Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

European Council Meetings

Brendan Howlin

Question:

1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the October 2018 European Council. [43431/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on bilaterals that he held while at the European Council meeting on 17 and 18 October 2018; and the issues that were discussed. [43487/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if immigration was discussed at the October 2018 European Council meeting; and if he contributed to same. [43489/18]

Joan Burton

Question:

4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the European Council Brexit meeting on 17 October 2018. [43844/18]

Joan Burton

Question:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the President of the European Parliament on 18 October 2018. [43845/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on meetings or discussions he had with his counterparts at the European Council on 17 October 2018. [43913/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he met Chancellor Angela Merkel at the October 2018 European Council meeting; and if they discussed Brexit. [43888/18]

Michael Moynihan

Question:

8. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Chancellor Merkel since her announcement of not seeking re-election in 2021. [45637/18]

Michael Moynihan

Question:

9. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the discussions on cybersecurity at the most recent European Council meeting. [45638/18]

Michael Moynihan

Question:

10. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the discussions at the European Council in relation to the Canada plus arrangement in the context of the Brexit negotiations. [46803/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement with the President of the European Parliament, Mr. Antonio Tajani. [46874/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 11, inclusive, together.

I attended a series of European Council meetings in Brussels on Wednesday 17 October, and Thursday, 18 October. The regular meeting of the Council on the morning of 18 October focused on migration, internal security and external relations issues.

On migration, we discussed the implementation of decisions agreed at the June European Council and at the informal summit in Salzburg in September. We exchanged views on the external aspects of migration, including the importance of combatting people-smuggling networks and strengthening our co-operation with partner countries. Chancellor Kurz of Austria, which currently holds the EU Presidency, also provided an update on efforts to reform the common EU asylum system and the prospects for progress in this context.

On internal security, our discussions focused on recent cyberattacks, cybersecurity and the need to protect the Union's democratic systems to combat disinformation ahead of the 2019 European elections. On external relations, we discussed our broader relationship with Africa. We welcomed the decision to convene an EU-African Union high-level forum in December, and the first EU-Arab League summit in Egypt in February 2019.

We also discussed climate change, agreeing on the importance of reaching the goals and implementing the rules outlined in the Paris Agreement and on the need for ambition in advance of the COP24 in Poland in December. This was followed by a euro summit, where we exchanged views on financial issues ahead of the December European Council.

I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister May on 17 October and with the President of the European Parliament, Mr. Antonio Tajani on 18 October. I did not have a formal bilateral meeting with Chancellor Merkel, but we did speak on a number of occasions during the two days. I also engaged informally with my other EU counterparts in the margins of the European Council.

In advance of a meeting of the 27 member states in Article 50 format on the evening of 17 October, Prime Minister May outlined her views to EU leaders and gave the UK perspective on the Brexit negotiations. The 27 EU leaders reaffirmed our full confidence in Mr. Michel Barnier as our chief negotiator and urged him to continue his efforts to reach an agreement, in accordance with the guidelines previously agreed by the European Council. President Tusk expressed his readiness to convene a special summit in November if and when Mr. Barnier reported that decisive progress has been achieved.

At the Article 50 meeting and in my bilateral with Prime Minister May, I stressed the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland peace process. I said that I hoped the future relationship between the EU and the UK would be as close, comprehensive and ambitious as possible. I also stressed that it was essential to ensure that a legally robust backstop, which must apply in all circumstances, was set out clearly in the withdrawal agreement. In my bilateral meeting with President Tajani and in my engagement with other EU counterparts I expressed appreciation for their ongoing strong solidarity on this issue.

Deputies will be aware that since the October European Council, agreement has been reached at negotiator level on the draft withdrawal agreement and an outline of the joint political declaration on the future relationship that fully delivers our negotiating objectives.

As there are 11 questions in this group, we will need to stick to the allocated time.

I thank the Taoiseach for his comprehensive reply. We will have an opportunity later to deal with the greatest focus for Ireland in European matters, which is the ongoing Brexit situation. I want to talk about discussions at the European Council concerning migration and internal security. In regard to migration, the Taoiseach will be aware that the last remaining rescue vessel operating in the Mediterranean, the Aquarius, is now stuck in Marseilles because of an arrest warrant for alleged pollution issued by the Italian authorities. As far as I am aware, there are now no NGO-operated rescue vessels. Médecins sans Frontières reports that hundreds of migrants are drowning as a result of this. Is there a rescue process in place? Does the Taoiseach have a view on the policy, to which we have committed naval vessels for several years to ensure the safety of people who are so desperate that they take to the sea in completely unsuitable craft, putting themselves and their children at mortal risk? It is often at the behest of people smugglers. There is no escaping that reality.

