Ceisteanna - Questions

Departmental Strategies

Micheál Martin

Question:

1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach further to the reply from the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to Parliamentary Question No. 21 of 25 January 2018, the status of the proposal to double Ireland's global footprint by 2025. [19091/18]

Plans to double Ireland’s global footprint by 2025 are advancing. As I have previously stated, that does not necessarily mean a doubling of agencies, embassies, staff or budget – though we are and will be expanding these where appropriate. It means taking the steps necessary to double our impact around the world. The exercise will enhance Ireland’s visibility globally, extending our international influence. It will position us for trade and investment growth in new and existing markets. This is especially important as the UK leaves the European Union.

It will also benefit our citizens when travelling or living abroad and will support deeper engagement with our diaspora, including through new and creative platforms.

It will help showcase our culture to the world, and better communicate the benefits of living, working and studying in Ireland.

The Government has already taken a number of important steps to deliver this goal, including through the decision to open new embassies in Chile, Colombia, Jordan and New Zealand, as well as consulates general in Vancouver and Mumbai.

In support of a strategic approach to deepening engagement with Germany, the Tánaiste recently published a review entitled “Ireland in Germany: A Wider and Deeper Footprint”, making important recommendations, including opening a new consulate in Frankfurt, the financial capital of the eurozone.

In addition, during my visit to the United States for the St. Patrick’s Day period, I indicated our intention to expand and reinforce our footprint there, including through advancing our economic and other interests on the west coast. I also announced Global Ireland, an initiative to help us communicate in a more coherent, compelling and streamlined way to an international audience.

The Government has also provided additional resources to our enterprise agencies, including to enhance the support they offer to Irish businesses impacted by Brexit. Work on the initiative, which involves all relevant Departments and agencies with an international presence or dimension to their work, is continuing and I expect that the Government will announce further steps towards its delivery in the coming weeks.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Having seen close at hand the work of our diplomats and international agencies, I have always supported the significant extension of our international reach and, indeed, during more straitened times, managed to do so as Minister for Foreign Affairs. When we open new embassies and representative offices, there is a direct and continuous benefit to Ireland and our people. What is missing in the plan to increase our international reach is a strategic approach to achieving this. We must have focused priorities and be clear in setting out what we are trying to achieve. Previous expansions in China and Asia, in particular during the late 1990s when we developed the first Asia strategy, have borne much fruit. I recall as a former Minister with responsibility for enterprise putting pressure on a reluctant IDA to set up an office in China as we have to put roots down and may not get a return for a significant period afterwards. Those expansions were accompanied by cross-governmental strategies which set out specific targets and ongoing objectives from agriculture to industry as well as political objectives.

Immediately after the Brexit referendum, we were promised a detailed study of its staffing implications for the Civil Service and public service generally. What is the status of this study? Given the fact that there must be a training and development period before new recruits can operate at a high level, the obvious question is whether current recruitment is at a high enough level to fill the positions being created in time to deal with Brexit. What specific international models is the Government seeking to follow? Is it a case of expanding what we do or is there an intention to try new models, for example the way Scandinavian states frequently share facilities to reduce the cost of consular activities and support services? Has an assessment been undertaken on staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of the Taoiseach who are now required to work on Brexit? Have staff numbers already been increased and is the Taoiseach satisfied that the expertise required is available? Are there plans to increase staff in the Brexit area in the near future?

The Taoiseach announced the global Ireland 2025 plan in Toronto last August and said at the time that it would be published by the end of 2017. That did not happen. The Tánaiste then said in January that it would be launched over the course of the St. Patrick's Day events in the USA. That did not happen either. Nobody here will argue with the intended outcomes, which we are told are to attract greater investment to Ireland, build tourism and trade, build stronger links with the diaspora and increase cultural exchange. Those are all very good aims which Sinn Féin supports. An increased diplomatic presence around the world will no doubt increase the likelihood of delivering on those very goals. Does the Taoiseach now have a definitive timeframe in mind to put the details of the plan in place and for its rolling-out? What additional supports will agencies like the IDA and Fáilte Ireland receive? These are particularly important and appropriate in the context of Brexit. When will the planned new embassies in Chile, Colombia, Jordan and New Zealand be up and running?

