so on. It is just not acceptable at the Taoiseach's level given the amount of time he puts into planning his media communication.
The second point is as follows. The Taoiseach is quoted as saying yesterday that a comprehensive free-trade and customs agreement involving Britain and Ireland was the best way to avoid any new barriers north, south, east and west, and that they had agreed to work together. How realistic is that indication? It is a bit like the bulletproof agreement which now seems to be emerging with bullet holes. Have our 26 EU co-negotiators under the leadership of Monsieur Barnier agreed to this? Has the UK given any indication that it intends to agree to it and then pay the EU the price of such a deal?
I can understand why the Taoiseach would desire it strategically; it makes considerable sense. It would mean us having a separate negotiating strand in effect, something the Labour Party has advocated over a long period of time. We would be supportive of the Taoiseach in that. However, I agree with the points raised by Deputies Howlin and Micheál Martin that we need a debate in this House about the bulletproof agreement, which is now in the Taoiseach's own language opening up very wide discussion.
Last March, the Taoiseach's predecessor invited President Trump to Ireland. The Taoiseach said at the time that he was not sure what purpose it would serve and that he would not invite him. However, we now understand that as Taoiseach, he will continue the invitation. If President Trump were to come to Ireland, has the Taoiseach's protocol unit looked at the possibility or is it advising on whether that visit would include a visit to the Houses of the Oireachtas? Would he be following the example of US Presidents Fitzgerald, Reagan and Clinton, the Australian Prime Ministers, Keating, Hawke and Howard, or indeed Blair, Mitterrand, Kohl or even those incredible men Mandela and Nehru? Will this be part of any visit when the Taoiseach continues this invitation or does he stand on the side of the Speaker of the UK House of Commons who said about a possible visit to the House of Commons that it is not an automatic right but an earned honour?
How would we deal with it, if we had President Trump here in the Houses of the Oireachtas? How would we manage the protests that would inevitably have to take place because he has not earned that honour? Given that he stands for things in the way he is treating Palestine, in his regard for climate change, and in his economic nationalism which is dividing and tearing up the international order, we could not accept him with any honour.
Will the Taoiseach confirm whether that is part of any planned visit, if he is ruling it out or, since it seems that one never knows what President Trump will say, if he might get the bowl of shamrock and say that he is coming over and cannot wait to meet the Taoiseach in Dáil Éireann? What do we do then?
I will answer the questions in order. With regard to the Nordic-Baltic group, the Dutch Prime Minister and I, as well as Foreign Ministers and Finance Ministers, attended by invitation but we are not members of the Nordic-Baltic group. I did not attend on the last occasion as I attended the European People's Party, EPP, summit. A number of pre-meetings happen before European Council meetings, sometimes at regional level and sometimes at party level. I decided to attend the EPP summit prior to the European Council meeting. In attendance were President Tusk, President Juncker, Michel Barnier, Angela Merkel and Antonio Tajani. I thought it was important to touch base with them before the European Council meeting which was held subsequent to that. No decision has been made on the next meeting of the Nordic-Baltic group but it is fair to say that Ireland, the three Nordic countries and the three Baltic countries, along with the Netherlands, have very similar interests in a number of areas, particularly with regard to tax sovereignty, free trade and enterprise competitiveness. We also have a similar approach to the future of Europe which we think should largely be led through the institutions and the leaders' agenda, and Donald Tusk's process rather than any particular proposals from particular governments. We will continue to work closely on those issues.
We may find that we have different allies on other issues, particularly with regard to agriculture and the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, budget and related trade issues. We have a strong traditional ally in France. With regard to the EU budget and the multiannual financial framework, we potentially have strong alliances with central and eastern Europe. Today, Cabinet decided that we would issue a letter of intent to express our interest in joining with the Benelux countries and Austria to form an alliance relating to medicines, to ensure that we share information and work together so that patients in our respective countries can get access to new medicines more quickly, but equally-----
One would be better off contacting Joe Duffy to get fast-tracked medicines.
It is equally important that that is done at a cost that is fair and reasonable to the taxpayer. Any money that we can save on medicines is money that can be used for other purposes, particularly in our health service.
I was asked about the particular concerns that different countries have. Austria's main concern relates to migration. It had an experience of 1 million people crossing through the country, going to Germany and the Nordic countries, 90,000 of whom remained in Austria. Austria is having real difficulties with that and it is the overwhelming political issue in Austria at the moment. We differ on that particular issue. Ireland has opted in to accepting quotas and has accepted thousands of people from Syria and other places whereas Austria and Hungary do not support a quota-based arrangement. I am conscious that our geography is very different from Austria's and the experience of having 1 million people cross the country, with 90,000 staying, caused people in those countries to feel that they had lost control of their borders. Even if we do not agree as to why different people have different views in different countries, it is good to understand why they have different views.
