Ceisteanna - Questions

Brexit Issues

Micheál Martin

Question:

1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in contingency planning for Brexit; and the number of meetings that have been held since September 2018 on same. [8464/19]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in contingency planning for Brexit; and the number of meetings held since September 2018 on the issue. [9093/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in contingency planning for Brexit; and the number of meetings that have been held on this issue since September 2018. [9306/19]

Eamon Ryan

Question:

4. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in contingency planning for Brexit; and the number of meetings that have been held since September 2018 on same. [9390/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in contingency planning in respect of Brexit. [9457/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

My Department works closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit. A comprehensive set of Government structures has been put in place to ensure that all Departments and their agencies are engaged in detailed preparedness and contingency activities. Since well before the referendum in the UK, Brexit has been the subject of detailed contingency planning across all relevant Departments. Staff across several divisions in my Department contribute to the work on Brexit, including the international, European Union and Northern Ireland divisions, as well as the economic division. To augment this ongoing work, my Department also has a dedicated unit on Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The unit, working closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, focuses on cross-Government co-ordination, planning and programme management. The unit provides assistance to a Secretaries General group, chaired by the Secretary General to the Government, which meets weekly to oversee ongoing work on national Brexit preparedness and contingency planning.

The unit also assists an assistant secretaries group on no-deal Brexit planning which meets on a regular basis. This group is wholly focused on planning for a no-deal scenario based on the Government’s contingency action plan published last December. That plan provides detailed sectoral analyses and approaches to mitigate the impacts of a no-deal Brexit. On 30 January, an update to the contingency action plan was published, setting out how preparations for a no-deal scenario have intensified since December.

Our preparedness and contingency planning takes full account of and complements the steps under way at EU level to prepare for the UK’s withdrawal, notably as regards the implementation of the European Commission’s contingency action plan. There is ongoing engagement between Irish officials and their European Commission counterparts. The unit, in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, also assists a senior officials group on Brexit-related legislation, which also meets on a regular basis. The group is overseeing the necessary primary and secondary legislation required for a no-deal Brexit. This has involved a painstaking, whole-of-Government screening of our laws to determine what changes will be needed if the UK becomes a third country overnight. On 22 February, the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019, known as the Brexit omnibus Bill or BOB, was published. This landmark legislation crosses the remit of nine Ministers and is made up of 15 parts, all of which are designed to prepare Ireland for a no-deal Brexit. The senior officials group on legislation will continue to work on the omnibus Bill as it progresses through both Houses of the Oireachtas. Work is continuing in parallel on complementary and necessary secondary legislation. The Government will continue to work very closely with Opposition parties in the Oireachtas and all members of the Dáil and Seanad to ensure that this necessary legislation will be in place by 29 March 2019 in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Since the beginning of the year I have been asking the Taoiseach on every sitting day to outline what will happen if there is a no-deal scenario in the coming months. Every time, the Taoiseach has replied that he is not contemplating or planning for a hard border but he has steadfastly refused to actually answer the specific question. Even for him, this has been a remarkable display of ignoring what one has been asked. It may very well be that Brexit will not be happening on 29 March due to an extension, as yet not agreed, but the Taoiseach has repeatedly said that we have to be ready for any eventuality. He has also said that the United Kingdom leaving without a deal has major implications for the Border. He is saying that we have to be ready and that something will happen but, with 24 days to go, he refuses to say what exactly will happen.

Does the Taoiseach not realise that there are orders already under production that will be delivered after 29 March? Why is Ireland the only member of the EU that has not said what will happen on its borders in a no-deal scenario? Today it is being reported that armed units of An Garda Síochána are being sent to the Border in anticipation of a no-deal Brexit. Are these reports false or are they confirmation that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, was correct and the Tánaiste was wrong when the former claimed that there were "immediate security implications"? Last week Dublin Port confirmed that it will have enough custom checkpoints available on 29 March but that there will not be enough customs officials to staff them. Does the Taoiseach think this is acceptable, given past assurances that everything would be ready by 29 March?