We need a strategic view of what doubling Ireland's global footprint by 2025 actually means. Is it specifically looking at regions we need to invest in, beefing up existing embassies and-or establishing the embassies which have been announced? As Deputy McDonald said, the Taoiseach announced new embassies for Wellington in New Zealand, Santiago in Chile, Bogota in Colombia and Oman in Jordan, none of which has actually opened yet. When is it envisaged that they will open? The Taoiseach has indicated that a new consulate general will open in Frankfurt and that our footprint on the west coast of the USA will be increased. In the latter stages of the previous Government, of which we were both members, we increased our footprint in Asia. Looking at China, we opened a consulate general in Hong Kong to supplement the consulate already established in Shanghai and the embassy in Beijing. We also opened a new embassy in Jakarta and a consulate in Austin, Texas.

Strategically, what is the Taoiseach's intention? It would be interesting to have a view on that. Is it the general view that new and existing embassies should migrate to the "Ireland House" structure where Bord Bia, the IDA and other bespoke Irish agencies are housed in a single centre?

President Donald Trump is very dangerously banging the drums of war against Iran, supported enthusiastically by Saudi Arabia, a nasty little dictatorship, and Israel.

A big dictatorship.

A big dictatorship, and Israel. He is seeking to isolate Iran, impose sanctions and escalate a dangerous conflict in the Middle East. Many countries which are signatories of the nuclear deal with Iran are, rightly, rejecting what President Trump is saying and contending that the deal should be maintained. It is important in this context for Ireland to nail its colours to the mast on this. One way of doing so would be to restore an Irish embassy to Iran. There have been calls to do so independently of the current situation by the Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers' Association and the Iranians are very keen on it also. They have even offered to provide the building in Tehran. All they want is diplomats to be sent over. Iran has very many questions to answer about its policies in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, but we have embassies with many questionable regimes, including, for example, the Saudis and Israel, which has refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty while Iran has. It is important, as this conflict is being escalated by Trump, that we send a message that we are not engaging in a confrontation with Iran. Reestablishing an Irish embassy in Tehran would be one way to do so and it would also have economic benefits for this country.

The intention is to do exactly what Deputy Martin advocates, namely put in place a strategic plan approved by the Government. Our new target is to publish it before the summer recess. The idea behind this is to expand our embassy and agency presence around the world according to a plan rather than in the ad hoc way it has happened in more recent years. Draft versions of the document exist but I am not entirely happy with them. I am happy with what has been put forward by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the different agencies, but the existing draft is a bit weak when it comes to the permanent representation. We will have to increase our presence in Brussels to a considerable extent in the absence of the support and alliance of the UK there. We will be the only common law country in the EU and will have to build up new alliances. As such, we will have to increase the permanent representation. We will also have to look at the UK itself. When it is outside the EU, we will need to find new ways to maintain the bilateral relationship. The possibility exists of opening consulates in regional cities. For example, we may reopen the consulate in Cardiff.

Having read the draft, it occurred to me that it was not strong enough on areas like culture, education and connectivity. Our culture, arts, dance, music and literature are often the window through which a lot of people see Ireland for the first time, in particular in Asia and Africa. It is an area which needs to be strengthened. We can also be more ambitious around international education to encourage more international students to study here. There is also an opportunity to build on the success we have had to date on connectivity. Only a couple of years ago, there were no direct flights to the west coast of the USA whereas we now have flights to Seattle, San Francisco and LA. Direct flights to two cities in China will also commence this summer.

The draft is strong on embassies and agencies but, as already noted, perhaps it is not strong enough in the context of the other aspects relating to expanding our global footprint, namely, culture, education and connectivity. However, I believe we will get there over the next couple of weeks.

