Pre-European Council Meeting: Statements

On 17 and 18 October, I will attend a meeting of the European Council in Brussels as well as a meeting of the European Council on its Article 50 formation and the euro summit. I will also attend the Asia-Europe Meeting, more commonly known as ASEM, which will take place in Brussels on 18 and 19 October. On Wednesday evening, we will meet in Article 50 format to discuss the Brexit negotiations. The meeting of the European Council proper on Thursday morning will focus on migration, internal security and external relations. This is to be followed by a euro summit where we will exchange views on financial issues ahead of the December European Council. The ASEM summit will start on Thursday evening and continue until Friday afternoon. This is the 12th ASEM summit and it will bring together the leaders of 51 European and Asian countries as well as the heads of the EU institutions and the Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN. President Tusk will chair the discussions which will focus on strengthening co-operation between European and Asia in responding to global challenges, including trade and investment, connectivity, sustainable development and climate and security.

I will focus my remarks today on Brexit and will also briefly outline our thinking on migration and the issues for discussion at the euro summit. The Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, will speak about the internal security issue in his wrap-up statement as well as the external relations items that are likely to arise.

From Ireland's perspective, the priority is of course the discussions on Brexit on Wednesday evening. The Government has been consistently firm and resolute in its response to the UK decision to leave the EU. Even before the UK referendum we started to examine the issues, engage with sectors across the island of Ireland and fully analyse our main areas of concerns. Recognising the significant economic, political and social implications for Ireland, we identified our negotiating priorities at an early stage. These are to minimise the impact of trade in our economy, protect the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland peace process, including through avoiding a hard border, maintain the common travel area, and work for a positive future for the European Union.

As Deputies are aware, negotiations on a withdrawal agreement between the EU and UK have been ongoing for well over a year. The Government has worked at both political and official level in engaging with our EU partners and the EU institutions to ensure that our unique circumstances and specific concerns are fully understood. As a result of these efforts, the EU negotiating position, as confirmed by the guidelines agreed in April, has reflected all our concerns and these have been at the very centre of negotiations with the United Kingdom.

The negotiations intensified significantly following the informal summit in Salzburg last month and particularly over the past two weeks. I am disappointed and concerned that despite these efforts, it has not been possible to make the decisive progress we so urgently need. The gaps between positions are significant and time is running out for a deal to be in place by the time the UK leaves on 29 March next year.

Obviously, discussion of the backstop was a particular focus in the negotiations which ended at the weekend. From Ireland's perspective, we have been consistent in our position and objectives. We want negotiations to succeed but this will only be possible with agreement on a legally robust backstop, which must apply in all circumstances, set out clearly in the withdrawal agreement.

In an EU-UK joint report last December, the UK committed to a backstop arrangement that would avoid a hard border on this island and agreed that this would be reflected in the legal text in the withdrawal agreement. Prime Minister May reiterated these commitments in March and again last month after the informal summit in Salzburg. The EU presented its detailed proposals for the backstop when it published a draft version of the withdrawal agreement back in March. While the final text was not agreed at the time, the negotiators for both sides, the EU and the UK, accepted that a legally operative backstop for the Border, in line with paragraph 49 of the joint report, should be "agreed as part of the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, to apply unless and until another solution is found".

The UK has brought other ideas to the table in the course of the negotiations, although it has not published a formal written text. In considering any proposals, we will continue to apply the tests that were outlined by Michel Barnier earlier this year. First, is it a workable solution that avoids a hard border? Second, does it respect the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union? Third, is it an all-weather backstop?

To provide the necessary certainty the backstop needs to apply unless and until it is replaced by a future relationship between the EU and the UK that makes it no longer necessary. By definition, therefore, it cannot have an expiry date. The EU side has been consistent in its position that the UK must deliver on these commitments and the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, including a legally operable version of the backstop, must be included in the withdrawal agreement, or there will not be an agreement.

The task force led by Michel Barnier, as chief EU negotiator, has been engaged in negotiations with the UK over the past year. As the date of the UK's departure from the EU approaches, these negotiations have further deepened and intensified. While many aspects of the withdrawal agreement have been satisfactorily progressed, including the UK financial settlement, citizens' rights and other separation issues, progress on the protocol, including the backstop, and a joint political declaration on the future relationship has been more difficult. At our meeting tomorrow, we will hear whether progress has been made in the most recent round of negotiations between the EU and UK negotiators. We will also assess whether there has been decisive progress on the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol with a solid operational and legally binding backstop.

We are all agreed that the situation in Northern Ireland is unique and, therefore, requires a unique solution, and we all acknowledge that the invisibility of the Border has been of critical importance in reinforcing the stability brought about by the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. The EU side has been very clear that the backstop is essential to avoid any hardening of the Border. As we have said consistently, without a backstop there cannot be a withdrawal agreement, including a transition period.

The proposals in the draft protocol are practical and technical solutions to protect the gains of the peace process and keep the Border open and invisible, as it is today. They represent no threat to the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. It is worth saying that while we continue to insist that a legally operative backstop is an indispensable part of the withdrawal agreement, it is an insurance policy and is not our preferred solution to the question of the Border. We want to see a future relationship between the EU and UK, to be agreed, that is so close that it makes one unnecessary once the period of the transition ends. That is the best way to ensure that the backstop is never invoked. However, that outcome cannot be guaranteed. For as long as that is the case, the backstop must be there to offer full confidence that in all circumstances there would be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Of course, the draft protocol is about more than the backstop. An agreement on it would be very important for protecting the rights and freedoms in Northern Ireland and the safeguards set out in the Good Friday Agreement. I believe that a positive outcome is still possible. However, if we are to have an agreement secured, approved and operational by the time the UK leaves, we need to make decisive progress now. At our meeting in Brussels tomorrow evening, I will thank Michel Barnier and his team once again for their commitment, their patience and thorough work. I will also thank our EU partners for their continuing and steadfast support.

This solidarity was reiterated at my recent meetings in Brussels with President Tusk, Michel Barnier and the Chairman of the European Parliament's Brexit steering group, Mr. Guy Verhofstadt, MEP. The British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, will speak to leaders tomorrow in advance of our meeting in Article 50 format, and I look forward to hearing her perspective on how she sees progress being made. Michel Barnier will then update the 27 leaders on the details of the negotiations and offer his assessment of the state of play. We will then have a collective discussion and consider the next steps.

While I am confident that the negotiations can reach a successful outcome and can deliver a close and deep future partnership between the EU and the UK, we are of course continuing to plan for the full range of scenarios. No matter what happens, things will be different, if not from March next year then from January 2021. In addition to the actions we took in the 2017 and 2018 budgets, last week's 2019 budget includes a package for Brexit readiness to insulate Ireland from the negative impact of Brexit, including a €2 billion rainy day fund, increased staffing across State agencies and Irish embassies, and increased capital expenditure through Project Ireland 2040. Various programmes to help businesses are in place, including a €300 million Brexit loan scheme for business and a €25 million fund for the agrifood sector. The Getting Ireland Brexit Ready public awareness campaign will provide ongoing information on the latest preparedness, and the Government is doing everything it can to enable this to be a success. We have also been stepping up our contingency planning, including crisis management and possible temporary solutions which could be rapidly implemented. Following the citizens' dialogue process led by the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, over the past year, I am satisfied that the budget also provides for the next stage of our future European strategy. It is now more important than ever that we reinforce our place at the heart of Europe and play an active role in shaping its future.