Do we have an attitude to it and what are we going to do about it?

On general migration, obviously, I welcome the holding of the Africa summit, but what is our policy? What is the European Union's policy on migration? There are strong views being expressed by the new Italian Government and some eastern European countries, but is there an integrated migration and asylum policy emerging? Can we have a real debate about it and what is Ireland's participation in it?

I have two brief questions about the security issue. First, will the Taoiseach specify exactly what measures we will take to protect our democracy in the context of European elections? What was decided on the issue? Second, what was the Taoiseach's response to the comments of the German Chancellor, Dr. Merkel, on the creation of a European army?

As there will be a full debate later today on the draft withdrawal agreement, I will leave most of the points I want to make on it until then. However, I would like to ask the Taoiseach to comment on the reports that the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, is discussing in Brussels a new backstop text which she hopes will appease some of her Brexiteer backbenchers and Ministers. Specifically, can the Taoiseach reassure us that nothing has been discussed which would impact on the substance of the draft withdrawal agreement, on which we will be voting later this afternoon?

As the Taoiseach is aware, the French President, Mr. Macron, and the German Chancellor, Dr. Merkel, have reached agreement in principle on the creation of a eurozone-specific budget which would give the eurozone greater ability to respond to a downturn. This is a reasonable proposal which Ireland should strongly support. The lack of such a funding mechanism was at the root of much of the financial crisis and a real issue in terms of the capacity of the eurozone to respond to the global recession and financial crisis that began in 2008 and which had a significant impact on Ireland. It has also been reported that the Taoiseach is joining with other countries in opposing the proposal from Dr. Merkel and Mr. Macron. Will the Taoiseach outline whether it is true that Ireland is opposing this essential reform and, if that is the case, why Ireland is taking up a position as one of the most conservative countries on the EU budget when we should be one of its biggest supporters?

There are two points about which I want to ask the Taoiseach. The media carry extensive suggestions today that the maximum facilitation, "Max Fac", model is back on the table in terms of not being able to end the backstop early and that it is an olive branch the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, is proposing to offer to Eurosceptics in the UK parliament. I merely want to ask the Taoiseach whether that particular element of the long discussions that have taken place in the last period has been discussed at the Council in the context of potential discussions to ward off a very hard Brexit.

I understand that at the Council meeting PESCO was discussed in the context of quite ambitious proposals for significant increases in military spending, not necessarily in the context of a European army as put forward by the Taoiseach's colleague, the French President, Mr. Macron, but more in the sense that all European armies would invest heavily in modern advanced weapons systems. I would like to know whether, in fact, the Taoiseach has signed Ireland up to a broadening and deepening of PESCO, in particular, given the potential budget to be spent on armaments by European countries.

The Taoiseach was reported as having made at the weekend what I consider to be extremely alarming comments on the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. Frankly, they confirm some of the worst fears of Solidarity-People Before Profit about assurances the Taoiseach, Mr. Michel Barnier and the President of the European Commission, Mr. Juncker, have given on the issue of the Border. The Taoiseach was reported as having said:

I think in a no-deal scenario it would be very difficult to avoid a hard border. As Ireland [is] remaining part of the European Union, we would no doubt be required to implement European law...

If there is no deal, it sounds to me as if the Taoiseach is saying the European Union will require us to impose a hard border to protect the Single Market and that he is willing to do so. If that is not the case, I would like clarification on the matter. If it is the case, it is a very significant development. I have always feared that it is the case and sought multiple assurances that in the event that there is no deal, we will simply tell the European Union and Britain that we will not be co-operating in any way in the installation of a hard border. I would go further. If the Taoiseach believes this is a real possibility, he should be arguing that if that is the threat, there should be a Border poll, North and South, to give people the opportunity to make a decision democratically on whether that is what they want. I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach's response to that question. It will have a considerable bearing on the outcome of the vote that will be taken on the motion we will discuss tonight.

There are two further questioners. I propose we allocate an extra ten minutes for this batch of questions.

