Ceisteanna - Questions

Strategic Communications Unit

Eamon Ryan

Question:

1. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach the details of the new structure of the communications unit within his Department following the completion of the review. [18891/18]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when market research on a citizen survey will commence; and when Opposition parties will be briefed in this regard. [18941/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the proposed new structure of the communications and publicity section of his Department following the recently conducted review of the strategic communications unit. [19724/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

Following on from the review of the operation of the strategic communications unit, or SCU, my Department will revert to a reformed Government information service, or GIS, model. The GIS will have a smaller budget, fewer staff and a more limited role than the SCU. There will be a managed reversion to the more traditional GIS model with a transition period until July 2018. This transition is now under way and will conclude on schedule. The reassignment of staff is being dealt with as a confidential HR matter by the management of the Department in consultation with each individual staff member. As outlined in the review, surplus staff will be given the opportunity to be reassigned to another post either within my Department or in another Department or agency. In some cases, the duties of staff will not change as they either predate the establishment of the SCU or such work will continue in a reformed GIS.

Civil servants in the Government information service and the Government press office will come under the management of the assistant secretary general with responsibility for corporate affairs while respecting the role of the Government press secretary and the deputy and assistant Government press secretaries in the day-to-day management of press and communications. The 2018 funding allocation for the unit has been reduced by €2.5 million. This will result in my Department's 2018 Estimate being 9% less than its 2017 Estimate.

While the Government information service will lead and conduct the citizen research as planned, this will only commence once the Opposition parties have been afforded an opportunity to review the proposed survey. This review will be done in the coming weeks. Once the survey has been run, the results will be published expeditiously.

The Taoiseach indicated to the House on 4 April that he would continue with the citizen survey but only after the Opposition parties had the opportunity to be briefed and give their views on it. Is that to happen in the next couple of weeks? Is the survey going ahead and will we be contacted in that timeframe? What has been the delay in coming back to us since 4 April?

For clarification, does the title "strategic communications unit" exist anymore or has it been abolished? Is there a strategic communications unit currently? On the €5 million, the Taoiseach says half the sum will simply be rebated to the Exchequer and not reallocated within his Department. Is that right? What is the employment framework number for whatever the strategic communications unit is currently called?

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Taoiseach as an gceist seo a fhreagairt. When does the Taoiseach plan to consult with the Opposition on the public opinion survey? What form will that consultation take? It was one of the recommendations in the recent report of the Secretary General of the Taoiseach's Department, Mr. Martin Fraser. Another of his recommendations stated that issues raised in the review might usefully be considered by the Oireachtas. What form will that take? Is the proposal, for example, to clear some time and allow for a Dáil debate or consideration? As to accountability, the report outlines problems and issues but does not address conclusively the issue of who was responsible for the debacle surrounding the strategic communications unit.

It states that the Government took the decision on 6 September last year to establish the SCU. Can the Taoiseach put a little more flesh on those bones? Does the Taoiseach accept political responsibility for what was a flawed and failed venture?

The primary reason this issue continues to be raised is that the Taoiseach has continued his policy of refusing to respond to on-topic questions and to deny the reality of serious lapses in what happened with this unit. I have now asked the Taoiseach four times to respond to direct questions about information released by the Secretary General and each time he has ignored the question and launched a political attack. I will ask it once again. Does the Taoiseach acknowledge that the report on best practice prepared by the unit stated that the work of the unit should be directed by public input, not political decisions? Given this, can the Taoiseach explain why €2.5 million in irreversible contracts were issued before any public input had been sought? Why was the work plan discussed at Cabinet if the best practice identified by the unit said this should not happen?

Furthermore, the Secretary General's report reveals that a significant majority of the €174 million State spending on communications is incurred by a handful of State agencies, mainly in agriculture and transport, which the Taoiseach stated would not be co-ordinated by the unit. It is a simple matter of logic that the claim about massive savings from the €174 million could not have been true. Can the Taoiseach explain why this claim was made repeatedly by him and his colleagues, even when he had the information to hand that it was not true? Finally, with regard to the research, is there a date by which the promise to consult will be carried out or will this continue to be delayed? The Taoiseach informed us previously that it would be available in February.