The Brexit negotiations were always going to be challenging and I have no doubt that there will be more difficult days ahead. The only way to reach a satisfactory outcome, however, is through constructive engagement on both sides. We are in the final stages of the negotiations now. Tensions will inevitably rise and it is important that we are united, both as a country and as a Union. I will update the House further next week after the European Council.

Turning to other issues, migration continues to be a concern for the Union and will be discussed on Thursday morning. Having had intensive discussions on the issue at the June European Council and more recently at the informal summit in Salzburg last month, our meeting on Thursday is likely to focus on the external aspects of migration, particularly strengthening our co-operation with partner countries, including in Africa.

The Taoiseach's time is up. Deputy Micheál Martin is next.

This week’s European Council meeting marks another missed deadline in the long series of missed deadlines which we have seen since the political declaration on Brexit last December. In fact, there is a higher degree of uncertainty and a greater risk to Ireland’s interests today than there has been at any point. Obviously, the root cause of all problems is to be found in the small group of Euro-haters in London who continue to campaign against the EU with a ferocity which the last UK permanent representative in Brussels has rightly compared to the destructive frenzy of revolutionary ideologues. Quite simply, we cannot waste our time talking about them. They are willing to damage their own country and have no interest in the welfare of any others. We must focus on what we have to do in the coming months to prepare for any eventuality, but just in case anyone is foolish enough to take the spin on face value, the evidence is that Ireland today is nowhere near Brexit ready. Following this weekend’s failure to reach agreement, President Tusk has written to leaders to say that a no deal outcome is more likely today than before and the process by which the main blockages may be overcome is far from clear. It remains highly likely that some form of deal will be pulled together for the most obvious reason that a no deal outcome would hurt everyone more than any of the alternatives. For Ireland, in addition to the implications for the future of our agreed political settlement, according to the only independent forecast commissioned by the Government, a hit equal to 7% of national income would result. This is on a par with the damage which would be felt by the UK.

Obviously, the first priority must be to keep pushing for a form of special status for Northern Ireland which would guarantee it full access to both the EU and the UK markets. It has been highly damaging that this was allowed to be seen as a green versus orange issue last year. Immature and ill-advised comments about righting a wrong of 1922 and moving tectonic plates have, at the very least, made the task of persuasion harder. From the very beginning of this process my party has repeatedly said that tying the future of Northern Ireland to the overall and permanent status negotiations was, at best, dangerous. Given the febrile and self-destructive nature of politics in London at the moment, linking Northern Ireland to the overall settlement was always likely to cause trouble.

Now is the time to try to calm fear and help people to understand that the offer being made by Michel Barnier and the European Union concerning Northern Ireland is both generous and potentially very exciting for Northern Ireland. It is the best of both worlds and offers a new economic dynamic for Northern Ireland which could break a cycle of disadvantage which recent London and Belfast Administrations have been unwilling and unable to tackle. It protects links that matter but also opens up radical new opportunities. Northern Ireland would have a unique economic status where it would not be obliged to pay for membership of the Single Market but would derive all of the benefits. Overnight, Northern Ireland could find itself as the preferred destination of investors who want access to both the EU and the UK single markets. As we know from the comments of British business people, there are many jobs which could relocate to Northern Ireland in the right circumstances.

Yesterday I reiterated to the leader of the DUP that none of the democratic parties in this Dáil is in any way seeking to use Brexit as a way of undermining the clear constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland. Our concern is to protect a relationship which has worked so well for all parts of this island. The special or unique economic zone status which my party has advocated provides a definite guarantee that no constitutional sleight of hand is being contemplated. It utilises principles well respected in international trade law and which, by definition, involve one part of a state being given separate and preferential status to the rest. No Government in the world is more assertive of its sovereignty than China’s, and the Chinese have used special economic zones as a central part of their dramatic growth story in recent decades. During our ongoing discussions in Brussels, we have found a genuine interest in the special economic zone idea. It is a pity that a year ago the Taoiseach said he had no responsibility for trying to persuade unionists to accept what is being proposed. In this he was taking a position that was 100% different from that of his predecessors over nearly three decades. It is noteworthy that each of the major steps in the peace process involved sustained, quiet engagement with the unionist community. I welcome his meeting yesterday with the leader of the DUP and I hope it is not too late to start a wider effort.

Tomorrow I will attend a pre-summit meeting of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE, group of which Fianna Fáil is a member. Eight prime ministers are due to attend for the small working session at which Brexit will be a major topic. I intend to thank them for their continued solidarity with Ireland and to reinforce the fact that there is a broad consensus in Ireland behind a status for Northern Ireland which protects both the operation and principles of the Good Friday Agreement. I will also be informing them that we have taken the initiative to ensure that even though ours is a minority Government, the ability of our Government and Parliament to react quickly to any developments in the months ahead will be protected. If, as we all hope, there is a substantive deal in the next two months, the ratification process will potentially be littered with obstacles, and I know many Deputies share the opinion that we should not risk being caught in a period of election campaigning or Government formation when quick responses will be needed to protect Ireland’s interests.

As things stand, there is no clarity on what deal can either be reached or ratified. The existing law of the UK specifies both that there will be a vote of some sort by 21 January and that the UK will leave the EU on 30 March. We must be ready for all eventualities, but the growing evidence is that we are nowhere near ready. There are nearly 6,900 companies on which Brexit has the potential to have an impact, yet only one quarter have any Brexit plan in place. Key schemes for aiding planning are being awarded to a total of roughly 12 firms per month. A key loan scheme announced last year has not yet been established, while another has seen allocations of €2.5 million out of a promised €300 million. The Dutch Government has already hired and trained 1,000 officials to deal with Brexit. Our Government has just started the process of recruiting 400. The delivery deficit which is so central to this Government’s policies on housing, health, broadband and other major issues is also being seen in relation to Brexit. It is long past time to put aside the overproduced videos and ministerial self-promotion and to show far more urgency in Brexit preparedness.

Of the other items on the council’s agenda, President Tusk has asked members to express their support for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, after the recent cyberattack on that organisation, as well as the attempt to hack the investigation into the shooting down of flight MH17 over Russian dominated areas of Ukraine.

Earlier this year, there were nearly hysterical attacks from Sinn Féin and others against the decision to sanction Russia for the chemical attacks on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Now that the identity of the would-be assassins is clear, and even the most useful fool cannot deny the link to Russia, it is clear that Ireland's decision to stand in solidarity with the UK on that issue was correct. I am often struck by the degree to which some Members in this House are in denial about the realities of Russia's power play in the world today and its involvement in activities like this cannot be condoned.

I agree with my colleague, Guy Verhofstadt, the parliamentary leader of the ALDE group, when he references the appalling situation of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the role of Saudi Arabia in that, and the need for the European Union to take a unified and solid position because we are witnessing, around the world, a gradual erosion of the values that liberal democracies hold dear. It is also penetrating the European Union and there is a need to be strong and resolute in opposition to that and to be firm in standing up for the values that underpin our parliamentary democracy and the European tradition of parliamentary democracy and the absence of despotic regimes. The EU showed solidarity with Britain during that whole sordid episode and that is another demonstration of how much damage the United Kingdom will be inflicting on itself when it leaves the community of European nations that are committed to close, rules-based co-operation.

