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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 20 Nov 2018

Vol. 975 No. 2

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Middle East Peace Process

Niall Collins


76. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on recent events in Gaza; his plans to hold a Middle East peace meeting here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48353/18]

What are the views of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on the recent events in Gaza which are of major concern to us all? Will he elaborate on his plans to hold a Middle East peace meeting in Dublin which arose from his meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas?

The recent large-scale outbreak of attacks in both directions across the Gaza border has shown again how dangerous and easily combustible is the situation. There were hundreds of aerial attacks in each direction, causing the deaths of eight people. In addition, very large numbers of civilians on both sides had to spend hours in shelters. Hamas knows only too well the response that is likely to come from Israel when it fires hundreds of rockets into Israel. I have said over and over again that terrorism and violence will not achieve a lasting peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. In view of the potential for a further escalation, I was relieved an effective ceasefire was quickly re-established and commend all those who were instrumental in achieving it, notably Egypt. I hope it will allow progress to be made towards a more durable truce.

These events strongly reinforce what I have stressed in all of my discussions on Gaza, both in the region and at European Union and international level at the United Nations. So long as the position in Gaza is allowed to fester, the outbreaks of violence, each one threatening to be bigger and more destructive than the last, are likely to recur. The blockade is inhumane and should be ended. All parties need to consider and attempt ways to change the dynamic and break the cycle, including on the Palestinian side and in the context of reconciliation, to allow for the prospect of a Palestinian authority to govern Gaza in the future. Conscious as I am of the particular needs of Gaza, Ireland is advancing specific projects on educational scholarships and power infrastructure to contribute to humanitarian efforts there.

My intention to hold a small ministerial retreat-style meeting in Dublin relates to the overall Middle East conflict and peace process, rather than specifically to Gaza, although the two are, of course, interlinked. I have had a largely positive reaction to the idea from Ministers and others with whom I have discussed it and I am proceeding to see if such a meeting can be arranged for early in the new year.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The intention is to hold a meeting away from the spotlight to allow for off-the-record reflection and the sharing of ideas. I do not wish to say much more about the event at this stage, pending consideration of an agenda with other potential participants.

It is fair to say the latest round of fighting and violence has been the most intense we have seen since 2014. The ceasefire to which the Tánaiste refers which was brokered by Egypt and Qatar is pretty uneasy. It comes against a backdrop of the Israeli Minister for Defence, Mr. Avigdor Lieberman, resigning from the Israeli Government and accusing the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, of capitulating to terror. It demonstrates how precarious is the position. In the past year alone we have seen protests along the Gaza border, the passing of the nation state law, the ongoing expansion of the illegal settlements, the United States moving its embassy from Tel Aviv, the cessation of funding for UNWRA, the closing of the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington DC and an increase in violence. All the time, this much vaunted peace initiative that we await just has not materialised or does not seem to be any nearer. There is no progress being made. I referred to the visit of Palestinian President Abbas to Ireland. I know that the Tánaiste was cut off because of time, but will he expand a little on the discussions he had with EU and Arab leaders on the holding of the peace meeting in Dublin?

The Deputy and I share similar frustrations about what has happened in the past 12 to 18 months in the Middle East. Like many others, I await a new peace initiative led by the United States and it will only have a chance of success if there are a number of countries involved in the negotiations that may follow and if the content of the initiative is fair to both sides. There must be equality of esteem between Israelis and Palestinians in the negotiations that we all hope can result in a lasting peace deal.

Time and again we have seen political decisions leading to reactions that have made the tensions between Israel and Palestinians more difficult, for example, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the cutting of funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, and the closing of a Palestinian office in Washington. Ireland wants to introduce some new thinking and bring together a number of Arab Foreign Ministers and the Palestinian leadership, as well as several EU Foreign Ministers who are involved and interested in there at least being discussions. We hope to be able to do this in January in Dublin.