I will deal with the citizen survey first. The plan is to consult with the Opposition parties on the questions. I imagine it will be much more straightforward than people expect. It will be questions about public satisfaction with different Government bodies, for example, and public knowledge and awareness of Government policies and the different programmes run by the Government, to see if there are information deficits in that regard. I have not been consulted on it so I have not seen a list of questions yet. As Deputies will appreciate, I have many things on my plate and many other priorities at present, and going through a list of questions for a citizen survey has not been one of them in the past couple of weeks given everything else that is happening. However, once I have been consulted, it is intended to consult the Opposition parties.

The SCU title still exists and will exist until July. We are in the transition period at present and the title is still being used. It is intended that the €2.5 million will be remitted back to the Exchequer, but obviously there is the possibility that there may be overruns in my Department and they would have first call on it. For example, a number of commissions of investigation are run through my Department and there is a possibility that the money might have to be veered from that budget line to commissions of investigation. As things stand, however, we expect it will be remitted to the Exchequer. That means my Department's budget will have fallen significantly this year. As I mentioned previously, I have fewer advisers than the last two or three taoisigh and spend less in terms of the Department's overall spend. Obviously, spending in other areas is increasing but not in the Department of the Taoiseach.

With regard to policy decisions, I take responsibility for all policy decisions I make. Administrative decisions or decisions made by third parties may be different, but I take absolute responsibility for any policy decisions.

Regarding public input and how public input can guide the work of the communications section of the Department, the intention of the citizen survey is not only to do the things I mentioned already but also to identify where there are information gaps where people are not aware of services the Government provides for them or of Government policies and plans for reform. However, it is not always necessary to survey citizens in advance. With Project Ireland 2040, for example, it would have been a waste of money to have carried out a survey before it had been published asking people if they knew about it. Of course, they would not know about it. How could one know about something that has not yet been published? There will be information campaigns, therefore, where we wish to inform people about what is happening, and it is not necessary to survey them to find out that they do not know about something that has not been published. Obviously, they would not know it. That is where information campaigns could be Government directed.

Another obvious area is pension reform. We have produced a detailed action plan for pension reform. It maps out how we are going to reform the pension system in a number of ways over the coming years. The centre piece of that is auto enrolment, moving towards a system whereby everybody is enrolled in a pension scheme. That is very important, particularly for people who work in the private sector. Two thirds of them have no pension provision other than the State pension. That is an area where we will have to inform people about what is happening and what is coming down the tracks in terms of pension reform. It might well make sense at the outset, as part of the citizen survey, to assess to what extent people know about the Government's plans for pension reform, whether they have heard of auto enrolment and so forth. I would wager that few people have heard of it. I do not know whether it is necessary to do that as part of the survey, but it is something that could be considered.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement at the University of Leuven in Belgium on 26 April 2018. [18947/18]

Joan Burton

Question:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Leuven, Belgium. [20060/18]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to the University of Leuven. [20128/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, together.

I delivered an address on the future of Europe at the Catholic University of Leuven as part of its Wilfried Martens series of lectures. This is an annual event, with previous speakers including Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, and former German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble.

The event was live-streamed and the text of my speech is available online. My speech covered the many achievements of the European Union, the benefits for Ireland of EU membership and my thoughts about the future direction of the Union, including the importance of completing the Single Market and digital Single Market and working together to deliver concrete benefits for our citizens.

I also spoke about developments in the negotiations on Brexit. In my address, I emphasised the need for an ambitious and positive approach to our discussions about the future of Europe, and the importance of maintaining our core EU values and principles, such as respect for human dignity, personal and economic freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights. I noted that many of the challenges we face - climate change, cyber security, illegal migration, international trade and the regulation of major corporations - cannot be resolved by 28 states coming up with 20 different solutions, and that we need to work together to respond to these challenges effectively. I also emphasised the importance of our relations with the rest of the world, including Africa and the western Balkans, and noted my intention to participate in the western Balkans summit in Sofia next week.

I stressed the importance of communicating and engaging with our citizens on key issues relating to the future of Europe. From Ireland's perspective, I outlined our citizens' dialogue, which I launched last November and is being led by the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and explained that the intention of this has been to facilitate an open and wide-ranging debate with our citizens, which will help to inform our approach into the future.

On Brexit, I noted the particular issues arising for Ireland and the need to preserve the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process, including power sharing in Northern Ireland and North-South co-operation. I noted the commitment to translate into the legal text of the withdrawal agreement the principles and commitments agreed between the EU and the UK last December, including in respect of the Border, and stressed the need to make real and solid progress on this before the June European Council.