There are 11 questions in this batch.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

With reference to the discussion at the European Council on the integrity of the electoral system and the risk of undue influence exerted by unaccountable money on social media platforms, there will be a visit by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment to Westminster next week to discuss the issue. Companies in the United Kingdom such as Facebook have agreed to introduce their own accounting mechanisms to show where political advertising is taking place in order that it can be clearly identified, with the amount of money spent being made clear. If we cannot have the legislation on which Deputy Lawless and others have been working to ensure such transparency, will the Taoiseach push the social media companies here to introduce the same mechanisms in order that there will not be undue influence exerted in local and European Parliament elections or the next general election by such spending on such platforms?

The Taoiseach must clarify two matters for us. First, he must clarify whether the maximum facilitation proposal that was rejected by the European Union for sound reasons is being advanced again? Second, will he clarify for us whether any other similar proposition is being advanced that would hollow out or offer something less than that being afforded in the current backstop? I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett that it is not good enough for the Taoiseach to be an observer from afar and speculating on the prospect of a hard border. There cannot be a hard border on the island. That must remain our position. In the event that there is, where stands the Taoiseach's thinking on a referendum on Irish unity to remove it?

I echo the alarm about the talk of a European army - it is not new - being advanced in a proactive, almost aggressive, way by the French President, Mr. Macron, and others. The State is still, at least nominally, militarily neutral. Has the Taoiseach signed up? Has he an understanding with Mr. Macron, the German Chancellor, Dr. Merkel, or anybody else on his position on the prospect of a European army?

I thank the Deputies for their questions. As I understand it, under the international law of the sea, vessels have an obligation to rescue people in distress. If a vessel is in distress and people are lost at sea or at risk of drowning-----

If one happens to come upon them.

-----there is an international obligation on nearby vessels to engage in search and rescue. Of course, we have done this. Naval Service vessels have been involved in search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, as have many other navies.

We must also bear in mind that in doing so, we must not do anything that helps human trafficking. Part of the mission's mandate in the Mediterranean is to disrupt human trafficking. Human traffickers are putting very vulnerable people in what are essentially large dinghies - unseaworthy vessels - that they know full well will sink long before they get to the coast of Europe. We need to make sure that nothing we do in terms of search and rescue encourages or assists human traffickers in putting people at risk by putting them in vessels in that way, which is exactly what has been happening. Very vulnerable people who have trekked across Africa to get to the coast of Libya are being put in unseaworthy vessels by human traffickers with the expectation that they will be rescued by European navies or NGO vessels. We must always bear that mind in what we do because those people's lives are being put at risk and we should not facilitate that in any way.

In respect of the EU policy on migration, it is fair to say that there is a lot of division around the table. Countries have different perspectives on how we should manage migration. Everyone around the table with the exception of the UK, which is leaving the EU, is very much in favour of freedom of movement. Nobody is questioning freedom of movement within the EU. Austria, Hungary, Poland and Italy all support freedom of movement within the EU. What many of them object to is migration from outside the EU or illegal migration involving people arriving and not going through the correct ports, not filing documents on arrival or doing the things we expect people to do.

There is agreement on three things. First, we need greater co-operation with the transit countries and countries of origin. These are countries on the north African coast and Turkey, which are largely countries of transit, and countries in the Middle East and Africa that are source countries for much of this migration. People are leaving these countries because they do not have democracy, civil and human rights and economic opportunity. The best way to deal with uncontrolled migration such as this is to bring about democracy, security and economic opportunity in those countries. We do not see huge numbers of people from Asian countries coming to Europe in the same way, largely because so many people have been lifted out of poverty in those countries through economic development. That is the first principle we apply. Ireland is very much committed to that through increases in funding for international development, in particular an increase of more than €100 million in 2019.

The second area on which there is agreement is the need to enhance external border security, for example, the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, and security in the Mediterranean through agreements with Morocco and Libya, for example, to assist them to build up their coastguard, and an agreement with Egypt.

The third area on which most, although not all, agree is showing a degree of solidarity and burden sharing by being willing to accept migrants from other countries. Ireland has done this on a series of occasions when it was asked to take some migrants by Malta, Italy and Greece. This is an example of us showing solidarity with countries on the front line.

