Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

Departmental Advertising Budgets

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the proposed budget for social media advertising in his Department for 2019. [49146/18]

The cost for any social media advertising undertaken in 2019 will be met from my Department's administrative budget. Costs incurred are expected to be significantly less than the spend on digital advertising in 2018 which is estimated at approximately €450,000.

The expenditure referenced relates to a number of major cross-Government public information campaigns that the Department funded centrally during 2018. These were Healthy Ireland, Global Ireland, Project Ireland 2040 and the self-employed benefits campaign aimed at ensuring self-employed people are aware of the new and existing benefits available to them.

The majority of this expense was incurred prior to July 2018. Public information campaigns in future will be funded mainly by relevant line Departments rather than being funded centrally by my Department.

It is important to communicate across a variety of platforms, including social media, to ensure transparency and clarity for all citizens. The Government Information Service is now required to provide a 24-7 service to media organisations on all topics of public interest, often with short response times. It is also required to generate online content, including written, audio and video material, as well as live broadcast on occasion.

It is undoubtedly important to communicate and to do so on all platforms, as the Taoiseach said. Nobody is disputing that. I read a story in the Daily Mirror - I am sure the Taoiseach saw it as well - which is based on responses to freedom of information requests and which highlights the level of spending on communications and media advertising in the Taoiseach's Department since he took office. That spending amounts to a whopping €2 million.

That is an extraordinary figure in its own right, but all the more so when compared with spending on public relations under the previous Taoiseach, which was just shy of €20,000. We have discussed these matters previously. Despite all of the Taoiseach's big budget communications, I believe that his approach with Deputy Gino Kenny earlier was uncalled for and unworthy of someone in the office of An Taoiseach. Deputy Kenny raised a legitimate issue of public interest and rather than simply answer it, the Taoiseach chose to try to deflect and respond in a way that I cannot fathom.

Will the Taoiseach explain the €2 million figure? Given that one of the reasons his spin unit was scrapped was the inappropriate use of the unit to promote Fine Gael election candidates I was surprised to see an image posted by the official Government website that makes me believe that things have not changed. There is a picture of the Taoiseach and four Ministers. Lo and behold, standing alongside and smiling for the camera is a Fine Gael Senator and election candidate for Mayo. Despite all of the bluster, taxpayer's money is still being spent to promote Fine Gael candidates under the guise of public information. The Taoiseach told us that this would end and it has not, so perhaps he could give an explanation for that also.

Will the Taoiseach outline for the House the number of staff in his Department who cover social media, contributions, advertising, putting up posts, video messaging and so on? Is this done by Government Information Service, GIS, staff or is it a mixture of GIS staff and political staff? Who co-ordinates all of that? Is there a difference between promoting Government campaigns and personal messages from the Taoiseach, or are they treated the same? It is interesting that the Taoiseach's twitter handle is still @campaignforleo, which really is a political slogan. Has the Taoiseach plans to change that with regard to the office of An Taoiseach?

I shall now turn to the issue of the spending. There has been a considerable spend and I would appreciate if the Taoiseach could confirm whether the figure quoted in The Irish Mirror is correct. It is a substantial amount. I also noted another figure, which was the cost to produce the campaign video for Ireland to win a seat on the UN Security Council. It is reported to have cost €100,000. I watched that video. It is a fine video and it is well produced but having been a Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I realised that the campaign for the UN Security Council is a close-up campaign. I do not say it is hand-to-hand combat but the Taoiseach will be aware that it is about personally engaging with representatives from other countries. Our officials do it and our Ministers do it whenever they are overseas. When I watched the video, it looked like it was intended for a domestic audience and not one that was likely to encourage anybody on the UN Security Council to vote Ireland onto the council. Rather it was a video that made everyone look good, including the Taoiseach, for a domestic audience. I believe there is a serious issue in respect of the emphasis placed on public relations and the proliferation of videos with the ensuing costs. We need better transparency on this. Perhaps the Taoiseach would confirm whether that €100,000 figure quoted in the media is true.

