Priority Questions

EU Membership

Niall Collins

Question:

24. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the re-election of Mr. Viktor Orbán in Hungary; his further views on the threat to freedom and democracy in Hungary and the wider implications for the European Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21309/18]

I would like to hear the views of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on the re-election, for the third time, of Hungarian Prime Minister, Mr. Viktor Orbán, especially given what he says and stands for, and the potential threat to freedom and democracy in Hungary.

The election in Hungary resulted in a two thirds majority for the ruling party led by the Prime Minister, Mr. Viktor Orbán. Engagement with all EU member states is a key imperative for Ireland in advancing and protecting our interests in the European Union. In that context, we raise not only issues of shared interest with our partners but also issues of concern. The Government will continue to work with the Prime Minister, Mr. Viktor Orbán, and his administration to ensure the European Union is equipped for the collective challenges we face, not least in addressing the issues of greatest concerns to citizens, including Brexit and the European Union’s future finances.

Respect for the fundamental values on which the European Union is founded and which are set out in the treaty, including respect for the rule of law and freedom of expression, is a crucial underpinning for all EU member states and that is a message we also convey.

There are concerns about the civic space available for NGOs to continue to operate in Hungary. The overall media environment in Hungary has also deteriorated further in recent weeks with the closure of a major independent newspaper.

The European Commission is, in the first instance, charged with ensuring the application of the treaties and responsible for promoting the general interests of the European Union. Last December it announced that it was referring Hungary to the Court of Justice of the European Union in relation, inter alia, to the laws on higher education and NGOs which were adopted in 2017. In the case of these two issues, Hungary is considered to have failed to address EU concerns about these laws or amend the legislation to bring it into line with EU standards. These cases are likely to be heard by the court later this year. Notwithstanding this, it is important that Hungary and the Commission engage on these issues and that ultimately a resolution be achieved, if possible, without the need for formal court action.

Fianna Fáil has many concerns about Mr. Orbán's re-election, especially in the context of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary. International observers have noted their concerns about intimidation, xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and campaign funding. The Minister may be aware of the preliminary report of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, following the election. It states:

The [8 April] parliamentary elections were characterized by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis. Voters had a wide range of political options but intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing constricted the space for genuine political debate, hindering voters’ ability to make a fully-informed choice ... Fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate. Access to information as well as the freedoms of the media and association have been restricted, including by recent legal changes.

It is not a stretch to say that, while the elections may have been free, they were certainly far from fair.

Mr. Orbán's party, Fidesz, is affiliated with the European People's Party, EPP, of which the Minister's own party is a member. Has the Minister raised concerns within that grouping about the activities of Mr. Orbán and the direction he is taking Hungary?

The role of Hungary as a member of the European Union needs to be one of respecting the treaties and rules so that all member states, including Hungary, have laws that are consistent with those. If they do not, then it is the job of the European institutions, primarily the European Commission, to raise concerns and, if necessary, take action. The threat of action or the taking of legal action can happen in respect of all states, be it on environmental law, protecting NGOs or minorities, or ensuring free and fair elections. The Commission guards a series of areas that are required to ensure consistency with the treaties of the EU and to be a member state. That is its primary role.

There is an ongoing conversation as well as the potential for legal cases between the Commission and Hungary. That is where the matter should be addressed. There is an opportunity for political conversation and discussion, be that within the EPP, other groups or around the Foreign Affairs Council table where differences of policy are often explained and played out, for example, an approach towards migration. That is politics, though, and some electorates in some countries in the EU have chosen governments that have different views than ours. That is the way it is.

The Minister is right about this being politics, but politics has to try to work to put these issues right. It is a fact and a matter of public record that Mr. Orbán seeks to control the judiciary and the courts, has targeted civil society, NGOs and the education system, has sought to scapegoat refugees and migrants, and has actively rallied against the EU and what it stands for. It is on the record that this man does not stand for the values or ideals of the EU.

