We will commence with questions to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I ask Members to observe time. The first question is in the name of Deputy Niall Collins who has 30 seconds to introduce his question.
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Middle East Peace Process
1. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the course of action the Government will take in the coming months if there is no progress on the Middle East peace process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40419/18]
What course of action does the Tánaiste and the Government intend to pursue over the coming months if there is no progress in regard to the Middle East peace process?
I thank the Deputy for his question. I know he has a personal interest in this issue, as do I. There are several parallel strands of activity in regard to the Middle East peace process which inform Government policy on the Middle East generally.
On the political front, over the past year the US Administration has been actively exploring the possibility of relaunching the process to reach a comprehensive peace agreement, which is welcome. I have met and spoken to the US team on a number of occasions, including in the United Nations last week, to encourage its work and to underline the key parameters for an agreement which the European Union has long espoused.
I have been clear in my conversations with the United States that a peace plan can only work if it engages Palestinian support, as well as Israeli support. In this regard, I have also urged President Abbas to keep an open mind on the US plans, despite justifiable Palestinian frustration at cuts in US funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, and other Palestinian programmes and at the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. These are decisions that I have criticised on many occasions, including last week.
Ireland and the EU are also working on the ground to address the negative impacts of the occupation and to keep open the physical space necessary for a two-state solution, which I believe to be the only basis for a solution. The Government has committed in the programme for Government to recognising the state of Palestine as part of a lasting settlement to the conflict. I have made clear, including during the visit of President Abbas, that I have an open mind on this question. I am very mindful of the situation on the ground and I will be ready to look again at recognition if progress is not being made towards a comprehensive peace agreement.
It is important to sustain the hope of the Palestinian people in the face of their natural frustration with the lack of a political process to move things forward. To this end, I am also working with the Palestinian Authority to explore the idea of bringing a small number of European and Arab ministers to Dublin to consider next steps in terms of a political conversation. We are also keeping open the dialogue with the Israeli Government. I met the outgoing Israeli ambassador this week. We hope to develop the proposal on a meeting of European and Arab ministers in consultation with partners in the coming days.
The Tánaiste will be aware that there has been no progress. It is fair to say that the situation in Gaza is deteriorating and that, as stated by the Tánaiste, it is untenable. I am sure he will agree that, with the ongoing expansion of the illegal settlements, the demolition of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, the national state law enacted by the Knesset and the US Administration's decisions to cease funding, relocate its embassy to Jerusalem and close the PLO office in Washington, it is all going in the one direction. The Tánaiste mentioned that he met President Abbas during the week and conveyed to him his willingness to recognise the state of Palestine, which is welcome. This is the position of Fianna Fáil also. It is important to note that the Spanish foreign minister also raised the possibility of an initiative to get the EU to recognise the state of Palestine and to move the peace process forward.
On the Tánaiste's reference to plans to host a meeting in Ireland to restart the peace process, will he be a little more definitive on whether that is a concept without a timeline or an actual plan? Given the recent actions of the US Administration, which we all find objectionable and about which we have all voiced concerns, does the Tánaiste believe that it can be considered an honest broker in the peace talks? I am sure he is aware that the Palestinians have no faith in the US Administration.
We must adhere to time limits.
Should we not concentrate our efforts on an EU initiative rather than putting all our faith in the Americans in terms of delivery?
The Deputy has asked a number of questions to which I will try to give direct answers. As I said, many Members of this House are interested in this issue. I ask that they contact me with any thoughts and initiatives they may have in this area because anything done in this area impacts on our ability to be in some way influential. I do not want to overstate how influential Ireland might be. We are a relatively small player but we speak to all of the key partners. We have a good relationship with the Palestinian leadership and, I think, a reasonably good relationship with the Israeli Government. I have made it my business to get to know some of the key decision-makers on the US side as well. We are trying to move matters in the right direction. My stated position in regard to the kind of outcome that I believe is necessary is pretty clear. I do not believe there will be a deal done on a peace process in the Middle East without the US being central to it but I believe that other countries need to be involved to reassure the Palestinians that they have friends around the table given the deterioration of the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the US over the past 12 months in particular.