I am happy to reassure the Deputies that the €2 million referred to in that particular article was not spent on promoting me or Fine Gael; it was spent on campaigns such as those I outlined earlier. They were campaigns such as Healthy Ireland, which is all about encouraging people to take those little steps that could improve their physical or mental health such as giving up smoking, exercising more and healthier eating. I do not believe that anyone in this House would think it money badly spent to invest in Healthy Ireland and to put across to the public those important messages regarding their own health. One could give no better health advice than to give up smoking, exercise more and eat healthier.

There was also a campaign to inform the public about Project Ireland 2040, what is in that programme and how it will affect people in their communities and their lives. Another campaign was the public information campaign for the self-employed to let self-employed people know what new benefits are being made available to them by the Government, how their tax burden is being reduced and how the Government is increasingly investing in supporting entrepreneurship. These are all public information campaigns. When I first became Taoiseach, I took the decision to centralise this funding in my Department through the special communications unit so the spending relates to that. This is why it has almost all occurred before July 2014. My intention was to centralise communications, improve communications and reduce the costs thereof. Given the political controversy that was caused, which became such a distraction to the project, that is no longer the case. In future, and indeed currently, these campaigns and information campaigns are funded through the line Department and not through my Department.

I disagree with Deputy McDonald's comments earlier. Anything that exposes somebody who makes false claims about health or particular cures is very much in the public interest. The Deputy and her party do not have a very good record on this with regard to her own conduct and that of some of her party members around the issue of CervicalCheck and cervical screening. Some of the false claims made by the Deputy's party caused increased anxiety for women in Ireland. There were false claims in health and false information was put out. Claims of false cures can cost lives and can damage people in the long term. I do not believe that anyone in this House should be ashamed of exposing those who make false claims around health and particular cures.

I do not have a breakdown of staffing numbers but I can provide those by correspondence. It is the 21st century and people who work in media no longer tend to be broken into social media, broadcast media and print media. Increasingly the platforms are all becoming one. The number of persons dedicated to social media may well be very small, or zero, but people tend to work across platforms these days and not just in one branch of media. My Twitter account is mine. I own it and all the posts are either done by me or by me in conjunction with one of my two political staff - not by civil servants.

I do not believe that Deputy Gino Kenny was trying to promote any false position. He simply asked about medicinal cannabis and the medical access programme. I thought it was very clear. The Taoiseach is being utterly disingenuous on that.

The anxiety endured by the women caught up in the CervicalCheck scandal was generated by people not connected at all with me but connected with the systems of the State. The Taoiseach knows this.

I note that in his reply the Taoiseach did not answer my question on the photograph I referred to, a copy of which I have here. The caption tells us that the "Taoiseach and the Minister Eoghan Murphy" - which is okay - are joined by "Minister Josepha Madigan" - which is grand - and the Ministers of State John Halligan and Kevin Boxer Moran - which is fair enough. They were announcing the fund for urban regeneration and development, but why on earth does the Taoiseach have a party colleague alongside all of his Government colleagues? What is that all about? I do not dispute the necessity to make such an announcement or to publicise it, but I ask the Taoiseach to explain to me why his candidate for Mayo is alongside him in that photo opportunity. This is taxpayers' money. As the Head of the Government, he makes the announcements and he has Government colleagues with him. Why, however, is there a general election candidate? That is what got the Taoiseach into bother the last time around when it was regarded that State money was being used to make announcements on projects on the taxpayers' dollar, and that it was being used, misused and abused to promote not only a party political agenda but also an agenda very much connected with the electoral prospects of his party colleagues.

That is the core point. I asked about the costs of the video for the UN Security Council campaign. Perhaps the Taoiseach would comment on the cost and necessity of that. The issue is to try to differentiate between Government spend, party spend and party promotion. Unfortunately, many of the campaigns the Taoiseach has spoken of - even Creative Ireland and others like it - have not been demarcated rigidly enough with regard to public service announcements and party political campaigning. Photographs will emerge in campaigns, for example about Creative Ireland, when Ministers have to turn up when they are to discuss literature, arts or whatever.

