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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 17 May 2018

Vol. 969 No. 3

European Communities (Brexit) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]

I move that: "The Bill be now read a Second Time."

I wish to share time with Deputy Cullinane.

This Bill was originally introduced in February 2017. Its objective was to ensure that the Government would keep the Oireachtas regularly informed of all developments during the Brexit negotiations. That it has taken so long for this Bill to get this far is evidence of the constipated state of the legislative process in this Dáil.

Brexit is widely accepted as the most important and dangerous challenge facing the people of this island in decades. It poses a significant economic threat to the two economies on the island. It also threatens the Good Friday Agreement and the ability of citizens in the North to access the full range of rights available to them as EU citizens. Consequently, it is an imperative that the fullest information is available to the Oireachtas and to the public.

While I accept that the Brexit process has moved on since the Bill was first introduced, Sinn Féin believes that there is an onus on the Government to ensure that the maximum information is available. This can best be accomplished by a statutory requirement that there are regular and consistent debates in the Dáil on Brexit.

I acknowledge the Minister's efforts to keep the Oireachtas briefed on Brexit. This Bill will enhance this crucial process. Therefore, I regret the Minister's decision to oppose this Bill and I ask him even at this stage to reconsider his decision and to allow this to go to Committee Stage.

The politics around Brexit are constantly shifting. All of this underlines the need for constant alertness and continual debate, discussion and accountability. The past ten days illustrate this point perfectly.

On Tuesday, 8 May, the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Boris Johnson, MP, dismissed as crazy the preferred proposal of the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, on a customs plan in which Britain would effectively collect tariffs on behalf of the EU. The Brexiteers, which include the DUP, favour what they call "maximum facilitation" which would use technology to facilitate cross-Border trade. Speaking at the weekend, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, correctly rejected this proposal.

On Monday of this week, a leading Brexiteer, Mr. Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, stated that the British Prime Minister "ought not to take Brussels too seriously about the Irish question". On Tuesday, the British Prime Minister announced that she plans to publish a White Paper before next month's EU summit. The Scottish Parliament this week voted against backing the Tory's European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

The Minister will be aware that the London Government has consistently ignored the concerns of the various assemblies and has deliberately kept them out of the Brexit negotiations and has also ignored the vote, as has the DUP, of the people of the North on this issue. All of these significant developments, even in the past ten days, underline the need for this Bill and for frequent and regular updates from Government and for debates in the Dáil.

Yesterday, it was reported that the British Government is now considering a third option for addressing the customs dilemma. This suggests the possibility of the British state, as well as the North, remaining aligned with the EU customs union. This is not new. My colleague, an Teachta David Cullinane, identified this as a possibility after the December agreement was published.

However, none of this can be divorced from the mounting problems Mrs. May is facing in the British Parliament, particularly in the House of Lords where she has lost over a dozen votes, the civil war inside the Conservative Party and within her Cabinet.

Despite all of this, the Minister was quoted on Tuesday as stating that he is confident that the British Prime Minister will deliver on her commitment to avoid border controls by June. Today, following his meeting with Mrs. May, the Taoiseach is saying that the British will now table a new proposal on a future customs relationship within the next two weeks and that this is new thinking.

We were told that in December only to have the British Prime Minister repudiate the EU legal text in February. Remember "No UK prime Minister would ever agree to it." Sin an méid a dúirt sí. Why should this time be any different? This is the same British Prime Minister who last week claimed that only British soldiers are being investigated on legacy matters. As the Minister will be aware, this is a patent untruth. Her claim was deeply hurtful to all of those families who lost loved ones as a result of the actions of British state forces.

This is the same British Government that refuses to provide information on the role of its agents in the Dublin-Monaghan bombings which took place on this date 44 years ago and this is the same British Prime Minister who has done a deal with the DUP which is taking precedence over her obligations in respect of the Good Friday Agreement.

The EU legal text accepts that the alignment option contained in the December agreement means that the North shall be "considered part of the customs territory of the EU". It confirms that the North would remain within the customs union and acknowledges the need for many of the elements that go to make up the Single Market. It explicitly states that there should be "no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity as set out" in the Good Friday Agreement.

The EU legal text also requires the British Government to "facilitate" the work of the North's human rights commission, the equality commission and the joint committee of representatives of the human rights commissions, North and South, and it definitively demands that the Good Friday Agreement and its subsequent implementation agreements "should be protected in all its parts".

In his response to the joint agreement in December, the Taoiseach stated:

To the nationalist people in Northern Ireland, I want to assure you that we have protected your interests throughout these negotiations.

Your birth right as Irish citizens, and therefore as EU citizens, will be protected. There will be no hard border on our island. You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government.