We have had detailed discussions with the Palestinian Authority and a number of EU and Arab countries in regard to the meeting that we are planning for Dublin, which we are hoping to hold in late November. We will need to pick a date that ensures maximum attendance.
The Tánaiste has visited Palestine a number of times and he will be aware that I was there recently. During my engagement with non-governmental organisations and the Palestinians the word that came up constantly was "impunity". They believe the Americans and the Israelis continue to act with impunity. We need to keep that to the forefront of our minds. They have no faith in any process which may be offered.
The Minister is aware of that also. Does he have any timeframe in mind to formally recognise the state of Palestine? Are we going to have an initiative by him to do this formally? Can I tie him down in that regard?
On the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill, is it still the position of the Minister that he is opposed to it? It is to be brought back to the Seanad in late November. The Minister knows my party's position on it. It is something that made an impact when it was passed on Second Stage in the Seanad. Has the Minister reconsidered his approach to it?
In our consideration of the particular Bill we have since spoken to the European Commission which has confirmed my concerns, on which I hope Fianna Fáil will reflect. I do not believe any responsible party in the Dáil or the Seanad should supporting legislation that we know is not legally sound. I am as passionate as anyone in this House about the need to create pressure and a political environment that can help to encourage a peace process to develop. However, I am not in the business of supporting legislation that I know is unimplementable and not legally sound and will create a legal problem with the European Commission, as both the Deputy and I are aware.
There are different legal opinions on it.
The official position of the European Commission is clear. One can find a lawyer somewhere who will give an alternative view. The Deputy is aware of what it is like to be in government. The official positions of the Attorney General and the European Commission are clear. We should not be advancing legislation, albeit for understandable political reasons, when we know that is not legally sound. There are other ways by which we can move the political debate forward, of which we are pursuing a number.
2. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the progress made in implementing the national plan on business and human rights (details supplied); and his views on the fact that almost one year on from the launch no steps have been taken to date to encourage and support awareness of effective human rights due diligence by State-owned or controlled companies, a key priority and promise of the plan. [40422/18]
I have tabled this question because I am deeply concerned that the Government is dragging its feet on the national plan on business and human rights, key elements of which remain unimplemented. Deadlines have already been missed.
The national plan on business and human rights which was launched by me last November sets out a number of key commitments to ensure policy coherence across government. The first is to commission a study to conduct a comprehensive baseline assessment of the legislative and regulatory framework pertaining to business and human rights as it currently applies in Ireland. Work on the study is under way and expected to be completed by the end of October. We have also been pressing ahead with plans to establish a business and human rights implementation group which will oversee delivery of the plan. I suspect the frustration of the Deputy centres on the group not yet being up and running, a frustration, to be honest, I share. I had a chairperson in mind for the particular job who I believed would be really good, but for a series of reasons, that person cannot now do it. We have had to look elsewhere for the appropriate team of people to be able to do this work properly and give the leadership needed to the implementation group. We are now making progress in that regard. Given its pivotal role, it is critical that the composition of the group have the appropriate mix of experience. Some unavoidable delays have been experienced in securing the availability of suitably qualified persons to serve on it. Nevertheless, I expect to be in a position to make an announcement in the near future.
It is intended that the completed baseline study will guide the work of the implementation group in delivering on the plan’s other key commitments which range across the three pillars of the UN guiding principles: the State's duty to protect human rights; the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and access to a remedy. The actions to be undertaken include building awareness among State-owned and other companies and NGOs of the need to exercise effective due diligence on human rights issues, particularly where there is a risk of adverse human rights impacts. Particular attention has been given to ensuring coherence with the second national plan on corporate social responsibility which is overseen by my colleague, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys. State-owned and controlled companies were included in the public consultation process leading up to the national plan which encouraged awareness of effective human rights due diligence.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
Awareness and support are also encouraged through updates to the interdepartmental committee on human rights, which is chaired by my colleague the Minster of State with responsibility for the diaspora and international development, Deputy Ciarán Cannon. All Departments with responsibility for State bodies are represented on the committee, the next meeting of which will take place later this month.