There will always be a bit of it, but it is done to excess. On the two funds that were announced recently for urban and rural Ireland, while no-one has any issue with funding projects, they risk the application of the appellation "political slush fund" if they turn out to be juxtaposed or used as part of a party political campaign as well as promoting candidates and so on around the place. The original problem with the strategic communications unit was the utilisation of taxpayers' money to promote party campaigns. That is the issue that needs to be guarded against. I would appreciate a comment on the cost of the Security Council video.

To be very honest with Deputy McDonald, I do not know who took that photograph and I do not know if any public money was expended by the taking of the photograph. It is possible that Senator Mulherin got somebody to take the photograph for her on her phone, in which case no public money was-----

It is on an official website. It is on a Government website.

I will check into that. I will have that taken down. I do not know which website it is on but I will certainly check into it. We need to be realistic about this. Deputies and Senators who are not Ministers, including those from the Opposition, turn up at Government announcements-----

-----as do candidates. I am not sure.

It is on merrionstreet.ie.

It might be overkill for me to issue an instruction that anybody who is not a Minister, including Opposition Deputies, be airbrushed out of any photographs that appear on a Government website. In fairness, that is not what the Deputy is suggesting-----

-----but if we were to take what she is claiming to its natural extension, what she would want us to do would be to airbrush out from any photograph on merrionstreet.ie or any Government website pictures of people who are not Ministers, including of herself or her colleagues. I just think that would be overkill. I appreciate that she needs to find something to raise and I will certainly look into that.

Deputy Micheál Martin again alleged that public money was used to promote Fine Gael candidates last year prior to the controversy in respect of the strategic communications unit. I would like again to put on the record that the allegation is false. The editors of the local newspapers concerned against whom, let us not forget, this allegation is being made confirmed they were not put under any pressure whatsoever by anyone to include such photographs.

What about everyone else?

They chose them by their own volition so that is a false allegation-----

It is not a false allegation. Did the Taoiseach and the Government not pay for it?

-----and it should not be repeated.

The taxpayer paid for those advertorials. How is it false?

Both editors have confirmed that they chose the photographs and were not told or asked to pick any particular photographs.

That is twisting the point.

That is an extraordinary distortion and twisting of the facts.

I know, but the Taoiseach is being provocative.

The rules of the House are the rules of the House.

On the video for the UN Security Council campaign, I understand it was funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade so the Deputy would need to raise that with the Tánaiste.

I have raised it with the Taoiseach.

I do not know the answer. The Deputy can raise it with the Tánaiste. He will be here tomorrow.

Of course the Taoiseach has the answer, come on. That is outrageous.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to County Derry. [47965/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his last visit to Derry. [48110/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to County Derry. [48233/18]

I propose to answer questions Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, together.

I visited Derry city on Friday 26 October, where I had several engagements. I was pleased to visit the Apprentice Boys headquarters and museum where I enjoyed a tour of the museum. I also had the opportunity to meet the chairman of the management committee, Mr. William Moore, and some of his colleagues. I then visited Creggan Enterprises in the Rath Mór centre in Creggan, where I spoke with local business people and members of the community. I also had the opportunity to meet those involved in projects operating from the centre. During my visit, I also briefly met the local MP, Ms Elisha McCallion. Finally, that evening I spoke at the St Columb’s College annual dinner which this year was in honour of one of St Columb’s former students, Mr. Mark Durkan.

While my visit to Derry was short, it was a welcome opportunity for engagement with people from all communities. I believe that visits like this by me as Taoiseach and by other Ministers are important in the context of our overall North-South relations, particularly at a time when the formal structures of the North-South Ministerial Council are not active.