I have had no discussions with President Macron or Chancellor Merkel regarding a European army. Obviously, I have heard what they have to say about it but they have not approached us to join a European army and I do not anticipate that they will do so. Ireland will not participate in a European army or join NATO. However, we decided through a resolution of this House to participate in PESCO, which is structured European co-operation around defence and security. We are doing this on a case-by-case basis, which is very much to our advantage. Ireland is a small country with a small military. We do not have much to offer the EU in terms of military prowess or might but there are lots of things we can offer. These include humanitarian assistance and training, which the Naval Service is doing with Operation Sophia, participation in peacekeeping operations, which we have done very well for decades, and assisting in European security in areas like cyberterrorism and terrorism intelligence. This is where we can make a contribution. I do not envisage us joining a European army or being asked to join one. Our position as a neutral, non-aligned state is well understood by our European partners and the same goes for Austria and Finland, which are very much in the same position as us.

I hear a statement being thrown around all the time that somehow we have committed to increasing our defence budget to 2% of GDP. We have not done so and will not do so. However, our defence budget will increase over the next couple of years because of pay rises for Defence Forces personnel, improvements to barracks and the purchase of new equipment, namely, the ships, aircraft and vehicles we need. There will, therefore, be an increase in defence spending and I stand over such increases next year and in the years to come. However, they will not be anywhere close to 2% of our GDP, which would be around €6 billion. They will not be anywhere near a fraction of that.

Regarding the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and the backstop, we have had no discussions with the Commission or the UK Government about revisions to the text since it was stabilised last week. It is important to remember the format that is in the December joint report, that is, options A, B and C. Option A is the future relationship, option B concerns specific solutions the UK may propose and option C is the backstop. What has come into the mix since then is option D, which is an extension of the transition period. Whatever happens, what is required at the end of all of that is a backstop that is legally operative and applies unless and until an alternative solution supersedes it. I want to state again on the record of the House that it is our intention and commitment as a Government to work with the United Kingdom and the European Union to come up with a future relationship that does not require the backstop to be invoked in full or in part and, in the event that it is invoked, it will only be for a temporary period as a bridge to a future relationship.

We are not opposed outright to the proposal for a eurozone budget, nor are we backing it. It is something to which we will give consideration but we will need to see how the proposal develops. A eurozone budget could be useful. In a time of economic crisis, it could operate as an economic and fiscal stabiliser. For example, if a proportion of unemployment benefits were paid for on a European level, countries with high levels of unemployment would benefit from that during periods of recession and they would help out other countries when they do not have high levels of unemployment. One thing we need to be very careful about is anything that may impact on our sovereignty, particularly our tax sovereignty. If there is a European budget with money in it to be spent, that money must be raised. We would be concerned that any proposal for a eurozone budget may suggest imposing Europe-wide taxes, which we could not accept. We are entering into discussions on a eurozone budget with an understandable degree of scepticism. We need to see the detail of what is being proposed, or not even that. We need to get a better understanding of it before we can agree to it.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with Ms Arlene Foster. [43455/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Ms Arlene Foster; and the issues that were discussed. [43486/18]

Joan Burton

Question:

14. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the DUP leader, Ms Arlene Foster, on 15 October 2018. [43843/18]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

15. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the leader of the DUP, Mrs. Arlene Foster. [44888/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

16. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met or spoken with Mrs. Arlene Foster and Mrs. Michelle O'Neill since the October EU Council meeting. [45622/18]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

17. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the leader of the SDLP. [48204/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

18. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken or met Mrs. Arlene Foster since the draft withdrawal treaty was published. [48378/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 to 18, inclusive, together. I met the leader of the DUP, Mrs. Arlene Foster, on 15 October when we discussed many issues, including the current political situation in Northern Ireland and Brexit. I emphasised the Government's full commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and our continuing determination to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions. We discussed what could be done to get the institutions in Northern Ireland up and running again. I reiterated to Mrs. Foster that the Government wants to put a political process in place that can secure an agreement on the operation of the devolved institutions and that we will continue to engage with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek urgent progress with that in the period immediately ahead. We agreed that we can continue to build on existing practical North-South co-operation. We also discussed Brexit, including negotiations on the backstop to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The Tánaiste and I met Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Green Party on 15 November to brief them on the draft EU-UK withdrawal agreement. We had a good discussion on the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and considered how the backstop arrangements guarantee that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland in any circumstances. We also noted that these arrangements offer the opportunity for Northern Ireland businesses to have unfettered access to both British and EU markets. We agreed to meet again in a similar format.