Estonia had concerns about security and ambitions relating to the digital agenda. Its major concern relating to Brexit is not trade and borders but rather the position of Estonian citizens already living in the United Kingdom. I offered Estonia our full support in ensuring that Estonian citizens who still live in the United Kingdom have their rights protected. We are very much aligned on that, as it is aligned with our objectives relating to the avoidance of a hard border. On the EU digital tax issue, it is fair to say that neither country is enthusiastic but until countries see details of what is proposed, it is hard to form a considered view. This matter is currently being handled by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, through the Economic and Financial Affairs Council, ECOFIN, and he would be best placed to answer detailed questions on it.
I am not familiar with the e-residency issue but the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, has been given a particular role relating to e-government and he may be examining that.
On Brexit negotiations, it is important to bear in mind the number of things which are very relevant to Ireland in the December joint report agreed by the European Union and the UK which were by no means certain or guaranteed but are now written down in black and white in an agreement with guarantees, for example, the retention of the common travel area-----
That was always agreed.
-----and people being able to travel freely, north and south, east and west. It also includes the retention of the reciprocity of civic rights, with Irish and British people being able to live and work-----
That was all agreed.
-----study, access housing, health care, education, welfare, pensions-----
That had all been agreed.
It had not. Those can be accessed in each other's countries as though people were citizens of both. It had not been previously agreed and certainly had not been written down in an agreement between the EU and UK in black and white. There are commitments relating to the Good Friday Agreement and to continue funding for INTERREG, which is important for regional development, to retain funding for PEACE, which is particularly important in Northern Ireland, and also an agreement that there will continue to be a separate strand on Irish issues. That was agreed in December and there is already such a second strand. There was a set of guarantees and commitments relating to the avoidance of a hard border and three options to achieve that are outlined in the December joint report. The first option, the preferred option of the British and Irish Governments, is to avoid a hard border through a new relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, within the framework of the EU-UK agreement, which includes all of Ireland and in which we have a new arrangement which is as close as possible to the customs union and Single Market arrangement that exists now. That will be hard to achieve but is absolutely our preferred outcome and is what we are currently working on. The second option is the UK-specific solution. It is up to the UK to come up with those proposals and convince the European Union that they can be done. The third option, which I described at the time as a backstop and the Prime Minister describes as a last resort, is that there are special arrangements for Northern Ireland, where it continues to maintain full regulatory alignment with the European Union, allowing a hard border to be avoided. For reasons that I think should be obvious to everyone in this House, the first option is preferred.
These were not sold as options. It was sold as a done deal that there would be no hard border.
It allows us not to have-----
These were not sold at the time as options.
Let the Taoiseach speak without interruption.
He might take a supplementary.
We need a debate.
It allows us to continue to trade between Britain and Ireland as we currently do. If one is a farmer or is involved in agrifood-----
Will we have a debate?
-----and has a small or medium enterprise or is an exporter, one will understand why-----
Will the Taoiseach take a supplementary?
-----retaining open trade between Britain and Ireland is so important.
Before Christmas, it was sold as a done deal, and now it is an option. Will we have a debate on it?
At the moment, what we were seeking, which was in the December agreement, is written into the legal text of the withdrawal agreement. What is currently being negotiated and what phase two is all about is the negotiation of the withdrawal agreement-----
I thought it was a deal. Was the deal sound?
-----which is legally binding and what was in the agreement in December is now written into the legal text of the withdrawal agreement. As I said in December, phase one was only phase one. It was the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end.
I have to contrast the press conference with this presentation.
We need to remain vigilant and engaged.
This is delusional.
The legal text is not an agreement.
I assure Deputies that we have been vigilant and engaged all along. Our objective in phase two, as I said at the time, was to make sure that what is in the December joint report is written into the legal text of the legal agreement in the withdrawal agreement in full. We have very strong support from the EU 27.
Deputy Donnelly thought it was legally binding that Ireland was the focus.
The Taoiseach was asked about Trump.
I know there are many who would like supplementaries but the time has expired, my hands are tied and we now have to move on.
There are still 36 seconds.
Do not worry, the clock was well run down. The Taoiseach was never getting to Trump.
I asked the Taoiseach about Trump.
I am always involved in the cauldron of debates but when one is trying to answer the questions raised-----
The Taoiseach did it well.
I asked about-----
No preparations or plans have been made with respect to a visit to Ireland by President Trump.
I am sure they have not.
Or Washington. The Taoiseach was asked about Washington. What does he have to say?
We will move on to questions to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
What about women and the all-male delegation. The Taoiseach did not address the question of spokeswomen and the presence of women.