Priority Questions

I remind Members that they have 30 seconds to introduce their question, followed by two minutes for the Minister to reply and two supplementaries of one minute each.

Has that changed?

Syrian Conflict

Darragh O'Brien

Question:

42. Deputy Darragh O'Brien asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on whether the EU and the international community are doing enough to end the conflict in Syria, which has just marked its seventh anniversary; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14253/18]

Does the Tánaiste believe the EU and the international community are doing enough to end the conflict in Syria, which has just marked its seventh anniversary? Almost 500,000 people have been killed since 2011, while more than 13 million people require humanitarian assistance, including nearly 3 million trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas. Are there proposals for a change in the EU response?

The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is leading political negotiations to end the conflict based on the 2012 Geneva communique and UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Ireland and the EU fully support this process. The EU provides direct assistance to the UN-led Geneva peace talks and has launched, in co-ordination with the UN, an initiative to develop political dialogue with key actors from the region to identify common ground. Ireland strongly welcomed the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2401 on 24 February. This resolution calls for an immediate ceasefire and unhindered humanitarian access.

The international community must redouble efforts to press for the immediate and full implementation of the ceasefire, and unimpeded humanitarian access to populations in need. EU Foreign Ministers discussed the situation in Syria at their informal meeting on 15 February and again at the Foreign Affairs Council meetings on 26 February and 19 March. The EU and its member states have to date mobilised more than €10.4 billion for humanitarian assistance inside Syria and in neighbouring countries, making the EU the largest donor to the effort. The EU hosted a donor conference for Syria in April 2017 at which pledges totalling €5.6 billion were made, and will host another donor conference on Syria in April 2018.

Since 2012, Ireland has contributed over €95 million to the humanitarian effort in response to the conflict in Syria. Ireland will make a further pledge of humanitarian support in 2018 at the Brussels donor conference next month. Ireland also provides political and financial support to a broad range of measures to ensure full legal accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria. However, the direct answer to the Deputy's question is we never can do enough until the conflict is over. In the years ahead, history will judge the international community harshly in terms of how the conflict developed over a long period and the number of civilians who have lost their lives as a result.

I agree wholeheartedly that we can never do enough in this regard but the problem is the conflict has moved into its eighth year. The indiscriminate attacks on, and bombing of, eastern Ghouta is a carbon copy of what happened in Aleppo when the international community effectively stood by, although it does care about it. We must examine how the veto works at the UN Security Council and Russia's role as a member of the council while also being a major player in the region and a major supporter of the Assad regime. It is more worrying that the war has become a global war being fought out in Syria involving different global partners. The conflict has become more complex and the longer it goes on, the less opportunity there will be to end it in the short term.

I wonder, on foot of his discussions with colleagues in the region - I know he has visited the region - what the view is there. Is there any chink of light or any hope at all in regard to the stalled talks? While I know it is difficult to include Assad in those talks, perhaps there is an attempt to include members of the regime to try to bring about a ceasefire, or are we really just waiting for Assad to effectively win the war and wipe out the opposition?

I was at the UN Security Council when it met a number of weeks ago. The first item on the agenda, raised by Secretary General Guterres, was eastern Ghouta and he made a personal appeal to all of the states represented around that table to implement an immediate ceasefire. He described what is happening there as hell on earth, and I think many of us who have looked at video coverage and television footage of what was happening at that time in eastern Ghouta, particularly those of us who are parents, found it pretty hard to watch. There is a huge effort to try to make this ceasefire work and stick. Having said that, I think the Assad regime feels it is victorious and needs to finish the job militarily. Of course, that is resulting in ongoing conflict and military activity that is impacting, in a pretty dire way, on many civilians, particularly women and children.

We will continue to push hard through the Foreign Affairs Council and UN structures to ensure that the EU voice is very strong and clear on this, which it is. However, I believe we have some way to go yet.