These rights will, of course, be available to everyone in Northern Ireland who chooses to exercise his or her right to be an Irish citizen, regardless of their political persuasion or religious beliefs.

The Irish Government, therefore, carries an onerous responsibility to protect the rights of all citizens on this island, both in relation to Brexit and the future of the Good Friday Agreement. If an agreement is reached in the upcoming negotiations between the EU and the British Government, it cannot fall short of the position that the legal text has established.

Sinn Féin's proposal for the North to be designated special status within the EU is now accepted, even in a de facto way, by the EU. The onus is, as the Minister has stated, on the British Government to come forward with workable alternative solutions that meet the objectives set out in the legal text and which protect the Good Friday Agreement.

I repeat my proposition at the outset of my remarks and ask the Minister to reconsider his opposition to this Bill and to allow it to move to the Committee Stage where it can be amended, if need be.

The Bill seeks to amend the European Communities Act 1972 and requires the Government to update the Oireachtas formally on Brexit developments and negotiations and on preserving the rights of Irish citizens in the North. As Teachta Adams said, we acknowledge the Government has in recent times agreed and followed through on its commitment to update the House on a regular basis. The difficulty is the updates are at the whim of the Government. They are not on a formal or statutory basis. There is no agreed formalised arrangement. To put the updates and all the associated reports that the Government gives the Dáil on a statutory formalised basis would be a good move and something the Government should support.

We must consider it in light of the potential period of transition we are facing into, notwithstanding what might come from the current phase of negotiations in terms of the trade talks between the European Union and Britain. We are, without doubt, facing into at least a two-year transition period. Given that, the importance of Brexit and the impact it will have on Ireland, notwithstanding whatever agreements are eventually put in place, it is timely that measures such as those proposed in the Bill are agreed and accepted. That is why I support the call by Teachta Adams that the Government does not just ignore the Bill, vote it down or oppose it but accepts it to go into Committee Stage where we can tease out the proposals that are being made.

We are two years on from the European Union referendum and it is a year to go to Brexit. When the Taoiseach informed the public he had a discussion with the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, on the current negotiations and that she talked about new thinking, it was being talked up as a major development. We were brought back to last December when the Taoiseach came back and talked up the political agreement saying it was a cast iron, bullet-proof agreement. This was the back-stop arrangement. We were told it was a certainty and it would be the bare minimum that would be put in place. It was very quickly followed by contradictions, backsliding and disagreements between the British Government, the European Union and the Irish Government on the interpretation of the agreement. A legal text was put on the table and dismissed out of hand by a British Prime Minister. After months of that cast-iron guarantee being put on the table we are still without any clear proposals. Now we have a new proposal and new ideas which we still have not seen and of which we do not know the detail. Are we now facing more months of uncertainty and more months of negotiations? Is it the case the British Government is stringing everybody along, including the European Union and the Irish Government, with all of these promises because it is obviously trying to keep every side of the Tory party happy which is an impossible task given the very opposite positions that are held?

I accept the proposition the Minister put forward, which Teachta Adams referred to, that the backstop arrangement may not have to be put in place if we can get a better outcome. If that better outcome is essentially Britain staying in the customs union and the Single Market then that resolves an awful lot of these issues for the State. There are still polar opposite positions being taken by the two wings of the Tory Cabinet with the British Prime Minister saying Britain and the North will come out of the customs union and Single Market. It is still the stated position of the British Government that the North will come out of the legal and political architecture of the European Union and it will put some protections in place. If that happens there will be a step backwards in terms of the Border, the Good Friday Agreement and the rights of citizens in the North, including their political, human and civil rights. We talked about this last week as well when we had updates on the European Council meeting. The issue of the rights of people who live in the North was also raised during priority questions. The Minister said in December there was a commitment in principle from all involved that these rights, which Irish citizens who are also European citizens who live in the North have, should be protected and respected but there is no agreement on the detail because it is unprecedented to have hundreds of thousands of people who are European citizens not living in European Union territory. Saying we have agreement in principle and we are still negotiating and trying to make progress is not really any comfort to the people in the North who are worried about educational opportunities outside of the North in the South and the European Union and things such as access to European Union insurance funds if they go abroad on holidays and all the other human and civil rights that are protected by the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. It is still the position of the British Government that the North will not be under the purview of those courts which is in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement. There is agreement on none of these issues. I hope these new ideas and the new thinking the Taoiseach was talking about today resolves all of these issues. I am sure the Minister will appreciate that we want to see the detail. What we do not want is more fudge and more talk of new ideas while we are still none the wiser about what exactly will happen. Workers' rights need to be protected. It is an area we see as a threat. I sit on the Brexit stakeholder forum. I welcome it as another structure that was put in place by the Government. I have found it very useful because of all the groups that sit on it. Fishing is a big issue and a big concern. Fishermen have real concerns about how Brexit will impact on them. They do not have any certainties.