As the Minister stated, the European Commission has referred Hungary to the European Court of Justice regarding a number of matters-----

-----but a range of issues are causing concern. I will press the Minister harder and ask him for his view on this issue. Mr. Orbán's party is affiliated with the same European Parliament grouping to which the Minister's party is affiliated, which must be a concern. The Minister stated that there had been political discussions within various groups and at Council meetings, but we need to go further. Would a collective action of, for example, expelling Mr. Orbán's party from the EPP not send a stronger signal? Will the Minister give more information on this front? Mr. Orbán's modus operandi, the direction he is taking Hungary and the influence that is having on Poland are very worrying.

There are concerns about the anti-immigrant feeling and anti-Brussels rhetoric that at times come from the Hungarian Government, but the way to address that is to challenge and debate where possible. If policy decisions are contrary to the treaties, we should deal with the issue in a way that is consistent with how the treaties are supposed to function, that is, the European Commission does its job. If Ireland is not doing what it needs to do, the European Commission comes knocking on our door. That is the obligation that comes with EU membership. There is a significant upside to membership in terms of opportunities, but there are also obligations.

I listened to the Taoiseach this morning. I am also strongly in favour of enlargement to the east. The stability that the EU can bring to the Balkans is something that we have a responsibility to deliver for them and to them, but that does not mean that, when countries join, they do not have to abide by the rules. If the EU allowed a situation in which the treaties were no longer respected, we would be in a difficult space. We will be challenged in that regard, so this is how we should approach the matter.

Brexit Issues

David Cullinane

Question:

25. Deputy David Cullinane asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the details of the protections of human rights in Northern Ireland post Brexit as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement; the measures proposed for the protection of the voting rights of EU citizens in Northern Ireland post Brexit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21482/18]

My question is on the rights of EU citizens who live in the North and how, in a post-Brexit situation, their political, social and economic rights can be protected.

We have discussed this issue and will do so again as these negotiations proceed, as this is one of the complex areas of negotiation on which we need to make progress. We are making some.

As co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government is determined to ensure it is fully protected in all its parts throughout the process of the UK's withdrawal from the EU. This includes the rights and equality provisions of the Good Friday Agreement that are central to the peace process. Our EU partners have shown solidarity and support in respect of Ireland's unique issues and concerns, including the protection of the agreement.

On 8 December, the joint report between the EU and UK negotiators was agreed. It included important commitments in respect of protecting the agreement in all its parts. The draft protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which forms part of the draft withdrawal agreement, translates these commitments into a legal framework. The protocol proposes that the UK would ensure no diminution of rights, including by respecting EU non-discrimination law, and that this commitment would be implemented through a dedicated mechanism. The protocol also proposes that the UK would facilitate the related work of the institutions and bodies of the Good Friday Agreement, which includes the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the joint committee of both human rights commissions in both jurisdictions. The protocol also clearly acknowledges that the people of Northern Ireland who choose to identify as Irish and therefore as EU citizens, will continue to enjoy the rights, opportunities and benefits of EU citizenship.

More work is required between the UK and EU on rights and equality issues, as is provided for in the joint report. The Government will continue to engage intensively on these issues, working with our EU partners, the Commission task force and the UK to ensure that the commitments made to date are delivered on in full. There has been a great deal of engagement on this issue in particular. While we are not making a great deal of progress in some areas, I am told that there is considerable goodwill on both sides where the issue of citizens' rights is concerned. We are making some progress in that regard.

We need to translate that goodwill into tangible proposals so that Irish citizens in the North who are also European citizens will know exactly where they stand in a post-Brexit situation. The Good Friday Agreement recognises that someone in Northern Ireland can be Irish and British and hold both passports and citizenships as a birthright. As with many other Brexit issues, however, the difficulty is that, although there were commitments in last December's political agreement, there is no agreement on the details, which the Minister says are still being worked out.

We represent a significant percentage of the people living in the North, and a question they are putting to us is about how their political, social and economic rights will be vindicated, for example, access to healthcare funding if people travel and access to education opportunities. These are important issues for people who live in the North, and they want to know how they can exercise their rights as EU citizens in the North if it is taken out of the EU against its will.