The Taoiseach stated that it was agreed that under no circumstances would there be a hard border. If that is his view, he did not say how he could have been reported as saying that in a no-deal scenario, it would be very difficult to avoid a hard border.

As Ireland is remaining part of the European Union, we would no doubt be required to implement European law. Will the Taoiseach clarify that statement? He continually says that we are doing everything not to impose a hard border, but in his statement he appeared to imply that there are circumstances - a no Brexit deal - in which he would have to impose a hard border because the EU would require him to do so. This deserves clarification.

News has just broken in Belfast that Bombardier is to cut its workforce by 500, which is a pretty devastating blow for the area. We might have been able to assist by buying from Bombardier desperately needed buses for the Dublin Bus fleet, which is way below what it should be. That aside, did the Taoiseach suggest to Mrs. Arlene Foster that she would be better off worrying about the potential economic damage to people in the North if such a border were to be erected and that she is playing a dangerous game in the politics she is engaging in around this issue?

On the previous occasion we discussed the breakdown of relations between the Government and the DUP, the Taoiseach said that the relations were fine. Does he still believe that relations between the Government and the DUP are fine and what efforts has he made in recent months to persuade the DUP that its rejection of the withdrawal agreement is fundamentally wrong? I have always argued that Northern Ireland should get the best of both worlds, and immediately after the referendum on Brexit in a speech made in the North I argued for an economic zone for the North through which it would have unfettered access to the British market and would still have access to the Single Market and remain within the customs union. This would be ideal for Northern Ireland and it would give it a badly needed fillip. Essentially, the agreement that has been reached gives Northern Ireland the best of both worlds.

The DUP has overreacted to the deal in seeing a constitutional threat where none exists because the Good Friday Agreement stands notwithstanding the withdrawal agreement and this provides the basis for the evolution of the three relationships, as encompassed by the Good Friday Agreement, which is the essential core genius of it in many respects. The DUP in so doing is standing against the majority opinion in Northern Ireland, not just politically, but in respect of business and working people, in terms of what is best for the North. It is at times like this that a lack of trust and strong relations has an impact. Will the Taoiseach set out his plans to do something new to rebuild relations?

On the fundamental issue of the suspension of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, we have been hearing for months about a new political initiative, but there has been no obvious movement on it. What I am hearing outside of formal channels is that no effort will be made in this regard until the Brexit issue has been resolved. Will the Taoiseach confirm if this is true, if he expects to announce an initiative in this regard, and when he last discussed this matter with the British Prime Minister, Mrs May? Will he also set out how regulatory alignment in Northern Ireland will be possible in the absence of devolved government and a devolved Assembly?

In the context of the Taoiseach's discussions with Mrs. Arlene Foster, the issue of the maximum facilitation - “max fac” - which we discussed here and has been largely sidelined up to now, is being widely touted by Downing Street as being backup for consideration to appeal to Eurosceptics in the UK Houses of the Parliament, which includes a significant number of DUP members such as Mr. Nigel Dodds and Mr. Ian Paisley Jnr. There are no nationalist members in the Houses of the Parliament so we have only one set of voices there representing Northern Ireland, which at this historic time is a weakness in terms of Irish representation in Westminster. Did the Taoiseach get a sense from Mrs. Foster, on behalf of her party, that in the event of a fresh offer on maximum facilitation the DUP would be inclined to explore it because that might offer some possibilities?

The Taoiseach said that the border is the border in the event of a hard crash-out and that is the way it is in terms of it being the border of the European Union. In that context, the Taoiseach has on previous occasions referenced the recruitment of customs officers to facilitate the changes coming down the line for our ports and airports. Will he advise what progress has been made in regard to the recruitment of additional customs officers and what progress, if any, has been made in identifying technological mechanisms for checking fleet movements and so on?

I assume that the Taoiseach welcomes the statements and new position of the Ulster Farmers Union and business interests in the North that they welcome the Barnier agreement.

What are the Taoiseach's plans for the re-establishment of the Assembly and the Executive in the North? Prior to the summer recess he indicated that there would be an initiative in the autumn. We are now decisively moving into the winter and there is no word of any sustainable initiative.