I will finish on where we in Sinn Féin started. I welcome that eventually the Irish Government moved closer to the Sinn Féin position from where it was under Deputy Enda Kenny and where it started which was a very different place. We said there had to be a form of special status for the North and special arrangements and that we had to look at new opportunities and new ways in which we could protect the Good Friday Agreement and make sure there is no hardening of the Border which is entirely different from having no hard border. The acid test for any Irish Government in terms of these negotiations and for the European Union and the British Government is that the people of the North voted to stay in the European Union. With regard to all the issues I mentioned, including workers' rights, access to healthcare, access to education, human rights, civil rights, political rights, the Border and the Good Friday Agreement, there can be no rowing back on any of the rights and entitlements for people who live in the North as a result of a vote of people in England or Wales. It simply cannot happen. We cannot have these hard Brexiteers dictate to the people of Ireland and end up putting in place political solutions that in reality will be a row back on any of those rights and entitlements. That will not be accepted. It will not be tolerated.

We will continue to wish the Government well but we are running out of patience as a result of not getting the detail. I hope that by June and the June summit, the clarity the Minister talked about, which we need, will actually come and we will see the colour of everybody's money including the Irish Government and the British Government.

I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s views on the Bill. First, I assure the Deputy of the Government’s support for what I interpret as the underlying spirit of this Bill, which is the need for frequent and fruitful engagement between the Government and the Oireachtas on all issues relating to Brexit. The Government recognises this in principle and, more importantly, in practice. Since the announcement of the referendum result in June 2016, the Government has kept both Houses of the Oireachtas fully informed on its approach to the Brexit negotiations. On 27 June 2016 three days after the referendum, the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny addressed the House, setting out the Government’s immediate reaction to the outcome in advance of travelling to Brussels to meet his EU counterparts. That day, in addition to apprising the House of the contingency planning already implemented by the Government and the steps envisaged in the following months, the Taoiseach emphasised that a cross-party approach would be valuable in the time ahead. He also spoke about being encouraged by the willingness of Members to use their influence through party affiliations in Europe to ensure Ireland’s position was well understood. I believe that has happened.

I acknowledge, some 18 months down the road, that this overriding unity of purpose continues to hold firm. While it would neither be natural nor healthy for us to agree on every detail every day - and we do not - it is true to say all Members of the House have played an important role in fostering the strong solidarity that we enjoy from our EU counterparts with respect to the unique implications that Brexit has for Ireland.

This has not only included the direct engagement of the Members of this House with their counterparts throughout the EU and the UK, but also the valuable initiatives taken last year by the Oireachtas in inviting both Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt in May and September, respectively. These contacts have served to reinforce the understanding at EU level of Ireland’s priorities, complementing the work being carried out by the Government through its intensive programme of bilateral engagement with the EU institutions and the EU 27.

From a parliamentary perspective, the value of this work has been clearly reflected in successive resolutions on Brexit adopted by the European Parliament which have expressed strong support for Ireland’s strategic goals, including with regard to protecting the gains of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. In this respect, it is also important to acknowledge the important contributions made by our MEPs.

Within the context of my own role with special responsibility for the Government’s approach to Brexit, I am fully committed to maintaining and building further on this constructive approach. This not only includes my formal interaction with this House and with the Seanad but also my frequent informal engagement with my Opposition counterparts. In particular, I welcome the participation of Opposition spokespersons, including Deputy Cullinane of Sinn Féin and Deputy Lisa Chambers, at the Brexit stakeholder forum which has met on eight occasions since I convened it last September. This forum brings together key stakeholders with a view to providing regular updates on the progression of the negotiations as well as providing a platform for the interaction of academic, sectoral and EU expertise with a view to informing further the Government’s comprehensive response to Brexit. I was particularly pleased to host a special meeting of the forum to coincide with the recent visit of Michel Barnier to Ireland, providing a welcome opportunity for Members to engage directly with the EU’s lead negotiator.

As concerns Ireland’s overall strategic approach to the negotiations, the Government has also set out its position to this House frequently and clearly. In April 2017, shortly after the UK formally triggered the withdrawal process, the then Taoiseach addressed this House, outlining the steps already taken by the Government to ensure that Ireland’s concerns would be reflected in the EU position. In particular, he welcomed that the draft EU guidelines, which were subsequently adopted by the European Council, included a very strong acknowledgement of Ireland’s unique circumstances, the need to protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, and our intention to maintain bilateral arrangements with the UK, like the common travel area.