Those are fair questions, and that is what these negotiations have to deliver. For the first time, we are effectively discussing a birthright to EU citizenship for our citizens in Northern Ireland even though they will be born outside the EU. That is new. It shows the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, which allows people to choose British, Irish or dual citizenship.

That will require us, through the negotiations, to find a way to ensure EU citizens will be able to study, work, move around and access healthcare across EU member states as they can today. Although the common travel area arrangements will facilitate this for Irish and British citizens in Britain and Ireland, the delivery of EU citizenship rights is very complex for those seeking such rights but living outside the European Union and potentially outside the jurisdiction of EU courts. At that point it becomes very complicated. Having been in London on several occasions in recent weeks, I can state there is a determination among negotiators on both sides to make progress on this issue before the end of June.

The answer is that the North does not have to be outside the European Union. It should be part of it because that is how the people voted. It is interesting that there are, rightly, proposals on the table to effectively keep the North in the customs union, the Single Market and the legal architecture of the European Union for trade purposes. Why can the same approach not be taken to citizens' rights and access to the European Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights? That could be done if there was the goodwill the Tánaiste says there is. Although we are making progress on trade issues and the backstop is that the North will be kept in an all-Ireland framework aligned to the rules of the customs union and the Single Market, why can the same logic not be applied to citizens' and political rights which are as important as trade for those who live in the North? I accept that the negotiations are ongoing and that there is goodwill, as the Tánaiste stated. We hope to get the best possible result for those who live in the North, but they are concerned by much of the commentary from elements of the Tory Party which are trying to unravel the political agreement reached in December. Although the Government and the European Union have work to do, the difficulty is that we are dealing with a very divided Tory Party which is not particularly generous or kind when it comes to the rights of people who live in the North.

I wish to be very clear that we take our lead from the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. She has made commitments on behalf of Britain and on which she will follow through. There is a lot of noise in the political system at Westminster where various people are commenting on the issue, but the Prime Minister represents the British Government in the negotiations------

Yes, she does. Although there is political debate on the approach that should be taken, she has committed to protect the Good Friday Agreement in full, ensure there will be no Border infrastructure of any kind on the island of Ireland and no related checks and controls and have a backstop in the withdrawal agreement that will be legally operable in terms of text and which will remain unless or until it is replaced by something better. These commitments have been made. The challenge is how we fulfil them and promises made in the negotiations in a way that is politically acceptable to all sides. That is what we are trying to do. We should not be dragged in different directions by commentary from various sources. The Government and the Barnier task force take their lead from the British Prime Minister's office.

United Nations

Niall Collins

Question:

26. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will report on efforts to obtain a seat at the UN Security Council for the 2021-22 term; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21310/18]

I ask the Minister to update the House on Ireland's efforts to win a seat at the UN Security Council for the 2021-22 term, given that we last held a seat almost 16 years ago in 2001-02.

As the Deputy may remember, the 9/11 attacks occurred during that period. I remember it very clearly because Ireland had quite an influential position in advocating for the protection of civilians and a human rights approach post-9/11 when the war on terrorism began in Aghanistan. Ireland chaired the UN Security Council at the time, which was a very pivotal position for a small country such as Ireland to hold. That we did so skilfully at such a tense time globally shows the quality of the Civil Service. We want to be a member of the Security Council again because Ireland has shown itself to have the capacity to influence decisions in a positive and peaceful way as a small country.

We are seeking election to a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council for the 2021-22 term. We are one of three candidates for the two available seats in the western Europe and others regional group. The other two candidates are Canada and Norway which, like Ireland, have strong records of engagement at UN level and which will provide stiff competition. In order to be elected to the UN Security Council, Ireland must obtain the support of two thirds of the membership of the United Nations General Assembly or approximately 129 votes of the 193 member states at the election in June 2020. Our candidature was first announced in 2005 and the campaign has since been building under successive Governments.