I have asked the Minister my next question previously, but we are under time pressure. What has been the feedback from the people to whom the Minister has spoken - Palestinian and Arab representatives and the Minister's colleagues across Europe - in trying to co-ordinate the meeting? Will he give us an insight into their reaction to the idea he has mooted? It is, of course, more than an idea. Is any effort being made at EU level to pursue the two-state solution? Is anything happening at EU level in that regard? Whoever we talk to has the feeling the situation is drifting in a state of abeyance.

I will happily brief the Deputy on the planned meeting which I hope will be held in January, but it would probably not be helpful for me to put all of the details into the public domain right now. What I can say is I have spoken to a number of Arab Foreign Ministers, including those of Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, and the Arab League. I have also spoken to a number of EU Ministers, primarily the French Minister, but a number of others too. I have spoken to the US side. I have a good relationship with a person by the name of Jason Greenblatt who is involved in helping to put together a US initiative with Jared Kushner and others. Ireland is not trying to make a secret of this. We are an interested party that wants to be constructive and bring some new thinking to a situation that has seen so many negatives stacked up in the past 12 months, in particular. There is justification for greater EU involvement in a constructive way. I do not believe that, at the end of a meeting such as this, we will have any declaration or demand. Instead, we want to have a meeting at which people will be able to speak freely without the pressure of the media spotlight and talk about new approaches to get people around the negotiating table to try to create some positive momentum. I will happily brief the Deputy in more detail, if he likes.

Humanitarian Access

Seán Crowe


77. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the steps he is taking to assist the humanitarian response to the crisis in Yemen; if he has raised with his Saudia Arabian counterpart the illegal blockade by Saudia Arabia of Yemen which, in the opinion of aid agencies, is the main cause of the food shortages in the country; and if calls by other EU member states to enforce an arms embargo on Saudia Arabia will be supported, in view of the war crimes committed by the Saudia Arabian-led military intervention force in Yemen. [48352/18]

Like many others, I have been shocked by the images of the humanitarian crisis and suffering in Yemen where thousands of people have died in the conflict and 14 million need food assistance and are at risk of famine. The UN World Food Programme has warned that the country will face a full blown famine in approximately six months' time unless the position changes. What is Ireland doing to assist the humanitarian response to the crisis?

I thank the Deputy. I will give a much longer response when four questions on the issue are taken together later. I hope to be allowed time to do so, given the number of questions involved.

The Tánaiste has not been doing too badly so far.

I know. Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle.

This is an extraordinarily tragic situation. The Yemeni people have suffered over three years of unrelenting conflict and are in the midst of the world's largest humanitarian crisis. While I am glad to say recent weeks have seen indications that a ceasefire could finally be in prospect, there has also been an alarming increase in fighting around the port of Hodeidah which is a lifeline for imports into Yemen. My EU colleagues and I discussed the situation in Yemen at the Foreign Affairs Council yesterday. We reconfirmed our strong support for the efforts of the UN special envoy, Mr. Martin Griffiths, and hope he will succeed in convening peace talks in Sweden by the end of the year.

The humanitarian crisis has a number of interlocking causes – historical underdevelopment, economic collapse, reducing the ability to buy available food, and delays in the distribution of commercial and humanitarian supplies, both in ports and at in-country checkpoints. Since the conflict began, Ireland has advocated relentlessly for free access for humanitarian aid and commercial goods. Any necessary security checks must avoid causing blockages or delays that have a humanitarian impact. I reiterated directly to the Saudi ambassador when I met him last month the importance Ireland attached to humanitarian access. My officials have also made this point strongly to the embassy of Iran, in view of that country's close relationship with the Houthis and the serious delays in deliveries in Houthi-controlled areas. I call again on all parties to the conflict to prioritise access for humanitarian aid and essential commercial goods such as food and medicines. Ireland has provided almost €16.5 million in bilateral humanitarian assistance for Yemen since 2015.