The negotiations have continued to proceed under the strategic guidance of the European Council. In this respect, in the period since this Bill was first proposed in February 2017, the Taoiseach has addressed the Dáil in advance of, and after, the European Council meetings of March, April, June, October and December 2017 as well as March 2018, in which developments in the Brexit negotiations were addressed and reported as appropriate. Since this Bill was proposed in February 2017, both I and my colleague the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, as well as our respective predecessors, have participated in 17 debates dedicated specifically to Brexit across both Houses of the Oireachtas and its committees. For my part, this most recently included my address to the Seanad on 1 May, during which I provided the House with an update on both the progress in negotiations and the Government’s domestic preparations for Brexit. I also note and welcome that Dáil statements on Brexit have been scheduled for 24 May, next week. Of course, such formal debates and statements take place over and above the intensive and dynamic engagement that is facilitated daily through Leaders' Questions and through parliamentary questions.

A key pillar of the Government’s response to Brexit has been to underline our firm commitment to EU membership and to work together with our EU 27 partners to build a positive future for the European Union. In this regard, I emphasise the importance of situating our approach to Brexit, as well as our domestic response, within the context of our wider EU engagement. I welcome that the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, had the opportunity last week, on the occasion of Europe Day, to address both this House and the Seanad on Ireland’s wider EU priorities, as well as on the national citizens’ dialogue on the future of Europe, which has enabled the Government to engage with people of all ages and from all sectors to hear their views about the Union and its future direction.

I know that all of my colleagues across Government regularly engage with the Oireachtas on the EU related files that fall under their responsibility. For my part, I look forward to the opportunity to meet the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence later this month. Of course, the fundamental purpose of all our collective efforts is to follow through on the mandate granted to us by the people of Ireland. With respect to EU issues, I believe that the results of the poll published last week to coincide with Europe Day were very heartening, reflecting a very high and growing level of support for Ireland’s membership of the EU. Overall levels of support for Ireland’s EU membership are at 92%. What is also notable, however, is the exceptionally low percentage of "don’t know" responses to key statements such as "Ireland should remain a part of the EU", where only 1% responded "don't know". In the question, "Given that the UK has voted to leave, should Ireland also leave the EU?", only 2% responded that they did not know. This is an issue on which people have clear views.

This obviously reflects the high profile of EU issues in Ireland, including with respect to Brexit. I also mention the very successful citizens' dialogue on the future of Europe, led again by the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, which culminated in a well-attended event last week which coincided with Europe Day. It also speaks to the unprecedented level of scrutiny being afforded to these issues by the Oireachtas.

I have demonstrated that the Government’s engagement with the Oireachtas on Brexit and on wider EU issues is already extensive and dynamic. This raises a number of points of principle about the Bill proposed by the Deputy. First, it is clear that the Standing Orders of the Dáil more than adequately provide for frequent updates from the Government on Brexit, or indeed any other topic. Furthermore, it would be an unwanted precedent to amend legislation to take account of a topical issue that is temporary in nature. For example, the consequence of this in the context of Brexit would be that a further legislative Act would be required as soon as the negotiations are completed. I put it to the House that the valuable time that this legislation would take, to achieve objectives which are being met, might be more usefully dedicated to the negotiations at hand. This is also the case for Brexit officials in my Department and the Department of the Taoiseach who are working very long hours in pursuit of our national objectives in the negotiations. Given the cross-cutting nature of the challenges posed by Brexit, it is important to ensure that our engagement on Brexit does not become isolated from the overarching approach to Oireachtas scrutiny of EU issues that is set out in the European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002.

To these points of principle, I also add some more technical concerns. As the negotiations are now well under way, section 5(2) as proposed by the Deputy has been overtaken by events and is effectively redundant. Furthermore, as the negotiations are proceeding on the basis of a mandate from the European Council, updates by the Taoiseach to the Dáil on the Government’s approach to the negotiations are provided for under the Standing Orders of this House.

This Bill also proposes that Government report quarterly to each House of the Oireachtas on developments in the negotiations. I point out to the Deputy that this is in no way excluded by the relevant provisions of the European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002. Section 2(5) states, "Every Minister of the Government shall make a report to each House of the Oireachtas not less than twice yearly in relation to measures, proposed measures and other developments in relation to the European Communities and the European Union in relation to which he or she performs functions."