I am fully aware of the constraints Ireland operates under and the small level of influence we have, but it is important this is kept to the top of the agenda. In the context of Ireland seeking a seat on the UN Security Council in 2020 and given the failure of the latter to halt the Assad regime and its allies, such as Putin's Russia, will the Tánaiste be seeking changes to how the Security Council operates or has he thought about such proposals, particularly on the use of the veto and if it is employed by one of the combatants in the context of a combat situation? We need to look at that into the future. Has the Tánaiste any thoughts on this issue? It might also give him an opportunity to update the House briefly on how that campaign for us to secure a seat in 2020 is going.

It is going reasonably well but this is a very competitive race and Norway and Canada are significant competitors. There are three countries going for two places but I think there is a very strong case to be made for Ireland as the only EU country putting its name forward. At that time, the only EU representative on the UN Security Council will be France, as a permanent member, so there is a very strong case to be made. We are a small, neutral country and we are not afraid to speak our mind. We use the UN to raise significant concerns from a humanitarian perspective in terms of consistency with international law. I think that will be a very compelling and strong case.

We support the reform of the UN generally but also of the Security Council. We would support a French approach which suggests that, in cases of humanitarian crises, a veto would not be used - that is, when the Security Council is responding to significant crises, vetoes would not be used where there is a need for collective action on a humanitarian basis. That is something we should pursue. There are broader changes we would also like to happen in regard to the Security Council but that one in particular would be very helpful.

Brexit Negotiations

David Cullinane

Question:

43. Deputy David Cullinane asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the Government's understanding of the goods that will be listed on annex 2.1 of the protocol attached to the European Commission draft withdrawal agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14252/18]

Annex 2.1 of the proposed protocol attached to the European Commission draft withdrawal agreement lists goods which it says will be covered under any alignment of goods and services between North and South on the island of Ireland. Why is there a list of goods that are being covered, particularly as this would obviously suggest that some goods are not covered? Can the Tánaiste give a broad outline of the goods that are covered?

First, I welcome the progress made on the draft protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland during the most recent round of negotiations, which concluded on 19 March. This is recorded in an annotated, colour-coded version of the draft withdrawal agreement published by the Commission task force on 19 March, which reflects agreement on some articles of the draft text, including "Common Travel Area" and "Other areas of North-South cooperation".

During the negotiations, the UK accepted that a legally operative version of the backstop for the Border will be included in the withdrawal agreement, that this must be in line with paragraph 49 of the joint progress report agreed last December and that all the issues identified in the draft protocol reflect those that must be addressed. These were important steps forward, which I do not believe everybody has recognised.

The European Council, in agreeing additional negotiating guidelines on 23 March, stressed that work remains to be done in order to achieve overall agreement on the draft withdrawal agreement, especially with regard to the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. It reiterated that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. To this end, an intensive schedule of negotiations has been agreed between the EU and the UK, with a view to continuing efforts to narrow the remaining gaps on the draft protocol and its annexes. The first round took place earlier this week and more will be held over the coming weeks. Irish officials will be involved in some of these meetings where the task force believes this would be helpful and we will remain in close contact with the task force throughout.

These negotiations include discussions on Article 4 of the draft protocol, which addresses the free movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the EU. The overall aim is to maintain full alignment with those rules of the Single Market and customs union that are necessary to protect North-South co-operation and the all-island economy, as well as to avoid a hard border. It is necessary, therefore, to have comprehensive and accurate lists of all relevant rules, which will be set out in a number of annexes to the protocol. While the Commission, in conjunction with Government Departments, has already done a great deal of work on this, it will be in the course of the EU-UK negotiations that the content of the annexes will be finalised.

With respect, I think the Tánaiste has presented inaccurate information to the House. I read the draft protocol and also the draft withdrawal agreement. It is colour-co-ordinated, as the Tánaiste knows, and every single section that refers to Ireland and the protocol, with the exception of the common travel area, is in white, which means it is still to be agreed. He will also know that Downing Street and the British Prime Minister rejected, out of hand, a legal text that was published by the European Commission. What the British Government is saying is that it agrees in principle to some form of protocol but it has not signed up to any legal text. That is the difficulty here. Yes, there has been progress, and the Tánaiste knows we have recognised progress, but we have a concern in regard to what all of this will mean.