A staff census of the different agencies and Departments is done as part of the document. In terms of the models we have been examining, we have been looking at other small countries such as Denmark, which is a similar size to ours but which has many more suits and boots on the ground for what it does through its diplomats and agencies. Interestingly, Denmark is paring that back whereas we are going in the other direction and expanding. We have not planned to share with other countries. I had not even thought of that but it is not part of the plan at present.

It is intended to have more Ireland House establishments but that depends on where they should be. For example, one of the potential locations for a new Ireland House would be Tokyo in Japan. However, that would not make sense in countries such as Germany where the political capital is Berlin but where the economic activity is in Frankfurt. It does not make sense to put an Ireland House in Berlin. Similarly, in Australia, the political capital is Canberra but the business, tourism and other markets are in Sydney and Melbourne. It makes sense in some countries but not in others.

On Brexit, I am satisfied that we have adequate staff in the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs and Trade and across the various agencies. However, we must keep a watching brief on that because, as matters develop, we might need to respond to Brexit in different ways.

The new embassies in Chile, New Zealand, Jordan and Colombia and the consulates in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Mumbai will all open either this year or next year. We are also going to upgrade the existing office in Liberia to embassy status and expanding in Austin from one person to two. All of this is under way. In Chile, an ambassador-designate has already been appointed.

Doubling our global footprint means doubling our impact. It is done through a combination of measures and does not mean necessarily doubling offices, budgets and staff. It means doubling our impact by a combination of increases in staff, budgets and offices and things such as education and culture.

The Government supports the Iran nuclear agreement. We believe it has helped to stabilise that region and has slowed down, if not stopped, Iran's nuclear enrichment programme. We are aligned with our EU allies, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, in their support for the agreement. The Trump Administration has made a policy mistake in resiling from the agreement. I expect we will discuss it next week in Bulgaria at the informal meeting of EU Heads of State and Government. The Tehran embassy is under consideration again. We had an embassy there for a long time but it was one of the embassies shut during the financial crisis. As it is an expanding economy with a big population and it is an expanding regional power it is definitely on the list for consideration for an embassy in the future.

Departmental Staff Data

Michael Moynihan

Question:

2. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the overall number of staff employed in his Department in 2018 compared with 2017. [19096/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on staffing levels in his Department. [19723/18]

Joan Burton

Question:

4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the number of staff employed in his Department in the past 12 months. [20061/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, together.

There are currently 207.5 whole-time equivalent staff working in my Department. This compares with 203.5 whole-time equivalent staff on 31 December 2017.

My Department is structured around seven main work areas. The breakdown of posts currently in each of these areas is as follows: 29 posts in the international, EU and Northern Ireland division; 25 posts in the economic division; 27 posts in the Government secretariat, protocol and general division and the parliamentary liaison unit; 16 posts in the social policy and public service reform division; 33 posts in the corporate affairs division; nine posts in the information and records management unit; and 18 posts in the Government Information Service. The latter includes the press office and the strategic communications unit, which is currently in transition to a new arrangement. There has already been a reduction of three staff, or 14%, in this area in recent weeks.

The remainder of posts in my Department include services staff and those in the private offices, constituency offices and internal audit.

My Department uses workforce planning and succession planning to ensure there are sufficient staffing resources in place to deliver the Department's strategic goals.

With the exception of politically appointed staff such as special advisers, staff assignments, appointments and recruitment in my Department are dealt with by the Secretary General and senior management.

Deputy Micheál Martin is speaking on Deputy Michael Moynihan's question.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Yesterday, he again refused to acknowledge, let alone answer, some direct questions put to him about major departmental initiatives since he became Taoiseach. Other Members have been accused of filibustering in respect of legislative measures but the record shows that the Taoiseach is filibustering in the context of replying to questions in order to avoid tough topics. However, that is progress from last week, when he just went on the attack to avoid the question.

