1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Chancellor Merkel since the last EU Council meeting. [22297/18]
1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Chancellor Merkel since the last EU Council meeting. [22297/18]
2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the meetings he attended in Sofia, Bulgaria. [22462/18]
3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the purpose of his visit to Bulgaria; the meetings he held; and the items he discussed. [22569/18]
4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the western Balkans summit in Sofia. [22575/18]
5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Chancellor Merkel since the last EU Council meeting. [23419/18]
6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Chancellor Merkel since the last EU Council meeting. [23580/18]
7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the meetings he attended in Sofia, Bulgaria. [23581/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.
I travelled to Sofia, Bulgaria, where I participated in an informal EU Summit on the evening of 16 May, and the EU-western Balkans Summit on 17 May.
The informal summit on 16 May was chaired by President Donald Tusk, as part of the series of discussions on the future of Europe under his "Leaders' Agenda". The focus this time was on innovation and the digital economy. We had an exchange of views on future EU actions to promote investment in artificial intelligence and breakthrough innovation.
We also discussed transatlantic relations and developments regarding Iran and the Middle East. On transatlantic relations, there was strong support for insisting on a permanent exemption from US tariffs on steel and aluminium.
There was a readiness to engage in subsequent talks with the United States on improving reciprocal market access, liberalisation of government procurement and reform of the WTO should an exemption be secured. Subsequent events have taken a different direction, which is a matter of serious concern.
On Iran, we agreed that we should continue to support the nuclear deal, so long as Iran continues to comply with its own commitments under it. On the Middle East, we called for an investigation into the shootings in Gaza last month, and stressed the need to reduce tensions in the region.
The EU western Balkans summit on 17 May was attended by EU leaders and the leaders of the six regional partners, namely, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. This was the first such summit in 15 years and I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the Bulgarian Presidency on having convened and successfully chaired it. We used the summit to reaffirm the European perspective of the western Balkans and their pathway to EU membership, and agreed a set of actions for enhanced co-operation with the region, including in areas such as transport and energy infrastructure, digital connectivity and co-operation on security, migration and wider geopolitical developments.
I had a meeting at the summit with the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, and our respective teams. Our discussions focused mainly on Brexit, including progress on the backstop in the context of the withdrawal agreement, as well as developments regarding Northern Ireland. I will report in more detail on this meeting in my response to the next group of questions.
I did not have a scheduled bilateral meeting with Chancellor Merkel, although I did, of course, engage with her informally over the course of the summit, as I did with my other EU counterparts.
The Taoiseach will deal with the EU and Brexit in the next set of questions.
There is a bit of an overlap.
With regard to the Taoiseach's remarks on the Gaza situation, it seems we have pulled our punches somewhat as a country and as a State in response to what has happened in recent weeks and months in Gaza. Has the Government reviewed its position overall because it seems the prospect of a two-state solution is receding month by month? The unacceptable activities of the Israeli forces in wilfully and recklessly shooting protesters and murdering many young people who were not a threat and did not constitute a threat to the border were absolutely reprehensible and unacceptable and can only have the outcome of hardening and polarising positions and rendering very difficult indeed any reconciliation between Palestinians and Israel. We have been consistent as a country for many years in recognising the Palestinian right to a homeland, in line with the UN resolutions in accepting the illegality of settlements. Notwithstanding the views of the United Nations and the European Union, the Israeli Government has proceeded oblivious to any of it and continues to establish settlement after settlement, all of which calls into question any sincere or genuine commitment on behalf of the Israeli Government to a two-state solution. The wanton state violence of recent times copperfastens this opinion. In essence, what we are getting is subjugation of the Palestinian community, particularly in Gaza, as opposed to any genuine attempt to find a way out of the deadlock and ensure a genuine commitment to peace talks that would result in an effective and viable two-state solution emerging. The decision of the US Government and President Trump to open an embassy in Jerusalem is to be strongly regretted, as it further compounded tensions in the area and has put back even further the prospect of a meaningful solution.
I take it we will leave the bilateral discussion questions on Brexit to the next group.
I raised previously the issue of extending membership of the Union and whether that is something that has a horizon. Is there a timeframe now for the countries in the western Balkans joining? Was that laid out in any great detail? Is there a sequencing? Is the next expansion going to happen within a defined timeline? What is the Taoiseach's view on this?