I want to see the North staying in the customs union and the Single Market because that is the best way to avoid any hardening of the Border. I want to see a free trade agreement or some form of customs partnership between Britain and the EU, which would certainly be a big help. However, the backstop arrangement, which we were told was a cast-iron guarantee, only covers areas of North-South co-operation, the all-island economy and the 1998 agreement; it does not cover all goods and all services. My clear question to the Tánaiste is this: if, as a worst-case scenario, the backstop arrangement is put in place, what goods and services will not be covered and be subject to checks, either in factories or on the Border itself?

I am glad I have a copy of the protocol here with me so I can correct the record given the Deputy has just misrepresented the case. It is not true to say that, in the Irish protocol, the only piece in green, which is agreed, is the common travel area, which, by the way, is very welcome. The whole first page is in yellow, which is agreed in principle. The whole second page is in yellow, which is also agreed in principle. The third page on the common travel area is in green, so it is done. The next page, on the single electricity market, is in yellow again. In terms of Article 8 and other areas of North-South co-operation, it is in green - agreed. In terms of Article 10, it is in green - agreed. On Article 9, which relates to state aid, it is in yellow, so major progress has been made.

This is an issue that is serious and has huge implications for the future of our country and of this island, North and South. It is important to be accurate. We have made significant progress regarding the protocol in terms of areas that are already agreed. There are, of course, areas that are contentious and which need future agreement, and that is what we are working on now.

Paragraph 49 is not agreed. As I said, I have read it. I am not colour-blind.

The Deputy has not read it very well.

I have read it very well. Unless it is in green, it is not agreed. We had agreement in principle last November and December. That was when we had a political agreement which we were told was a cast-iron guarantee. My quarrel is not necessarily with the Minister but with the British Government. It seems to accept, in principle, all of these proposals but, in practice, it is not coming forward with proposals. With respect, until we see an agreement which is actually agreed and a text which translates the backstop arrangement into a legal arrangement, then all we have is a political agreement.

While I accept it might be a step forward, it is not black and white. Whatever other colours we can throw about the place, it is not black and white at this point in time. We are concerned we will have some hardening of the Border if all goods and services are not fully and absolutely protected. We do not want to see any checks on goods and services or any hardening of the Border at all.

We are all agreed on that. However, this is a negotiation which will take time. Each time there is a round of agreement and negotiation, Ireland has made progress on each of its key issues. In December, we made a significant step forward in getting agreement on the backstop and how it would work in terms of maintaining full alignment of the rules of the customs union and Single Market to ensure an all-Ireland economy can function. That is a political agreement from which the British Government is not resiling.

It has said it wants to negotiate a legally operable text around what was committed in paragraph 49 in December. That for it, of course, is not the first priority in terms of agreement. It wants to get agreement on option A, a future relationship which does not require the backstop to be used. We support that position. We also will insist, however, as will the EU, that the backstop will be part of a withdrawal agreement before it is signed off. In other words, there will be no withdrawal agreement if there is not a backstop on the Irish Border issue, which is obviously linked to the text in the Irish protocol. That is what is being negotiated this week.

Why are we still quarrelling about the backstop then?

Before we proceed to Question No. 44, I remind Members we have spent 22 minutes on two questions, which is 12 minutes over what we should have spent. That means that two Members will not get their questions answered today. Will all Members stick to the rule agreed of six minutes overall per question?

Brexit Negotiations

Stephen Donnelly

Question:

44. Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the length of time the Government is willing to let the Brexit talks proceed in 2018 without wording on the Northern Ireland Border backstop being agreed by the UK and EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14254/18]

The draft wording for the backstop was published by the EU on 28 February 2018. It was rejected by the UK, however. The British Prime Minister said emphatically it represented a threat to the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. Last Monday, many of us were taken by surprise when the EU's task force released the Brexit document which showed no progress had been made on agreeing the legal wording for the backstop to ensure no border around Northern Ireland. Last Friday, the Taoiseach said the wording may not be agreed until October. How long will the Government allow phase 2 continue without clarity on that specific legal wording which needs to be in the final document?