While there have been calls for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia and there was a discussion on the matter at EU level yesterday, there is no consensus at EU level as a whole. For now, Irish efforts are concentrated on ensuring the effective implementation of export control regimes and the implementation of the 2014 arms trade treaty.

Has the Tánaiste raised this issue directly with his Saudi counterpart? Aid organisations state the blockade of Hodeidah port by the Saudi-led coalition for the past three years is the main factor contributing to the famine. Essentially, the coalition is targeting the port and food as part of the ongoing war. The port which handles 90% of Yemen's imports has been closed by the Saudi military coalition. Responsibility for the humanitarian crisis falls completely at the feet of the Saudi regime. We have seen how it uses its military might to bomb civilian areas, infrastructure, homes and even school buses. Data collected by Al Jazeera and the Yemen Data Project show that 18,000 air raids have been carried out in Yemen since 2015 by the Saudi and UAE-led military coalition. Almost one third of all bombing missions struck non-military sites, yet Britain and the United States alone have sold weapons worth more than $12 billion to Saudi Arabia since it entered the war. The Tánaiste mentioned the calls for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia because of these war crimes. Does he support the calls made? I heard what he said about other countries, but what is Ireland's position?

Ireland's position is that the European Union makes collective decisions on trade. It is an EU competence. A number of member states spoke yesterday to make the point that, even though they had sold arms to Saudi Arabia in the past, they had a policy of not selling arms to countries currently involved in conflict and, therefore, were not continuing to sell to Saudi Arabia. I do not believe there is the capacity to reach consensus on an EU position because any one member state could prevent it. While this affects the possibility of reaching a collective EU position on an arms embargo, there is an opportunity that the European Union needs to take in applying as much influence as it can at UN level where, to its credit, the United Kingdom is leading within the UN Security Council and other EU countries are supporting discussions that can lead to a permanent ceasefire. There are indications from the Houthi side that that is what it is willing to accept. It is why there is now a prospect of talks taking place in Sweden before the end of the year which we hope will be substantive. There has not yet been confirmation that both sides will turn up to those talks, but that is the hope. For the first time in many months, there is a realistic prospect of a lasting ceasefire, on which we need to focus.

Has the Tánaiste spoken to his Saudi counterpart about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen?

I am aware that Mr. Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to Yemen has said that he plans to travel to Yemen in the coming weeks to finalise arrangements for peace talks. The last round of peace talks collapsed in September but by all accounts, the Saudi-backed Government and the Houthi rebels have recently shown a renewed commitment to work on political solutions. I note the recent statement from the Houthi commander expressing a willingness to bring an end to drone and missile strikes by his forces and a readiness to move towards a wider ceasefire if the Saudi-led coalition wants peace. Is Ireland providing support for these peace moves?

To be realistic, Ireland is not a significant player in brokering a peace deal in Yemen. That said, we are a very active commentator and are part of the debate and conversation at an EU level. I made it very clear to Ms Federica Mogherini yesterday that countries like Ireland want detail on what is happening in a timely manner and all EU countries will get that information now. The truth is that if a ceasefire is achieved and lasts, that will be just the start of the story. A reconstruction and humanitarian assistance effort will be required in Yemen that will present enormous logistical challenges. Countries will have to contribute towards that and Ireland will certainly do so. As I said, we have already contributed over €16 million to humanitarian assistance linked to the war in Yemen and I suspect we will contribute a lot more.

Brexit Negotiations

Lisa Chambers


78. Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will report on Brexit negotiations and, in particular, the draft withdrawal agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48354/18]

I seek an update on the Brexit negotiations and, in particular, on the situation with regard to the draft withdrawal agreement.

Last week, the British Government and the EU task force team, led by Michel Barnier, agreed a draft withdrawal agreement together with the outline of a political declaration on the future relationship. This is a very significant and welcome breakthrough in the Brexit process. An extraordinary European Council summit will be held on Sunday, 25 November so that the agreement, together with the political declaration, can be endorsed. The political declaration will be a much bigger document by then. A preparatory meeting of the EU General Affairs Council, which I attended, was held yesterday.