After the speech, I attended a reception in the university where I had the opportunity to meet a range of academics and students, including Irish students studying there.

I noted a section of the Taoiseach's speech at Leuven. He said:

The Europe of the future must do four things:

1. Continue to do well what it currently does well.

2. Focus on the big new challenges facing Europe and its citizens.

3. Consider its competencies - not everything has to be done at European level; where appropriate, some things should be left to member states, regions and municipalities.

4. Engage citizens more.

Whereas we have a very different analysis of many aspects of the European Union, I believe approaching EU reform and the debate on that reform and change on those four grounds is a sound approach.

As currently framed, however, the debate does not focus on many of the main issues of contention for citizens. In this time of political flux following Brexit and the other issues of concern with the outlooks of certain states, there is a danger that a very simplistic narrative might be peddled by some that a federal Europe can ameliorate the ills of the European Union. The first flaw in this argument is that so many recent studies show a consistent majority of citizens in Europe who support not the transfer of further powers to Brussels but, rather, the contrary. For our part, Sinn Féin wants to see an EU that is guided by democratic principles and based on the premise that it is by states working together as equals on matters of mutual interest that we can best serve all citizens of the EU. As witnessed by our extensive efforts on Brexit, we believe that Ireland's place is at the heart of Europe. However, this does not mean we will ignore failures of the European institutions as they relate to Ireland. What is required going forward, in line with the sentiment of the Taoiseach's third point, which I read out, is for powers to be left with member states, but not only that: we should interrogate whether some powers might be transferred back to member states. The European Union needs to begin listening to citizens in a genuine way and to uphold their interests. We need to move away from a very bureaucratic, centralised model which benefits the few towards a social Europe which reflects the interests of ordinary workers and families. This is the only way we will address the imbalance of power and the democratic deficit at the heart of the European project.

In the spirit of the four principles he enunciated, what does the Taoiseach have to say, for example, on the issue of protecting Ireland's position of military neutrality and an independent, progressive foreign policy? What does he have to say, or what is his starting point, on advancing a debate in respect of social solidarity and equality? What is his big idea - or the big idea of the Government - in a Brexit scenario and then a post-Brexit scenario, of bridging that very deep democratic deficit that some might argue - and convincingly - was a major trigger and contributing factor to the success of the Tory Brexit campaign?

It is always fascinating to read the Taoiseach's or anyone else's views. Having had the chance to look at his speech in Leuven on the future of Europe, I believe there are many questions one could ask. In general terms - we have had references to this previously during Taoiseach's questions - all of us need the opportunity to talk about the future of Europe. There is an ongoing debate on the future of Europe. The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee, is involved in dialogue throughout the country regarding the matter but we do not have any real discussion on it in this House. The number of significant issues the Taoiseach has tabled merit detailed responses and interactions that would be very useful, including to our own people. Quite often, we have internal debate on matters of very fundamental importance to people and then end up with a treaty that the people know nothing about. We ask them to come up to speed in a matter of weeks on issues that may have been discussed over many months and, in some cases, years. We need that debate.

I wish to ask the Taoiseach specifically about one aspect of his speech on which I would be interested in hearing his views. He said:

I support calls for the establishment of a common asylum policy and system, to replace the current one which is clearly not working. A small number of countries are shouldering the responsibility of providing refugees with a fresh start in Europe.

All of us can and must do more.

Ireland, along with the UK, opted out of the reception conditions directive, as the Taoiseach knows, and we are semi-detached members of the common European asylum system in many ways. We are singed up to the Dublin regulations and Eurodac, but out, as I said, of the reception conditions directive. What role does the Taoiseach see Ireland playing in the new common European asylum system to which he referred?

The Leuven speech was interesting in that its advance billing to the media as setting out some sort of vision about the future of the European Union was classic hype. It was a standard recitation of broad generalities and it is disappointing that the Taoiseach did not go into specifics about the major structural discussions currently under way within the Union. For example, it is disappointing that he failed to endorse President Macron's very specific call for an expanded European Union budget, which has the resources it needs to tackle the issues in respect of which countries are seeking leadership. A budget of roughly 1% of overall income will remain economically marginal and the importance to reduce important schemes to allow new activity will continue to rise. The Common Agricultural Policy is under threat because of both the British exit and the pressures on other areas, which will increase. One of the most effective ways of ensuring the retention of the Common Agricultural Policy funds at current levels is to support an increase in the overall EU contribution. Given the current concerns about future growth and incomplete euro area reform, countries should speak up for more comprehensive measures.