I have confined my comments thus far to the Bill proposed by the Deputy. Bearing in mind the issue that it addresses, however, it would be remiss of me to pass up this opportunity to comment more generally on the state of play of negotiations which are now at a critical juncture. As I informed this House on Tuesday during parliamentary questions, it is the objective of the negotiators that the full legal text of the withdrawal agreement, as well as a detailed political declaration on the framework for the future relationship, would be concluded by the October meeting of the European Council. To meet this objective, it is clear that we need to see significantly more progress on the outstanding withdrawal issues, including on the draft protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, ahead of the June European Council meeting.

This was the focus of my meeting with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit, last Monday when we took stock of the negotiations on the draft protocol. Mr Barnier has clearly said that without an agreed backstop, there can be no withdrawal agreement at all. The EU has also made it 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.

This point was emphasised by Mr. Barnier and I during the meeting of the General Affairs Council later that day. While we have been clear at every stage that the backstop is only that, a fall-back or insurance mechanism, and that it is our preference to resolve issues related to the border through a comprehensive future relationship between the EU and the UK, it is crucial that we have certainty in all scenarios on the commitments already made on Ireland and Northern Ireland. In this regard, Ireland enjoys the support and solidarity of all of our EU partners. It is, therefore, more important than ever that the UK engage in a more detailed and realistic way on the draft protocol, including the backstop, to which it has committed, in advance of the June European Council meeting.

I am happy to return at a later point to any issues of substance raised by Deputies during the course of this debate. In regard to the Bill, I reiterate the Government’s firm commitment to frequent and meaningful engagement with the Oireachtas on any issues of concern in regard to Brexit. The Government is, however, of the view that such engagement is already adequately provided for in the Standing Orders and in Statute, thus rendering this Bill unnecessary.

I welcome the opportunity for a discussion on Brexit. While the Bill is specific, it provides us with an opportunity to discuss the wider implications of Brexit and how matters are progressing. Fianna Fáil is not supporting this Sinn Féin Bill that would compel the Government to report to the Oireachtas on negotiations regarding the UK's intention to withdraw from the European Union. While we believe that both Houses of the Oireachtas should be kept up to speed on the status of the Brexit negotiations, we regard this Bill in the context of the ongoing negotiations as inappropriate and untimely. Ultimately, it could endanger our position in terms of negotiating. We are also cognisant that there is already an opportunity to discuss Brexit and European related matters in the Dáil by way of pre and post European Council statements.

The irony of Sinn Féin bringing forward this Bill is not lost on us. This is the same party that campaigned against joining the EU and against every referendum held within the State. It is the same party who during the 2016 general election signed up to the right to change manifesto which called for Ireland to hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union should the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, be signed without it first going before the Irish people and, moreover and most important, this is the same party that collapsed the Executive in Northern Ireland and left the region most affected by Brexit without a voice in the negotiations. Through its actions and policy of absenteeism, Sinn Féin has played its part in creating a toxic environment in Northern Ireland that has not only undermined the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process but has also left the people of Northern Ireland, the majority of whom voted in the Brexit referendum to remain, without a voice at this most critical time.

Coupled with this, Sinn Féin has continually called for a Border poll, which has only served to reverse the progress made in Northern Ireland and sow seeds of division and mistrust, which has prevented the parties from working together to restore the Executive and to achieve the best Brexit deal possible. Therefore, it is ironic that Sinn Féin wants the Government to report to the Oireachtas on Brexit negotiations in the Republic while simultaneously it fails to take any responsibility for Brexit in Northern Ireland. In our view, they have very little credibility when it comes to Brexit.

This Bill seeks to amend section 5 of the European Communities Act 1972 which states that the Government shall make a report twice yearly to each House on the Oireachtas on development in the European Communities. The Sinn Féin Bill, at section 5(1), states that in each year the Government shall make a report, such that it proposes a reduction from two to one the number of reports to this House. Subsection (2) further states that notwithstanding the generality of the foregoing the Taoiseach shall report to the Dáil the Government's approach to the negotiations surrounding the United Kingdom's intention to leave the European Union in advance of the commencement of such negotiations. This Bill is out of date and irrelevant. It makes no sense because negotiations have already commenced. Subsection (3), with which Fianna Fáil does not have a difficulty, states that the Government shall make a report to each House of the Oireachtas on developments in negotiations. As I said, pre and post Council statements allow us to do this.