Palestine is something on which we might need a special debate in the House. In the past, all of us in all parties in the House have expressed the deepest concerns at the policies being implemented by the Netanyahu Government. I strongly agree with the view expressed by Deputy Micheál Martin on the relocation of the US embassy as a very inflammatory and unhelpful gesture by the American Government. More practically and realistically, the killings in Gaza, which can never be justified, are something on which we have to take action.
With regard to the illegal expansions of settlements, I am aware of one instance where a Palestinian home was destroyed to make way for a new settlement. That cannot be right. What is happening is that a whole new generation of Palestinians are being reared in resentment and oppression, and it can only be an augury for further conflict in future. Although we are a small State we need to take definitive action on this, and there would be a very strong view across the House on this matter. There are two things we could do. There is an extant Bill, if I am allowed refer to it, in the other House sponsored by Senator Frances Black. It is one that merits consideration. The second issue is whether we could implement, as a clear indication of our views, the already determined policy of both Houses of the Oireachtas to recognise the state of Palestine.
I will wait until the next round of questions to deal with Brexit.
I also want to raise the issue of Gaza with the Taoiseach. Everybody here accepts that what happened in Gaza over recent weeks is completely unacceptable. It goes beyond simply people being killed. It was a slaughter. It was state murder and state assassination of citizens. Far too often, we have had statements in the House on Gaza where people come in and give plenty of sympathy on what is happening to the people of Palestine and the people of Gaza. In 2015 and 2016, when we had similar attacks and when residents of Gaza were being slaughtered, we came in and offered sympathy and talked but we know from our own experience in this State and on our island that what is necessary in the Middle East and in Palestine is a peace process. We can only have a peace process if it is underpinned by justice and if the conditions are created to allow that peace process to prosper. Obviously the incendiary move by the US President, Donald Trump, to open an embassy in Jerusalem has certainly made that all the more difficult. The response from the Israeli State to legitimate protests also makes it all the more difficult. One of the things we can do, and this is my question to the Taoiseach, is to act on the will of this Parliament, which is to recognise formally the state of Palestine. This has been put to the Taoiseach time and again and he has never given us a satisfactory answer as to why it cannot be done. It is an act of solidarity we can take. We also know from our own experience that previous American Administrations took many risks and went against the advice of British Governments in supporting a peace process. International solidarity and acts of solidarity can work and are important. It would be a wise move for the Government to take.
Only five minutes remain Taoiseach.
As I mentioned, at the EU summit in Sofia and Bulgaria last week we discussed the events that had taken place in Gaza and the appalling number of deaths and serious injuries that happened there. As Europe, we called for an independent and transparent investigation into the events and stressed the need to reduce tensions across the region. Almost 2 million people now live in Gaza and they deserve an end to the blockade so they can start to build normal lives, something that has been impossible for them for more than a decade.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has made engagement with the Middle East peace process one of his personal priorities and the Government strongly supports him in that. He made his third visit to the region only last week from 5 June to 7 June, going to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan, where we will open a new embassy in Amman next year. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, took the opportunity to meet Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in what was, I believe, a very frank meeting where he left the Prime Minister very aware of the Irish Government's views on the current position there. As I have stated, we cannot condone in any way the use of live fire against civilians, as occurred on the Gaza border a few weeks ago.
I largely agree with Deputy Micheál Martin's comments on the settlements. Going back to the Oslo Accords approximately 25 years ago, people were enormously optimistic about the possibility of peace in the Middle East with a two-state solution. That was very much led by Bill Clinton at the time. After that, attempts were made at a peace agreement at Wye River with the then Prime Minister Barak, and people were very confident at the time that a two-state solution could and would be achieved. There has since been an effort by the Israeli Government and authorities to create new facts on the ground that almost make a two-state solution impossible, absent mass expulsions from the settlements, which is difficult and becomes part of Israeli politics. There are settlement blocs such as the Shomron bloc, which goes deep into Palestinian territory, Gush Etzion, Ma'ale Adumim and others that effectively surround Jerusalem, thus making it very difficult to establish a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem, as they would wish.