Nobody should be surprised at the DUP's rejection of the Barnier deal. I urge Members to remember that last February the DUP similarly rejected a viable accommodation to restore power-sharing institutions in the North. This is the backdrop to all of this and the political acoustic of the moment. Dinner arrangements aside, what solid proposal does the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste have in terms of a roadmap back to sustainable power-sharing?

At the urging of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and others, the Taoiseach convened the intergovernmental conference but it has not been utilised as a springboard to resolve the outstanding issues and get us back on track. What is the Taoiseach's plan and when will he announce it?

I call the Taoiseach to respond.

The Ceann Comhairle omitted to call me.

Mea maxima culpa.

I did not want to interrupt Deputy McDonald. In regard to the dialogue that is taking place with the DUP and the Taoiseach's meeting with Mrs. Foster, it is crystal clear to all of us who are desperately struggling to make the best of the Brexit negotiations that it is a real liability for the process that there are not functioning institutions in Northern Ireland. They were never more urgently needed. The lack of these institutions for the past year has been a desperate gap in terms of the capacity of the voice of Ireland to be heard. Notwithstanding the successful work done by the Government and our diplomatic staff in that regard, the absence of a coherent voice from Northern Ireland throughout this process has been extremely debilitating in terms of a coherent voice from the island of Ireland as a whole.

As was referred to, I am conscious of the positive voices now coming from the Ulster Farmers Union and business in Northern Ireland that have surprised some. Now that we are at the end of the process, people are speaking out about their own self-interest and the interests of their people. I would be interested to hear how we might assist in this process. This could best be done by direct dialogue. Any notion that the deal is in Ireland's interest or that we are in any way triumphant about it would be very unhelpful.

Taoiseach's questions are often not directly answered, but Deputy Boyd Barrett has asked a question that deserves a direct answer in this sense. While we hope this will not happen, if the United Kingdom departs with no deal, what people have described as a hard Brexit, the Single Market must be protected. If it is not defined on the island of Ireland, it will be defined in the Irish Sea. We must be realistic about addressing this issue, and I would welcome a frank answer from the Taoiseach to Deputy Boyd Barrett's question.

Once again, the Government has made no preparation or plan whatsoever for the installation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, lest anyone think so. I do not want to speculate too much on a no-deal scenario because the truth is that no one really knows for sure what would happen if there were one. If there were one, no one knows how long that no deal would last. It is my view that if we did end up with a no-deal situation, we would find ourselves having to negotiate a no-deal deal, as it were, quite soon thereafter. A no-deal situation might continue for a few weeks. It might not last more than a few weeks.

It could be a disastrous few weeks, though.

The Taoiseach should not have said what he said, then.

It certainly could be a disastrous few weeks. This is why we must think about these things. No one knows for sure, however, what would happen in a scenario in which the UK were to crash out of the European Union without a deal. We do know the UK would have certain obligations under the rules of World Trade Organization, WTO, for example, but we do not even know if it will be able to join the WTO. Deputies will know the UK has had difficulties joining aspects of the WTO because of the objections of Moldova, so this is very much uncharted territory.

We should not see protection of the Single Market through the prism of the demand of a kind of unreasonable EU overlord. It is our Single Market, and the whole basis behind it is that we are aligned in respect of regulations on health and safety, labour rights, workers' rights, state aid and competition. This is not a bad thing. The Single Market is a good thing for Ireland because it ensures not only that we have free trade all across the European Union but also that there is a level playing field and certain standards. We should want to protect the Single Market, therefore, but this cannot involve the installation of a hard border or physical infrastructure on the Irish Border.

I think that in a no-deal scenario we would find ourselves having to come up with a deal. We would have to come to some kind of agreement on regulations and customs to avoid a hard border in order that the UK would honour its obligations as a member of the WTO and that we would continue to honour our obligations as an EU member. The point I was making is that if we had no deal, we would find ourselves having to find a deal very quickly. Why then put our countries and people through this when we now have a deal on the table, a deal that was negotiated by 28 member states, has been agreed by the UK Cabinet and, I hope, this Dáil will endorse today? Why go through this scenario when we now have a proposal on the table that works?