I will be sharing time with Deputy Crowe. Táim buíoch as an deis labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo um thráthnóna.

Since the result of the Brexit referendum became clear, Sinn Féin has been unequivocal in stating that Brexit presents the most serious social, economic and political threat to this island in a generation. The referendum debate in Britain took no cognisance of that fact. Eighteen months on, the position of the British Government still takes no cognisance of it and the threat to our island has not dissipated. We were told, last December, that the backstop arrangement was a guarantee, an insurance policy, that there would be no hard Border on our island and the interests of citizens in the North, the majority of whom voted against Brexit, would be protected. We were also told that this arrangement would be enshrined in a legal text by March, and then we were told the British Government would produce firm proposals by the June meeting of the European Council. That deadline then became October, and we all realise at this stage that this is not going to happen.

The Taoiseach said yesterday that negotiations could continue into next month or until the meeting of the European Council in December. This is a direct result of the stalling and prevaricating of the British Government and its abject failure to produce realistic proposals. With time running out, the British Government continues to show scant regard for Ireland and our rights, economy and peace agreements.

I made this point directly to British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, when I met her in London yesterday. I impressed upon her the need to place the Good Friday Agreement, shared progress and the unique circumstances of Ireland above any short-term political calculation. Up to now, unfortunately, her focus has been on infighting within her own party and her toxic pact with the DUP instead of coming to an acceptable negotiating position. The Tories and Ms May's Government stand guilty of an act of what I can only describe as mindless political vandalism. The British Government signed up to an agreement in December to protect the Good Friday Agreement, to avoid a hard Border and to put in place a legally enforceable backstop, and that agreement must be honoured. Unfortunately, the Tories' confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP has undermined progress. The DUP has aligned itself with the most right-wing elements of the Tories, UKIP and extremist Brexiteers in not seeking to avert or avoid a hard Border, but actively relishing the prospect of one. The DUP's position is utterly reckless and irresponsible.

The DUP cannot be allowed to set the pace of Brexit. It does not represent the majority of people in the North who voted to remain, and that point cannot be made often enough. We need a deal that recognises the unique circumstances of our island. The North must stay within the customs union and Single Market so that there cannot be a hard Border. This is critical to safeguarding investment, protecting jobs, trade and the integrity of the peace process. The onus is on political leaders to defend our country's political and economic interests. I mean "political leaders" in a domestic, rather than international, context. This is what has guided Sinn Féin's approach to Brexit. It has never sought to play politics, as other have, with any of this, and the Taoiseach would acknowledge that. It has supported the Taoiseach's Government and the European negotiating team, whom Sinn Féin has met on numerous occasions, in all of their endeavours and attempts to get the best deal possible. Sinn Féin wants that as the final outcome and that should be the position of everybody and every party on this island. There is an onus on the British Government to step up to the plate and on the Irish Government to defend and promote an all-island view.

The Taoiseach said, last December, we had a cast-iron guarantee to protect Ireland. Nothing less than that will be acceptable. The Taoiseach must now stand firm in defending the interests of the entire island and the rights of all its citizens. He must remain resolute in the face of British intransigence. The EU must remain true to its word that, without an agreed, legally enforceable backstop, there will be no withdrawal agreement. This is a straightforward, bottom-line message. It is the message the Taoiseach must bring with him to Brussels tomorrow.

I wish the Taoiseach well in the discussions. Brexit presents a serious social, economic and political threat to our island and the peace process, and I repeat an Teachta McDonald's call to defend the rights and interests of the entire island and safeguard the rights enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement and the potential of the Good Friday Agreement.

There will be other pressing issues on Thursday, particularly around migration. The EU's migration policies are inhumane and are clearly not working. They have turned large parts of the Mediterranean into a huge graveyard. In the past five years, 17,000 people, that we know of, have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Last month saw around 700 deaths, the highest death rate ever recorded in the Mediterranean. That is a challenge.

What has been the response of the European Council? It has been more extreme, far-right policies aimed at keeping people away from sanctuary in Europe, letting them drown in the Mediterranean, or pushing them back to the conflicts and oppression they are fleeing.

This approach is inhumane, counterproductive and wrong. Will Ireland, with its history of hunger, conflict and oppression, advocate for a different approach? Safe and legal avenues for family reunification and for those seeking refuge are needed.

I think there is support for such an approach across the House. It would reduce the use of illegal and dangerous smuggling routes. Supporting a corrupt failed state's coast guard in Libya to attack boats and return people to prisons and slave markets from which they are seeking to escape is not the answer. The European Union's policy of using foreign aid money to pay off autocratic regimes to imprison humans seeking to escape war, poverty and oppression is wrong on so many levels and should be called out as such.

On external relations, as at all European Council meetings, there is space to discuss specific foreign policy issues. The issue was touched on, but I call on the Taoiseach to refer to the dire situation in Yemen to try to rally support to have Saudi Arabia's illegal embargo of the country lifted. The United Nations is warning that 14 million people in Yemen are facing starvation. It is unequivocal about who is to blame and squarely lays the blame on Saudi Arabia. It is a military coalition, led by the Saudi Arabian regime, the air strikes of which have destroyed the infrastructure of the country, killed kids going to school and targeted innocent civilians. Saudi Arabia's illegally enforced blockade is also contributing to what the United Nations states could become the worst famine in the world in 100 years, but Saudi Arabia is not acting alone. It is strongly supported and armed by the United States, Britain, France and other EU member states. We need to have a different approach. A message needs to come from the European Council that this is wrong and that calls not only for an end to the embargo but also an end to the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. I echo the call made about the killing of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in the consulate in Istanbul. A message should come from the Council in that regard.

On Brexit, Ireland has three demands. They are certainty that we retain an open border on the island of Ireland; guarantee the rights of Irish citizens across the United Kingdom; and have a close east-west trading relationship between Ireland and Britain. The first two issues form part of the withdrawal agreement under negotiation. The main focus of the talks has been on how to maintain an open border. Continuity of citizens' rights, as the Taoiseach acknowledged, is vitally important for the 500,000 Irish citizens living in Britain. We are not neutral on the outcome of the negotiations on the eventual future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. I think all of us in this House would prefer to see a second vote take place and the United Kingdom to remain part of the European Union. Failing that, we want the closest possible trading relationship between us and the United Kingdom.

In that context, having listened carefully to what the UK Prime Minister actually said yesterday, she reported progress on some of the technicalities. She says the United Kingdom and the European Union have agreed legal text on the implementation period, citizens’ rights and the financial settlement. She claims that the terms of the United Kingdom's exit are now clear. She also says there is broad agreement on the framework for the future EU-UK relationship, with progress on issues such as security, transport and services. That is all welcome, but the sticking point is an open border on the island of Ireland. We asked the Taoiseach to avoid this scenario by getting agreement at the June summit on Irish concerns and again at the exceptional summit held in September. At the October summit it looks like the Border issue will continue to be unresolved. For the first time - I have been speaking to my European Labour Party and Socialist Party colleagues - I have heard the suggestion made that the Irish backstop issue might be postponed.