That is a fair question which recognises that this is a negotiation on which we need to make progress. We have a focus of the British negotiating team and the EU task force on getting a legally operative wording which is true to paragraph 49 agreed in December. Nobody is resiling from that. However, the draft the EU produced, which I happen to agree with as it is a good and loyal interpretation of paragraph 49, was not agreed with by the British Government. It is up to the British Government to come forward with proposals which will have the same outcome as to what was committed to in paragraph 49 in terms of maintaining full alignment with the rules of the Single Market and customs union to avoid any hard Border.

Ireland asked for a review of guidelines in June to allow us to reassess the approach of the British Government on a whole range of issues before any deal is concluded by October. I am certainly hopeful that we will see some progress on the Irish backstop issue by June. This will allow us to make an assessment as to whether we are on track to get a draft withdrawal treaty or withdrawal agreement agreed by October. June is a significant date from an Irish perspective. If there is no progress or no significant effort made at making progress on a backstop which can provide reassurance to the Irish Government by June, then we will have to ask some serious questions. If it is not possible by June, will it be possible by October?

We have an opportunity in June to reassess where we are. That will be an important point from an Irish perspective. Ultimately, we have to get this done by October to allow the European Parliament to take the time it needs to ratify any withdrawal agreement.

I am concerned by that. The longer we go on without agreed wording on the Border, the more it becomes one of many legitimate priorities across the EU member states. The talks were set up to ensure we could get agreement on a reasonably small number of important issues, including for us the Border in phase 1, before agreeing a transition and moving to phase 2. It was recognised right at the start that this was going to be incredibly difficult. We have the December agreement. The EU and UK sides immediately had different views of it, however. We had the EU say this was its interpretation and legal wording. I agree with the Tánaiste that it was a fair representation by the EU. However, we must be cognisant that it has been rejected emphatically by the UK.

The concern is that this should have been closed off by now, before moving on to phase 2. Now, many of our neighbours - our friends and our allies - have legitimate interests as well. We could get to a point in October where hundreds of billions of euro of trade and the future relationship between the UK and Ireland are being held up, and there might be reasonable pressure from our neighbours to water it down.

I must ask the Deputy to conclude.

Why has the Tánaiste allowed it to go on? Why, at the end of phase 2 before moving on, will he not insist on asking our UK colleagues to agree to the wording on what they agreed to in December?

It is important for people to understand how these negotiations are actually working. There is a negotiation to conclude a withdrawal agreement and there is conversation just starting on what a future relationship might look like. That conversation will go on way beyond October. There is no question of there being a free trade agreement signed off on by October. The best we can hope for is to have a withdrawal agreement by October which then gets ratified by the European Parliament. Then there has to be some sort of framework agreement which sets the parameters within which we can get a future trade and future relationship agreement negotiated signed off over time. The European Union cannot even legally negotiate a free trade agreement until Britain is out of the European Union because it cannot negotiate for one with a member state.

It is important not to fudge and merge these two issues into the same debate. What we need is a withdrawal agreement which has an Irish backstop in it. The British Government has agreed to do that. Then, we will have a future relationship debate, which, hopefully, will result in the backstop being unnecessary because we will have an option A which does not require any borders, North, South, east or west. We have to have the assurance mechanism and the backstop in the withdrawal agreement just in case that is not possible. We are on our way to doing that.

Nobody is suggesting that a free trade agreement will be signed, sealed and delivered by October. It will take years to do that. The Brexit talks were, nonetheless, structured in phases 1 and 2. The whole purpose of that was to make sure we got closure on some important issues. The so-called withdrawal bill, reciprocity of people's rights and the Irish Border were the three which received the most attention. It was during phase 1 that we had considerable support from the other 26 EU member states.

Respectfully, it is not me who is merging the withdrawal framework with the detail of a free trade agreement.