Can the Taoiseach say why contracts for €2.5 million were signed in opposition to the concrete finding that the strategic communications unit activity should be set by the public, not politicians? In other words, we were told there would be public research and that would inform investment in research. That did not turn out to be the case. Can he confirm that he was not looking for savings in the communications budget of €174 million across the Government because most of that budget had been excluded from the unit's remit? Will he accept that once and for all?

The Taoiseach has been saying for some time that he is to be congratulated for reducing his Department's budget. Can he outline the policy changes that have generated these savings? Are they substantive policy changes or simply variations in the usual annual changes in allocations for tribunals, for example, and for other matters which he does not actually control? Will he outline the transfer of staff back to Iveagh House from the European Union division or has there been such a transfer? What savings are reflected in his budget as a result of that transfer?

Last July, the Taoiseach announced that he was reviewing the work of his Department and that he would make his intentions clear once this review had been completed. What is the status of this review and is it near completion?

The international, EU and Northern Ireland division of the Department of the Taoiseach is the lead section for the Brexit negotiations and for matters pertaining to the North. Can the Taoiseach provide a breakdown of how many staff are assigned to each strand of this work in the division? How many people are assigned to the EU-Brexit responsibility and how many are assigned to work on matters pertaining to the North? Will he also indicate what the division of responsibility is within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in respect of both of these areas?

We touched on issues pertaining to the institutions in the North yesterday and the Taoiseach made some remarks in that regard. I wish to raise a couple of issues with him on foot of what was said. First, Sinn Féin is absolutely committed to getting the institutions back up and running. We have met the Government and the British Government in recent weeks and emphasised that point to both. The fact remains, however, that, after 14 months of negotiation and having reaching a draft agreement or accommodation, the DUP balked at dealing with language rights, marriage equality and implementing agreements on legacy issues. It has, in effect, checked out of power-sharing. This is due to its pact with the Tories, which is now the greatest obstacle to the restoration of the Northern Ireland institutions.

The British Government fails to confront the DUP's anti-rights agenda in order to protect its own narrow interests. The British Government has a responsibility under the Good Friday Agreement to deal with the rights issues at the heart of this political impasse. These issues are not going away and they must be addressed. In that context, it is incumbent on both Governments to convene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to provide a framework for the resolution of these outstanding issues and for the honouring of agreements. I acknowledge the efforts of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in requesting that this happen. The time for the British Government stalling because of its pact with the DUP is over. It must act.

What conversations has the Taoiseach had with the British Government and the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, in respect of convening the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference? That must happen as a matter of urgency. For all of us who are committed to the re-establishment of power-sharing and the institutions, I need not state the urgency and necessity for the intergovernmental conference to meet without delay.

I call Deputy Brendan Howlin, who is speaking in Deputy Burton's place.

The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will be glad to hear that I will be very brief. I wish to ask just three questions of the Taoiseach, if I may.

The Taoiseach has been hearing a more pessimistic tone coming from me in respect of what is happening with Brexit. For my own information as much as anything, he might indicate with some clarity the structure of the Brexit team. As I understand it, the team is headed up by a very fine public servant from his Department, Mr. John Callinan, who is the sherpa dealing with these matters in Brussels and reporting directly to the Taoiseach. Will he outline the structure of the team under him and tell me how many are in it?

Economics is obviously a strategic part of the work of the Department of the Taoiseach and across all Departments. As far as I can recall, the Taoiseach does not currently have a specific economics adviser. I think he is the first Taoiseach for some time not to have one. Is it his intention to appoint such an adviser? I think it is a position that will become increasingly important.