It is only a suggestion, just like the Taoiseach talks to colleagues. I believe, however, that there is strong solidarity across all parties and countries. It is important that we make it clear, as the deadline approaches, that we will not be pushed into a situation where the Border will be the pivotal issue, on which ground will be given. That is my only concern. I believe the Taoiseach will be strong on the issue and take him at his word, but it is vitally important that everybody understand these matters are of such fundamental importance to us that no ground can be given on thlem. Our position from the outset has been that if the United Kingdom is sincerely committed to the Good Friday Agreement, as it states it is, it must go the extra mile to preserve its benefits, including having an open border on the island of Ireland. Even in the hardest of Brexits, the United Kingdom would still have a formal commitment to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and preserve the open border. Instead, we are being told that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed." The Border has become a central issue in negotiating the UK-EU withdrawal agreement, rather than it being about the British Government fulfilling the promise it made freely to the people of Northern Ireland to uphold the Good Friday Agreement.

The lack of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is probably the single most tangible social and economic change people see as the real gain from the Good Friday Agreement. It drives greater economic prosperity and is the foundation of the maintenance of peace. It allows the complete expression of people's nationality. The 20 years since the signing of the agreement have seen many roads opened and many bridges rebuilt, increasing people's ability to move seamlessly between the two jurisdictions. People can access shops and services on both sides of the Border. Business supply chains have been re-established. The fear of a hard border is not primarily one of returning to violence, although a minority would target cameras or other Border infrastructure. Instead, it is about finding an alternative to the common set of European laws that underpins and permits the seamless interaction of people and businesses in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Any Border check would be a backwards step. In particular, it would alienate the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland which is the majority community in Border regions. When we talk about avoiding a border on the island of Ireland, we are really talking about maintaining the free social and economic interaction of people on the island of Ireland.

Mrs. Theresa May acknowledged only yesterday that the United Kingdom and the European Union shared a " profound responsibility to ensure the preservation of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, protecting the hard won peace and stability in Northern Ireland and ensuring that life continues essentially as it does now." She agreed that the future economic partnership "should provide for solutions to the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland in the long term." She acknowledged that there could be a gap in time between the United Kingdom's withdrawal and the establishment of a settled future relationship. We can, in this House, recognise that the United Kingdom's problems on the Border can be fully resolved by a combination of the withdrawal agreement and the future relationship. We have, with good reason, sought a backstop to be part of the exit agreement, just in case the future relationship negotiated between the European Union and the United Kingdom ends up being relatively distant, like that of Canada in trading under World Trade Organization, WTO, rules. In the absence of a backstop agreement, such a trading relationship would involve a controlled border between the United Kingdom and the European Union which would simply be unacceptable if it was on the island of Ireland. The very existence of a backstop agreement and the United Kingdom's commitment to preserving stability and continuity in Northern Ireland narrow the scope of the kind of future relationship that is actually possible. If the United Kingdom keeps faith with the Good Friday Agreement, trading on WTO or Canadian terms would essentially be impossible, unless one set of rules to applied to Britain and a different set applied to Northern Ireland. That would permit a wider variety of final outcomes in terms of the future relationship, but the Democratic Unionist Party has ruled this out.

The influence of the DUP is an important consideration. A number of prominent DUP politicians, including their leader, Ms Arlene Foster, have proclaimed that a no-deal Brexit is the most likely result. More fundamentally, they have made it clear that their support at Westminster for the May Government is contingent on the negotiation of a deal that is to their liking.

Their resistance to relatively mundane checks on goods from Britain across the Irish Sea has narrowed the scope of possible solutions and there is a risk that they will block any deal, despite the economic consequences for Northern Ireland, in order to advance that overriding political objective. We have now reached the high-stakes moment in the negotiations. The issue now is quite simply who carries the political risk. Ireland's interests mean there must be a backstop in place. That has been the settled view of this House for a year. That means putting last year's deal in written legal text. If we in Ireland permit the Irish Border backstop agreement to be fudged in any way, such as a postponement, then we take the risk that there would be a gap in time before the UK-EU trading arrangements are agreed, and that could be a permanent gap. In either case, temporary or permanent, for whatever time, it is completely unacceptable to us that there would be a hard border.

One could ask how big is the risk. Theresa May appears to want a future relationship that keeps the UK close to the customs union and the Single Market. That is her stated position. If that is the result, the Irish Border issue will disappear. However, we cannot even say that her objective is shared by her Cabinet. It is unlikely that there is a majority in the British Parliament to back such a deal, unless it passes the six tests set out by the British Labour Party. There are those in British Parliament who would be very willing to sacrifice the Good Friday Agreement if it was the only roadblock in the way of their future aspirations, namely, to exit the EU. The bottom line is that it is not enough for the Government to wait and see. Neither is it enough for the Government to express confidence in the EU negotiation team. That is very important. I have that confidence too, but we need a rock solid guarantee that the Irish Border will remain open, and that the matter will be settled. Unfortunately, it should have been settled some time ago. We must not compromise, and I do not believe we will, on the determination that is shared across this entire House to maintain an open border on this island in any agreement that emerges.

I wish to share time with Deputy Paul Murphy.

I assume that since the Taoiseach has left the Chamber he is probably not interested in hearing what I have to say. I guess the role of the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, is to relate what is said and to be party to the discussion even if he is not going to Europe.

I echo what nearly everybody has said here, namely, that there needs to be a very clear, strong message sent to both the European Union, the Tory party and the DUP that in no sense whatsoever will there be a hard border in this country. It is interesting to note Arlene Foster's language in that regard given that she had a special meeting with the Taoiseach and with the leader of the Fianna Fáil Party yesterday. I am not referring to the language she used in those meetings but to language she used in the past when she asserted in terms of the Border that no special arrangements should be created for the North. She described the issue as being a red line that is blood red for her party. What dangerous and alarming language to use in the context of our recent history. Nevertheless, she does not seem to care that that is the case, nor does she care if there is no deal between the European Union and Britain. She further does not care if there is huge economic disruption as a result of a no-deal Brexit. For her and for the DUP, the only question is, as always, the preservation of partition.

However, I also believe that Arlene Foster has an added incentive to ratchet up her unionist message, namely, because she is up to her neck in the cash-for-ash scheme or the renewable heating incentive scandal. Money was doled out to her supporters in the DUP in a blatant scam. Probably the best example of that is the fact her own special adviser had 11 boilers in the scheme. That added up to a hell of a lot of money. It suits her now to increase the rhetoric about the union and to warn against any special arrangements for the North. However, she has a problem given that the majority of people in the North, both Catholic and Protestant, voted to remain. It is a matter of elementary democracy that they get the arrangements that suit them, which specifically includes no hard border. In order to ensure that happens, People Before Profit in Northern Ireland will be demanding a vote on any final settlement between the UK and the EU. The European Union should be told in no uncertain terms by the Taoiseach and the Government that it will not sign up to any deal until the people are satisfied with it. That should help to ensure that there is no backsliding in the final months of this endgame. In the meantime, Arlene Foster and the European Union need to hear a strong message from the Taoiseach that is loud and clear. There should be no customs posts and no checks on the Border and any attempt to erect them will be opposed by a massive movement of people power and non-co-operation, in particular by the State.