Tomorrow is Europe Day. It was the policy of the previous Government that this would be an opportunity for a substantive debate on Europe every year. I think it is scheduled for 8 p.m. tomorrow.

That might be described as the graveyard shift. It is hardly an opportunity for substantive debate.

Ten-minute speeches.

There needs to be proper engagement on these structural reforms, which are serious and deep and which, we have argued for quite some time, are necessary for the future of Europe and in order that Ireland have a clear position on some of these issues. I know we have been asked to pass our ideas on to the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, but some structure should be established within the Oireachtas between the parties and the leaders of parties to perhaps toss these ideas around and discuss them in more depth. More substantive briefings on major EU matters for pro-EU parties might be warranted, as was the case before. Does the Taoiseach have a position on the multi-annual financial framework proposals issued last week? Is Ireland in favour of expanding the European budget or is it part of the opposition led by the Dutch and Austrian Governments?

I have not had an opportunity to take a look at it in detail yet but I understand that there is a survey out today which indicates that support for the European Union among Irish citizens remains very high. Something of the order of 90% of people support Irish membership of the European Union and see its benefits for citizens. That is very encouraging. One of the silver linings to Brexit has been that more and more Europeans across member states seeing the reality of what leaving the European Union entails perhaps have a better understanding of the benefits of European Union membership, which is to be welcomed.

I never like to think about these issues in terms of a simple transfer of powers from national capitals to Brussels. That is a very binary analysis. Talk about national powers and Brussels is the kind of Eurosceptic language one tends to hear from anti-European British Conservatives and so on. I do not really think this describes the world in which we live any more. The truth is that there are many problems and challenges that are beyond any nation state to manage, whether mass migration, climate change or security threats such as cyberattacks. It is not as if member states could manage these problems effectively on their own. The only sensible option is for us to do things on a multilateral level, whether through the European Union or, in some cases, through the United Nations. I never like to see things as a transfer from the nation state to the Union; I see it rather as a question of how we can best solve and manage these problems. That is how one decides where the competence should lie. I put the idea in the speech, which is largely my own work - not all speeches are, but many are - and I very much like the idea of competencies being repatriated from member states back to regions and municipalities. I often remark that one sees in the United States that cities and counties can sometimes do things that member states of the European Union cannot do.

That is because there is a lot of local democracy in the United States. However, when I try to think of examples of things I would like to see removed from European law and transferred to local authorities or national Government, it is difficult to come up with them. It makes sense that there are things that are now done at European level that do not need to be and that could be done at a national or administrative level, but if I was asked to name three or five of them, for instance, I would struggle to do so. Sometimes things such as labelling are suggested, but the whole point of the Single Market is to have consistency across that market. They are difficult to think of but if Deputies have suggestions for European competencies that could be transferred to member states, I would be interested to hear them.

On Ireland's position on military neutrality, Ireland is a neutral country. We will not join NATO or sign up to a mutual defence pact. The Government fully supports the triple lock so that any military operation in which Ireland takes part will require Government approval, approval of the Dáil and a UN mandate, notwithstanding the restraint that puts on us with China, Russia or perhaps the United States vetoing certain things. However, there are new global security threats including terrorism, mass migration, cyber crime, human trafficking and modern slavery. They cannot be dealt with by member states alone. There must be co-operation, which is one of the reasons we signed up to PESCO. Ireland is a founding member of PESCO, which will allow us to co-operate more on security where we choose to do so. I do not think that Ireland will ever be a military power. We will never buy aircraft carriers or invest taxpayers' money in expensive missile systems. We have very little to offer by way of military prowess and can offer more to European security through other things we do such as peacekeeping, the participation of our Naval Service in the Mediterranean rescuing migrants and co-operation in other areas, such as cyber attacks. That is where we see ourselves, rather than in trying to do what France and Germany do and becoming a military power or replicating them in some way, even if it is 2% or 5% of what they do. We want to do something different and contribute to European security through other mechanisms, some of which I have mentioned.