The entire reform agenda was clearly a matter with which I grappled when in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I do not say this in any way to be critical of the current incumbent but it seems that the merger in political responsibility of the Ministries of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform means, in essence, that the reform agenda has slipped back. That is a mistake. Driving reform on a permanent basis is really important. There are big issues emerging such as, for example, Sláintecare. The latter obviously falls primarily within the remit of the Department of Health. However, the Department of the Taoiseach needs to drive the agenda in order to ensure that matters of this nature are deal with. Is there a component part within his Department in this regard? Is it the economics division or some other part of the strands he has outlined that is seized of and driving a reform agenda to set specific goals across the Government and the public service and to measure accountability?

I again wish to place on the record the fact that I try to answer as many questions as I possibly can in the time allowed. However, I think any reasonable person would agree that it takes longer to answer a question than it does to ask it, so there is a substantial imbalance in the time allowed to ask questions and the time provided to answer them. I must admit that I do not always know the answer to the question, particularly when it comes to issues such as staffing or administration, which, in general, are not dealt with by me but by the Secretary General. However, I do endeavour to provide answers in writing to questions. One of the questions that has come up recently concerns the reduction in staff numbers as a consequence of the winding down of the strategic communications unit. As I have indicated today, three staff have already been reassigned. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the same question Deputy McDonald has just asked about the breakdown within the international section between Northern Ireland, EU, Brexit and international affairs. I gave a detailed breakdown in writing to Deputy Micheál Martin in recent days. I am not sure whether he received the reply yet but, if I remember correctly-----

Yes, I have. The Taoiseach is short three in the EU division.

-----there are approximately ten or 12 in the Northern Ireland section, ten or 12 in the EU section, and a smaller number - six or seven - in the international section.

I explained the €2.5 million in contracts yesterday. There are two streams as to how Government will operate campaigns. There are those that are directed by Government, matters we think people know about such as, for example, Project Ireland 2040. I do not believe it was necessary to carry out a survey as to what people knew about it, particularly before it had been published.

That is what the Taoiseach said would be done originally.

It made sense to proceed with that and other matters, such as Healthy Ireland, another cross-Government campaign to which this Administration is very committed. We do not need a survey to tell us that people need to know more about the benefits of good health or that they would benefit from good health. However, there are areas of information deficits, and part of the citizens' survey, whenever it is carried out, will be to identify where there are such deficits and where people are not aware of Government policies and programmes. If we repeat that survey every six or 12 months, we will be able to assess whether the campaigns are making a difference in increasing public awareness of these policies and programmes.

I am still very much looking for savings in cross-governmental communications. Even though the strategic communications unit is being wound down, the policy objective of seeking savings across spending on communications by Government and its agencies remains. This is, of course, a matter of different circumstances on different occasions. Semi-State agencies, for example, operate very differently from Government Departments and agencies.

Again, I would very much welcome the convening of the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference. I have spoken to Prime Minister May about this, both by telephone and in person. I am making arrangements to meet her in Sofia in Bulgaria next week, if she attends. I do not have confirmation yet as to whether she will be in attendance but convening of the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference is certainly one of the matters I would wish to discuss with her. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, as the House will be aware, is one of the structures established under the Good Friday Agreement. It provides a mechanism by which the Irish and British Governments may discuss matters relating to the agreement and to Northern Ireland. However, it is wrong to suggest that the intergovernmental conference is a silver bullet. It is not a body that has any authority or executive powers. Merely convening it will not add any further dimension to it that cannot be achieved from a bilateral meeting between the Prime Minister and me, a meeting between the Tánaiste and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or other meetings that happen all the time. I think to convene in this format would be beneficial but it would be wrong to think that merely convening it will produce a result or an outcome as it does not have decision-making powers.

Regarding my advisers, I do not propose to appoint a specific economic adviser at present. I know the appointment of such an adviser has been the practice in the past, so it may be something I do into the future. However, my best economic adviser is Deputy Donohoe, the person I appointed to the roles of Minister for Finance and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. We meet almost every week to discuss-----

The Taoiseach might need a second opinion on occasion.

-----financial matters and the economy.