The EU and UK negotiators have worked intensively over a long period to achieve this and I offer them all my congratulations and thanks for the work they have done. In particular, Michel Barnier and his team have demonstrated extraordinary commitment and understanding. This outcome would not have been achieved without the unity and solidarity of EU member states and institutions.

The draft agreement, notably the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, meets Ireland’s objectives. It protects the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process. Importantly, nothing in the agreement will prejudice the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. The withdrawal agreement translates the UK’s political commitment to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland into a legal guarantee. It provides for a backstop that will apply unless and until another solution is agreed. This means that there will be no hard border in any circumstances. That said, we hope that the backstop will never be used and that we can resolve the Border issues through a future relationship agreement that is both comprehensive and generous.

The withdrawal agreement underpins, in a dynamic way, continuing North-South co-operation and the all-island economy. It provides for the maintenance of the common travel area and protects the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement on rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity. It also confirms that Irish citizens in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy the rights of EU citizens. The agreement also provides for a period of transition, which can be extended, in which preparations can be made for the future relationship between the EU and the UK. We are committed to working with the UK and our EU partners to secure a future relationship that is as deep and comprehensive as possible. Once the European Council has given its endorsement to the agreement, it will be for the British and European Parliaments to consider and approve it in accordance with their respective procedures.

We will have a four hour debate on this issue in the House tomorrow, with the opportunity to vote on the detail of the draft agreement at the end of that debate.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. Fianna Fáil very much welcomes the forthcoming debate which we requested. My party welcomed the draft withdrawal agreement between the UK Government and the EU. The agreement represents a positive step towards a potential deal. However, its ratification is not a certainty. Fianna Fáil has been accused by the Tánaiste and members of his party of playing politics with Brexit which is simply not the case. We have been generally very supportive of the Government's negotiating position on Brexit and have never sought to undermine the national position. We have put on the green jersey, so to speak, and have been advocating for the least damaging Brexit possible for the island of Ireland. The Government may not like it but it is our responsibility and right, as the main Opposition party, to ask questions and though it may be difficult for the Government at times, we will continue to ask those questions. We will not apologise for holding the Government to account, particularly in regard to one of the greatest threats ever faced by this State.

The Tánaiste met Mr. Michel Barnier yesterday. I ask him to update this House on that meeting and what was discussed. The withdrawal agreement is a draft agreement at present. Does the Tánaiste envisage any changes to the agreement as it is currently drafted and is there room for manoeuvre?

I have repeatedly thanked Fianna Fáil and other parties in this House for the support they have given to the Government's negotiating position on Brexit. Political unity in Ireland has been a key factor in allowing us to take clear positions that have subsequently resulted in achieving solidarity across the EU and has played an important part in helping us to get a wording across the line that protects core Irish interests.

Regarding the text of the agreement, it is only a draft agreement in the sense that it is awaiting approval by the European Council. This is a text that has been agreed between the negotiating teams and by the British Government and to that extent, it is not a draft text. It is now the text and it is not going to be reopened. The Spanish have some concerns with the agreement as it relates to Gibraltar but it was very clear from the General Affairs Council meeting yesterday that while we want those issues addressed, the text should not be changed now. It has taken two years to put that draft withdrawal agreement together. It is sensitive and difficult and represents a compromise on both sides, with the EU and the UK both trying to accommodate the other's concerns. It is a balanced text that is good for the UK as a whole and protects core Irish concerns and mitigates potential damage. I do not believe that it will change and it is not open for change. What will change, however, is the political declaration on the future relationship. That was a short, seven page skeleton document last week which will become at least a 20 page document. Hopefully, we will see the wording of that later this evening or tomorrow. We know that Prime Minister Theresa May is planning to travel to Brussels tomorrow to meet Jean-Claude Juncker, presumably to talk about the final wording of that declaration, in the build-up to a summit on Sunday which I hope will be successful for both sides.