I am a very strong supporter of a common foreign policy for the European Union. We can be much stronger in the world if the EU acts together. Sometimes it is not possible for us to agree on a common policy. In those circumstances, each country's policy is independent and remains so. It is better if we can agree. We have spent much time discussing this at European Council meetings. We should not forget that in the world in which we live, Europe is increasingly a union of small states. Germany, which is the biggest country in the EU, has a population of about 80 million. I do not think that it is even in the top 20 most populated countries globally and if it is, it is so only barely. It is far behind the populations of countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan and Vietnam, countries one would not think of which have populations bigger than any country in Europe. Europe's position, whether in population or the size of its economy relative to the rest of the world, is falling. Some suggest that by 2050 Europe might make up less than 10% of the world's population or economy. We should bear in mind that it is a very different world from when these institutions were established in the 1950s and 1960s when the European population and its economies was much greater relative to the rest of the world.

On social solidarity and social Europe, my speech in Leuven referred to the Gothenburg proclamation which the Government was involved in drawing up. I attended Gothenburg with the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, and the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, to sign up to that proclamation. That is about putting fire back into the engine of the idea of a social Europe. Europe has never just been about economics, but also about raising social standards, employment standards, and having a common labour market. Due to the crisis of the past ten years, the fire has gone out of the engine of social Europe. The opportunity exists, now that European economies are strong again, to put fire back into the engine of social Europe, which is something the Government wants to do. The Gothenburg proclamation gives us a good agenda. There are issues we can pursue as Europeans, from auto enrolment to ending the pension apartheid that exists between public and private sector workers to things such as family leave. I wanted to speak about that in Leuven because the social market economy is very much a Christian democratic concept. Wilfried Martens was one of the great Christian democrats of his time. The social market economy has often been a part of the centre-right's agenda and it is very different from socialism, which is about state control of the economy and society. The social market economy, which is a Christian democrat concept, accepts that the market is the best way to produce wealth but that the Government's role must be to contain and manage the market economy so that it delivers social goods -----

We will move to question No. 7.

What about migration? We just got a lecture.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May recently. [18949/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if Prime Minister May outlined her views on a workable backstop when he last spoke with her. [19989/18]

Joan Burton

Question:

9. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach his most recent contact with Prime Minister Theresa May. [20062/18]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the British Prime Minister recently. [20127/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 10, inclusive, together.

I had a short meeting with Prime Minister May in the margins of the European Council on 23 March during which we discussed the latest developments in relation to Brexit, Northern Ireland and Russia.

On Brexit, I welcomed her Government’s commitment to ensuring the backstop forms part of the withdrawal agreement, and looked forward to progress on this and on the other options before the European Council in June. I expect to meet her next week at the informal meeting in Sofia, in Bulgaria. The Government's position is clear. Our preference is to avoid a hard border through a wider future relationship agreement between the EU and the UK, a view we share with the British Government. We are also committed to exploring specific solutions to be proposed by the UK. At the same time, there is now the necessary legal provision to implement the backstop of maintaining full alignment in Northern Ireland with the rules of the Single Market and customs union necessary to protect North-South co-operation and avoid a hard border. This is very much a default and would only apply should it prove necessary. This is about delivering on our shared objectives of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process - no less and no more.

I also conveyed to her my outrage at the attack in Salisbury.

This was my fifth bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister in recent months. I had previously met her in Belfast on 12 February 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.

Between these two bilateral meetings, I spoke by phone with Prime Minister May on Monday, 19 February to review the latest developments in Northern Ireland and again on Monday, 26 February when we discussed Brexit and the draft withdrawal agreement in particular, in addition to matters relating to Northern Ireland. There is also regular ongoing contact between my Department and the British Government at official level about Brexit and the situation in Northern Ireland.

Last week, I raised with the Taoiseach the so-called customs partnership being considered by Mrs. Theresa May and its lack of fitness to resolve issues relating to the island of Ireland. Last week saw another week pass without any viable proposal being put on the table by the British Government. After successive defeats in the House of Lords, the departure of several Ministers, and several splits in the British Cabinet, the only certainty is that the British Government is at sixes and sevens and still has not carved a defined path forward.

Based on developments at the weekend, it seems as though the Tory party is more divided than ever and divisions are deepening. That is largely their own business, except that it affects us in Ireland in a very real way and it is of increasing concern. There is a proposal on the table, namely, the backstop, which Theresa May agreed to, which would ensure that the North remained within the customs union and significant elements, although not all, of the Single Market, avoiding the need for an EU border on the island of Ireland.