I wish to raise another important issue that is miles away from Brexit. I refer to a serious issue that has arisen involving an Irish doctor from Mullingar who has gone to Gaza with 80 kg of special medical equipment for children. That equipment has been seized by the Israeli authorities and it is desperately needed by the people of Gaza, in particular the children of Gaza. I hope the issue will be close to the Taoiseach’s heart, given that he himself is a doctor.

The Israelis are showing brazen contempt for humanitarian intervention and the number of dead and injured, including amputees among children, in Gaza beggars belief. There is a deliberate campaign to fire shots at the lower part of children's bodies to disengage them and that has led to very serious medical issues for children in the Gaza region.

There are routine seizures of medical equipment. I accept that the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, raised the issue in Brussels last May, but it must be raised again. I appeal to the Taoiseach to pressurise the European Union ambassador to Israel to ensure the release of the 80 kg of much needed medical equipment that has been brought to Gaza by an Irish doctor who has taken two weeks off work to carry out humanitarian work, and that it is given to the people of Gaza who desperately need it.

I wish to refer to what Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF, said about the injuries and deaths of children. Last May, Jonathan Whittall, the head of MSF, said that many of the children who are injured are less than 15 years old and that the majority of them are shot with live ammunition in the bottom of their bodies and many require amputation. He said they would be disabled for the rest of their lives. That unacceptable and inhumane treatment has to be opposed by the Government directly to the EU and in particular representing the interests of an Irish doctor who is carrying out a humanitarian mission. We need that medical equipment to be released.

It is very clear that this summit is extremely unlikely to result in any outcome on Brexit. Instead, in recent days there has been a ratcheting up of rhetoric about the potential for no deal, playing on the very real fears of ordinary people in Ireland, Britain and across Europe. The problem in all of this is, as it has been from the start, is that these are negotiations between vested capitalist interests on both sides. On the one hand there is the right wing Tory Government in Britain and on the other hand the European Union, which we must restate is far from the progressive democratic social project it sometimes finds it useful to portray itself as, and instead is a neoliberal capitalist club, with such policies as Fortress Europe among others, whose rules would have to be broken by any progressive left government with a socialist programme which sought, for example, to deal with the housing crisis in this State, or to invest in public services or to implement even the relatively modest proposals in Corbyn's manifesto at the most recent election.

Because of that reality, none of the potential agreements that is currently considered as an option offers a real solution to the fears and concerns of ordinary people. They are based on the continuation of the neoliberal rules that are at the heart of the European Union. It does not have to be that way. Theresa May's Government could collapse in the coming weeks or months, partly under the impact of those developments and Corbyn and the Labour Party would be presented with an opportunity of coming to power. If Corbyn, instead of seeking compromise with the Blairites who continue to conspire against him, implemented socialist policies and based his approach on the need for those policies not only in Britain but across Europe that would open the door to a very different negotiation process and exit and would echo right across Europe and would present options for a joint struggle across Europe against a bargain-basement Tory exit, and the struggle for an alternative socialist Europe.

If Brexit is carried through on the basis of Tory rule, we know that it will have a negative impact. Last week's statement from the Central Bank contained an analysis of a Chequers-style agreement. The Central Bank concluded that the proposal would have a major negative impact on the Irish economy and referred to up to 20,000 job losses. We know that there is a similar analysis for the North and that a negative scenario has been painted, with 10,000 job losses. A similar analysis for Britain refers to up to 200,000 job losses. It is obvious that a Brexit of that sort would serve as the starting gun for attacks on workers' rights in this country, especially in agribusiness and other sectors which are reliant on exports to Britain. It would be a major challenge to workers and the trade union movement. Preparations are needed to say "No" to any Brexit-shock-doctrine attack on workers' rights. There should be a conference of workers' representatives from Britain and Ireland to discuss joint action and a demand for co-ordinated action. We caught a glimpse of the power of such action in the case of Ryanair workers who resisted attacks. Any company threatening redundancies using the pretext of Brexit should be taken into democratic public ownership.

Obviously, a key question here is the Border. Catholics and Protestants in the North, together with ordinary people in the South and Britain, are in agreement and against proposed new border controls on this island or in the Irish Sea. There is much talk about the negative economic impact of such border controls. This is a view with which we agree and people are right to be concerned. Of particular concern is the increase in sectarian tensions that would result and the danger this would pose.

The problem is that in reality the Government, backed up by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, have enthusiastically gone along with the European Commission in using the Border issue as a pawn in the negotiations with the British Government. The Commission is not speaking about the Border because it cares about the working class on either side of it but because the issue strengthens its hand in the negotiations. The danger in such an approach is obvious. Strategically, it may make sense for the Commission at a certain stage to sacrifice pawns. We need to say clearly that working class people are not pawns to be sacrificed. Regardless of how the negotiations go, the bottom line must be that there must be no border on this island or in the Irish Sea. The Government should not agree to anything which would see that take place, but we can have no faith in either side participating in thee negotiations. Instead working people need to come together not only to fight against the attacks on our living standards but also to build a very different Europe - a socialist Europe - where, instead of rules operating to maximise the profits of the millionaires, we would have democratic rules to ensure the interests of the millions.

I understand Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan is sharing time with Deputy Clare Daly.

Yes. When the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, was speaking at the UN General Assembly in September, he made the point that the sustainable development goals presented an opportunity to take common action and address the root causes of poverty, inequality and instability, as well as how all of these issues led to migration. We have heard about how part of the EU and UN funding goes towards tackling the root causes of migration. I agree that no one should be forced to leave a country because of hunger, conflict, the abuse of human rights, poverty or climate change, but we know that climate change is fuelling several of these problems. That raises a question. When the European Council receives a report on progress in dealing with migration, will of these areas be covered also? Will the meeting look at the where and how, whether the funding is being used to tackle the root causes and if it is having any effect? Will there be a progress report on what is happening in the Mediterranean, the Libyan coastguard and detention centres in Libya? There have been appalling human rights abuses by those supposedly in charge of the centres.

We cannot talk about the causes of migration without referring to the arms trade that fuels instability, poverty and famine. Let us consider what is happening in Yemen. We know about the role of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in providing arms. We also know about the role of the United States, Britain and France in providing assistance. We know about the attacks on food supplies and the destruction of fishing boats. There is a deliberate policy of starving civilians. Is that issue going to be discussed, given that the situation in Yemen is being described as the greatest disaster? Britain and France will be represented at the table. Will they be tackled on these issues?

Other issues will be discussed at the Council meeting. Will the Rohingya be discussed? I put a question to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade last week. I asked whether there would be an audit of the peace process. There are certain concerns that it is not working and that the fact-finding mission will be extended to other parts. There are concerns about transparency surrounding the memorandum of understanding with Bangladesh. Recently a small group of Rohingya have been exiled from India. These are the important foreign policy issues that need to be addressed.

The President of the European Council, Mr. Tusk, has talked about strengthening internal borders and co-operation with third countries, but there is no mention of these third countries or the issues of concern within them when it comes to human rights.

I will finish with one point on Brexit. While we are all respectful of the vote taken on Brexit, it appears that there is little or no respect for the overwhelming vote in favour of the Good Friday Agreement, which is most regrettable.