We must be unequivocal in our condemnation of the settlement policy, which makes peace so difficult to achieve. It is a counterproductive policy as, given the demographics, Israel may find itself as a minority in its own territory. There may come a time when the Arab and Palestinian populations decide not to demand their own state but rather the right to vote. They may find themselves at 45%, 50% or 55% of the population in the combined territory, which is something the Israelis should have regard to.
In line with the programme for Government, the Government will recognise the Palestinian state once it exists. It does not currently exist and I am not aware of any precedent when an Irish Government has recognised a state that does not yet exist.
We sought the recognition of this State by America.
We asked Woodrow Wilson.
Even Mr. de Valera might have disagreed with the Taoiseach.
Once it exists, it is of course our intention to recognise it as part of a two-state solution.
I will briefly remark on the fact that last Friday saw Pride in Tel Aviv, with 250,000 people from diverse communities, many of them lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual, attending Pride celebrations across Tel Aviv through the main streets and on to the beach. We should not defy the fact that in neighbouring countries in the region, it would not be possible to have a Pride parade or for people to lead their normal lives. We should not forget that, notwithstanding the behaviour of the Israeli Government over the past decade or two. There are many people in Israel who share our values, that is, share values that are akin to those of a European liberal democracy. Many people in Israel believe in peace and a two-state solution and they are equally aggrieved at the extent to which that early pioneering liberal democratic spirit that imbued Israel at its foundation has been trampled on in recent years. It is of enormous regret to everyone who likes that country and admires the Jewish people.
8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent discussions with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [22293/18]
9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his own guarantee regarding his commitment on 15 May 2018 on there being no border between North and South; and the responses he has received from British Prime Minister May and European Union partners when he informed them that under no circumstances will there be a border. [22571/18]
10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Ms Nicola Sturgeon recently or since the Scottish Parliament rejected the Brexit Bill on 15 May 2018. [22572/18]
11. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister May in Sofia. [22706/18]
12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [22709/18]
13. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Ms Nicola Sturgeon recently or since the Scottish Parliament rejected the Brexit Bill on 15 May 2018. [23418/18]
14. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent discussions with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [23420/18]
15. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he and British Prime Minister May discussed the reconvening of the Northern Ireland Assembly when they met in Sofia. [23439/18]
16. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to British Prime Minister May since 6 June 2018. [25654/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 16, inclusive, together.
I met British Prime Minister May on the margins of the EU-western Balkans summit in Sofia, Bulgaria, on 17 May. We discussed current developments on Brexit and the ongoing efforts to assist the parties in Northern Ireland to re-establish the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. Prime Minister May told me in Sofia that she expected to table proposals on the customs relationship between the European Union and the UK shortly thereafter. At this time, I made clear that any move on customs that can keep the UK close to the European Union is to be welcomed. I also emphasised to her that upholding the commitment to avoid a hard border requires progress on more than just customs.
As the House will be aware, the UK Government published its proposals last week and they are now the subject of discussion between the UK and the EU task force. The agreed report from December makes clear that continued alignment on both Single Market and customs rules is necessary. In many ways, the regulatory issues are even more important than customs here. Whereas the UK paper contains proposals on customs, it does not deal with regulatory issues other than acknowledging that they will also have to be dealt with. Consequently, even if we can reach agreement around the latest UK proposals, that will not of itself constitute a full and satisfactory backstop.
When we met, I made clear to the British Prime Minister that Ireland would continue to insist on a legally operable backstop being in the withdrawal agreement. This would be in line with the commitments made by the UK in December and repeated by the British Prime Minister in her letter to Mr. Donald Tusk in March. It must apply unless and until any better arrangements are agreed, be compatible with the rules of the Single Market and customs union and ensure the avoidance of a hard border. To this end, I have been consistent in my message to both Prime Minister May and my fellow EU Heads of State and Government at the European Council that the reintroduction of a border on the island of Ireland is not acceptable under any circumstances. I am grateful for their continued understanding and support.
Finally, while I have not spoken to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently, I expect to see her next week at the meeting of the British-Irish Council in Guernsey.