I appreciate that the Taoiseach's visit was short and I welcome the fact that he went to Mark Durkan's former college to honour him. The Taoiseach was honouring a remarkable contribution to politics and to peace on the island of Ireland. Mr. Durkan was a close confidant of, and great adviser to, John Hume. He was a member of the British Parliament. Regrettably, he lost his seat in the last general election. He is a big loss to politics in Northern Ireland. He would have cast his vote in Westminster if he had been elected to support the draft withdrawal treaty on Brexit, which is now before the British Parliament. In many ways, honouring Mark Durkan illustrates the silence in Northern Ireland of the anti-Brexit majority, who do not have any public or parliamentary forum through which they can articulate their views on Brexit. It is my genuine belief that the collapse of the Executive originally and the absence of any Executive and assembly is something that has caused great damage to Northern Ireland in terms of its capacity to make a meaningful contribution to the Brexit debate. In particular, if the Executive and assembly had not been collapsed they would act as a potential bridge between the two communities, an opportunity to channel a practical approach to Brexit that has been sorely missed to date. I recall the letter that former Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, and First Minister, Arlene Foster, wrote together, basically referencing the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and the desire of both to work together to manage the issues facing Northern Ireland in the Brexit context. How polarised it has become since that joint letter was issued. The absence of representation at all levels is a big issue for the North in the context of Brexit.

It is most welcome that the Taoiseach visited Derry on that occasion, albeit for a brief spell. I agree that it is extremely important that he and members of his Government regularly visit communities in the North across the board. That in and of itself is an important confidence-building measure.

I disagree that the anti-Brexit majority has been silent. The facts speak to the contrary. In fact, it has met the Taoiseach in political form - ourselves from Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, the SDLP and the Greens. The anti-Brexit majority has spoken loudly well beyond politics in the business community with which we, and no doubt the Taoiseach, have worked closely, through agriculture, academia, the trade unions and the community sector - one could not miss them. The message is unmissable regarding the anti-Brexit position.

Of course it is absolutely disgraceful that the power-sharing institutions are not up and running. I absolutely agree with that point. However, the Taoiseach should not overestimate the extent to which the institutions would have influenced the Brexit debate. He should look to Scotland. The Scots will go into the House of Commons, 80 or so of them, and vote against the draft withdrawal agreement because Scottish interests are not to the forefront. They are irrelevant in the Westminster debate. They will tell us, if we have ears to listen, that they have been marginalised. It has been a box-ticking exercise. In fact, Scottish members of the House of Commons went so far as to leave on one occasion, such was their level of frustration. Brexit in an essential way is a very English phenomenon. It is a dispute, but that is just in a matter of shade. Brexit is happening and we need to be prepared for it.

What, from the Taoiseach's perspective, is the plan now to get the institutions back up and running? What is the game plan from Government here in Dublin?

I concur with Deputy Micheál Martin. Mr. Mark Durkan very much deserves his honours. He was a very effective politician as a Minister and an MP. He is an able persuader and a witty and articulate parliamentarian. He made a very thoughtful but also very witty speech on the night. I regret that he lost his seat because it has left the city of Derry unrepresented in Westminster, which leaves Derry and the residents of the Foyle constituency without a vote on Brexit.

We understand there will be a series of votes in the House of Commons; it will not just be a simple "Yes" or "No" vote on the withdrawal agreement. It will be possible for MPs to table amendments on which there will be votes. There could be specific votes on the backstop and on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the EU customs union. That matter was only defeated by three votes a few months ago when MPs last voted on it. There could be a vote on whether the UK should stay in the Single Market. The Scottish National Party, SNP, is strongly pushing that option. There could even be a vote on whether there should be a people's vote. It is regrettable that seven constituencies in Northern Ireland will be disenfranchised and will not have a say on this important matter that affects them so much.

On a level beyond simple arithmetic, I am also concerned that many MPs in the House of Commons are not hearing the full story from Northern Ireland. Many English MPs - Deputy McDonald is right to identify much of this as an English phenomenon - do not know a great deal about Northern Ireland. They do not read the Belfast Telegraph or the Irish News. They are not really hearing from business people or farmers in Northern Ireland. They are hearing what they are hearing around the tea and coffee rooms and bars in Westminster. That is why it is important to be there and Sinn Féin MPs are not. The people of Northern Ireland are being badly let down in that regard.