Surprise, surprise: yet again this week we have a European Council meeting and the top agenda item is migration and internal security. Brexit is, of course, on the agenda, but it is not going to be allowed to interrupt the relentless pursuit of a securitisation agenda at the top levels of the European Union. The agenda peddles the lie that migrants are a threat and that the solution lies in weaponised borders and high tech surveillance systems supplied by the arms manufacturers that are pushing their agenda at the top levels of the European Union.

As the European Council gathers to discuss more ways to keep refugees out, scant attention is paid to the reasons refugees are forced out of their homes in the first place by bombs made in EU member states and full throat EU support for war criminals like Saudi Arabia. The European Council meeting should be dominated by the slaughter in and destruction of Yemen, the famine and the targeting of civilians aided and abetted by the United States. There has not been so much as a murmur from the European Union about imposing an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. The blockade and bombardment in Syria saw an embargo swiftly being imposed on that state, but the same does not apply to Saudi Arabia.

Back home, despite the fact that the Government could implement a presumption of denial policy unilaterally overnight with regard to the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, we consistently refuse to do so. We are no different from Mr. Donald Trump who puts the interests of American big business and the arms industry ahead of justice and human rights. The Government is not passive in this situation. Shannon Airport is a crucial cog in the machine. On 10 July this year a National Air Cargo aeroplane on contract to the US military refuelled at Shannon Airport en route from an air base in the United States. It went on to make deliveries to airbases in Kuwait and Afghanistan and a US base in Djibouti before returning through Shannon Airport on 12 July. Djibouti is just across the Red Sea from Yemen and frequently used by the US military and the CIA to launch special forces and drone strikes in Yemen in support of the Saudi attacks. On 10 October no fewer than seven aeroplanes on contract to the US military refuelled at Shannon Airport, five of which were en route to the Middle East. As long as the Government allows Shannon Airport to be used in this way, our neutrality is a hypocritical farce. It is absolutely beyond shameful. Whatever the supposed intention of the European Union at the start, the upper echelons are now fully arm in arm with the arms industry. We should be speaking out, not aiding and abetting it.

There was a Foreign Affairs Council meeting yesterday. Not surprisingly, there was talk about Mr. Khashoggi and his terrible disappearance from the Saudi embassy. It is in no way surprising. I am not surprised that the Saudis are misbehaving or that western media are now so exercised about the same thing. There is no excitement among the western media about what is happening in Yemen, where tens of thousands are being killed and we are looking at millions starving. The Government's line on the situation in Yemen and the narrative peddled on RTÉ yesterday hold that there is a terrible civil war in Yemen and that a coalition involving the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates is defending the rightful leader, Mr. Hadi, from the evil Iran-backed Shia Houthi movement and that all of the endless fighting is the cause of the famine. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yemen has long been the target of global capital on the rampage for cheap profits and new frontiers for investment. The plundering of Yemen intensified about 15 years ago with IMF and World Bank readjustment programmes spearheading the opening up of Yemen to global finance. Neoliberal reforms were dutifully implemented by Mr. Hadi's predecessor, Mr. Saleh.

By 2009, the Yemeni people had begun to mobilise collectively to protest the unemployment, homelessness and hunger that the so-called reforms brought. The government responded violently and, as a result, the protest movements in the north and south gained support and momentum. In the words of the historian, Isa Blumi, "It was not civil war that befell Yemen in 2011, it was the next phase of a war of survival against the [worst] forms of finance capitalism."

Saleh was forced out and in 2012, his vice-president, Hadi, was installed as an interim leader while the country was to quieten down and prepare for elections. Instead, Hadi speeded up the liberalisation of the economy, steamrolled Yemen into the World Trade Organization, implemented crippling austerity and proceeded to privatise and literally sell off Yemen to the Saudis and Qataris. A sham referendum was held in 2012 to legitimise Hadi and his name was the only one on the ballot. In August 2014, Hadi's government breached its mandate and unilaterally declared an extension of its power instead of holding the elections that Obama promised. With widespread public support, Ansar Allah and a diverse range of allies occupied the capital, set up committees to investigate corruption by the ruling party and exposed how the pillaging of Yemen had increased under Hadi.

In September 2014, with the assistance of Jamal Benomar, the UN envoy to Yemen, Hadi signed the Peace and National Partnership Agreement with Ansar Allah and the leaders from all the major political parties, and elections were back on the agenda. However, this was not what Saudi Arabia wanted. According to the UN envoy, Saudi airstrikes began just as the main political parties were on the verge of agreeing a power sharing deal.

The Ansar Allah movement, against whom this devastating war is being waged, is a popular and representative movement of the Yemini people. It is fighting US trained and armed mercenary militias paid by the Saudis, the Qataris and the United Arab Emirates, UAE. Ansar Allah and the innocent people of Yemen are being bombed by UK and US made bombs and other munitions from the UK, France and Germany, which are dropped by US fighter bombers. They are refuelled mid-air by US refuelling planes and the targeting is carried out by the US military.

This is a war of resistance by the people of Yemen against the pillage of their country by global financial capitalism and because there is such broad support for this effort, the Yemenis have been doing well and the Saudis have not been able to quieten them down. That is why starvation has now become the Saudis' weapon of choice. With the help of the US, the UK and other Europeans, the Saudis and the UAE are bombing cows, farms, water infrastructure, food stores, food trucks, markets, agricultural banks and numerous agricultural facilities. The reason there is a famine is that our trade partners are bombing the food infrastructure of an entire country, as they try to starve the people into submission, and we are okay with that. As Deputy Daly just stated, to think that a national air cargo plane on contract to the US military was refuelled at Shannon a couple of months ago on its way to Djibouti with supplies to attack Yemen. Ireland is complicit in the destruction of Yemen. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

I too want to speak on the pre-European Council meeting. To say that the public, including me and others, are weary of the entire Brexit issue at this stage would be the understatement of the year. It goes on and on and keeps the people in the news rooms and news print very busy.

As we are all aware, the Council and the entire EU political machine are absorbed with the issue of finalising a Brexit deal or, in the worst case scenario, a no-deal Brexit. We all know and accept how challenging that would be for the entire Irish economy. That being said, the world goes on, even in the middle of these negotiations.

I note that yesterday in public session, the Council discussed a progress report on the work carried out on the proposal for a regulation on Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, strategic plans. These will be the cornerstone of the future Common Agricultural Policy after 2020. The President of the Council acknowledged that attempts are being made to make the new system successful, effective and sustainable and one that is simpler for farmers and national administrations. I will believe that when I see a simple system for farmers or the end users of any policy from the European Union. He also referred to a system that would be forward looking and sustainable in the interest of citizens and farmers, food security and the environment. Those are the kinds of issues that go the heart of the reasons we need to strike a good deal on Brexit. No matter what may be the precise nature or shape of our political arrangements in a post-Brexit scenario, the world will still have to trade. We will still need to find a way to work together within the EU framework for the benefit of our largest indigenous sector.

The great fear currently is that the issue of the so-called Northern Ireland backstop will derail the entire process. There seem to be far too many competing agendas, which, despite the best will in the world, are simply irreconcilable. It is not clear that the best will in the world even exists. Depending on the day of the week, the EU team seems to alternate between antagonising the UK and telling the British how much it loves them wants to remain friends with them. There is something bitter and deeply unhelpful about that kind of negotiating approach.