The British Attorney General is in Brussels this week for talks to find what the British describe as a "legally binding" undertaking to ensure that there is no permanent tying of the UK into the EU. I have been seeking clarification for some time as to what might constitute this legally binding assurance. I understand that the British have abandoned the notion of altering the withdrawal agreement itself. It has been the very clear position of the EU from the start that the agreement will not be altered. I asked previously if the assurance might take the shape of an amendment to the political declaration. While I understand that this is still a possibility, it will not constitute a legally binding commitment as far as the British are concerned. What is the Taoiseach's understanding of the nature of the discussions now taking place in terms of what will give the British the guarantee they are seeking? Will it be a European Council declaration that could be interpreted as legally binding? Could it be, as was suggested this morning on the national airwaves, some sort of new arbitration system? The latter hardly gives the British the guarantees they need. I ask the Taoiseach to provide clarity to this House so that Members here are at least as well briefed as our British counterparts on what exactly is being negotiated to give the British the guarantee they require. Does the Taoiseach agree that this is a very important issue for us? This is a moment of peril for Ireland and we must not weaken in the firm resolve have shown thus far, in this House and across the European Union, to hold fast on an unalterable backstop until and unless something better replaces it.

By far the most dangerous potential outcome of a no-deal Brexit is the reinstallation of a border between the North and South of this country. Amendments that my colleagues and I put forward to the omnibus Bill have been ruled out of order and the Government does not deal with the possibility of such a border in that Bill. The Taoiseach says publicly that the Government has done nothing to prepare for the possibility of a hard border between the North and South and yet we are hearing a constant drip, drip of commentary and reports which suggest that behind the scenes, the Government may be considering installing a physical border. The latest of such reports, emblazoned on the front page of today's national newspapers, suggests that hundreds of gardaí are being sent to the Border counties. At Davos, the Taoiseach talked about the possibility of the Army being deployed along the Border and we have heard leading figures in the EU saying that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, measures would be needed to protect the integrity of the Single Market. To say that there is a lack of clarity and certainty about the Government's intention to absolutely prevent, under all circumstances, a hard border between North and South would be putting it mildly. Can the Taoiseach shed any light on this? As the clock ticks down, there has to be a real fear that, unthinkable as it, such a border is being planned for, either by the Irish Government or the European Union.

At this stage, with just 24 days to go, I ask the Taoiseach to confirm to the Oireachtas that he has not given any undertaking or intimation to any negotiating party that his Government or the Irish State will be in any way resiling from the backstop or Irish protocol, as it is currently drafted. It is important that he makes that clear. We may speculate as to what the British Government might seek to negotiate but important though that is, it is outside of our control. We need a clear understanding of the resolve of the Taoiseach and his Government to remain steady and firm in a position for the backstop.

Will the Taoiseach simply place it on the record of the House that this is the position of the Government and that it will remain the position of the Government, irrespective of overtures from London or anywhere else?

Will the Taoiseach confirm or deny the news of members of An Garda Síochána being sent to the Border? This matter is important. Not to up the ante of dramatics around the Brexit issue but for people living in the Border areas, news like this certainly causes real concern. Perhaps the Taoiseach can shed some light on this. Is it true? Is the story - as carried in the media - true, yes or no?

Whatever way it happens, be it by accident or design, a no-deal Brexit means a hard border. That is the upshot of it. Will the Taoiseach tell us how he plans to mitigate that? How will the Taoiseach stop that hardening of the Border?

I thank the Deputy for her questions. I cannot predict with absolute certainty or absolute clarity what will happen in the event of a no-deal Brexit. I do not believe that anybody can. All we can do is plan for different scenarios. I will say - and I am happy to say again - that we as a Government have made no plans for physical infrastructure, checks or controls on the land Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland under any scenario. If we end up with no deal in a few weeks, we will have to have difficult discussions involving the European Commission and the UK Government on how we can protect the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union while avoiding the emergence of a hard border on the island. The only workable solution we have come up with so far is what is written in the Irish protocol and the backstop, which is a system of regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the European Union, and also to an extent between the United Kingdom and the European Union. People talk about alternative arrangements but the only thing we have written down, that we know works in law and in reality, is what is contained in the backstop.