I fail to see the purpose of this Bill given it is almost one year out of date in that negotiations have commenced. As I said, it seeks to reduce the number of reports that are made to this House, which is regressive step. The Bill was first introduced in February 2017. As I said, it is out of date and I am not sure why we are discussing it but I do welcome the opportunity to have a wider discussion on Brexit and its implications. Sinn Féin's hypocrisy on this matter cannot be overlooked. The Executive in Northern Ireland remains in a state of limbo. The people of Northern Ireland need their voice. While the Irish Government and Fianna Fáil have been very strong in providing that voice, the people of Northern Ireland feel let down by the parties in the North in terms of their failure to come together and restore the institutions and actively participate in the Brexit negotiations rather than grandstanding and virtue signalling in the Republic. Given Sinn Féin collapsed the Executive and it continues its policy of absenteeism, the people of Northern Ireland are left without representation at one of the most critical times in their history. It baffles me that we are now almost 16 months without an Executive. Brexit is raging and this Bill, which is a year a half out of date, seeks to update the Dáil on what is happening in Brexit yet we have no institutions in the North. This needs to be called out for what it is.

The ultimate aim of Fianna Fáil is to secure the best Brexit deal possible for the entire Island of Ireland, including a trading relationship that is as close as feasibly possible to what we have at present, to ensure that progress is made in Northern Ireland and that Anglo-Irish relations are not regressed as a result of Brexit. We recognise this is a tense time but it is important that those relations are maintained and that foundations are put in place to continue maintenance of those relations post-Brexit. Fianna Fáil is a constitutional republican party that wants to see a united Ireland but we will not exploit Brexit as a means of achieving this goal. Sinn Féin's call for a Border poll has not in any way helped the Brexit negotiations. It has only served to harden the position of the DUP and create levels of distrust and discord in Northern Ireland that we have not seen since prior to the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin has, in our view, certainly not covered itself in glory when it comes to putting Ireland’s interests to the fore in the Brexit negotiations.

Fianna Fáil has been generally supportive of the Government’s Brexit negotiation. Despite suggestions from the Government party that it has not been supportive, it is our view that we have been supportive but this support is conditional on the Government doing a good job. At an International level, we have raised serious concerns about the Government’s domestic preparedness for Brexit, which I will speaker a further later. I would like to raise some of the ongoing issues in terms of the negotiations. I know that the Taoiseach met Prime Minister, Theresa May, today and that discussions took place in recent days on a third option in terms of what has been termed "maximum facilitation plus delay". While Fianna Fail welcomes Theresa May proposing that the entire United Kingdom remain within the Customs Union, we are concerned that this is being couched in language of it being a temporary solution such that we are kicking the can down the road with a view to at some point in the future having some type of border facilitated by technology that does not yet exist. If we allow this to progress to the point where we are talking about maintaining the UK in the Customs Union or some type of customs arrangement for a period of, say, six or seven years and so on what will happen when we reach the end of that process? It should be borne in mind that at that time Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt and we may not be around. We do not know who will be on the Irish Government, European or UK teams. We are playing a serious game of Russian roulette with the future of this country if we are willing to rely on what might happen years down the road, something over which we have no control. For this reason, the backstop is important. I acknowledge that progress was made last December, although I believe it was over-sold and that the language used at that time over-egged it. Very strong language was used, including cast-iron, bulletproof and so on, because that was not the case. When the wording was put before the British Parliament and Theresa May and she outright rejected it, this showed that the British Government, the Irish Government and the EU negotiating team had different interpretations of what that backstop and protocol 49 meant. We cannot afford to facilitate the UK, Theresa May and the Tory Party to the detriment of our own party.

It is very important that this is nailed down in June and that we have absolute clarity in October because we are edging towards a situation where nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, as the Tánaiste has said. If we do not have a withdrawal treaty we do not have a transition period and if we do not have a transition period we have a cliff edge exit next March. I know that the Tánaiste knows this. I issue one warning on this. If the European research group that is headed by Jacob Rees-Mogg and his 60 Brexiteers comes on board to support the idea put forward by Theresa May, then alarm bells should ring across this island. Only a couple of days ago the same MP said that they are fully committed to a hard Brexit, that they want no ties or links to the European Union, that they want the ability to trade freely with other nations and that they do not support maintaining the UK as part of the customs union. If there is a change of heart and they are suddenly, somehow, on board with the proposals then we need to be very cautious in working with that. I appreciate the difficulties with the negotiation but I fear that if we allow this can to be kicked down the road the negotiations may tick on for months and years to come. We cannot predict what might happen in six or seven years' time. This is so important for the future of the island of Ireland, and especially for the citizens in the North of Ireland with regard to their rights to access the European Courts of Justice and for the free movement of people, services, goods and trade, including trade North and South. We really need to see this negotiation locked down and absolutely clear. While I cautiously welcome Theresa May's remarks today we certainly need to see text on a page. In very basic terms, we need to see in writing exactly what is being proposed before we can support the so-called "third option".

I shall respond to what has been said and I will also speak about the current state of play in the negotiations.