Perhaps the Taoiseach, who is not here to listen, and his team should not come back this time talking up the cast iron guarantee and rock solid backstop as they did last December. It is clear to everyone that this entire process is far from over. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, will bring that message to the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, came back here and told us they had a rock solid backstop guarantee. That evaporated like snow off a ditch, which shows they are out of touch.

At the heart of this issue is whether the masters in Britain care about us in this deal. We are a small island nation off the coast of Europe. We will see where our friends are when they are asked to pony up. If Northern Ireland and Britain remain entrenched in this deeply flawed process, we will then see who our friends are. We asked Mr. Barnier and others hard questions when they came to the Houses but we did not get many answers. I have serious concerns that they have long forgotten about the needs of the ordinary people.

The reason people in the UK voted for Brexit was they were sick, sore and tired of being dictated to and bullied by the three major powers in Europe, which were trying to control everything and dictate policy to the detriment of peripheral states. That is far from what we voted for in 1973. We benefited greatly from the EU but it has got bigger and bigger. At the time of the bailout, the EU forced us to pay interest rates of almost 6%, whereas the IMF and World Bank gave us money at interest rates of 2% and 2.5%. We saw who our friends were when we needed them. We are call on them again in this time of need.

I want reassurances from the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, that he will pass on to the Taoiseach, who is too busy to listen to us, the message that the people are sick, sore, tired and weary of negotiations and his false and empty promises about cast iron guarantees and backstops that he never had. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste imagined they had them but imagination is no good. It will not put bread and butter on the tables of the farmers who are supplying more than 60% of their products to Europe and to Britain and who will be badly affected by Brexit.

I thank the Acting Chairman for giving me time to speak on this important issue. As the Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, I keep a close eye on the proceedings of the European Council. The big issue on tomorrow’s agenda of the European Council in Article 50 formation is, of course, Brexit.

I commend the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and our Ministers and officials on their diligent work on Brexit. We and our European partners are handling this issue the right way. They have gone out to Europe, talked to our neighbours in the EU and made our case. As a result of their hard work, we have seen the benefit of their solidarity on the Border issue.

All of us spoke in this House before the European Council meeting last June, hoping that there would be a breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations. Unfortunately, that did not happen. We are now in October, almost four months later, hoping again that there has been some progress. I was disappointed to hear media reports that there had been a breakdown in negotiations over the weekend in Brussels. This has turned into the ultimate game of brinkmanship. That is completely understandable considering everything at play, but very unfortunate considering how important and central this process is to all of us.

We have known for a while now that finding a solution that avoids needing to use the backstop is the sticking point for the British side, but time is running out. Brexit day is less than six months away. We need to have the agreement sorted sooner rather than later if we are to get it approved on time and allow people to make any necessary plans.

I hope the negotiations get back on track as soon as possible and that a Brexit deal can be agreed before November if at all possible. The Joint Committee on European Union Affairs has been following the Brexit process since the beginning and one thing is clear to me and the other members. If the UK crashes out of the EU next March, it will be an absolute, unmitigated disaster. There is no such thing as a good deal, but it is important that we get the best deal possible.

While for us in Ireland the European Council meeting will be overshadowed by Brexit, it is important to note that the European Council will also be discussing migration, internal security and external relations. The committee I chair attends interparliamentary meetings with members of other national parliaments from across the European Union. We know that migration is a bigger issue than Brexit for many of our European neighbours. I think it is important that we continue to work together to find constructive solutions and help out our neighbours where we can.

It is of tremendous importance that we as an Oireachtas continue to support the Government in every way we can. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, has always been very forthcoming in attending meetings of the committee that I chair and engaging with its members. We have brought in many people to give evidence and answer questions over a very long period since the original vote on Brexit. We are doing our part and everybody in this Dáil, whether they are in opposition or in government, has a very important role to play. We all have to put our shoulders to the wheel and ensure that we are protecting the future generations, the young people in this country who have not been born at all yet but who will be very deeply affected by Brexit. We have to think of the people who are involved in trade, whether in farming, tourism or any of the other sectors that we represent. We have to ensure that we are all working together with the one aim of ensuring that we will not be found wanting when it comes to finding solutions for this problem which we did not create.

Am I surprised that we are where we are today? I am not. As I said, brinksmanship happens an awful lot during any dealings or negotiations. That is exactly where we find ourselves now. I hope over the coming days and weeks, and I definitely hope it will not go into months, that we will be able to come to a solution, that we will be able to get the best deal possible for the people on this island and for the people we want to continue trading with not just in England but around Europe. I commend to everyone that this is not a time to be negative in terms of Opposition and Government. This is a time for us all to be positive and for us all to work together as a united front. When the chips are down, we have to fight together.

As the Prime Ministers meet in Council, I am sure one of the things they will be talking and thinking about, particularly as they debate migration, is the results of the elections that took place in Europe this week, in Bavaria in Germany, Brussels in Belgium and Luxembourg. Each was a historic vote. There was an incredible surge in the vote for the Green Party across Europe. It was a vote for an alternative to the far right, the positive message of politics for the future which has answers to the questions not just of how we might manage migration but also how we might give our young people a home, how we might provide our public services and how we might tackle climate change. It is incredible, looking at the figures, how we did in Munich, Brussels and Luxembourg. It gives a real sense of hope and we will have a lot of influence on what is discussed at that Council meeting. The Taoiseach should be aware of what is going on in the rest of Europe.

I want to concentrate primarily on the issue of Brexit because it cannot be ignored. We are at an incredibly difficult, historic point and we have to be really considered and careful in what we do here now. I watched yesterday's debate in the British House of Commons when the British Prime Minister answered questions. I read with interest today the breaking news, coming out of the wires as we speak, that her Cabinet meeting has ended with neither division nor decision and with no real further clarity on what is their position. That holding position has been in existence for two years and is the centre of the problem that we face. They do not seem to know what they want. It was fascinating to watch the Conservative backbenchers on television yesterday in the House of Commons - the number of times I saw heads nodding or disapproving of what members of their own party were saying. They are deeply divided and that brings real instability and uncertainty to the whole process of the Brexit negotiations.

I think we are right to insist, as the Taoiseach said in his own speech, that we want an unlimited, not time-dated backstop guarantee should this whole process go wrong. It is interesting that the Tory Ministers coming out of their Cabinet meeting seemed to be fixating on that as the issue of the day. They are saying there cannot be a backstop indefinitely and that we need to define how it would end. I am not too sure why they see that as the pre-eminent, most important issue in the negotiations. My sense from a distance is that in recent weeks, had the Tories chosen to have seen it this way, some ground was yielded by Brussels in conceding the concept of some customs arrangement which would apply, admittedly on an interim basis, after the withdrawal agreement. Europe in a sense ceded somewhat to the ability of the UK economy to maintain trading relationships and to have to follow regulatory standards, obviously. They applied what was originally to go to Northern Ireland across the rest of the UK. Some people might say it is "pretend and extend", it is kicking the can down the road, but it seems even from reading about the negotiations from a distance that it was close to a deal being agreed, albeit a deal which puts off the real truth that it will not be possible for the UK to get some sort of magical trade deal with the rest of the world and still maintain easy trade relationships with the EU. I was surprised by how close we seemed to be. Why is it that the Border backstop, which all sides including the DUP agreed was going to be needed to avoid a hard border, has become, as Donald Tusk put it today, the Gordian knot within which this whole process has become stuck?