On staffing, we had a memo to Cabinet today about no-deal Brexit planning. We will be in a position to have some 400 Revenue and Customs people in place at the end of the month. There also will be between 50 and 60 officials from the Department of Health and between 150 and 200 inspectors from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We are confident that the IT systems will be in place and that we will be able to implement the acquis at the ports and airports.

With regard to Border policing, I did not have a chance to read the story in today's newspapers, but my note says that there was an article in today's edition of the Irish Independent stating "Armed support units will shortly be deployed around the clock in the Border region, under plans being finalised by Garda chiefs". Anybody will appreciate there is a difference between the Border and the Border region. The Border region is what other people would call the northern division of the Garda. I have been informed by An Garda Síochána that in 2018, a cross-Border threat assessment was prepared jointly by An Garda Síochána and the PSNI. This assessment estimated that some 43% of organised crime gangs in Northern Ireland have a cross-Border dimension. Likewise mobile, organised crime groups responsible for multiple serious incidences of domestic burglary operate on an all-island basis. There are also increasing incidences of borderless crimes such as cyberfraud and international terrorism. This is the context in which the Garda Commissioner made an operational decision to establish another regional armed support unit, which will be based in County Cavan. Members will appreciate that the detail on the number of gardaí and resources allocated to this armed support unit is deemed to be operationally sensitive and cannot be disclosed for security reasons. The Cavan Garda district armed support unit, ASU, is expected to become operational in the near future. The Commissioner has now established armed support units in each of the six Garda regions to provide an armed response capacity and capability on a regional basis to support and supplement the national emergency response unit. In the northern region ASUs are currently based in Ballyshannon and Dundalk Garda stations serving all Garda divisions comprising the northern region. The unit based in Cavan will augment that.

A further 200 Garda recruits will attest later this week. I understand that a further 49 newly attested gardaí will be assigned to the northern region, which comprises the Border counties, but not the actual physical Border itself, which of course does not exist.

There is close and ongoing co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI. This measure consists of additional gardaí and an additional armed support unit for what are the Border counties, but not the Border per se. I believe this will be welcomed by people, in particular by those who have been subjected to burglaries, in that region.

Discussions are ongoing between the EU and the UK. I do not have clarity on the content or form of any further guarantees that may be made around the backstop. The ongoing work is focused on what guarantees could be given regarding the backstop that underline once again its temporary nature, and to give the appropriate legal assurances on both sides. Prime Minister May has acknowledged the EU's position that the withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated and that we cannot agree to anything that changes the meaning of the backstop therein.

We are open to providing further assurances on the temporary nature of the backstop but these can in no way contradict, change or undermine the legal operability thereof.

All-Island Civic Dialogue

Micheál Martin

Question:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the all-island civic dialogue held on 15 February 2019.. [8465/19]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the all-island civic dialogue on 15 February 2019. [9092/19]

Eamon Ryan

Question:

8. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the all-island civic dialogue held on 15 February 2019. [9391/19]

Joan Burton

Question:

9. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the fifth plenary session of the all-island civic dialogue on Brexit; if he had subsequent conversations with the political party leaders present; and the issues that were discussed. [9421/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the all-island civic dialogue held on 15 February 2019. [9459/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the all-island civic dialogue on 15 February 2019. [10515/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the all-island civic dialogue held on 15 February 2019. [10927/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 12, inclusive, together.

More than 400 political, business and civic society leaders from across the island attended the fifth plenary session of the all-island civic dialogue on Brexit in Dublin Castle on 15 February. This was a valuable opportunity to update participants on the Government’s position on the latest Brexit developments and on our intensive contingency planning work to prepare for a no-deal withdrawal by the UK.