I am glad the Tánaiste has clarified that this is the text because comments were made in the House of Commons last week to the effect that this was not the final agreement and that certain aspects of it were only temporary. Perhaps that speaks more to the political situation in the UK than the tone of the conversation between the two teams.

It is important to stress that there is no such thing as a good Brexit but the withdrawal agreement contains the necessary protections and precautions to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. It also upholds the Good Friday Agreement, particularly in the first line of the Northern Ireland protocol, which is necessary and has been very well received. It also ensures the continuance of North-South co-operation. Under the terms of the draft text, Northern Ireland is effectively given special economic status, broadly in line with what Fianna Fáil first proposed more than two years ago.

The British Prime Minister now faces difficulties and divisions within her own party and across the House of Commons. The Tánaiste also mentioned the situation in Spain over Gibraltar and there are issues about the text of that aspect of the agreement. What happens in the event that the withdrawal agreement is rejected by the House of Commons? What is the plan of the Irish Government and what is the plan of the EU negotiating team in that event? What happens the next day? What is the timeline? What is plan B if that happens? We will know in a very short time.

It is important to say that Brexit is not the Government's policy. It has never agreed with it and regrets that the United Kingdom has made the decision through the referendum to leave the European Union. Before that decision was made, this country was planning for how it would need to respond to protect core Irish interests and British-Irish relations in the context of Brexit. Last week was an important step forward in getting a text agreed, but there is still a long way to go on this. I hope the withdrawal treaty is supported on Sunday by EU leaders and subsequently supported in the House of Commons, but there is still a future relationship to negotiate which will take at least the next two to three years. Ireland will have to continue to be vigilant and try to mitigate the unintended consequences of the fallout of Brexit.

Many people have been far too quick to start jumping past the time when the Parliament in Westminster makes the decision and are assuming the worst. We should not do that. We should spend the next couple of weeks explaining to people and reassuring them as to what is in the deal. We have spent two years putting it together. It is a good deal for Ireland, the UK and the EU. It captures the complexity of an economy the size of the UK leaving the European Union and tries to deal with a whole series of competing and complex questions to do with that. Instead of focusing on contingency after a failed vote in the House of Commons, we should be talking about how we talk this up to maximise the chances of it getting support in the House of Commons, which is what the Prime Minister is doing.

British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference

Brendan Howlin


79. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the key outcomes from the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference; and the prospects for the restoration of a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland. [48202/18]

I ask the Tánaiste the key outcomes from the recent British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and the prospects for the restoration of a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland as a consequence.

The most recent meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin on 2 November provided an opportunity for the two Governments to continue our discussions on legacy issues, security co-operation, east-west matters, on which I will go into a bit more detail, and political stability in Northern Ireland. It was co-chaired by myself and David Lidington, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, was there as well as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley.

One of the key items discussed at this meeting was a joint paper prepared by Irish and British officials which outlined a number of possible models to maintain and strengthen the high level of bilateral co-operation between Ireland and the UK after it leaves the European Union. The conference agreed that new structures for systemic bilateral co-operation would demonstrate the strength and depth of the relationship, provide opportunities for Ministers and officials to continue to engage with each other, and provide an overall architecture for co-operation that is both meaningful and sustainable in the future.

It was agreed that new structures should include summits involving Heads of Government and senior Ministers in addition to ongoing sectoral work at ministerial level. Officials have been tasked with preparing a fully worked-through proposal for future east-west co-operation for consideration at the next intergovernmental conference which we agreed for the spring of next year.

The conference also provided an opportunity to discuss the ongoing political impasse in Northern Ireland, and the two Governments reiterated our shared commitment to securing the full operation of all the Good Friday Agreement institutions at the earliest opportunity. Unfortunately, to date, it has not proved possible to reach an agreement on the formation of an Executive, despite intensive efforts by both Governments. I am engaging with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on how the two Governments can most effectively secure the operation of the institutions, and we are also continuing contacts with the political parties to seek a way forward. All parties have reaffirmed their commitment to operating the devolved institutions and have provided views on their key concerns and issues.