In the context of the way I structure the work of my advisers, each holds several portfolios. For example, my chief of staff, who is also one of my policy advisers, covers areas involving the economy, finance and infrastructure. It is a case of getting the balance right. The role of the Taoiseach is to drive Government, drive the implementation of the programme for Government, bring Departments together and ensure there is a cross-Government approach to matters. However, one needs to get the balance right between driving Departments and micromanaging them. That can be difficult. I notice that the criticisms being made of me have shifted from my being too presidential and too overbearing and trying to dominate my Ministers a few months ago to now being accused of the opposite, namely, that I am not overbearing and not managing or not second-guessing them enough. I think people will appreciate why it is never quite possible to get this balance exactly right to everyone's satisfaction.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Michael Moynihan

Question:

5. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Newry on 30 April 2018. [19720/18]

Michael Moynihan

Question:

6. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Warrenpoint on 30 April 2018; and if he held meetings there. [19721/18]

Michael Moynihan

Question:

7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to a school (details supplied). [19722/18]

Eamon Ryan

Question:

8. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings in Newry, County Down. [19856/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Warrenpoint port on 30 April 2018. [19914/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he met the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders when he visited Northern Ireland on 30 April 2018; and the issues they discussed. [19987/18]

Joan Burton

Question:

11. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Northern Ireland on 30 April 2018. [20057/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 11, inclusive, together.

On the afternoon of 30 April, I travelled to Northern Ireland following my attendance at the fourth plenary meeting of the all-island civic dialogue in Dundalk.

I had a number of different engagements during my visit, which was part of my efforts and those of the Government to stay engaged with all parts of society in Northern Ireland.

My first engagement was a visit to New-Bridge integrated college in Loughbrickland. This is one of the integrated education secondary schools in Northern Ireland. During my visit, I met staff and students, including those from both of the main communities in Northern Ireland but also from the new communities there. Often the new communities in Northern Ireland are forgotten or passed over. It was good to see so many people, including so many children, from non-traditional communities attending the school and even working there.

I also visited the Jethro Centre in Lurgan, which is run by the Shankill Parish Caring Association. The centre provides facilities and services on a cross-community basis in the Lurgan area and has received funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I met a group - including children, teachers and community workers - involved in cross-community work and I was given an overview of the work being done by the wide range of projects run from the centre.

I also paid a visit to Warrenpoint Harbour where I met business people who are customers of the port and listened to their concerns about the impact and challenges and uncertainties of Brexit for their business.

Overall, my visit proved to be very informative and worthwhile. All the people that I met, from all sides of the community, were very welcoming and I was pleased to have the opportunity to engage with them.

I did not have any meetings with representatives of the political parties in Northern Ireland during my visit. The Northern Ireland Office was notified of my visit in advance, as is standard practice.

I call Deputy Micheál Martin on behalf of Deputy Michael Moynihan.

I welcome that yesterday, the Taoiseach accepted that the lack of working institutions in Northern Ireland is a direct threat to achieving as much as possible in the Brexit negotiations. However, what was surprising is the lack of any urgency in what he said, and there being a significant step away from the strength of calls for actions by the parties which the Taoiseach made earlier this year. Perhaps this is merely a reflection of the Taoiseach's new support base, it is important to look after one's voters.

The absence of the anti-Brexit majority in Northern Ireland from any major discussions happening between the devolved administrations and London causes damage every day. That is something that was made clear by the leaked documents which Sinn Féin published in Brussels last week. Given the scale of the threat posed by the non-functioning institutions and the British Government's refusal to establish the former consultation processes with Dublin used during previous suspensions, it was very surprising that yesterday the Taoiseach said that he has had no conversation with the Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, in the past six weeks. Did he seek a conversation that was rejected by London or is it really the case that in the midst of the twin crises of Brexit and the suspended Belfast institutions, the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister see nothing wrong with failing to speak for six weeks?