I was asked about the game plan. To get the assembly and the Executive back up and running, we want to work with the British Government to encourage the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, to come together, make compromises, put aside their differences and build trust. We want them to form an Executive and restore the assembly. It is my hope that if and when the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster approves the withdrawal agreement, then at least we will have certainty about what is going to happen and what is not going to happen for the next two years or more. I hope that allows a window of opportunity for the parties to come together and to agree to the establishment of an Executive and assembly again. In the absence of that, we will ensure that the other institutions, the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, work, operate and meet.

I will deal with the Good Friday Agreement in the next question. Deputy McDonald put forward the idea, I am sure the Taoiseach will agree with me, that the SNP is not very relevant to the debate in Westminster in a number of ways. For example, if the SNP were to vote in favour of the withdrawal agreement or aspects of it, it would pass by a wide margin. SNP Members have been involved in all the talks with the British Government - I have met them. However, nobody from the assembly or Executive in the North has been in talks as a government with the British Government on the issues relating to Brexit. How can there be regulatory alignment with the Single Market without the Executive and the assembly up and running?

As I have said for the past two years, if people do not want to take their seats in Westminster they should not stand for election and allow people who would take their seats to stand and give Northern Ireland representation on a crucial issue. This is existential in some respects economically for the entire island if the wrong call is made by the Westminster Parliament. I do not want to predict too far into the future - there could be an Article 50 extension and so on. The stakes are very high for ordinary people and their jobs in sectors from agrifood to business. Civil society has not been represented adequately. While some anti-Brexit groups have been coming, they have been reduced to deputations to Brussels, Dublin and elsewhere. The alternative was executive function and representation as per the Executive and parliamentarian representation as per the assembly, and likewise in Westminster on probably the greatest economic issue to have faced the country in 40 years.

As we will not agree on the issue of abstentionism, I will not labour the point. I assure the Taoiseach that the people of Foyle in Derry are well represented by Elisha McCallion. He said he met Ms McCallion. It was remiss of me not to mark the very significant contribution of Mark Durkan. Of course, the Taoiseach will not be surprised to hear me say that I was not sorry he lost his seat to my colleague, Elisha McCallion.

In any event, there is a split in the executive parties in the North; the DUP is for Brexit. Any fanciful idea of conjuring up an anti-Brexit position or a pro-withdrawal-agreement position from the Executive is not grounded in reality. I believe that in the 1930s Eamon de Valera stood for election in South Down and he was the last Fianna Fáil abstentionist. Of course, he did not go and take an oath in the House of Commons for the reasons that none of us here would.

He did what Mark Durkan did. It is called the empty formula.

It is not an empty formula when uttered in the Palace of Westminster.

It was how Mark Durkan did it.

I did not interrupt Deputy Martin.

It is entirely different matter than in the nascent Free State when the Dáil was finding its feet. They are different scenarios. We could debate that all day. The core issue on which we can agree is the necessity to get the institutions of government back up and running. To that end for the Taoiseach's benefit, I want to make it very clear that we again stand ready to do the lift that is required to make that happen. As the Taoiseach will know, because he travelled north at the time, in February I thought we had it. I thought we had a sufficiency of consensus to move forward. Nobody was more disappointed than I when that did not happen.

I invite the Taoiseach to elaborate on how he sees the pathway forward and the resolution of the outstanding issues.

The Tánaiste, the Secretary of State and I have some thoughts as to how we might proceed and how we might try to make another attempt to get the parties together and get an Executive and assembly up and running. Outlining that on the floor of the House with everyone listening is probably not the most conducive way to get an outcome. I will have a follow-up meeting with the assembly parties in the next few weeks and that is probably the place to discuss it.

As we are discussing the collapse of the Executive and assembly, which was very much connected to the controversy relating to the renewable heating initiative. I have been following periodically the inquiry. I was very interested to read all about Sinn Féin's involvement in renewable heating, which was much greater than we realised at the time. I was particularly interested to read about the email correspondence between Mairtín Ó Muilleoir, who, of course, was the Minister for Finance at the time, and Ted Howell-----

I call him "Twitter".