Having met the five main political parties in Belfast the previous week, I welcomed the opportunity once again to engage with political parties, North and South, and to hear the concerns of society and business, through interactive discussions on people, citizens and rights and on business preparations. This has been a deep consultation exercise, which has helped to shape the Government’s policies, strategy and objectives in the Article 50 negotiations and our domestic response to Brexit. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will produce a report of the proceedings and this will be published on its website.

Some of the most consistent themes we heard at the all-island civic dialogue are the frustrations of people about the lack of detail on potential aid programmes and the clarity from the Government about what people will be faced with on 29 March, or whatever date Brexit kicks in. Many businesses have told me about how slow everything has been to move from calling on people to be prepared and actually delivering substantive aid at the level of individual companies. One and a half years after aid for the agrifood sector was announced, the loans are only beginning to be approved now. Since last summer we have been seeking an update from Government on the preparedness data, which were formerly being prepared on a six-monthly basis. For some reason the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Government have decided to discontinue this research series. Will the Taoiseach explain why the Government has not published any recent data on the level of business preparedness? We have lots of data on the number of companies seeking basic information, but the more important information on the impact of Brexit and preparedness levels has disappeared.

Last December the Taoiseach stated that the Government's intention was to ensure that every business which needs to be ready will be ready by 29 March. What is the Taoiseach's current assessment of the level of preparedness? Does the Taoiseach still believe that everything that can be done has been done? If, as expected, there is an extension, what will be done to address clear deficiencies in preparations in the added time?

The civic dialogue process has been an important and very useful device in confidence-building across the State. One of the aspects that impacted on that confidence over the last weekend was the sudden blowing up of the voisinage dispute when a Northern Ireland-registered vessel was arrested in Irish territorial waters. I am aware there was immediate contact between the Government and Fianna Fáil to fast-track legislation that has been stalled for some time. What exactly is the Taoiseach's legislative solution? There are concerns around finding a solution - which is important for all of us - but not one that does not address the issues that caused the court case to be taken in the first instance. The case was taken by a number of fishermen who were very concerned about the impact of mussel dredging by Northern registered boats.

The concern is that one cannot restrict the impact to Northern boats only, as all UK-registered boats could avail of this gentleman's agreement, as it has been constituted to date. Can the Taoiseach indicate, on foot of his deep involvement with this over the weekend, what exactly he understands the dispute to be and what specific legislative measures he wants to fast-track to address the matter into the future? Will that provide the guarantee and assurance to people that it will not be a backdoor to wholesale access to Irish waters from other UK registered or, indeed, London agreement vessels, which would be very significant for the Irish fishing industry?

The atmosphere at the conference was one of apprehension and concern, in particular on the part of the business people there. It is particularly an issue for small businesses, of which there are many on both sides of the Border. Most hauliers in Ireland are small to medium-sized businesses and the average fleet size is approximately five trucks. No matter what happens, there will be a significant increase in the volume of documentation that will have to accompany imports and exports. That means massive costs in time, administration and money for most medium-sized businesses. I heard on the fringe of the meeting people voicing their concern that very little has been made explicit to them. I understand that because the Taoiseach does not know exactly what is going to happen, he does not want to frighten people. On the other hand, people need to undertake a great deal more preparation than we have seen. There has not been enough outreach. For instance, works on the former customs building in Dundalk are the talk of that town, notwithstanding claims that nothing is going to happen. Clearly, however, documentation will have to increase with any change in the UK's status. It would be better if people were prepared for that now in order that they can minimise the disruption that might, unfortunately, happen.