I thank the Tánaiste. The intergovernmental conference will probably have to be upgraded post Brexit as we will not have the same formal or informal meetings with our UK colleagues. Was there any discussion about this? Obviously that is something we will have to look into. What practical steps are going to be taken in relation to the 2014 Stormont House Agreement on legacy issues? This needs to be dealt with. Were there any discussions about security issues and, if so, how in depth were they?

What concrete discussions were there about east-west matters? For instance, and this is important, was there any discussion about the common travel area and how that will work and the need to put the rights of citizens into law so that Irish and British citizens, for instance, can continue to reside, use public services and, indeed, vote in each other’s countries? The Tánaiste might outline some progress on those issues.

We looked at what the appropriate structure will be for east-west engagement because, as the Deputy rightly points out, at the moment we bump into British ministers all the time in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg. That will not happen in the future so we are planning to set up the kind of structure that France and Germany, and Portugal and Spain, have, whereby, at least once a year, there will be a Government-to-Government summit every second year in Britain and Ireland. It would obviously involve the Prime Minister and Taoiseach and also the relevant Ministers in the key portfolios. That would require that senior civil servants prepare for that a long way out to look at what Britain and Ireland should be doing together strategically in the interests of both countries, and there are many examples of areas where we could be doing more.

The Government is absolutely committed to the Stormont House Agreement. We have just been through a consultation process in Northern Ireland on that and the British Government is committed to bringing forward new legislation to follow through on that consultation, which was a difficult enough consultation, as one would expect, because legacy is particularly sensitive in Northern Ireland for all families concerned.

The security co-operation was primarily around PSNI and Garda co-operation. There have been a lot of joint initiatives that have been very successful in recent weeks and months in respect of cross-Border crime and so on. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, dealt with that comprehensively.

Both Governments are committed to introducing new legislation, if necessary, to reinforce the functioning of a common travel area post Brexit. That will take effect, in terms of new proposals, in the coming weeks and months.

I thank the Tánaiste for those replies. It has been said that there is going to be ambition as to how bilateral co-operation is maintained and strengthened post Brexit. The Tánaiste might outline how that will work. Are we considering a model like the Nordic Council of Ministers? How would the joint funding of projects go ahead etc.? How would EU rules be involved in that, or has any discussion taken place about that, from an Irish perspective?

The Tánaiste said the UK and Irish Governments reaffirmed their shared commitment to securing the operations of the devolved power-sharing Executive in the North.

It has been 680 days. Was there any discussion about any way in which we can, on some level, limp forward with this? Finally, it was agreed that the conference would meet again in the spring of 2019. Is there a lack of urgency in this? Should it not be meeting more regularly? From memory, the minimum under the Good Friday Agreement is two meetings a year. That is all that is being adhered to at the moment. Should there be more, particularly as we move into a post-Brexit situation, or is this covered by the new format which the Minister outlined and which will be set up in the future?

On the last question, until we had a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, in the summer there had not been one for years. I am not quite sure how many, but it had been quite a few years. We had one in the summer and one in the autumn and we are going to have one in the spring. That suggests there will be up to four a year. We are insisting on the structures of the Good Friday Agreement now being actually used. We need to use them appropriately rather than over-reaching in a way which some people would feel threatened by.

In terms of British-Irish interaction and structures to reinforce that interaction in the context of an intergovernmental summit, the BIIGC and other Good Friday Agreement structures are often associated with Northern Ireland and the joint responsibility Britain and Ireland have as co-guarantors of the agreement in the context of the peace process. There is, perhaps, a need to separate from that in the context of a primarily east-west summit which deals with British and Irish issues. Of course we need to co-operate closely and regularly on Northern Irish issues, but there are many other things we should be doing together. Whether linked to trade, climate, or the marine, there are so many different areas in which co-operation between Britain and Ireland makes sense given our geographic proximity to each other and how well we know each other.