This group of questions deals with the European Union specifically and I will focus on the Brexit negotiations while dealing with the Northern Ireland matters in the next group of questions. Following the Taoiseach's error at the previous summit, when he said that letting the negotiations slip to October was okay by him, we had a couple of months' worth of statements from the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste indicating that a failure to agree a backstop text in June would be a major problem. On 28 March, for example, when he was sent out to clean up after the Taoiseach's comments, the Tánaiste said that any failure to agree the text in June would raise "very serious questions" as to whether any deal was possible. They were the Tánaiste's comments some months ago on the importance of the June deadline. The Taoiseach was asked about this by me repeatedly during Question Time and he repeated that a failure to meet the June deadline would be a very ominous sign.
When the British Government revealed its plan, the Taoiseach welcomed it as important progress but it has now been formally rejected by the European Union. It is reported this morning that yesterday the line changed again and the Taoiseach has said that October was always been the deadline and we should not be too worried. I believe the Taoiseach is familiar with "The Thick of It" and in that programme, this was called a "reverse ferret". It is the changing of a position without acknowledging the position that has just been abandoned. Given all the statements from the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste that the backstop, as defined by them, was watertight and that a failure to hit a June deadline would mark serious trouble, will the Taoiseach say if it is still his view that the backstop is watertight and the negotiations concerning Ireland are in serious trouble?
From the very start it was stated that a fundamental objective for Ireland was that the Irish issue would not still be in question when the final withdrawal text was being discussed. We have not now achieved this. Will the Taoiseach explain how he expects us to get from today's blockage to a breakthrough that delivers for Ireland? Mr. Michel Barnier has restated his demand that a Northern Ireland-specific proposal be tabled. Is the Taoiseach proposing to take any initiative on this or will the position remain that the United Kingdom alone should do what it has so far been incapable of doing, which is to propose a credible mechanism for delivering a soft border?
Most of us are becoming very fearful of the direction of travel in the negotiations, despite what was said last December. The Taoiseach warned the withdrawal agreement would be in question if progress was not made by the June Council. Specifically, he stated that "if we are not making real and substantial progress by June then we need to seriously question whether we are going to have a withdrawal agreement at all".
The UK Government is unable to agree a route to implement the backstop it had agreed. Westminster, as the Taoiseach knows, today and tomorrow is going through critical votes. A junior Minister, Phillip Lee, has resigned from government because of government policy on not allowing Westminster a conclusive final vote on the matter. The Tánaiste, Deputy Simon Coveney, previously said serious questions would have to be asked if progress on the backstop was not made by June. This seems to have changed because he is now saying the June Council meeting should not be built up to something it is not. However, he was the one who built it up. The Taoiseach himself has changed his tune. He said last Saturday, "The deadline is October and I do think it is possible between now and October for us to finalise and negotiate." This seems to be the current position. Real and substantial progress on a document to implement what we understood to have been agreed and to be bullet-proof last December was to be achieved before the final negotiating Council, which is in June. Now, as I had feared and as I have said in a number of contributions here and elsewhere, that seems to be slipping to the October deadline. The October Council meeting was always going to be simply to ratify finally. It is not a negotiating Council in and of itself and there would be very little scope for the European Parliament or indeed national parliaments to debate and understand the details if we are going to slip into the October deadline, so we need now to now make a very clear statement of the Irish position on these matters.
The Taoiseach's predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny, said yesterday, at a function the Taoiseach and I both attended, that little progress has been made since September and he was very honest in saying so. He said that in order now to address the outstanding issues, it might be necessary for a special Council meeting to be convened before October. Does the Taoiseach think this strategy might be needed?