We all have an obligation to be cautious. What we are seeing is a permanent new reality in the relationships between Ireland and the UK and between the UK and the EU. Given the interwoven nature of the relationship between Ireland and Britain, from an economic perspective in particular but also in many other aspects, the idea that any significant change in that relationship is not going to require a fundamental level of planning and contingency work is hopefully resulting in the kind of unity and purpose between parties, in the context of what we need to do to protect our State. This is what we are doing, while also trying to maintain the closest possible relationship with our closest neighbour.

There has been much in the media recently about disagreements and conversations within the British political system around looking at options such as maximum facilitation versus customs partnership. Today and yesterday we have heard about the so-called "third option" whereby there is recognition that it would take a number of years to prepare and design any new way of dealing comprehensively with the Border that would not result in any physical infrastructure, and therefore we should maybe look at maintaining a shared customs territory with the UK on a temporary basis.

Currently, Britain is negotiating with itself. It is an internal discussion within the British political system and the British Cabinet. We must respect their right to do that so they can finalise their approach to these negotiations, but it is not unreasonable for us to remind everybody that time is running out. The real negotiation is between the British Government and the Barnier task force on behalf of the 27 EU countries. At a time when we are planning to have a withdrawal treaty text agreed by the end of October that is operable and accepted by both sides, and the EU guidelines call for a review of progress by the end of June, everybody on the EU side now accepts that there needs to be significant progress and a lot more clarity around how we will resolve some of the core issues, especially the Irish Border issues. It is not unreasonable for us to state quite clearly that the clock is ticking, as Michel Barnier has said, and that there is an obligation on all sides to try to move this forward. Brexit is not just about Britain, and this is a key message, it is about Ireland and other European Union countries too. The relationships we have and the respect we have for each other as countries hopefully will result in a sensible outcome that will protect the interests of multiple countries, as opposed to focusing solely on Britain's future and British political debate. If that is the sole focus then the EU would be forced to look at the sole interest of the EU and binary positions will be taken. It would then be a very difficult negotiation that would not be good for anybody but especially not for Ireland. This is because Ireland is more exposed, by far, to a bad outcome to these negotiations than any other EU country.

I now turn to the negotiations. I reaffirm for the House and for anybody who is listening that the understanding and support we are getting from the EU task force is comprehensive. I met with Michel Barnier on Monday and he is absolutely committed to understanding fully the detail of the Irish concerns and to try to protect the Irish interest. Mr. Barnier regards the Irish interests as EU interests. Over some months we have managed to build significant solidarity with the EU task force and among the other 26 member states involved in the negotiations on the EU side.

We have also reached out to the UK side. I have been in London a lot and the Taoiseach met the Prime Minister again today. We are actively talking, but not negotiating, with the British Government. The negotiation is a formal negotiation that must happen with the EU task force. What we are not flexible on is the outcome, which was committed to in December and again in March. For some weeks we have been calling for some new thinking from the UK side that could help to break the deadlock to allow the process to move forward in a way that is consistent with commitments that have already been given in black and white, in writing, by the British Prime Minister to the EU and to EU institutions on Irish issues in December and in March.

Our position will remain consistent, transparent and open. We have nothing to hide. Ireland's concerns are genuine and we hope we can find a way to move the negotiations forward in June, to build confidence that we can finalise the wording by October, and move on to the future relationship discussions that will also take some time and which will need to be comprehensive from an Irish perspective.

I was quite surprised at the tone of Deputy Lisa Chambers' remarks earlier. I can only presume the Deputy is trying to stake her claim to the strategy of Deputy Micheál Martin, which is to attack Sinn Féin at every single opportunity. Deputy Chambers started her contribution by saying she was not sure why we are here discussing this Bill. I know why I am here. I respect the Minister and I have a lot of admiration for the work he does but I am here to keep the Government to account. That is part of my responsibility. If the Teachta Dála from Mayo is not sure then she should refrain from so much negativity. It is also no surprise that Fianna Fáil supports the Government on this Bill because the Government, of course, is Fianna Fáil's partner on so many other issues.

The Deputy launched into a tirade about the collapse of the Assembly even though her own leader called for its suspension, which Sinn Féin resisted in dire and difficult circumstances. It was only when Martin McGuinness, God rest him, could go no further that he resigned his post. The Deputy should also know that we - I was a part of it just before our recent Ard-Fheis - negotiated a draft agreement with the DUP.

Fianna Fáil played a positive role in the negotiations on the Good Friday Agreement. Even if it has a new generation, Fianna Fáil should therefore be for the full implementation of the agreement, including the referendum on unity, which is a crucial part of it and without which republicans in Sinn Féin would not have signed up to the agreement. Are Deputies referring to Sinn Féin's "hypocrisy" because we want accountability? That tells its own story.