I take every opportunity to raise our candidature with representatives of member states and press the value of Ireland playing our role on the Security Council. The President met several member state representatives during his visit to the United Nations last month. The Taoiseach, in his address to the Brookings Institute in Washington in March, outlined the importance of an effective multilateral system to Ireland and small countries in general. With my Cabinet colleagues, I will continue to make Ireland’s case in the period ahead. This political engagement is underpinned by my Department’s diplomatic personnel and we will launch our campaign in the coming weeks. In making Ireland’s case to the electorate we will highlight our consistent record at the United Nations over more than six decades of membership across a number of areas, including peacekeeping, sustainable development, humanitarian action, disarmament and human rights. If Ireland were to be elected to a non-permanent seat at the Security Council, our fundamental approach to any agenda item would be to advocate for the core values of our foreign policy, namely, peace and security, justice, equality and sustainability.

Fianna Fáil supports Ireland's bid to win a seat at the UN Security Council and recognises it as a valuable opportunity for it. Almost 1,000 of our peacekeeping men and women have served on UN-mandated missions during the years and we currently have several peacekeepers on the Golan Heights. It is a huge opportunity and Fianna Fáil is very supportive of the efforts being made to win a seat. I refer to the use of the veto within the Security Council. The Security Council has largely been ineffective in dealing with many conflicts because of the use of the veto. There are conflicts in the Middle East, Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, to name but a few. Has the Tánaiste raised the prospect of reform of the veto and would he support its regulation or reform, in particular in instances where war crimes are being committed?

I would support such reform, for which we have advocated. I spoke on the issue at the UN General Assembly last September. The UN Security Council is dysfunctional in making decisions when one of the five permanent members has a vested interest. We have repeatedly seen one of the five permanent members using the veto to protect itself, its allies or vested interests. Innocent civilians are often the victims, as was the case in the chemical attacks in Syria and other attacks elsewhere in the world. France recently proposed that the veto not be used in cases involving significant civilian casualties or potential war crimes. I strongly support that approach.

I think more fundamental reform is needed in the UN Security Council because the permanent membership of the Security Council does not represent the state of world politics today in the fullest sense possible. We will continue to advocate for reform, but in particular in the short term we will support France and others who are looking for a more responsible use of the veto.

The Minister said earlier that winning a seat on the Security Council will be difficult and I agree with him because to secure 129 votes out of 193 is not an easy feat. We wish the Government well in its bid and we are supportive of it in relation to it. If we are successful in securing the seat, what areas in particular does the Minister want to see prioritised? I know he said in his initial response that Ireland will subscribe to its core values of the promotion of peace, but is there anything in particular?

We will focus on areas where we have credibility. Ireland, for example, along with Kenya, was very involved in chairing the committee that eventually got the sustainable development goals across the line. Ireland has credibility in Africa on the development agenda. We have a lot of credibility in peacekeeping and post-conflict management-----

And I hope conflict prevention.

Yes, and conflict prevention. We are doing a lot of work within the UN structures in areas such as gender-based violence. These are areas where small countries matter and have a say and can put new thinking and alliances together. That is the kind of thing we would like to do. The one thing we will definitely do is be a strong, independent voice. We will not be in anyone's pocket, which is very important for a relatively small member state of the UN wanting to be on the UN Security Council. We have been there before and our record is one that we can stand over. The election will not be an easy process to win but we are in reasonably good shape. This campaign will intensify in the months ahead.

International Agreements

Brendan Howlin

Question:

27. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the approach of the Government to the decision of the United States of America to reimpose sanctions on Iran and the consequences for a rules-based international order; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21367/18]

Last week the United States unilaterally repudiated the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran. Will the Tánaiste outline the implications for the international order and for the countries of the European Union of that decision?

The straight answer is that it is very complicated now. I had a long dinner with my French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, on Sunday night in Farmleigh and we spent a lot of time talking about this because France is trying to give leadership in this area to try to keep this deal alive, despite the current difficulties.