Our job in the Opposition is in the first instance to hold the Taoiseach and his Government to account. The very least we expect is that he and his Government deliver on their own commitments and the benchmarks they set. Last December, the Taoiseach was very clear and unequivocal in his comments on the backstop, which he knows and I know was meant to be a permanent solution for Ireland to align the North with the rules of the Single Market and customs union in the event of no deal between Britain and the European Union. What happened a number of days ago, when the British Government published its paper, was that it reconstructed that backstop to nothing more than a UK-wide extension of the implementation period. There is now no certainty for Ireland as to what will happen if the talks break down, which is obviously very serious. I do not necessarily blame the Taoiseach for this. While obviously we must hold him to account, and his Government did say we would only be able to move past June if we had real and substantial progress, we also have a responsibility as Oireachtas Members and as politicians in Ireland to ensure we support positions that get the best deal for Ireland. This is genuinely what we have done in approaching all these Brexit negotiations. We need to ensure there is no fracture in the Irish position. We will be as supportive as we can but we also need to see real progress. The people were entitled to see real progress in June and, unfortunately, they have not seen it. The reality is - it has been said over and over - that the Government has possibly oversold the December agreement and the British Government, as divided as it is, has pulled a rug from under the European negotiators and the Irish Government by essentially taking the backstop off the table and replacing it with an extension of the implementation period, which does nothing for the people of Ireland.
My final point is this: regarding the high-level principles on which everyone - the British Government, the European negotiators and the Irish Government - agrees, namely, protection of the Good Friday Agreement, no hardening of the Border, and citizens' rights, in huge swathes of these areas we still have no agreement and it is our responsibility to hold the Taoiseach to account as to why this is the case.
Perhaps we will look back on history and see that a mistake was made last December in respect of the first agreement that was set whereby we would have an arrangement for Ireland, North and South, which was not accepted by the DUP, which insisted it be broadened to include some arrangement with the UK. Perhaps we would have been better to stick with the original deal because it does not seem to me likely that the European Union will accept "a" customs arrangement which would allow the entirety of the UK and Northern Ireland the benefits of such a deal without committing to regulatory alignment and so on. I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's thoughts on this. Does he think the end outcome may be that we will revert to that original deal, which I think was agreed on the Monday of that week in December, whereby we will agree customs checks in effect at ports on the island of Ireland? I would be interested to hear his thoughts on the likelihood of our getting a deal whereby east-west customs arrangements would get similar special provision that we are seeking on a North-South basis. When I listen to Monsieur Barnier now, I think that is highly unlikely. Perhaps we should have been more honest back in December to stick to the original Monday deal.
Perhaps we will take five or six minutes to deal with this grouping.
We shall say six minutes.
Referring back to the December 2017 agreement, it is of course a political agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU, and in that political agreement the UK guarantees there will be no hard border, with no physical infrastructure, customs or controls. I believe this will be honoured and achieved. I used the term "bullet-proof" to describe the agreement at the time but I also used other words. I said it was the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end, I said we needed to stay vigilant and I said our next objective would be to ensure it was made legally binding by ensuring that it was written into the withdrawal agreement. This is exactly the work we have been doing in recent months and we have a draft withdrawal agreement with an Irish protocol which achieves exactly that. The United Kingdom has not agreed to it, but that is the point at which we are now, where we have a draft legally binding withdrawal agreement with an Irish protocol-----
Which is not agreed.
-----which achieves exactly what we want to achieve.
The Government does not have an agreement if it is not agreed.
I should say that there is no such thing as a negotiating council. We do not have negotiations at the Council. When we enter Article 50 format, the UK is not there; it is the EU member states' heads of government among ourselves. The negotiations happen bilaterally between the task force, the TF50, and the United Kingdom. I have heard people talking about European Council meetings in June or October as though they were the Fisheries Council-----
-----or the budget Council, as if late at night a meeting or deal would be cobbled together.
There often is.
That is not how this will work because it is not like that. The negotiations do not happen at the Council. The UK is not-----
It was the Tánaiste who emphasised the June Council meeting more than anyone else.
-----in the room. These negotiations happen bilaterally-----
Everyone in the building can talk.
-----and I think Deputy Enda Kenny made that point extremely well when he spoke yesterday. Perhaps another former Taoiseach saw it differently, but there will not be a last-minute, 2 a.m. deal in the run-up to Hallowe'en in October because that is not how this is structured. The negotiations happen between the task force and the UK, not at the Council meeting itself.
I have always said that the deadline for finalising the withdrawal agreement, including the Irish protocol, was October. That is what is in the EU guidelines. That is what I said many months ago at the March Council meeting, if Deputies want to check back. However, I have also said we need to see real and meaningful progress before the June Council meeting. The UK proposal, which came out last week is welcome, it is a small step forward, but it is at best a partial solution to part of the problem. It deals with customs but does not deal with regulation. The paper admits this, that standards and regulation would have to be dealt with separately, and it appears to be time-limited, which we cannot accept. For a backstop to be a backstop, it must apply unless and until-----
That is a crucial point that is missing from the agreement.