I agree with the Taoiseach that the all-island civic dialogue has been a necessary and useful exercise. I am interested to know what his future plans for the dialogue are. Does he foresee it becoming a forum for exchanges on Ireland post Brexit? Whatever way this lands and whether it is hard or soft, Brexit will have huge implications for the entire island. We need to work to involve unionism in this format. I note that the Taoiseach spoke at the Alliance Party conference at the weekend, which was extremely positive. More unionist opinion needs to be engaged, whether that is through political parties or more generally across society, or civic unionism, if I can use that term. The forum needs to be a space for those views to be articulated. Can the Taoiseach share with the House what he sees as the future of the dialogue?

On the last occasion we met, in addition to issues around business, commerce and trade, huge issues were raised around citizens' rights. Famously, the Taoiseach assured Northern citizens that they would never again be left behind. The truth, however, is that they are being left behind. Even in the best-case scenario now, where the backstop or protocol is honoured and delivered, there nevertheless will be a significant move away from the initial promise to Irish and EU citizens that they would be free to exercise and enjoy their rights where they resided. That is now not the case, which is a very serious matter and one people are very seized of at this moment. It is a pity the Taoiseach did not avail of the opportunity to afford the two additional European Parliament seats to the people of the North. It could and should have been done. The Taoiseach should have put his money where his mouth was as regards not leaving people behind and allowed people right across society in the North to return two representatives to the European Parliament.

I also attended the dialogue and while dialogue is, of course, important in this current situation of Brexit, it is not much good if some of those involved are not in full possession of the real story. The Taoiseach says he has not read the report on the front page of one of the national newspapers on hundreds of gardaí being deployed to the Border counties. It is astonishing that he has not read the report. If I understood his reply correctly, the Taoiseach said the deployment had nothing to do with Brexit and the possibility of a hard border. It is simply a coincidence and involves a more general concern about organised crime. Can the Taoiseach clarify that is what he is actually saying in order that the House understands? Most people reading the newspapers today will have considered the report to have something to do with preparations by An Garda Síochána for the possibility of a hard border. That anxiety and fear will have been fuelled by comments the Taoiseach made in Davos referring to the deployment of the Army.

Another important item of information I seek in this regard is whether the Taoiseach has had any discussions with EU Commissioners, Barnier, Juncker or leaders like Macron and Merkel about what they mean when they talk about the need to protect the integrity of the Single Market in the event that there is no deal. What are they expecting? I am fearful that there will be pressure from that quarter on the Taoiseach in the event that there is no deal. I find it hard to believe the Taoiseach has not asked them what they mean when they make those sorts of statements.

To clarify matters for Deputy Boyd Barrett, the position is that we are improving and increasing Garda resources all over the country. There are more gardaí, more armed support units, more vehicles and more investments and, as such, it should surprise no one that the Border region, or the northern division as the Garda calls it, should see increased deployment of gardaí and armed support units. It is happening everywhere in the country, which is the context in which it is happening there. I am happy to clarify that it would be happening, Brexit or no Brexit, due, unfortunately, to the level of crime people experience in Ireland, not least on foot of armed burglaries in rural areas on which we are determined to crack down, not only in Cavan, Donegal and Louth, but everywhere in the country.

Deputy Burton asked about customs declarations. At the meeting, figures were released on the number of customs declarations which will increase from approximately 1 million to 20 million. That is a roughly 20-fold increase in the level of information and documentary obligations falling on business, which would impose considerable costs in time and administration. We are trying to make the process, if it happens, as simple as possible through the use of ICT that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago and training is also on offer for businesses that want it.

The Government's policy on voisinage is to restore the situation to the status quo ante, which means going back to what we thought the law was before the Supreme Court struck it down in 2016. That situation involves a reciprocal arrangement to allow vessels from Northern Ireland to enter our six-mile limit just as vessels from Ireland can now enter the six-mile limit in Northern Ireland. It is quite an unfair situation currently as vessels from south of the Border can enter the Northern Ireland six-mile limit waters whereas vessels from Northern Ireland cannot enter ours. We want to correct that situation. While there were complications previously around large vessels, large vessels are all now banned from the six-mile limit and I hope we can, therefore, get cross-party support to get the relevant legislation through. The Bill has been published and passed on Second Stage in the Seanad and I hope it can be enacted by Easter. It would help if the UK Government clarified its intention not to withdraw Northern Ireland from the London convention, but we are not going to make that a precondition.