I understand the group was to be established in February and that then there was a delay. The Minister is now saying it will be established by the end of October, which is not acceptable. This does not reflect well on the Government's commitment to its national plan. It was rightly criticised for delays in creating the plan. There is serious concern about the lack of human rights due diligence by State-owned or controlled companies. I presume that is the reason for the establishment of the group. Is the Minister aware that the ESB is importing millions of tonnes of coal from Colombia, specifically from the infamous Cerrejón mine? Has he been made aware that the coal is coming from mines which are notorious for destroying the environment, displacing communities and attacking local community activists? The Government is the main shareholder in the ESB. Has the Minister's Department had discussions with the ESB on the human rights due diligence that should follow, detailing the notorious abuses in the Colombian mines from where it sources coal? That is just one example. I tried to table a Topical Issue on the matter but the Minister was not available. This is one of the issues that highlights the need for the implementation committee.
At the end of my initial answer I made the point that awareness and support were also encouraged through updates to the interdepartmental committee on human rights, which is chaired by my colleague, the Minster of State with responsibility for the diaspora and international development, Deputy Ciarán Cannon. All Departments with responsibility for State bodies are represented on the committee, the next meeting of which will take place later this month.
In relation to the ESB, I was not aware of what the Deputy referred to. I have been to the Moneypoint power plant a number of times. Clearly, a lot of coal is imported. However, the Government has committed to ending the use of coal as a source of power generation by the mid-2020s. I am happy to say we will see a move away from a reliance on imported coal. However, it cannot happen overnight without a significant disruption to power supplies. It needs to be planned for and phased in over time. I am not familiar with the sourcing contracts and with whom they are with, as that is a matter for ESB senior management. I can, however, certainly raise the question.
The Minister could take a look at the mine on Google to get a sense of it. It is like something one would see on the moon. There are also the additional matters to be considered. They involve the indigenous people and how they have been forced off the land and the water sources that have been destroyed. It is a case of where we are saying one thing and not carrying it out. If the committee was established, it would inform the ESB's decisions. I am disappointed that the Minister is not aware of what I raised. I am still awaiting a response from the ESB on its awareness of it, as well as from the Department of the Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Clearly, Ireland is part of the problem through its importation of coal from the mine. It is not someone else's problem but ours. Will the Minister commit to raising the issue with the ESB?
I am very slow to cast aspersions on the ESB without having the full facts. I will not make a judgment based on looking up something on Google. The purpose in having an implementation group is to try to set guidelines and ensure they will be implemented and followed in order that companies, whether they are State or private, in their sourcing policies will be conscious of some of their broader corporate responsibilities in the sourcing lines they support. The Government is interested in moving away from a coal-based power generation system at Moneypoint. That is a strategic policy decision it has made, but its management and implementation are complicated. However, the ESB has the obligation to follow through on it.
Regarding the detail of the issue raised by the Deputy, if he has written to the ESB about it, I expect that it will provide him with a detailed answer.
3. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of the Brexit negotiations and Ireland's domestic preparedness for all scenarios, including a no-deal Brexit, and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40420/18]
Will the Tánaiste provide us with an update on the status of the Brexit negotiations, particularly Ireland's domestic preparedness for all scenarios, including the dreaded ##no-deal Brexit, which looks ominous?
To state the obvious, we are in a critical phase in the Article 50 negotiations which resumed on 16 August and have been continuous since. Following the informal European Council summit in Salzburg on 20 September, the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk, restated the European Union's position that there will be no withdrawal agreement without a solid, operational and legally binding Irish backstop. At the summit EU leaders reaffirmed their full support for Mr. Michel Barnier in his negotiations, including his efforts to "de-dramatise" the backstop which has become the most high profile issue that remains to be agreed as regards the withdrawal treaty.
Subsequently, on 21 September, the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, stated the United Kingdom would bring forward its own proposals on the backstop. The Government welcomes this initiative and urges that it be done as a matter of urgency in order that the negotiating teams can engage constructively in finalising the legal text of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. However, the European Union has been clear that this outcome must be fully consistent with the agreement reached in the joint progress report of last December, the agreement committed to last March and the clear commitments and guarantees that came with it provided by the United Kingdom.