-----something better is found to replace it in the context of the new EU-UK agreement. The EU 27 will decide at the June Council meeting whether or not real and meaningful progress has been made. As things stand, I must say it has not. What was produced last week from London was a small step in the right direction: it was welcome but as I said earlier it is at best a partial solution to part of the problem and therefore does not constitute real and meaningful progress in my view. We will therefore need to see more from London, from the United Kingdom, in the next two weeks as we head into the Council meeting.
Otherwise, it will not be possible to say that progress is being made. That brings into question whether it will be possible to agree a withdrawal agreement by the October deadline. As everyone appreciates, this is a difficult negotiation. It often feels as though the United Kingdom is negotiating with itself more than with us, which makes matters rather tricky. The upside is that the European Union is totally united, with all 27 member states standing together behind the task force, whose members are our agents, in support of our shared objectives. It is from that position of strength that we will get the outcome we want.
17. Deputy Alan Farrell asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the interdepartmental group which is chaired by his Department and which is examining threats to the integrity of the electoral process. [23411/18]
Following consideration of the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017, the Government established an interdepartmental group to consider the substantive issues arising from recent experiences in other democratic countries having particular regard to the use of social media by external, anonymous or hidden third parties. In carrying out its assessment, the group is examining ways to safeguard the electoral process from disinformation and associated risks.
The group will also consider Ireland's approach to the issues outlined in the EU Commission's communication of 26 April 2018 on tackling online disinformation.
The group, which has met on a number of occasions to date, is chaired by officials from my Department and includes representatives from the Departments of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Justice and Equality, Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Education and Skills and Defence, An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. An initial draft report is being finalised.
The decisions on the part of Google and Facebook to block a large amount of advertising during the recent referendum campaign was unfortunate but necessary. The reality is that the Taoiseach and his colleagues have dropped the ball on this matter. It is not a matter for private firms to regulate our elections, but it is a fundamental duty for our Government. Earlier this year, the Government initially rejected Fianna Fáil's Bill on online transparency, sponsored by Deputy Lawless, saying that nothing could be done and that it was not technically possible. Only a few months later, it was fully technically possible for these companies to identify the source of advertising.
The regulation of referendum spending is a mess in Ireland. Each political party abides by donation limits and spending transparency, neither of which is respected by some non-party elements. This was not only the case at the most recent referendum, it was also evident during the Lisbon treaty referendum campaign when vast sums were spent by organisation of which we would not have heard prior to the referendum. They were able to mount and finance a campaign which was of crucial and fundamental importance to this country and our membership of the European Union. Unless something urgent is done, the limits and oversight central to our elections will be open to abuse by those who seek to influence our debates. As has been seen throughout Europe in the past 12 months, even elections in small countries are open to being targeted by forces that want to undermine the European solidarity and liberal democracy we all cherish.
When will the Taoiseach and the Government produce proposals? Is not the issue sufficiently serious and profound to necessitate an immediate move to establish a cross-party group to make recommendations before the summer which could be drafted without delay?
This is a serious issue. I welcome this question and compliment Deputy Alan Farrell on tabling it.
We would be extremely naive to think that the influence of online advertising on the political process would not have an impact on us. It has had an impact and will continue to do so. The size of our population makes it cheaper and easier to do so. We need a robust legislative response to the issue and I urge the Government to do so. We have long advocated the establishment of an electoral commission in this country. Such a commission should be part of the response in question.
We need to police the impact of advertising and other things are made on our electoral process and on referendums. There are also other things that an electoral commission could do including the protection of the integrity of our electoral register and ensure that it is constantly updated. It should also facilitate recent immigrants voting. We need to take these matters seriously and I support Deputy Micheál Martin's suggestion that a small, all-party group could look at this very quickly and make recommendations that Government could work with in order to provide a robust legislative response, hopefully in advance of any further elections in this jurisdiction.