Obviously, the best outcome would be for the UK not to leave the European Union at all, but the UK has ruled that out. An alternative solution would be for the UK to stay in the Single Market and the customs union, staying in the European Economic Area, EEA, but it has ruled that out. Another solution would be a Canada plus model for Britain with a Northern Ireland-specific backstop, but it has ruled that out too. We are not the ones who have been ruling out solutions all along. We are the ones who have been working very hard to find a solution. We have that solution now, it is on the table, I hope the Dáil will endorse it today, and I hope and expect the European Council will endorse it on Sunday. Let us see what happens in Westminster afterwards. I think I used the term "very difficult" last week. We in politics do things that are very difficult all the time. It was very difficult to repeal the eighth amendment but it was done. I was a little surprised to see "very difficult" interpreted as "inevitable" because very difficult things are never inevitable.

Regarding my meeting with Mrs. Arlene Foster, as Deputies know, she is someone I know very well. She was my counterpart when the institutions were up and running, and we understand each other very well. Much of the discussion we had when we last met concerned practical co-operation between North and South on transport projects, healthcare and tourism. Mrs. Foster has a particular interest in children's health and the use of our hospitals here to provide cardiac surgery to children from the North. I have a particular interest in what we are doing in Altnagelvin about radiotherapy and primary percutaneous coronary intervention, PCI, for people living in Donegal. Deputy Micheál Martin talks about the role we are playing in trying to persuade the DUP to sign up to this agreement, but this misunderstands matters. When one engages a lot with DUP representatives, one must understand that they are very much a hardline unionist party, and they would not be annoyed at being described as such. This means they are not well disposed to taking advice from Irish Governments or being persuaded by Irish Governments or Irish political parties, so any dialogue in which one engages must be respectful and sensitive. I know that when Deputy Martin met Mrs. Foster, he tried to persuade her that Northern Ireland should have the best of both worlds, but this totally misunderstands her view. It is not the best of both worlds the DUP wants. The DUP holds very firm to the view that the most important thing is the integrity of the United Kingdom, the precious union. If this means a lesser world, that is acceptable provided that the integrity of the union is upheld.

What we have tried to do, therefore, as best we can is to say to people in Northern Ireland, particularly those in the unionist community, that what we are proposing and what the EU and the UK Government are now proposing should not be seen in constitutional terms as a threat to the United Kingdom or any effort to separate Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Written into the Irish protocol, the backstop, are two provisions, one respecting the principle of consent, that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland cannot be changed unless the majority of people in Northern Ireland want it to change, the other respecting the fact that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, respecting the territorial integrity of the UK.

This is why calls for Border polls, whether from Sinn Féin or People Before Profit, are really unhelpful at present. What we are trying to say to unionists in Northern Ireland is that at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement is acceptance of the principle of consent, acceptance not only that Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but also that Northern Ireland is different and needs special arrangements on occasion. Special arrangements in respect of customs and regulations for industrial goods should not be seen as a constitutional threat. When people start to talk about Border polls, however, it really undermines the work we are trying to do to convince people that that is not what this is about.

The Taoiseach should not talk about hard borders then. Then talk of Border polls would not undermine that work.

I have always thought that when it comes to Northern Ireland, we need to listen to the DUP and respect its views but also acknowledge that there are other parties too - Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Green Party, Alliance - that represent half, perhaps the majority, of people in Northern Ireland. I refer to the UUP as well. The leader of the UUP was at our party conference last weekend-----

Do not forget People Before Profit.

And People Before Profit. I note and very much welcome the fact that non-political voices in Northern Ireland have now started to speak, and speak largely in favour of this agreement. I refer to the Ulster Farmers Union, representatives of which I have met in recent weeks and to whom I have spoken about this. I have met the business community in Northern Ireland several times. It has also come out broadly in favour of the agreement. I am not sure whether trade unions have formally given a view yet but-----

They should do so today.

-----they may do so today, and I imagine they would be broadly in favour of the agreement. I refer to NGOs as well. What is really missing, though, and Deputy Howlin is absolutely right about this, is a Northern Ireland Executive, a First Minister and a deputy First Minister. When a person is in the role of First Minister or deputy First Minister, he or she is much more than a party leader. That person is required to take into account all the people in Northern Ireland. It is a real shame that the Executive and the Assembly have not been there at this very significant time. We had very close contact with the UK Government about what we can do to get the institutions up and running again. The institutions that involve the Governments are up and running.

The British-Irish Council is working well. I was at a meeting of the council only last week on the Isle of Man. There have been two meetings of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. The institutions that are not working are those that relate to Northern Ireland, unfortunately.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.