It is important that there be substantial engagement on this issue by the European Council at its meeting on 18 October. At that meeting Ireland and its EU partners will then decide if conditions are sufficient to call an extraordinary summit - probably in the second week of November - to finalise and formalise the deal. Real progress on the backstop will be an essential part of that decision.
Regarding our domestic preparedness, the Government's contingency planning for Brexit was initiated well in advance of the UK referendum in June 2016. Since my appointment as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in June 2017, I have overseen a sustained intensification of these efforts. As part of them, the Government is organising the Getting Ireland Brexit Ready set of workshops around Ireland to inform and advise on Brexit preparedness. The Government has made a range of support measures and resources available to businesses. The first of the workshops will take place in Pairc Uí Chaoimh tomorrow.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
Preparation and planning are ongoing across government to address a range of Brexit scenarios, including a no-deal scenario. Departments and agencies continue to develop and implement, as appropriate, Brexit preparedness and contingency planning in their areas of responsibility. On 18 July and 18 September, I presented detailed memorandums to the Government on Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The memorandums included elements aimed at moving from planning to implementation in a number of key areas, in particular, preparing ports and airports for Brexit. This is additional to the dedicated measures announced in budget 2018 aimed at supporting businesses to get Brexit ready.
It is obvious to us all that the next couple of weeks are critical, but we know that the chasm between the European Union and the United Kingdom is quite big and that there is little consensus on the way forward. It was interesting to hear the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, warn yesterday in her speech at the Conservative Party conference that while Great Britain wanted a deal, that did not mean a deal at any cost and that it was not afraid to leave with no deal on the table if it had to do so as the stakes were high and the timeframe was tight in negotiating the terms of the withdrawal agreement and, most importantly, the backstop.
In negotiating on Brexit it is essential that the Government safeguard the Good Friday Agreement. We all heard Ms Arlene Foster's comments earlier in the week. It is an international treaty which cannot be changed unilaterally, a point on which we are all agreed. It cannot be picked apart. A no-deal Brexit would be in nobody's interests and would cause huge economic harm to the country. We have seen report after report outline the consequences. My party and I do not want to see it come to pass, but nevertheless, the Government has to be prudent and plan for it. Will the Tánaiste update me on the status of the negotiations and contingency planning in general, particularly for a no-deal scenario? Deputy Lisa Chambers who is unable to be here recently asked a parliamentary question about the 450 customs officials being recruited by the Government who are to be trained and in place by 29 March 2019. Can we receive an update on that matter because she felt the answer was insufficient?
A lot of questions have been asked.
The Tánaiste has one minute in which to answer them.
He will be well able to do so.
The Government's focus for the next six weeks will be on trying to get a deal done. We are not going to focus on increasing the public commentary on contingency planning. All of that work is important and continuing. However, when one is focused on trying to get a deal done, one needs to start talking about solutions, rather than dealing with problems, while at the same time ensuring we are planning for all scenarios, as we are. While I understand Deputy Lisa Chambers's focus on contingency planning and while we will give her as much information as we can, between now and the middle of November I want the focus to be on getting a deal done. When people talk about a chasm between the UK and EU positions, I do not accept that. What we have is a withdrawal treaty that has been 90% written and agreed to. The last 10% is difficult to agree. Most of it relates to Ireland and the Irish backstop. However, the commitment from the UK Prime Minister is a backstop that will provide the guarantees necessary that there will be no physical border infrastructure on the island of Ireland in the future. To her credit, she has committed to this. What we now need is a legal text that deliver will it in the Irish protocol that will be part of the withdrawal treaty. This can be done in an intensification of the negotiations in the next two weeks.
Is the Tánaiste in a position to tell us whether the European Union has received any new proposal from the UK Government for the backstop? While everybody is hoping agreement can be reached on the withdrawal agreement and the backstop, we are cognisant that one of the hurdles that must be overcome is the fact that the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, must get it through Parliament. That is a big "if" and a big question. In the event that she fails to get it through Parliament, what do the Tánaiste and the Government foresee will happen? What will be the state of play in the negotiations if she fails to get a deal, if there is one, through Parliament?