I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that the Transparent Referendum Initiative did an excellent job during the recent referendum campaign. Along with researchers in UCD, it did detailed analysis on what sort of advertising was happening during the campaign. Much of it was very positive. We do not want to stop all advertising in the digital world. Much of the advertising helped people on both sides to be involved, which is welcome.
When representatives from Facebook came before the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, I asked if they would provide volumetric data on the amount of advertising that took place. The researchers in UCD and the Transparent Referendum Initiative are unable to get this data, which is vital to the real understanding of what happened. Similarly, my colleagues in the European Parliament asked Mark Zuckerburg if Facebook would provide this data. We have not yet received it. Will the Taoiseach add the Government's voice to the calls that Facebook provide data - in a way that is safe, secure and does not reveal any personal data - on how much advertising was paid for in order to help us get a picture of what happened. I support the comments of Deputies Micheál Martin and Howlin to the effect that we would work together, based on knowledge from sound research, as to what we do next in the matter of election advertising.
This is a fundamental question for the integrity of any democratic country, particularly in light of recent events internationally. Without being sensationalist, the decisions of the Internet service providers to ban advertisements from foreign jurisdictions highlighted the murky underbelly of the Internet and the nature and source of much of the advertisements during the recent referendum. My view is that not only is it necessary for us to ensure that the authorities in this State have the necessary tools in their arsenal to police this but that, as has been mentioned, that funding for non-party organisations in the electoral process is monitored more closely.
There is also a need for change regarding the electoral register. I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, is hard at work in his Department regarding changes in that area. However, we need to change from a primarily paper-based system of registration to an online one. We trust our banking system when it comes to logging on online, etc., as we do with many other institutions such as the Revenue Commissioners, where things may be done initially on paper and maintained online thereafter so that there are no questions regarding integrity. There should be serious consideration given to implementing those changes and learning from the experience of the referendum in May.
I recognise Deputy Farrell for tabling this important and topical question. He referred to the work that the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, is doing on updating the electoral register. There have been improvements to the electoral register in recent years but it remains quite out of date, as we know from canvassing and knocking on doors. Proposals are being developed on online registration but we need to be careful. Deputy Farrell is correct that we trust banking systems that are online-----
Look at what happened to Visa last week.
-----but, as we have learned from issues affecting Visa, Ulster Bank and other entities, those systems can also go horrendously wrong. It might be easier to hack an electoral register or even influence the result of an election if it was all held on a central database. We must consider all of these matters.
We are right to be concerned about external interference in elections.
It is now evident that there was external interference in the Brexit referendum and in elections in Ukraine and that there were at least attempts in France and Italy. We know that when it came to our referendum only a few weeks ago Facebook and Google decided in one case not to carry any advertisements related to that referendum at all and, in the other, not to allow any from overseas. I do not know why the companies did that but one can only assume that they may have seen something coming which caused them to act. In the run-up to the European Parliament elections next year I am concerned that if external actors wanted to influence our elections they would be interested in the European elections because those who do not like Europe, those who want Europe to be weak and those who do not share European values would like nothing more than a European Parliament full of nationalists, populists and extremists. We need to be wise to the fact that the European elections are not that far away and that there is a risk of foreign interference in those elections.
Foreign interference in elections is not new, nor is big money influencing politics in any way new. We know that in the 1950s and 1960s, both the CIA and KGB were involved in manipulating elections in a number of countries. We also know that big media owners in the UK, and in Ireland, have tried to use their influence on elections. The example that always stands out is the 1997 general election during which a particular newspaper put an editorial on its front page telling people to vote a certain way. There are many theories connected to that. The idea of big money or foreign governments and their agents influencing elections is not new but it is happening in a new way through the Internet.
I am not entirely sure what the solutions to it are but there may well be solutions. We should have the draft report from the group soon. I propose to share the report with the various parties and then try to map a way forward from there because I would be loath to have the Government amend electoral law. People would not trust it if it were just a Government proposal. It must be done on an all-party basis. The group is examining, in particular, the experience in EU members states and other countries. It is examining our electoral process and disinformation, and social media and cybersecurity. It is trying to examine how other countries have tried to deal with this threat to see what we can do.
Will the Taoiseach ask Facebook to give the data?
I do not fully understand the request.
I will explain it to the Taoiseach.
I genuinely do not.