The Deputy will have seen my statement of 8 May on behalf of the Government, setting out our views and expressing our disappointment with the decision of the United States. Similar statements were issued by the European Union and by other partners.

I have stated clearly in public that the Iran nuclear agreement was a significant diplomatic achievement in the area of non-proliferation, that it was delivering as intended, and that, as verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran had implemented its commitments under the agreement. These views were clearly conveyed to the US Government on a number of occasions, including in recent weeks by President Macron and Chancellor Merkel, and also by the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, although not directly to President Trump.

It is a matter of great regret that the US has decided to take a different approach from the EU. Speaking for the EU, High Representative Mogherini has emphasised that the agreement was a multilateral one and that all other signatories to it have expressed a hope that it can continue to be implemented. The EU signatories to the agreement, and other parties, have held initial meetings with Iran to discuss that possibility. Ireland will fully support that objective, although the difficulties should not be underestimated.

Looking at the broader picture, Ireland's foreign policy is deeply anchored in the values set out in the Constitution. Those are reflected also in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the principles which underpin the European Union. Ireland is committed to a rules-based international order and to a multilateral approach to global issues.

Having been Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin will know the difficulties of maintaining global commerce if the US is imposing sanctions. We have seen that with Aughinish Alumina recently following sanctions affecting one oligarch in Russia. Countries will need to work together to keep this agreement alive from an Iranian perspective.

That is the net issue I want to pursue. I am very concerned about the implications for the international order. How do we embark, for example, on negotiations in relation to the Korean Peninsula if one party can unilaterally tear up an agreement when everybody has agreed that the other party is fulfilling the terms of the agreement? Specifically, we cannot allow the United States to determine international policy and that we all, regardless of our views, simply follow through.

Could I ask the Minister about the impact on western companies with any links to the United States if the embargo is imposed? I expect it would be very severe. It is estimated that a deadline is being imposed of 90 to 180 days for western companies to disengage. The impact for Ireland could be €143 million of Irish export trade being put at risk, and it could be even more significant for other countries.

In terms of the Minister's discussions with the French foreign Minister and his European colleagues, is it envisaged that the European Union, in conjunction with the Russian Federation and other countries, would work out a system to ensure that countries whose companies want to continue to trade with Iran in support of the agreement that was freely entered into will not be economically impacted by the American decision?

First, it is important to put on the record why the US is going in a different direction. The US sees this deal as one that also needs to deliver a more responsible approach from Iran in terms of its regional influence. It is also concerned about the stockpiling of ballistic missiles. The US is looking at a broader series of issues and linking the continuation of this deal with some of those issues, which is not what the EU and others are doing. This is a nuclear non-proliferation agreement that has been successful and is being monitored accordingly, which is why it is so regrettable if it unravels. I have had an initial conversation with my French colleague who accepts that this is complicated. My experience is that I have met with a reasonable and positive response from decision-makers in Washington in terms of trying to be helpful about the impact of US sanctions on Russian individuals. I suspect a lot of negotiation is required if this deal is to survive without US support.

All deals by their nature are imperfect and I do not think any country ever enters into a deal that it regards as perfect, but the Iranian agreement was regarded by all the participant countries, who freely signed up to the deal, as being the best achievable, and everybody is compliant with it. I dare say if a similar deal could be contracted with North Korea, the current American Administration would be delighted to achieve a deal of that scale to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. That said, the issue is a very straightforward although a very complex one. Either multilateralism - free negotiations and agreements entered into - has the force of law or we will never have international agreements again if a successor government in one country can simply tear up an agreement which it freely entered into in a binding way. It would be like an incoming British Government deciding it is no longer obliged to implement the Good Friday Agreement. That could not be tolerated. International agreements solemnly entered into should be adhered to.

The problem is that the US does not accept that this agreement is being adhered to by Iran. We do not agree but that is the US position.

There is a mechanism within the agreement to determine that.