With regard to European Parliament representation, it is not possible to have a constituency for the European Parliament that is outside the European Union and only EU citizens can vote in European elections. That is in the treaties. It would not be possible to have a constituency of Northern Ireland. Even if it was possible, only EU and Irish citizens would be allowed to vote. One would have to forbid UK citizens from voting and that would be a problem. However, in voting for Mr. Mark Durkan in the European elections people will have an opportunity to ensure there is somebody living in Derry who can represent all of the Ireland in the European Parliament. We will look at other mechanisms that might work. Accession countries can elect observers to the European Parliament and perhaps we might do something similar for Northern Ireland, but I cannot promise that at this stage.

Regarding citizens' rights, people living in Northern Ireland who hold Irish citizenship and, therefore, EU citizenship will continue to have citizens' rights. They include the right to work, study and travel anywhere within the European Union without the need for a visa, permit or the like. If the withdrawal agreement is adopted, they will continue to have access to the European health insurance card and be able to participate in the Erasmus programme during the transition period. I committed in Belfast last weekend to making it a negotiating priority for me in the future relationship talks to ensure EU citizens living in Northern Ireland would be treated as though they were resident in the European Union when it came to practical rights and privileges such as the European health insurance card and participation in the Erasmus programme. I also want Northern Ireland's universities to be able to opt into EU research programmes.

We will move on to the next questions.

I asked questions about business preparedness.

I have the answers if I can have more time to continue.

Does the Deputy wish to continue to the third group of questions?

Yes, we can continue to the third group.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Brendan Howlin

Question:

13. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the Portuguese Prime Minister, Mr. António Luís Santos da Costa. [9091/19]

Micheál Martin

Question:

14. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the Portuguese Prime Minister; the issues that were discussed; and the officials who accompanied him on the visit. [9374/19]

Eamon Ryan

Question:

15. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings with the French Finance Minister. [10368/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

16. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the Portuguese Prime Minister. [10516/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

17. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement with the Prime Minister of Portugal, Mr. António Costa. [10782/19]

I propose to takes Questions Nos. 13 to 17, inclusive, together.

I attach great importance to ongoing political engagement with our EU and international partners. I meet and speak regularly to my counterparts, bilaterally, at formal and informal meetings of the European Council and on the margins of international meetings such as the World Economic Forum which I attended earlier this year. Such engagement is crucial to ensure partners are fully aware of our positions on Brexit and other important EU issues and, more generally, further strengthen our relationships for the period ahead.

I had an informal engagement in Lisbon with the Prime Minister, António Costa, at his invitation, on the evening of 15 February. Our ambassador to Portugal joined us for the meeting. We discussed bilateral relations between our two countries, which are excellent, as well as the forthcoming European elections. We also exchanged views on a number of EU issues, including the latest developments related to Brexit and the political situation in the United Kingdom, as well as preparations at domestic and EU level in case the United Kingdom exits the European Union without a deal.

I again met Prime Minister Costa on the margins of the EU-Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh on 24 and 25 February. I used the opportunity of the summit to also speak informally to Presidents Tusk and Juncker, as well the Prime Ministers of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Greece, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Finland, Sweden, Italy and the Czech Republic, the President of Cyprus and the Chancellor of Austria. As Deputies are aware, I had met more formally Presidents Tusk and Juncker and Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt when I visited Brussels earlier that month.

I met Prime Minister May most recently on the margins of the EU-Arab League summit.

The French Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire, paid a courtesy call to me on 26 February, following his meeting with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, who joined us. We spoke about current EU issues, particularly Brexit. The Minister, Mr. Le Maire, reiterated France’s unwavering solidarity on the backstop and its firm view that the withdrawal agreement could not be renegotiated.