Brexit Issues

Lisa Chambers


80. Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of preparations for Brexit, in particular contingency planning for all Brexit scenarios; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48355/18]

I ask the Tánaiste for an update on the status of preparations for Brexit, particularly the contingency planning that has been done across all Departments for all the various potential Brexit scenarios, and whether he will make a statement in that regard.

As I have already outlined to the House, our overriding priority currently is to work towards the finalisation of the draft withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the EU-UK future relationship. However, any Brexit scenario will mean considerable change and impact for Ireland. We are taking forward extensive and detailed Brexit preparations and contingency work across all Government Departments and agencies. As part of prudent preparation for Brexit, steps need to be taken at national level, at EU level and at the level of businesses and citizens. The underlying strength and resilience of our economy is critical in ensuring that Ireland is in the best possible position to respond to the challenges of Brexit. This has been a key factor in developing successive budgets, including the last one.

The Government has already taken a number of key decisions on measures to be put in place for the necessary checks and controls for trade on an east-west basis between Britain and Ireland. The recruitment of an additional 1,077 staff for customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, controls, in addition to ICT and infrastructure measures at our ports and airports, has been sanctioned and implementation is already under way. Various contingency measures such as the rapid redeployment of customs staff are also under active consideration in the context of a disorderly Brexit scenario.

Businesses and other affected sectors need to respond and prepare themselves and the Government is providing an array of support and information measures to assist them. Specific support measures and schemes are now in place for businesses and across the agrifood sector. To inform our businesses and citizens better, the Getting Ireland Brexit Ready public information campaign was launched in September. Very successful outreach events were held in October and more will follow this month. We are in Limerick on Friday and Letterkenny next Friday.

Of particular relevance to citizens is the work on the common travel area to ensure that the arrangements by which Irish and British citizens can live, work and access public services in each other’s countries will continue into the future regardless of what Brexit scenario unfolds.

In a number of key areas the appropriate response and mitigation will be at an EU level and we are continuing to engage actively with the Commission on areas of priority for Ireland. The Commission has flagged the particular impact of Brexit on Ireland and Irish business in its contingency planning communication last week. Ireland is also working closely with fellow member states to discuss areas of key concern, particularly the issue of facilitating the use of the UK as a landbridge post Brexit.

Given the current uncertainty regarding Brexit, it is imperative that we continue to plan for all possible eventualities. Last week, after the withdrawal agreement was announced, Simon McKeever of the Irish Exporters Association said companies were increasingly looking to take action around issues like customs and stockpiling of goods. He noted:

There's huge demand for warehousing space from the pharma and food and drink sectors both here and in the UK. Companies are pre-placing items in the event of a hard Brexit

He also said:

I wouldn't describe it as a sense of panic but we're starting to see the signs of concern that we have put our eggs in the basket of a deal and mitigating against outcomes in a deal scenario. There really isn't a plan B if there isn't a deal.

I also note that in the aftermath of the recent budget the Parliamentary Budget Office said:

no sensitivity analysis has been provided by the Government on the impact of changes to the Irish output induced by a ‘hard’ Brexit on revenue and expenditure projections. In addition, conventional economic models are based on historical long-run relationships between economic variables and may not adequately capture the impacts of unprecedented shocks such as the occurrence of a ‘disorderly’ Brexit. Due to the significant uncertainty over the nature of the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU and a consideration of recent developments on negotiations, it may not be prudent to plan on the basis of an ‘orderly’ Brexit.

In light of the Taoiseach's recent comments regarding five years of planned tax cuts, I believe our over-reliance on just balancing the books over the coming years is definitely not enough to prepare for a hard Brexit. We need to be preparing for all possible scenarios.