-----who would be a senior republican, if I might put it that way. Among the documents uncovered in the inquiry was an email from Mairtín Ó Muilleoir to Ted Howell, a senior republican who held no elected office whatsoever, asking if he would be content for Mr. Ó Muilleoir to "sign off the business plan on Wednesday". That is documentary evidence that Sinn Féin Ministers seek approval and consent from "senior republicans" when it comes to major decisions in government. I would be curious to know if Deputy McDonald would like to comment or expand on that and maybe inform us of the extent to which she and those on her front bench require approval from senior republicans for decisions.

Brexit Issues

Micheál Martin

Question:

5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his conversation with Prime Minister May on 5 November 2018. [46797/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he discussed the Good Friday Agreement with Prime Minister May when they spoke on 5 November 2018. [47122/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his telephone conversation with Prime Minister May on 5 November 2018. [47966/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent conversation with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [48020/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with Prime Minister May since the draft withdrawal treaty for the UK from the EU was published. [48107/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May since 15 November 2018 when the Brexit secretary resigned. [48375/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 10, inclusive, together.

I spoke by phone to the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, on 5 November, when we discussed the current state of the Brexit negotiations.

We both emphasised our commitment to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and the need to make sure that we had a legally operable backstop.

The Prime Minister raised the possibility of a review mechanism for the backstop. I indicated an openness to consider proposals for a review, provided it was clear that the outcome of any such review could not involve a unilateral decision either by the UK or the EU to end the backstop.

I recalled the prior commitments made that the backstop must apply "unless and until" alternative arrangements were in place to supercede it. We both expressed the hope that the negotiations could conclude in a satisfactory manner as soon as possible.

I welcome the endorsement by the European Council of the agreement on the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, and approval of the Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship.

Both sets of negotiators have worked long and hard to achieve this decisive progress, with compromises on all sides. Ireland’s key objectives for this stage in the negotiations have been fully achieved.

I can confirm that the backstop arrangements in the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland provide a guarantee that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland. We hope that the backstop will never be used and we will work closely and continuously with our EU partners during the negotiations on the future relationship treaties that will establish the alternative arrangements.

I can also confirm that the protocol includes provisions allowing for a review of the backstop. The legal text states that the backstop will stay in place unless and until alternative arrangements can be agreed and can only be ended by the mutual agreement of both sides.

The EU and the UK have committed in the finalised withdrawal agreement to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. For the avoidance of any doubt, the protocol confirms that nothing in the agreement would prejudice the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and that the principle of consent as set out in the Good Friday Agreement is now part of a draft treaty between the UK and the EU, therefore strengthening and copper-fastening that principle of consent.

While the backstop, if invoked, envisages some different regulatory rules applying in Northern Ireland, this does not represent a threat to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland in my view. In many ways, what the Prime Minister said yesterday mirrors other policy areas where Northern Ireland has different rules from other parts of the United Kingdom.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I welcome the fact that the essentials of the Good Friday Agreement have been preserved within the withdrawal agreement. I have absolutely no doubt but that the collapse of the Executive and the Assembly was contrived nearly two years ago by Sinn Féin for political reasons. Allegedly, it was over the renewable heat initiative. We now know Sinn Féin was involved in trying to keep that extended as well. The degree of cynicism involved in that act was extraordinary. I do not accept Deputy McDonald's assertions, and I put it to the Taoiseach, that the absence of the Executive or the Assembly somehow is irrelevant to the unfolding Brexit situation. That is an absurd assertion to make. I have made those points on the importance of the Assembly and the Executive in terms of allowing the anti-Brexit majority in Northern Ireland to have a parliamentary voice and a voice at the Executive, and also to improve the dynamic in relations. Brexit has damaged relations between two communities in the North. It is polarised because of Brexit and, in my view, the absence of real politics.

When a scandal hits a government, one does not collapse it. One deals with the scandal. It is extraordinary that a renewable heat initiative scandal that has occasioned an inquiry caused the collapse of the entire edifice of Government - the Executive and the Parliament. I believe that is unparalleled in any European democracy and, in my view, unforgivable, given the gravity of Brexit, and compounded by the absence of any Brexit sentiment in Westminster where people did not get an opportunity to articulate their view.