I am perfectly willing to believe that a combination of chaos and disinterest in London is the cause but I do not think the Taoiseach will find a period in the past 25 years when a Taoiseach and a Prime Minister went for so long without talking, especially during such a crisis as that of the suspension of Northern institutions or of Brexit.

I note the Taoiseach's earlier comments but I think an intergovernmental conference should have been convened by now. The maximum utilisation of the agreement is imperative. Otherwise elements of the agreement can fall into abeyance. That ultimately brings the agreement itself into disrepute.

I did not know, until I heard the leader of Fianna Fáil make the point, that there had not been communication between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister for six weeks. That is remarkable. At the same time the Taoiseach was visiting communities in the North, and I welcome the details of the visit, the Oireachtas had its session in Dundalk with Michel Barnier. If one looks at what was said there and couples it with what we have seen and heard from London in the last week, it is clear that we are on course for a crash-out Brexit rather than a deal. That is my assessment of where it seems to be going, not what I would want it. That is of huge consequence for everyone and should be our political focus, including communications with the British Government. It also calls into question North-South communications and our need to maintain good relations with all parties, representatives and all people on this island during what will be a difficult and bumpy period.

I have one suggestion for the Taoiseach. I understand that on the same day he visited those schools and the people in Warrenpoint, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade was meeting my colleague, the leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland for the first time. It had proved difficult to set up that meeting. It took time. Worse still is that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland refuses to meet parties such as our own. The Taoiseach once responded to me that there are two tiers of parties in the North, there are the big five to whom the Taoiseach speaks and then the smaller parties. We must get through this incredibly difficult time in Irish history and avoid a continuation of sectarian divisive politics. One of the paths back to talking to unionist and nationalist communities and moving away from the sectarian divide is to start talking to all parties and engaging them in the process. Relying on the big two, or nationalists and unionists and the sectarian divide as the inevitable outcome of the Good Friday Agreement, is not clever at this time. Engaging with people such as my colleague, Steven Agnew and others will allow us to start breaking down those sectarian barriers and start connecting with the nationalist and unionist community in the North during what could be a very rocky moment in Irish and British history.

I welcome the Taoiseach's visit to the North. I thank him for his report on the visit. I take it that Warrenpoint was chosen specifically with the Brexit dynamic in mind. The significance of the port in Warrenpoint cannot be overstated. It has a growing reputation. Its location is halfway between Dublin and Belfast, and is at the centre of growing trade on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. It is a healthy thing and it would be welcome for the Taoiseach to visit the North as regularly as he can. Unlike others, I do not believe that the Taoiseach must meet party political people all the time, it is not necessary although it is necessary that all the parties are met, including Mr. Agnew and the Green Party, and I see no reason why that should not happen. However, I should say that the reason the institutions are down is not because of a sectarian divide, per se, although the North is a State which was created and defined on the basis of a sectarian headcount and the Good Friday Agreement is the vehicle for moving beyond that. The reason the institutions are down is because of a failure by the DUP to really buy into and sign up for power sharing.

We have a set of issues that need to be resolved. We had them resolved in February, to be fair. The accommodation was not perfect from a nationalist perspective but we were convinced that it was enough to move on; the DUP took a different view. That is why I raise the issue of the intergovernmental conference once again. I know there is no silver bullet and nobody has a magic wand in this scenario but I also know that we need a forum, a mechanism and a momentum within which we can sort these matters out and provide a roadmap and the resources necessary for so doing. I also believe that such a mechanism must be within the architecture and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which is why the intergovernmental conference is so important. I also believe that it should have been convened by this stage. It is very dangerous to allow this to drift. I understand there are tensions from Dublin to London, as well as an obvious and perhaps unavoidable tension, given the broader Brexit politics. I am fully au fait with the dynamics of between the DUP and the Tories, which are most unhelpful, but we need to sort these issues out and we can. However, if the Taoiseach is not prepared to force the pace on these matters, the Tories will very happily sit back. Some of their leading lights, their hard Brexiteers, would be more than happy to put the Good Friday Agreement through the shredder and I know this because they have stated that very publicly, and when they said it, they meant it. We should take them at their word. I urge the Taoiseach to press this matter very hard with Theresa May and the British Government, namely, that we convene this intergovernmental conference without further delay.