I am equally concerned about the uptake of Brexit supports. Figures released to me and the Fianna Fáil Party show that, as of 12 October, only €8.5 million of the €300 million available under the Brexit loan scheme had been sanctioned at bank level. Only 137 Be Prepared grants have been approved by Enterprise Ireland. That equates to approximately 3% of Enterprise Ireland firms. It seems to be the case that businesses are still not as prepared as they should be.

With respect, our job is to keep calm and plan as opposed to responding to these issues in the way the Deputy sometimes does. I have just been with Mr. McKeever for an hour and a half at an export trade council. I am going to see him for a couple of hours later this evening at a Brexit stakeholders' meeting.

I will be there too.

We are talking to all of the key stakeholders. I will be talking to hundreds of businesses again on Friday, in Limerick. We will be doing the same in Letterkenny next week. We are planning in the areas in which we can predict outcomes and we are planning for all potential outcomes. We are not, however, going to add to a sense of panic. For the next two to three weeks, which is the time we have before the vote in Westminster, we should talk about the deal which has been agreed, which solves many of these problems, and we should help maximise the chances of it being fully understood, in a reassuring way, so that we can increase the chances of it passing. We should not be ratcheting up tension about what will happen if it does not pass. If it does not pass, we will have to respond to that, and we will. We have been working for months to prepare for that. I will bring new contingency plans to Government in response. We will work with industry and other parties. We will work in the national interest. Let us not create some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy here. Our job is to plan calmly for all outcomes, to try to predict what is coming down the tracks in a few weeks' time, and to advocate strongly for a deal that is good for Ireland, fair for the UK, and fair for the EU which negotiating teams have taken two years to put in place. That should be our focus between now and the vote in Westminster.

Let us leave the condescension at the door. I think we are all being calm, but it is prudent and reasonable for an Opposition party to ask the Government what planning is being engaged in and to ask for details. The quotes I gave from Mr. McKeever were his own words. They are not mine. The Minister says he is talking, but is he listening? I gave figures which the Government provided for the take-up of Brexit supports. They are very low. That is a fact, not opinion. I appreciate that we all want the deal to go through, but it is reasonable to ask what is plan B. Other member states are releasing details of their contingency planning, as is the United Kingdom. We ask that it be done here too and that the Minister inform the House and citizens of the details of preparations and planning. Last week in the Chamber the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, outlined that her Department had been working for almost a year to ascertain what we needed to do to maintain reciprocal arrangements under individual schemes between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic. Even though it has been happening for the last year, the details of the outcome of this analysis are not available. The Minister and the Government have the information, but they are not providing it for the rest of the House. That is why we are asking the questions. I acknowledge that it is difficult to be fully prepared for all scenarios, but it is reasonable to ask and it is not in the interests of ramping up pressure or creating difficulties. I would not be doing my job if I did not ask the questions.

I have explained many times that some information is available to the Government during a negotiating process that one does not put into the public domain. We make no apologies for this as our job is to get a deal and we got one last week. We did it by trying to negotiate with Michel Barnier and his team, working with the United Kingdom to explore solutions, to find a fair way forward for everybody. In public communications we focused on achieving an outcome, as opposed to contingencies, but that does not mean that we have not been making contingency plans, about which I have talked to the Deputy, as I have to many others. We signed off on an extra 1,077 customs officials and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, inspectors at the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Health. Dublin Port is preparing and investing in contingency plans linked with Brexit. We have said the primary focus will be on east-west inspection infrastructure at Rosslare Europort, Dublin Port and Dublin Airport. There is a raft of supports and advice available for companies. Some are relatively new and have only been in place for the last couple of months and the uptake is building all the time. The Deputy is right to ask whether we are putting contingency plans in place or thinking about how we would react if Westminster was to vote against a deal. Of course, we are thinking about it. My judgment is that our primary focus should be on trying to talk about the deal that was done last week, which is still live, because we want it to be supported, rather than moving on and focusing on failure.