I think we have to be careful. We have to remain united in this Dáil. We have pretty much remained so on this issue for the past two years. It gives us strength. We certainly will be working with our European Green Party colleagues. I will be meeting some of them at the weekend to advocate for continued solidarity and support from the Union on the necessity of a backstop and of recognising the Good Friday Agreement. That has given us real strength. There is real risk that with the uncertainty of the UK system there may now be a crash-out, no-deal Brexit. That would be disastrous for this country as well as for the UK but I do not think we should be intimidated to ceding the necessity for maintaining as far as possible a borderless island in Ireland. On the solutions that seem to be coming from Mr. Barnier whereby in any future backstop arrangement there would be regulatory checks, not necessarily a border in the Irish Sea but something very similar to what already exists in agriculture produce and so on, there is already regulatory divergence because of the fact that we live on an island in terms of our Common Agricultural Policy and common energy market; there is a whole range of examples where such regulatory difference or divergence already exists. I do not think we should be intimidated out of maintaining some of that or the ability to have a backstop which guarantees further regulatory divergence to maintain an island that is not divided by a hard border.

I am maintaining close contact with my own Green Party colleagues. Steven Agnew, MLA, in Northern Ireland and Caroline Lucas, MP, in Westminster have been clear in their call for a people's vote on whatever happens next.

It looks like it is about to get very messy in the UK. I do not know exactly how a people's vote would work and how it could fit into possible election politics. It is up to them to decide. We very much give it our support.

Stephen Agnew, MLA, was in Brussels to meet Michel Barnier along with other party representatives. I make a suggestion which might add to what is an incredibly complex process but which may be useful. I understand that the European Union is willing to stand by the Good Friday Agreement and willing to recognise that citizens in Northern Ireland who may avail of Irish identity and Irish passports will be fully entitled to the various freedoms the European Union provides in travel, healthcare, access to Erasmus and other programmes. I understand that favourable status, as it were, may not apply for those who self-identify as British in Northern Ireland and carry a UK passport.

I am glad that Arlene Foster, MLA, was in Dublin yesterday to meet the Taoiseach. We need to maintain good relationships on the island irrespective of what happens in the coming weeks and months. In trying to break down the impasse, we should support some of those sorts of initiatives where we stand up for the rights of those who hold a British passport in Northern Ireland as well as those who might want to hold an Irish one. It is just one example of how we can box clever in standing by the principle of maintaining a frictionless border on the island of Ireland while at the same time recognising that there are two communities in the North and that we can ensure this works in a way that does not divide us unnecessarily.

We will need to wait and see. Obviously next week's Council meeting will not decide the issue. How far can it run before the process completely runs out of road? I do not know. No one knows. Certainly the Taoiseach has the support of my party and that of the European Green Party in the approach that is being taken. That has helped us to hold a line in very difficult circumstances. I look forward to hearing the outcome of the Council meeting so that we can consider further what our strategy should be.

I thank those who have contributed to the debate on what will be a very important meeting of the European Council over the next two days. While Brexit is clearly the priority for Ireland, migration, internal security and economic issues are also important for the Union as a whole.

The Taoiseach has spoken in some detail about recent developments on migration, economic and monetary union, and expectations in this area for the European Council. I will focus my remarks, therefore, on the internal security issues for discussion on Thursday as well as some external relations issues that might arise.

The EU has achieved good progress in recent years in supporting member states to ensure internal security and fight terrorism, and in strengthening our collective security. As a Union, we need to protect the public and respond intelligently to a rapidly changing security environment.

Some of the discussion on Thursday will be based on the proposals outlined in President Juncker's state of the Union address on 12 September. These include completing the security union, new rules to remove online terrorist content, new measures to fight money laundering and to protect elections from malign foreign influence, reopening Schengen borders, and using the civil protection mechanism. The objective of these measures is to add value to existing and planned national measures, and to reinforce Europe’s long-term response to new and emerging threats. EU leaders had an open-ended exchange on these and other proposals at the informal summit in Salzburg last month, and the outcome of those discussions will feed into Thursday’s meeting.

While Ireland’s participation in some of the current and proposed measures is limited due to our position under Protocol 21 and our non-participation in the Schengen border acquis, we are generally supportive of EU measures to protect the internal security of the Union and its citizens. The attacks in Salisbury and on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague demonstrate the need for vigilance. We continue to support EU initiatives, including the regional EU centres of excellence on the mitigation of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear risks.

At the European Council on Thursday, leaders are expected to focus on the increasing complexity of the cyberthreats we face. As the Taoiseach has said, although we are not part of any military alliance, we are certainly not neutral when it comes to cybersecurity. Cybercrime has become increasingly challenging in recent years. Perhaps the most heinous form is online child sexual exploitation but other, new and innovative forms, including that relating to the integrity of our electoral systems, also continue to emerge.

Many member states have experienced disinformation campaigns in their own countries. There is strong support for efforts to protect against these and the unlawful use of personal data. Ireland established an interdepartmental group last December to consider the risks to our electoral process, including through examining recent experiences in other democratic countries with respect to the use of social media by third parties. The abuse of the online space by people promoting terrorism, whether by encouraging or directing atrocities, is also a cause of great concern. The challenge for member states and law enforcement agencies is in trying to remain proactive in these areas while fully respecting our European values, fundamental rights and freedoms, and international law.

The global nature of the Internet means that individual countries cannot tackle the challenge alone. Ireland supports the concept of a collective response mechanism for large-scale cybersecurity incidents. We must ensure that we can co-operate in combating such illegal activities effectively while continuing to promote an open, global, free, peaceful and secure cyberspace where fundamental rights and freedoms, in particular the right to freedom of expression, access to information, data protection, and privacy and security, as well as our core EU values and principles are fully applied and respected both within the EU and globally.

Another area for discussion on Thursday is the need for further strengthening of police, judicial and intelligence co-operation. This is an important element of the efforts to reform and improve the functioning of the security union. While Ireland’s participation is limited, we recognise that achieving interoperability of databases will be a significant step forward in the shared European fight against crime.

Acknowledging that internal security is partly dependent on a properly managed external border, leaders are also expected to discuss proposals to enhance the European Border and Coast Guard. We are generally supportive of the need to strengthen border protection and believe that continual high-level engagement is necessary to ensure a proper and long-lasting protection of our external borders.

Discussion of external relations is likely to include an update on the recent elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as climate change, relations with the Arab League and developments regarding Russia. We must be realistic about the challenge that Russia poses to our core values - the rule of law, democracy and human rights - which are central to our European way of life. In the long term, a strong and stable relationship between the EU and Russia is desirable as a strategic goal. Unfortunately, we see little evidence that Russia is seeking to improve its relationship with Europe. As our response to the events in Salisbury demonstrated, the European Union is strongest when it is united and when we speak with one voice. This is our strength and it is essential for us to be effective.