From our perspective, the focus cannot be on political management at Westminster in the event that there is a deal between the UK Government and the Michel Barnier task force acting on behalf of the European Union. The first step is to get the deal done. What is likely to happen - starting, I suspect, from today - is that the negotiating teams will lock themselves into a very intense period of negotiation, focusing on the unresolved issues, one of which is the Irish backstop. That is what is needed. I hope we will have a recommendation for the October leaders' Council meeting resulting from that intensification of negotiations. I am not aware that the UK side has yet tabled any formal new proposal, but the UK Prime Minister has certainly committed to doing so. I hope that in the next week or so we will see that new proposal being brought forward because I am sure the EU task force will also have ideas and, of course, concerns about some of what may be proposed. Everybody understands a deal needs to be done in the next few weeks. With flexibility and good will on both sides, that deal can be done. Certainly on the EU side, Mr. Michel Barnier will work to protect EU interests and the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union, but he will sensibly also try to find a way forward by showing flexibility in appropriate areas.
4. Deputy David Cullinane asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the measures in place to secure the common travel area between Britain and Ireland post Brexit; the measures in place to protect pension payments to those in receipt of a British pension here and those in receipt of an Irish pension in Britain; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40421/18]
Deputy Cullinane is out of the country. Will the Tánaiste outline the measures the Government is taking to ensure the rights and entitlements of citizens in Ireland are protected post Brexit? In an answer to an earlier question the Tánaiste said that the Government was planning for all scenarios. Perhaps he could outline some of those measures.
This question concerns the common travel area, CTA, which is a long-standing arrangement between Ireland and the UK. It means Irish citizens can move freely to live, work, and study in the UK on the same basis as UK citizens and vice versa. I, and I suspect many others in this House, have benefited from the provisions of the CTA. It is an arrangement that is valued by both islands and the continuation of this arrangement is a stated commitment of both the Irish and UK Governments. In the context of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, it is important that any arrangements necessary to maintain the CTA are made. The CTA provides for associated rights and entitlements which enable Irish and UK citizens to move freely between and reside in both jurisdictions. These rights and entitlements include access to employment, healthcare, education, and social benefits, as well as the right to vote in certain elections.
Article 2 of the draft protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, within the draft withdrawal agreement between the EU and the UK, is a translation into legal terms of the acknowledgment between the EU and UK negotiators made in their joint report of December 2017 that the UK and Ireland may “continue to make arrangements between themselves relating to the movement of persons between their territories”. This has been marked as green, indicating it has been agreed at negotiator level, and it is a welcome provision in seeking to maintain the CTA, insofar as it relates to the EU-UK negotiations.
The maintenance of the CTA is a bilateral matter. Work is ongoing in the UK and domestically to ensure that the necessary provisions are made in both jurisdictions so that the CTA continues to function effectively after the UK leaves the EU.
The objective of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is to ensure that the reciprocity of social welfare rights and entitlements, which currently exists for Irish and UK citizens moving within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain under the CTA, are safeguarded and maintained. There is broad agreement to preserve the status quo in that regard.
The Department of Finance and the Central Bank of Ireland are working with the regulated financial services providers to ensure that all necessary measures are taken to ensure that insurance and pension providers can continue to operate post Brexit.
Brexit will also impact on students, as the Tánaiste has said. There has been much talk about securing the Good Friday Agreement. It is rarely mentioned that the Good Friday Agreement is a rights-based document and, as such the rights enshrined in it must be protected. The recent comments by the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, and people within the Tory Party on the Good Friday Agreement are unacceptable and reveal a reckless disregard for the peace process, prosperity and progress. The Irish Government must make it clear that the Good Friday Agreement will be protected and will remain the basis for peace, stability and progress. It was endorsed by the majority of people in the North and the South. It is a people's agreement, and is not a chip to be bargained with by the Tories or the DUP.