There has not been a formal telephone call or meeting between the two of us in about six weeks, nor has there been a request for one in either direction. A meeting is under consideration for next week, if we are both able to be in Sofia at the same time. I will also travel to Romania on the way to Bulgaria to meet the Romanian President as part of the contacts we are building up in the EU on Brexit and other matters. That also will be subject to confirmation. Prime Minister May and I have each other's mobile phone numbers and it is possible for us to contact each other whenever we need to but currently the focus is on negotiations in Brussels and the various Cabinet meetings taking place in the UK to determine their position on the customs union or the customs union partnership and how that might evolve.

Currently the focus has been on the negotiations in Brussels and on the various Cabinet meetings that are happening in the UK to determine what its position will be on the customs union or a customs union partnership and how that position might evolve. The most useful conversation is the one which will be had once the British Government has decided its position on the new customs arrangement. Absent that, it is very hard to make any particular progress at the moment. There are, of course, many other contacts at official level through the ambassador. In recent weeks the Minister for Finance met with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Tánaiste met with David Lidington. Of course we compare notes on what happens at those meetings and what messages are coming across from London to Dublin with regard to where things might go and what the British Cabinet might decide on the customs dilemma, which seems to be taking up a lot of its time.

On the Green Party in Northern Ireland, I certainly regret that it took so long to organise a meeting with the Tánaiste. I am very much of the view that we should engage with all parties in Northern Ireland and I welcome the fact that there are forces in Northern Ireland other than unionist and nationalist forces, including the Alliance Party, the Green Party and also some socialist groups. However, in scheduling meetings we obviously have to have regard to the respective mandate of each party and, whether we like it or not, the DUP and Sinn Féin are very much the largest parties in Northern Ireland and represent the majority of each community respectively. That is a reality of politics in the North.

I was very keen to visit Warrenpoint, particularly because of Brexit as it is, in many ways, a cross-Border port. Some 40% of its trade goes to or comes from south of the Border. It was very interesting to talk to the people who use the port about how they believe customs controls could impact on their businesses, not necessarily or even particularly in the case of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but in the case of customs controls between the UK and other parts of the European Union, which could also have a real impact on people's businesses. I also have a personal interest in ports given my happy period as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. I have now visited every port in Ireland bar one. That is one off the list. There is a number of reasons as to why it has not been possible-----

Did the Taoiseach visit Galway port?

-----to re-establish the Executive and the Assembly in Northern Ireland. Obviously there is the DUP-Sinn Féin dynamic. There is a real trust issue there. There is mistrust between those two parties which is making it extremely difficult to come to an agreement. I am not sure what the two Governments can do to engender trust between the DUP and Sinn Féin but we will certainly do anything we can. The lack of trust is one of the fundamental problems and one of the fundamental reasons why those two parties have not been able to come to agreement, or at least not to an agreement that could stick.

There is obviously also the atmosphere of Brexit, which creates enormous difficulties. It is going to be difficult to get the Assembly and Executive back up and running until we have a clearer idea of the shape of Brexit, of the new relationship between the UK and the European Union, and of how Northern Ireland and the Executive and Assembly fit into it. It is going to be difficult to get the institutions up and running in the next couple of months for that reason. The ongoing renewable heat incentive, RHI, investigation is also part of the backdrop to this. I am, however, confident that it will be possible to have the Executive and the Assembly functioning again. It is very much in the interests of Northern Ireland. All the time when I meet people from Northern Ireland they are so frustrated and so disappointed with the political parties. It is now even a case of a plague on all your houses when talking to many people because they are so disappointed that the institutions are not up and running. As co-guarantor of the agreement, the Government will continue to strive until things are working again.