Brexit is about damage limitation. We know Brexit will be bad. Events may unfold differently in the Westminster Parliament. We are now in the realm of speculation here as to what will occur there. I note the Taoiseach said last week that no Government could be prepared for a no-deal scenario. Can he assure us that the Government has a plan and is preparing diligently for a no-deal scenario even though nobody wants that and we will do everything we possibly can to avoid it?

When the inquiry reports back on the renewable heat initiative, RHI, scandal, I believe it will record the central role of the DUP. At that stage, the Taoiseach can make his assessment on an informed basis as regards Sinn Féin. What he is doing at this point is simply playing party politics. He says he wishes, in an even-handed manner, with rigorous impartiality - that is what both Governments are committed to in the Good Friday Agreement - to ensure the restoration of the institutions of Government, yet at every opportunity, in a very partisan and partial way, the Taoiseach chooses to attack Sinn Féin and to attack me. That is the Taoiseach's business, and it might be the party political acoustic of this Chamber, but it is a far cry from adopting a posture of rigorous impartiality.

To respond to Deputy Martin, I have not advanced any absurdities. Unlike his party or the Taoiseach's party, we actually represent people in the North of Ireland. We have a democratic mandate from them. We live and work within the communities in question so I know full well the necessity and the value of good government and sustainable power sharing. However, I am also saying to him that he is in cloud cuckoo land if he thinks there could be an agreed all-of-Executive position on Brexit with the stance that has been taken by the DUP. He is even further in the realms of fantasy and wishful thinking if he imagines for one second that Ireland, or any representatives from Ireland, will be the decisive factor in the shape of Brexit, or Scotland for that matter. That is not a real possibility. As I have said previously, the withdrawal agreement is the least worst outcome. In his bid to sooth unionists' nerves, I ask the Taoiseach to reassure the Dáil that he will not give any succour to the position advanced by Arlene Foster that the backstop should be ditched. I would like him to make that clear this afternoon.

I think what I said in the Dáil yesterday or previously is that no Government can be fully prepared for a no-deal Brexit, not us, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Belgium or anywhere. However, we will be as prepared as we can be and that involves the hiring of Revenue and customs officials, which is very much under way, for our ports and airports. It involves the hiring of veterinary officials, and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is confident it can do that. It requires significant infrastructure at Dublin Port, Dublin Airport and Rosslare. Those works are under way, and the OPW is leading on those in conjunction with the port companies and the Dublin Airport Authority. Also, the European Commission is working on its no-deal contingency plans, many of which have been published, and notices have been issued with regard to what will be done in the case of citizens' rights, aviation and so on.

I do not believe a no-deal scenario is likely. This deal can and should be ratified, but it has to include the backstop. There can be no doubt about that. That is a view of the European Union also.

On soothing unionists' fears, I am not trying to sooth but I am trying to understand and listen. Even if one does not agree with somebody, understanding where they are coming from is of benefit. Listening is a benefit as well. When I met with the Grand Master of the Orange Order, Mervyn Gibson, and some Orangemen from the Border counties on Monday, he told me that when I used the term "precious union" in this Chamber last week it was picked up in Northern Ireland, and perhaps in the UK, as me being in some way being snide or sarcastic. That was not my intention whatsoever. When I used the term "precious union" in this Chamber, I did so quoting Arlene Foster because she often refers to the precious union. I quoted it in an attempt to demonstrate that I understand how precious the union is to unionists and how important their British identity is to them.

I said it and quoted it in an attempt to demonstrate that I was listening and that I understood that unionists regard the union to be precious. I did not mean it in any way to cause offence or sound sarcastic or snide, as I am happy to clarify.

I also have the view that we will not reach a no deal scenario, although there will be many difficult hurdles between now and 30 March. Notwithstanding that there may be a series of votes in Westminster, it could take a number of directions, namely, anything from a British general election or a referendum to a second vote or a series of votes that gives a different result, but that is in the realm of speculation. It is extremely important to prepare properly. To date, the Dutch Government, for example, has been further ahead than us and hired 1,000 customs officers. There is a significant issue with our level of preparation across the board, including in enterprise. The number of companies that describe themselves as not ready for Brexit in surveys such as Bord Bia's and others' is a concern.