Much has been said about the effect Brexit will have on trade, but it must be remembered that it will impact on the Good Friday Agreement itself. Does the Tánaiste have any concerns about the impact it will have on the agreement, particularly given the recent statements made by Arlene Foster and Theresa May?
I made it clear during the week that, while I have respect for Arlene Foster, she is wrong on this issue. The Good Friday Agreement is not up for discussion or negotiation. It is a treaty which has been lodged with the UN. It was voted on by people across this island, North and South, and was endorsed with a very large majority in both jurisdictions. It has been the basis for peace for the past two decades. There have been updates to it, and agreements have been signed since it was agreed, but those agreements involved two Governments and negotiations between political parties. We have a clear commitment from the British Prime Minister that every facet of the Good Friday Agreement will be protected through the Brexit process, and we intend to ensure that commitment is followed through on. To her credit, she has repeated that commitment on more than one occasion.
The Good Friday Agreement, as a basis and a foundation for Irish relationships North and South, and relationships east and west, is something that we will insist on defending and protecting through the Brexit debates, as we have done to date.
The EU and the Government must remain true to their word and ensure that without the agreed, legally enforceable backstop, there will be no withdrawal agreement. As such, the Good Friday Agreement must be protected in all its parts. We need to maintain the free movement of people on the island of Ireland and between Britain and Ireland. There must be a complete absence of a land border on the island of Ireland and the rights of EU and non-EU nationals must be protected, in line with EU rules and regulations. There must be continued access to EU funds and payments for the North of Ireland and greater autonomy for the devolved assembly in these policy areas, which are not excluded matters and are within the competence. These things must be protected via the backstop agreement and I ask the Tánaiste to reiterate that that is the direction the Government is taking during these talks.
I do not believe that I or the Taoiseach could be clearer on this matter. We cannot and will not sign up to any withdrawal treaty that does not involve a backstop that follows through on the commitments that have been made to Ireland. I have repeatedly said that the British Prime Minister, to her credit, understands the fragility and complexity of relationships on the island of Ireland and wants to protect those through Brexit. I believe that all parties in Northern Ireland, including the DUP, recognise that too. We are trying to ensure that a legal text emerges here in a way that reassures nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland that we can provide the guarantees necessary to reassure people that no physical border infrastructure is going to re-emerge on the island of Ireland and that we are not going to create new barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom either, recognising the sovereign integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole. We need maturity and flexibility to ensure that, through an intensification of negotiation, we can get that job done. I believe it is possible to do it. The alternatives to doing so remind people of the consequences of failure, which in my view are unlikely to materialise.
5. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will report on the discussion he has had with his counterparts in the British Government regarding the backstop and the indicated timeframe for the UK Government to outline its counterproposals and the publication of legal language in advance of the October 2018 EU summit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40524/18]
Will the Tánaiste report to the Dáil on the discussions he has had with his counterparts in the British Government on the matter of the backstop, and the timeframe within which the UK Government will outline and set out its counterproposals and the publication of legal language in advance of the summit at the end of October?
It is important to note that the negotiations on the EU-UK withdrawal agreement, including the draft protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, are between the UK and the European Commission task force acting on behalf of the other 27 EU member states. I and my officials are, of course, in very regular contact with Michel Barnier and his team. I also have regular meetings and conversations with British Ministers which offer the opportunity to discuss the negotiations. I have taken every opportunity to impress upon UK counterparts the importance of the backstop. In my recent meetings or conversations with Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt, David Lidington and Karen Bradley I emphasised that it was the responsibility of the UK to put forward viable and workable proposals for the backstop, and I encouraged the UK to engage constructively on the issue, including on Michel Barnier’s efforts to de-dramatise the backstop, which I believe were very sincere and have made the problem much more manageable. This was also the Taoiseach’s message in his meeting with Prime Minister May in Salzburg on 20 September.
Last month, Prime Minister May announced that the UK would bring forward its own proposals for a backstop arrangement.