Yes, and I am not suggesting that this is a good situation. The US is the most powerful country in the world and is by far the biggest influence on global trade, global financial movements and so on. When the US decides to impose sanctions, that impacts on everyone else, particularly in the western world. There is not a single big multinational operating in Europe that does not have interests in the US, whether they be banking, finance or shareholder interests, supply chain systems, technology and so on. That is why the concept of "America first" does not make sense when it comes to foreign policy, when we are trying to operate in a global system that is multilateral by nature. A significant attempt was made by senior EU leaders to find a way forward that did not involve the US abandoning this nuclear deal-----

They were unsuccessful.

Yes, they were unsuccessful and now we need to work together to see what we can do collectively in the absence of US support while also talking to the US to see if we can facilitate the maintenance of the deal without its support.

Brexit Negotiations

Lisa Chambers

Question:

28. Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the progress he is seeking on the backstop by the next European Council meeting in June 2018; his definition of sufficient progress in this regard; the steps he will take if sufficient progress is not made on this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21311/18]

Will the Tánaiste outline the progress he is seeking on the backstop by the next European Council meeting in June and what he considers to be sufficient progress? Will he also detail the steps he and the Government are taking to ensure that sufficient progress is made? If we do not see sufficient progress, what then?

The Deputy asks reasonable questions. Following on from the March European Council, the EU and UK agreed to five additional formal rounds of negotiations between April and the next European Council in June. These negotiations are focused on all outstanding issues in the draft withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as the future relationship. The UK has accepted that a legally operative version of the backstop for the Border will be included in the withdrawal agreement, in line with paragraph 49 of the joint progress report agreed last December, and that all issues identified in the draft protocol reflect those that must be addressed. These are important steps forward but these commitments are not reflected in the debate and much of the media commentary, especially in the UK. Prime Minister May confirmed this in her letter to President Tusk of 19 March in addition to reiterating the UK's commitment last December to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process, including the overarching guarantee on avoiding a hard border.

The Government has always maintained that the backstop will apply unless and until another solution is found. Our preference is for another solution. We do not want to be relying solely on the backstop but it needs to be there as a fallback or an insurance mechanism. While we share Prime Minister May's preference to resolve these issues through a wider agreement on the EU's future relationship with the UK, it is crucial that we have certainty in all scenarios on the commitments already made on Ireland and Northern Ireland. Negotiations to close the remaining gaps in the draft withdrawal agreement are ongoing, including detailed discussions between the EU and the UK on issues relating to Ireland and Northern Ireland. Real and substantial progress is needed on agreeing the protocol ahead of the June European Council. This means the UK delivering on the clear commitments it made in December and again in March by engaging meaningfully on the text of the protocol in the coming weeks and, in particular, the text dealing with the backstop on avoiding a hard border and coming forward with workable proposals with a view to seeking agreement on the text so that the entire withdrawal agreement can be concluded by October.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The EU has always made clear that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and that negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken so far are respected in full. The European Council is continuing to follow the negotiations closely and will return to the remaining withdrawal issues, including the protocol, and to the framework for the future relationship at its next meeting in June. It will be for the European Council to assess progress based on a report from the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and to draw conclusions on what this assessment will mean for the overall negotiations. However, the Irish Government and Michel Barnier have been consistent in our position that real and substantial progress be made by the June European Council meeting. This is a position shared by all our EU partners who continue to show steadfast support for Ireland.

In December we were told that the commitments given on the border were "bulletproof", "rock solid" and "cast iron". Fast-forward six months and it is quite clear that those commitments were oversold. While I acknowledge that what was agreed in December, albeit tentatively, was progress, it certainly was not the level of progress articulated by the Tánaiste at the time. The issue of the Border is far from resolved and it does not look like it is going to be resolved by June either. The backstop is being interpreted very differently by the Irish and British Governments. Fianna Fáil is very concerned at the direction of the Brexit talks which has the potential to lead to a hard border. The UK has accepted some sort of a backstop, as agreed last December, but it did not accept the wording put before it in March. In fact, Ms May said that it was a constitutional threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom. The Tánaiste has said that he wants to see progress by June. Will he outline to the House what he considers to be sufficient progress. If he does not see such progress, will he stop the talks, as he said he would at the Brexit stakeholder meeting in Iveagh House a number of weeks ago?