I agree with the Tánaiste on much of what he has said about the need for unity of purpose in the Dáil and with our EU partners and on his acknowledgement of the work that has been done. I am not sure that I can say it definitively, but I am probably the only Deputy present who campaigned in the North against Brexit. I do not know whether any Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Labour Deputy was up there. I was there. We won, in that the people of the North voted to remain. That vote needs to be upheld and to form part of what we are considering.

The Tánaiste will bear witness to the fact that Sinn Féin has been active through our MPs, MLAs and, significantly and with great success, our MEPs. I do not believe that Fianna Fáil has an MEP at this time. Regardless, our team has done the work and we represent people from across the entire island of Ireland.

Let us discuss part of the difficulty. The Tánaiste rightly stated that there was a need for caution. We know that one cannot trust the Brits. That is the reality, speaking in a west Belfast way. I do not mean the British people, the decent people whom I know there with all of the connectedness. I have great friends there. When I talk about the Brits, I mean the British Government. One cannot trust them. One certainly cannot trust the Tories.

On Tuesday, the Tánaiste stated that he was confident that the British Prime Minister would deliver on her commitment to avoid border controls. I asked whether that would be by June, but he fudged the answer because he did not know any more than I did whether the Brits would come up with something by then and probably presumed they would not, that they would try to play it right down to the wire and then cobble something together. I remember a former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, God rest him, telling us a story. He had agreed the Downing Street Declaration with the British Prime Minister John Major. He was getting make-up put on when John Major nipped in behind him and asked him whether he would change a little bit of it. This was after the thing had been done and dusted. We know how this works. We have had plenty of experience.

Contrast with the Tánaiste's statement that he is confident that the British Prime Minister will deliver on her commitment to avoid border controls with his statement during this debate: "It is, therefore, more important than ever that the UK engage in a more detailed and realistic way on the draft protocol, including the backstop... in advance of the June European Council meeting." One can only interpret that in west Belfast terms by saying that the UK has not engaged in a detailed and realistic way on the draft protocol, including the backstop, up to this point. Contrast that with what the Taoiseach is saying, namely, that the British will table a new proposal on a future customs relationship within the next two weeks and that this is new thinking.

These are all reasons to be cautious. Of course, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed; it is game on, we are all wearing the green geansaí and we support the Government in what it is doing. As our people used to tell me all the time, "You are doing very well, so far". We have to keep our eyes on the prize and watch everything that is happening.

I conceded at the outset that this Bill had been tabled at the beginning of last year. It was not my responsibility that this took so long. The Bill was relevant then when we did not have the current approach, which I have commended the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste on, of reporting to the Dáil regularly and using various structures that have been set up to inform and reach out to parties. To be frank, the previous Taoiseach did not have a clue about how matters stood and the Fianna Fáil leader was not much better at the time. At least we have a more joined-up and informed approach. That is right but it is not statutory, and this Bill, which was published quite a long time ago, was trying to correct that situation.

The Government and Fianna Fáil will oppose the Bill, so it will fall. There we go - accountability. Would the sensible thing to do not be to send the Bill to a committee so that the bits that had been overtaken by time could be rooted out and we could ensure that these issues were dealt with on a statutory basis? There has been so much talk in recent times about accountability and so many protestations by politicians that they will sort all of this out. Here we are on an issue not as personal or emotive as some of the issues the House has dealt with in recent times, but one that could have calamitous consequences for all of the people of this island.

Since Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour are not organised in the North, let me tell them that the position of the nationalist people of the North has changed hugely in the past two or three years. The new generation of well educated, informed, connected and successful young people will not put up with what others may have been forced to put up with in the past. It is spelled out in the backstop agreement - I do not have it before me - that our rights will be upheld. The Taoiseach remarked: "Your birthright as Irish citizens and, therefore, as Europeans has been protected." He also referred to the need for the British Government to facilitate the work of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the joint committee of representatives of the human rights commissions, North and South. I have not received a report on this and it has not been addressed. Similarly, there would be "no diminution of human rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity set out in" the Good Friday Agreement. Again, I have not received a report on this. That is not the Minister's fault because, obviously, the Brits have not negotiated, to my knowledge anyway, on those-----

There has been some progress on those issues, actually.

It is a negotiation.

I understand that, but we all have to be accountable to the House because we are sent here by the people to represent them.

I rest my case. I am pleased that the Minister is present and that he gave us an update on the current state of play insofar as he could.

Question put and declared lost.