Is it not now incumbent on the Taoiseach to state categorically that an agreement on this matter needs to be concluded in June and that dragging things out to October is not an option? We need clarity now more than ever because the British Government is in disarray. Without agreement on the legal text relating to the backstop agreement this whole edifice could come crashing down without any agreement being reached. There is a prospect of that happening.

Despite this, may I say it is utterly regrettable that Arlene Foster and the DUP have not faced up to the real dangers that Brexit poses and that they continue to toe the line of the hard Brexiteer rump of the Tory Party, which has absolutely no interest in Ireland, North or South. The DUP leader's comments at the weekend ignored the democratic wishes of the people of the North. In fact they misrepresented them because the people voted to remain within the European Union. For the record, I therefore regard this approach by the DUP to be absolutely reckless and unacceptable.

My question, which I have put to the Taoiseach before, is where does he stand on this matter and what needs to be achieved by the end of June in his view. I have set out our view. Now I want to hear specifically what the Taoiseach believes would represent an acceptable level of progress to arrive at by the end of June.

The entirely correct focus of national priorities in the Brexit negotiations has been on protecting the progress obtained by the Good Friday Agreement. It is the basis for most of the direct leverage we are using, so the ongoing crisis in the institutions of the agreement would now appear to be at an emergency level. There is also the fact that no proposal for regulatory alignment appears credible in the absence of an administration in Belfast which can deliver it. I made this point at the-----

-----dialogue and it seems to me to be a point which has been missed. How do we achieve regulatory alignment if we do not have institutions, an Executive and an Assembly in the North to facilitate regulatory alignment in the context of Brexit? In this respect it seems surprising that the process in the North appears to be stuck in limbo, with no attempts being made to change the dynamic or to push matters forward. There are many contacts at ministerial level, which appear to amounting to little, and few contacts at prime ministerial level, which also appear to amount to very little.

The Taoiseach will have noticed the widespread commentary during the recent commemoration of the agreement about how the intensity and substance of past Dublin-London engagement is absent today and about how the issues at hand now are a fraction of those which were previously overcome by previous governments and leaders. Has the Taoiseach discussed any new initiative with the Prime Minister, Ms May, which they might both undertake in order to break the deeply damaging logjam now in place in Belfast? It is extremely important that we get some momentum given the inter-relationship with the unfolding Brexit crisis.

The east-west relationship is equally key and, to a certain extent, is also being lost. A disorderly British exit may not happen because we have previously seen British governments in all sorts of situations coming close in negotiations and some fudge tends to happen or the can gets kicked down the road. However, Britain leaving the customs union and the Single Market will damage the Irish economy as well as Britain's own economy. We have to make the point relentlessly and consistently to the British Prime Minister and British Ministers that what they are doing will have a significant negative impact on the entire island of Ireland, not just the North of Ireland, in terms of our exporters, manufacturers and those who provide services to the British economy.

I was uncharacteristically pessimistic in my own few comments during the dialogue in Dundalk because I am now becoming quite fearful that the British Government's strategy is to fudge the issue in June and again in October and to hope somehow to fold it into the transition period and that even that will not work. It is now abundantly clear that the so-called bulletproof, unalterable safety net that is the backstop is undeliverable. I do not believe that the British Government as currently constructed can actually deliver it. We have seen it again this week when Boris Johnson basically derided the contents of the Mansion House speech, which was supported by the entirety of the British Cabinet. How does one negotiate with people who change position so fundamentally? This was a speech made by Theresa May as Prime Minister with the endorsement of her entire Cabinet which set out that she was looking for a customs partnership arrangement. That proposal is now being described as crazy by her Foreign Secretary. These are extremely worrying times for us and we need to be clear about where we are heading. There are enterprises across the State, including Dublin Port for example, that are currently preparing for the worst option. That is probably a sound strategy now.

I previously asked the Taoiseach about planning for the worst case. I understand that significant planning has happened across Departments. I asked that the Taoiseach brief Opposition parties in that regard. He might arrange for that briefing to take place, even in confidence. It is now crystal clear that we need to have these matters resolved by the meeting of the European Council in June in order that we will at least know where we are going to land by October and in order that we will have some sense of confidence that a bilateral deal between the European Union on one side and the United Kingdom on the other will be deliverable and that the understandings we had thrashed out with some difficulty last December will be upheld.