This is not the first time I have heard pessimism in this House on the negotiations, with suggestions that this is going nowhere and that we are going to have a hard border. We have a cast-iron commitment from the British Government that there will be no border infrastructure of any kind and no checks or controls. What we do not have from the British is a plan to deliver on that. The EU has a plan to deliver on that through its backstop, but the British Government said that it could not accept that wording. That is fine. Tis is a negotiation so let us wait and see what the British are thinking and hear their wording proposals. We have said that we will consider any new ideas as long as they deliver the outcome to which the British Government has committed.

A distinction must be made between what has been committed to in terms of outcome and the process that can achieve that outcome. That is what the Taoiseach meant when he said that we have a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no Border on the island of Ireland and I support him in that because we do have such a guarantee. We have a commitment in writing from the British Government to the EU and its institutions. We also have a commitment to President Tusk as recently as March that the commitment, in terms of the backstop, will be in the withdrawal treaty. Michel Barnier said again yesterday in front of all of the EU foreign Ministers that there will be no withdrawal treaty if there is not a legally operable wording on the Irish backstop. That is the position and we want to see that approach taking shape by the end of June. It does not need to be perfect or concluded at the end of June but we certainly need to see it taking shape so that we can have this finalised by October.

With respect, the phrase "taking shape" leaves me no clearer as to what the Tánaiste considers to be sufficient progress. I do not know what he means by that and he did not answer my question as to what he will do if he does not see sufficient progress. Will he put a stop to the talks? This is not about pessimism or optimism but about realism. Are we edging towards a hard border? It is not just Fianna Fáil that is saying this. The Central Bank, the business sector and others are also concerned. It is my job as Opposition spokesperson on Brexit for the Fianna Fáil party to highlight these issues, to ask questions and to seek answers, but the Tánaiste is not providing answers today.

We all want to avoid a hard border, but as the Tánaiste has said before, we cannot just wait and see. We must prepare for that possibility. The Copenhagen Economics report suggests that in a worst-case scenario, Brexit could cost Ireland in the region of 20,000 jobs, mostly in the agrifood sector. We have to prepare for this. We know from a recent report by AIB that businesses are not prepared. I recently met representatives of Chambers Ireland who told me that 15% of its members will be affected by Brexit but that the majority of them do not have the capacity or the resources to prepare for Brexit. Fianna Fáil is very concerned that we are not prepared and that we are burying our heads in the sand. We do not know what level of progress the Tánaiste is seeking by June and we believe that we will see very little progress. We are edging closer and closer to the cliff edge.

The Deputy should at least acknowledge the progress that has been made.

I have done so.

She keeps quoting a business survey conducted last November, but it is very clear from a much more recent survey conducted by IBEC that there has been a dramatic increase in the level of preparedness across businesses in Ireland. It is not where it needs to be yet and we are going to help businesses to get there. Very few people in Ireland are putting their heads in the sand on Brexit. People are asking questions. They want help and advice.

They want to know what the various possible outcomes are. My job is to help people to prepare for the worst and, more importantly, negotiate for the best possible outcome which I still think is achievable. The Deputy is asking me for answers that are not yet available in the context of what the final outcome will look like. We are reliant on negotiating with a partner - the United Kingdom - that does not yet have a settled approach. It has a settled commitment to an outcome on the Border, the common travel area, in protecting the Good Friday Agreement, citizens' rights and so on, but we do not yet have a legally operable text to deliver it. We have texts in some areas where we have made a great deal of progress. They are now coloured green, but there is still a lot of work to be done on the key issue of the Border. That is why I have spent a lot of time in London recently and Michel Barnier and I and many others are continuing to ask the British Government to provide some new thinking in the context of the negotiations.