I would suggest that the Minister, the Government and the EU have allowed the merging of phase 1 and phase 2. Surely we should have been looking for closure on the Border before moving on to phase 2 and surely that is what the talks were structured to do. The Minister has answered the first question, which is October. Why did the Minister not make a call? Did he consider making a call for the Council meeting that has just gone to say that this really is the beginning of the future relationship talks and that we must get closure and agreement on something that was agreed in principle in December?

The Deputy says that I mentioned October. I also mentioned June and I think June will be a very important gauge for Ireland with regard to whether this is moving in the direction in which we need it to move. If it clearly is not, then we have some decisions to make with the task force. I believe we will have absolute solidarity in that as we have had at every step of the way so far. Ireland's problem is the EU's problem. Michel Barnier repeats that virtually every time he talks on this issue. I think the EU task force will expect significant progress on the Irish Border issue by June and so do we. To be clear on that, I have always said, any time I have been asked questions on phases 1 and 2, that all of the issues in phase 1 would not be closed off entirely before phase 2 starts but that we needed to make sufficient progress in phase 1 on phase 1 issues in order to move on to phase 2. That was the test. It was not closure but sufficient progress. We made sufficient progress in December and we have subsequently made more progress in the last round of negotiations and agreements on the Irish Border. The British Government is now committed to ensuring that there is a backstop in the withdrawal agreement. The EU task force is making it very clear that, without that backstop, there will be no withdrawal agreement.

UN Missions

Mattie McGrath

Question:

45. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if his attention has been drawn to the growing problem of sexual abuse committed by United Nations peacekeepers on vulnerable populations; if Irish peacekeepers have been implicated; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14255/18]

I am asking this question because of the number of people who have contacted my office in disbelief at the almost total absence of media coverage or indeed parliamentary analysis of this problem. While I accept that the vast majority of the UN peacekeeping force are honourable and courageous people, we must accept that this is a problem that must be tackled. Last month, it was reported that over 600 women and children claimed that they are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation at the hands of United Nations peacekeeping forces sent to protect them.

The UN relies on its global reputation as a positive force for good in the world in order to be effective. It is horrific to think that those in great need require protection in some cases from their protectors. According to my latest information, no Irish troops have been implicated in this issue. That does not surprise me, having visited many of our troops abroad, and knowing their discipline. However, Ireland fully supports UN efforts to address this and believes all UN member states must work closely with the UN system to ensure that efforts are taken to eradicate sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping operations in different parts of the world.

Ireland is strongly committed to its active role in UN peacekeeping operations and we are proud of our unbroken record of service over the last six decades. Today, over 540 Irish men and women are serving on UN peacekeeping duties. For these men and women, service with the UN is rightly regarded as noble and important. In order for the UN to continue with its good work, all troops and personnel deployed by the UN to peacekeeping missions must operate to the highest possible standards. During my attendance at the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly last September, I participated in a high-level meeting on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, convened by UN Secretary General António Guterres, where I supported the introduction of a voluntary compact on the elimination of cases of sexual exploitation and-or abuse by UN peacekeeping forces between the UN and peacekeeping contributory states. I welcome UN Secretary General Guterres' recent appointment of Jane Connors as the UN's first victims' rights advocate for victims of sexual exploitation and abuse. Ireland fully supports the placing of the rights and dignity of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse at the forefront of the UN's prevention and response efforts in this area.

Any case of exploitation or abuse or any case where the trust placed in the UN by all of us is broken is a case too many. The UN can only meet its responsibilities as a force for good for our shared world if its staff and actions are beyond reproach. The UN must therefore have the systems and policies in place which provide transparency and accountability and Ireland will continue to support the Secretary General as he implements such policies.

I too want to state that I fully support and have great respect for the United Nations peacekeepers and indeed the veterans, many of whom I saw on parade on St. Patrick's Day. They are recognised all over the world. I thank the Minister for his reply. As I noted earlier, official UN statistics reveal that over the past five years, the UN has recognised the claims of 612 women and children who said they were victims of abuse, involving 353 separate claims against UN staff in peacekeeping operations alone. Some officials claim that the allegations represent only the tip of the iceberg and that the figure could be up to ten times that amount. It is truly horrifying. Some incidents involved multiple women or children claiming that they were abused by more than one perpetrator. It has been reported that, in 121 cases, the victims said they had been made pregnant by their attacker, with many mothers being children themselves when they were abused. Since the beginning of last year, a total of 21 of the abuse allegations relate to children, with seven claiming that their abuser left them pregnant. Dianne Penn has reported in Africa Renewal Online that the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA, says it has received details of allegations in the town of Bambari from a team of Human Rights Watch researchers.