The Government welcomed this announcement. We had been calling for a long time for the UK to engage fully with this issue. However, time is short. It is important for these proposals to be shared soon to allow the negotiations to make progress before the October meeting of the European Council. Our preference is for an overall EU-UK relationship which would resolve all issues. However, it remains essential for a legally operable backstop, which provides certainty that a hard border will be avoided in any circumstances, to be agreed. Therefore, it cannot be temporary. It must be in place unless and until another solution is found. This position is supported and shared by our fellow EU member states. When I was in Poland yesterday, I received strong solidarity again, as has been the case in every EU state to which I have travelled.
I asked the Tánaiste to outline his understanding of the nature of the counter-proposals from the UK at this point. What does he expect them to be? It is important for people on the island of Ireland to begin to understand the proposals that are likely to emanate from the UK Government.
The second issue I raise has already been mentioned by the Tánaiste this morning. Following the recent comments made by Ms Foster on behalf of the DUP, does the Tánaiste, as our foreign Minister, have a sense of how he proposes to reach out to the unionist community in the context of these complex discussions? In his role as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, has he been having discussions with people from the unionist community?
The Deputy has asked two very fair questions. I am not in a position to outline the position in respect of the British paper as it has not been published. It would be wrong to do so. It is the job of the British side to make a proposal. I hope it will not publish any proposal before it has been brought to the negotiating room in Brussels. The British and EU sides need to work together in that room to find a position that both of them can support. We are at the business end of these negotiations now. In my view, the negotiations need to make progress in the next two weeks - we are talking about next week or next weekend - before the General Affairs Council meeting, which I will attend, and the leaders' summit, which will be attended by the Taoiseach. Time is short. The focus now has to be on trying to close gaps between the two negotiating teams. If a British paper is part of that effort, it will be welcome. The most important thing is for the detail of that to be worked through by the negotiating teams, as opposed to it being published and essentially assessed by the wider community. We have to get down to the detail of an agreed position at this stage.
The Deputy also asked about my contacts with the unionist community. I was in a Presbyterian church in Belfast on Sunday to recognise Victoria Cross recipients from the First World War. I sat next to Jeffrey Donaldson, who made me feel very welcome. We had an opportunity to have brief discussions on some of the pressures and strains that clearly exist at present. They are linked to Brexit and to the lack of an Executive in Northern Ireland.
I call Deputy Burton to ask her final question. We have gone a minute over time.
I will continue to reach out to and engage with members of the unionist community.
I have called Deputy Burton. Other Deputies are waiting.
I assure them they have nothing to fear from me or from this Government.
I am only implementing the rules.
The Tánaiste has said that the negotiating team in Brussels will be the first and primary recipients of the UK proposals and that the Irish Government will not receive them at the same time. I think we should be advised on that because it is a bit unfortunate.
No, that is not what I said.
The Tánaiste will have a further minute for clarification.
Are there Irish people working with Mr. Barnier, who has done a very good job? What Irish people, with knowledge of the subtleties of the relationships on these islands, are on the negotiating team? The Tánaiste said that the negotiating team will be the recipient of the UK proposals. He also said that he does not want them to be published. Can he advise us further in that regard? In the circumstances he has outlined, when will he get these proposals?
Let us not try to twist language here. These issues are important. I said that my preference is for any new tabling of proposals to happen between the negotiating teams that are trying to find a way forward and to compromise. We speak to the Barnier task force every single day.
I know that.
Any proposals received by the Barnier task force that relate to Ireland are shared with Ireland immediately and will continue to be shared with Ireland immediately.
What Irish people are on the team?
The Tánaiste, without interruption.
I will explain the way the Barnier task force works. He has a group of very experienced technical negotiators. They interact with our ambassador in Brussels and our team there on a daily basis. I would say that our team there is almost interwoven with the task force on the Irish issues. They will continue to interact on the complex issues that need to be worked through next week and probably the following week. There is no question of hiding anything from Ireland. We are very much part of these discussions. As anyone who has been involved in negotiations will understand, it is when the most sensitive and difficult issues are reached that the negotiating teams need to interact with each other, as opposed to publishing papers and making political statements outside the room. The negotiation rooms in Brussels are the place to get this done now.