On the proposed customs union partnership, as the Deputies will know that proposal first appeared in documents produced by the British Government last June. The Prime Minister, Ms May, has continued to put forward that proposal in recent times. The view of the European Union is that it is not workable in its current form, but that it is perhaps something we could make workable. The suggestion she is putting forward that a customs union partnership could be developed between the EU and the UK after it leaves is welcome. I do not think it will be sufficient to avoid a hard border on its own, but it would certainly be much easier to avoid if the United Kingdom continued to have a very close relationship with the European Union when it comes to customs and the goods and merchandise element of the Single Market. It would certainly make the job a lot easier.

It is no secret that there are different views within the British Government and Cabinet. Those views have been well aired. There is also now a divergence between the position of the UK Parliament and the UK Government, given that it has now suffered quite a number of defeats in the House of Lords and that it is now impossible to predict whether there will also be defeats in the House of Commons. That makes negotiations very difficult but it is our responsibility to work through those difficulties and to ensure a good outcome for Irish people, workers and business.

In terms of the backstop or the protocol on Ireland, as I said before we want to see real and meaningful progress by the meeting of the European Council in June. If we do not have real and meaningful progress on the text of the backstop agreement by that time it is difficult to see how we will be able to come to an agreement by October at all. As Deputies will know and as has been said before, not only by me but by all of the EU 27, if there is no backstop there will be no agreement and there will be no transition period for the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding the negative effects a hard Brexit without a transition period would have on the Irish economy, when I said that we would not leave the people of Northern Ireland behind again I meant it. That is why we are insisting that there cannot be a withdrawal agreement or transition period for the United Kingdom if the backstop does not form part of that agreement.

Indeed, everyone accepts that there must be a backstop in the withdrawal agreement. The Prime Minister accepts that and Mr. Barnier's task force holds that view, as do all of the EU 27, so we are in a very strong position in that regard. The negotiating guidelines say that by the June meeting of the European Council progress will be reviewed and obviously decisions will be made at that meeting on the extent to which the progress being made is satisfactory.

The deadline for the withdrawal agreement is and has always been October, with the ratification in the European Parliament and British Parliament happening thereafter to allow it to come into effect before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union in March 2019.

I agree with Deputy Micheál Martin that the absence of devolved government and institutions in Northern Ireland is a real problem. It would make sense to devolve the power for the making of some regulations with regard to goods and services and perhaps regulations concerning agriculture and phytosanitary matters. Ireland is very much the one island when it comes to agriculture and related issues. Checks already happen at the ports because of this. Certainly, if the regulations could be devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive, it would help to resolve some of our problems. The absence of the institutions does make the situation that little bit harder.

When it comes to east–west relations, I want the House to know that, on individual and personal levels, relations are very good between me and the Prime Minister, between the Tánaiste and Mr. David Lidington and between the Minister for Finance and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and of course they are also good at official level. While relations may be good and while we may be in contact very regularly, the context is a bad one. That context is formed by the decision of the British people to leave the European Union, creating enormous problems for themselves, us and everyone else. There is also an impasse in Northern Ireland. While relations are close and while there is regular contact, the context in which we are operating is perhaps as bad is it has been for many decades.

With regard to further plans for Northern Ireland to try to get the Executive and Assembly back up and running, the Irish Government has proposed a joint initiative by the two Governments — our Government and the UK Government — to work together and perhaps produce a joint paper and use it as the basis to encourage the two main parties, namely the DUP and Sinn Féin, to come together to form an executive. As things stand, we do not have agreement from the British Government to do that. We are not giving up, however. We will continue to persist until we have the Assembly meeting and the institutions operating as they should be.

With regard to briefings on EU affairs and Brexit, there is an open invitation. If any party leader wants a briefing on Brexit preparations or the EU negotiations on a confidential basis, the offer exists. All he or she has to do is get his or her office to contact mine and we will arrange for him or her to be briefed at the highest level on Brexit plans and the negotiations. Obviously, the briefing would be in confidence. People understand that there are things we can say in confidential briefings that we cannot say in a public forum such as this. Certainly, however, the offer exists. Should any party leader want to contact my office, we could set up a meeting.