The Deputy will have another minute.

I share the Deputy's concerns. There are thousands of UN peacekeepers in dozens of countries across the world where civilians, in particular women and children, rely on UN peacekeepers to protect them. If that protection becomes exploitation at times, that cannot be allowed to go unchecked and we need to address it comprehensively. I think the UN is attempting to address this comprehensively. There are undoubtedly cases, some of which the Deputy has referred to, that have happened as recently as the past number of years. There needs to be a new and absolute no tolerance approach towards sexual exploitation and abuse that involves UN peacekeepers. I am glad to say that there is no evidence to suggest that Irish troops have been involved in any of this. Having said that, we are part of the UN structures as a whole and we need to be part of the solution here.

The article states: "MINUSCA says there was 'sufficient initial evidence' that five of the victims were minors and had been sexually abused." The head of MINUSCA has already expressed his outrage and shame. He went on to say: "It's a sad day because I got to know and to see with my own eyes the depth of the problem and I have to say to start with, that there is not going to be a quick-fix on this matter, and that's the sad news." The article continues: "He told the troops that sexual abuse and exploitation was 'a double crime that affects the vulnerable women and children' they were sent to protect." As the Minister said, they are protecting very vulnerable people. We trust them and respect them highly in our country. It is a pity that their good names would be tarnished by these despicable actions of certain people from wherever or whatever country. They are sent to help very distressed and traumatised people, to mind them, nurture them and keep them safe. The very thought of them being exploited or abused is horrific.

This problem is recognised at the highest level within the UN. There are new approaches, new policies and a new focus on stamping this out. If the UN is to maintain the respect it has built up over many decades, this is an issue that cannot be allowed to fester or continue. Sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers is totally unacceptable and the focus on it within the UN structures at the moment to stamp it out will, I hope, be effective.

Ireland will play its part in contributing to that discussion in order to ensure it is effective.

Good Friday Agreement

Eamon Ryan

Question:

46. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his plans to request the British Government to convene an Intergovernmental Conference between the British and Irish Governments in respect of Northern Ireland; and the proposed agenda for such a conference. [14460/18]

I seek as an honest an assessment as the Tánaiste can give on the possibility of calling a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference as one of the potential mechanisms for unlocking the current impasse in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the establishment of this incredible structure, it is particularly sad that the Good Friday Agreement is in such difficulty. What response, if any, has the Tánaiste received to his call for convening an Intergovernmental Conference? What would be the agenda of any such meeting?

I share Deputy Eamon Ryan's frustration and concern as we approach the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which was a transformative agreement for many people in Northern Ireland that laid the foundation for a peace process that has taken hold in the past two decades and resulted in the creation of an invisible border on the island of Ireland, a border we are seeking to protect from Brexit. The agreement has, at times, brought together political parties and communities that would otherwise have been polarised and divided. That said, there remains much work to be done, inspired, I hope, by the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and using its structures to ensure that we can solve the current problems and impasse in terms of the lack of a devolved government at Stormont. Devolved government is a central piece of the Good Friday Agreement in terms of ensuring it works to facilitate structured North-South co-operation and devolved decision-making in Northern Ireland. In its absence, the Irish and British Governments regularly discuss how we will find a way forward to get devolved government back up and running because that is the only credible answer to how politics should function in Northern Ireland.

When this issue was last raised - I believe it was Deputy Eamon Ryan who raised it - I made the point that I had, in conversation, asked the Secretary of State, Ms Karen Bradley, to think about convening a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference at ministerial level. I will speak to the Secretary of State on the matter this week. At the time, she indicated she wanted to reflect on the matter, which was a reasonable response because any decision one makes has consequences and triggers reactions, responses and so on. I do not have a formal update for the Deputy. However, I will speak to the Secretary of State this week and we will see how things progress from there.