On unionism, I recall the Taoiseach's comments last week and I think he was attempting to educate me about the unionist mind. I have talked with unionists for more than 30 years, on many occasions off the record, and in my capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs I managed to co-chair the discussions that resulted in the devolution of justice, which was the final act of the St. Andrews and Good Friday Agreements and which brought the administration of justice to a devolved setting in Northern Ireland. I respect unionists' opinions, although I fundamentally disagree with them on their attitude to the withdrawal agreement because it gives Northern Ireland the best of both worlds economically. It is a monumental failure on all sides that we are in this situation.

When one compares all the complex decisions, such as decommissioning, that were taken to get the Good Friday Agreement over the line with the kinds of issues that are preventing a Government in Northern Ireland, the current issues bear no resemblance to the real issues of substance that had to be overcome to achieve the Good Friday Agreement, the devolution of justice and so on. It reflects a monumental failure. I do not live in cloud-cuckoo-land. I have given much time and effort to Northern Ireland over many decades to try to understand it, coming from the republican background that I do. I have worked well with unionists, people from the nationalist and republican communities and public representatives on all sides. Irrespective of one's perspective, it is careless in the extreme to allow the institutions of government collapse because of a renewable heating scheme. That is beyond the beyond.

When the institutions collapsed, public confidence in them was at rock bottom. They collapsed because of a perception of corruption and malpractice. The Deputy might struggle with the notion that public opinion reacts adversely to corruption and bad practice, but that is how it happened. If one cares to go and listen widely, people will say with clarity that they did not want a situation where the DUP, which had never signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, was not working in the power-sharing agreement. The Deputy may say the big issue is decommissioning or policing, but many of the people whom he frequently derides and about whom he is extremely snide and sarcastic were instrumental in building that politics with others.

A whole generation of nationalists and, beyond that, progressives in the North will not wait for rights. If that upsets the Deputy or the Taoiseach, sin é. I accept that when the Taoiseach spoke of the "precious union" he was not being snide or sarcastic. If it is any consolation to our unionist friends, the snide and sarcastic commentary in this Chamber is directed towards nationalists, be they Sinn Féin or other Northern nationalists, who do not see the world through the same prism as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Nationalists have lived and continue to live a different reality, their view point is not respected and their democratic mandate is consistently questioned by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

I partly agree with the Taoiseach about preparation for a crash Brexit because it is unknown and uncharted territory. I accept he has obligations but I urge him to be careful and avoid talking up the prospect of a crash or a no deal scenario. It is not in anyone's interest and he should not rise to that bait.

As I said to Mrs. May yesterday evening, if unionists think that a crash is what will save their precious union, and that hardening the Border will resolve the matter, they are foolish because there cannot be a hard border on our island. We are all ad idem on that. While we will respectfully listen and understand, it must be understood that the interests of the whole island will be protected by all of us, not least by the Taoiseach as head of Government.

The interests of the whole island will be protected. I am sincere about that and I mean it. No matter what happens, we will look at this from an all-island perspective and not just from the vantage of this State.

I recognise and largely concur with some of Deputy Micheál Martin's comments. The architects of the Good Friday Agreement, many of whom, including the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, were from the Deputy's party, as well as others such as Tony Blair, John Hume, David Trimble and Deputy Adams, overcame such considerable obstacles in securing a ceasefire, securing British troop withdrawals from Northern Ireland, securing decommissioning, gaining acceptance for power-sharing across Northern Ireland, in which many people did not believe at one stage, and gaining acceptance of the principle of consent, that 20 years ago must have seemed too great to overcome. They were overcome, however, which is why it behoves those who are now in office, such as me, Prime Minister May and people who hold influence in Northern Ireland and here, not to be found wanting or fall short of the high standards that were set by those people 20 years ago.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 2.47 p.m. and resumed at 3.47 p.m.