Earlier this week. I spoke with my Green Party colleagues in the North, Stephen Agnew, MLA, and Clare Bailey, MLA, who gave a harsh assessment of what is happening. They are in constant contact with various community groups and other organisations that are effectively shutting up shop because the budgetary process is continuing and they are not receiving funding. The whole mechanism of local government and local community involvement is falling apart. This cannot go on because we have reached crisis point. My colleagues are on the ground and close to the political system and their assessment is that there is not a snowball's chance of a devolved administration or assembly returning. No one in the North believes that is on the cards in the foreseeable future for a range of complex reasons connected to Brexit and other matters. What happens if the Secretary of State says "No" or needs another two or three weeks to respond to the Tánaiste's request? What would that say to the community and other groups we work with, which are effectively operating under direct rule? They are not being given direction or shown fairness.

I share many of the Deputy's concerns. The current impasse in Northern Ireland is very serious. That is why, when the devolved institutions are not functioning, it is important the two Governments work together, build a relationship based on trust and ensure that decisions are made in the best interests of people in Northern Ireland who rely on their sovereign Government, namely, the British Government, but also on the structures of the Good Friday Agreement, which provides the Irish Government with a consultative role in terms of some of the considerations that are needed now. Much thought is going into how best to proceed. We must do so without being in any way naive about the barriers, frustrations and blockages that are clearly in place, some of which linked to tension regarding Brexit, while others are linked to ongoing inquiries and conversations that are taking place in political parties. My approach is to listen to and consult all the political parties and ensure that the Government plays its role and fulfils its responsibility as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement in terms of the relationship it continues to have and in partnership with the British Government in the context of decisions that need to be made.

While the Good Friday Agreement was a huge leap forward and set a great international example, it was not without flaws. For some time, the Green Party has been calling for a constitutional convention involving ordinary citizens in Northern Ireland similar to the Citizens' Assembly. We need to recognise that a range of mechanisms in the Northern Ireland administration and assembly need to be reformed because of their sectarian nature. For example, forcing Members of the Legislative Assembly, MLAs, to declare whether they are nationalists or unionists and the use of petitions of concern are deeply flawed structures. Rather than focusing discussions entirely on what I would describe as the sectarian end of the political spectrum in the North, why has the Government not engaged with the likes of my colleague, Stephen Agnew, to examine ideas that might break the impasse, particularly as no such ideas are coming from a sectarian position in terms of administration of the Good Friday Agreement? My colleagues are trying to make the agreement work and this will require change. Will the Tánaiste break out of the DUP-Sinn Féin hold on this issue and start broadening the political debate to try to break the impasse?

The straight answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". I have been open to listening to, discussing and debating with parties in Northern Ireland other than the DUP and Sinn Féin. I will be happy to speak to Green Party representatives in that regard. I speak to the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party and will continue to do so. We have an obligation to listen to everybody. All the parties, big and small, have a mandate and all of them, including the big two, want devolved government restored at Stormont. The question is how we can create a context that will allow this to happen.

The truth is that we cannot have devolved government if the two largest parties do not agree to work together to make it happen. We want to have a fully inclusive executive that involves all of the parties. Fundamentally, however, this will be very difficult in the absence of efforts by the two largest parties to accommodate each other in terms of a way forward. If it is not possible to do that in the short term, we will have to look at ways in which we can create stability in the medium term, while we try to put a context and structure in place that can ultimately deliver the outcome of devolved government. However, we also need to be careful not to question and undermine the Good Friday Agreement when trying to achieve this outcome because the agreement is the one certainty and foundation that we know works in terms of providing structures within which to work. This is why the Government is so committed to using the structures of the agreement to try to find a way through the current impasse. This is not the first time there has been an impasse in Northern Ireland that has posed significant difficulties. We need to find a way of overcoming the current impasse and I believe it is possible to do so.