Most recently, on 4 March, I met Prime Minister Skvernelis of Lithuania in Dublin. We discussed the positive bilateral relations between Ireland and Lithuania and a range of EU agenda issues. I thanked him for Lithuania’s support for Ireland in the negotiations.

Other EU and international engagements are envisaged in the period ahead. I will be happy to inform the House of these engagements in due course.

During the informal engagement with the Portuguese Prime Minister, Mr. Costa, did the Taoiseach have an opportunity to ask him how the Portuguese had managed to build an 875-bed hospital for under €400 million? The Portuguese are well known for being very good contractors. Given the pickle the Government has been in because of the extraordinary cost of the national children's hospital, did it occur to the Taoiseach to obtain some friendly advice from another European country on how to manage costs? The issue was underlined again this morning in one of the newspapers which reported that HSE internal documents from the estates department showed that as far back as last May the head of estates in the HSE had made it clear that the budget figures for the children's hospital would have to be available for inputting into the budget last October. That would be the normal practice with which I am familiar. Big capital budgets must be considered in the context of the overall budget. This makes a nonsense of what the Minister for Health has asserted, that the children's hospital budget had no bearing on the overall budget announced last autumn. It is simply not credible to most people who are experienced in how government works in this country.

The Deputy should stick to the allocated time.

When meeting the various Prime Ministers such as Mr. Costa, has the Taoiseach looked at capital projects in other countries and seen how those countries are controlling costs to favour their services and taxpayers?

Members must stick to the allocated time or the Taoiseach will not have time to reply.

Will the Taoiseach clarify what he means by an informal meeting with the Portuguese Prime Minister? What were the circumstances? Was the meeting organised in advance or did the Taoiseach happen to be in Portugal and just call in to see him? The media were not informed in advance and not brought along. It was published via a tweet afterwards, which caused some surprise at the time. Why was the meeting informal and not formal, given that the Taoiseach met other European leaders in a formal context?

The British Attorney General has been in ongoing contact with Dublin in the past month and it is now clear that tripartite negotiations are under way. On Saturday it was reported that Brussels would basically accept anything Dublin was willing to accept, but it was also stated there was a belief that the major stumbling block to agreeing to whatever was being discussed was the Taoiseach's fear that he might not be able to manage the politics of the situation. Of course, the Taoiseach will deny that anything of the sort is an issue. Will he explain to the House exactly what he has been discussing? "Clarification" and "reassurance" are fine words, but what do they mean in practice? Is the Taoiseach saying he is not willing to agree to anything that would give greater legal certainty to the United Kingdom's ability to leave the backstop - in an earlier reply he described the temporary nature of the backstop - or is he saying the backstop is intended to be temporary and that he is okay with reinforcing the fact that it will be temporary?

It appears that a committee of Tory backbenchers is receiving detailed legal briefings and will have a chance to review the text and the UK Attorney General's advice before the debate on 12 March. Is it the Taoiseach's intention to provide the same courtesy for this House? If he will be making legal claims at some stage about what was agreed to, it is important that he be up-front with this House also. What is he prepared to do to ensure Dáil Éireann will at least have the same level of access to the deal and its legal interpretation as the British Parliament?

Did the Taoiseach discuss with the Portuguese Prime Minister Portugal's model for dealing with illicit drugs? There are major parallels, historically and socially, between Portugal and Ireland in the sense that Portugal developed a big problem with illicit drugs at a similar time to this country in the 1980s. It was an enormous problem, with high rates of HIV, drug related crime, addiction and so forth. Portugal made the brave decision in 2001 to decriminalise the possession and consumption of all illicit drugs and it has been a spectacular success. HIV and drug related crime rates have plummeted. The levels of addiction have not disappeared completely, but they have reduced dramatically and stabilised. I heard the Taoiseach say recently that he wanted to have a health led approach to dealing with the drug problem.

People Before Profit has long advocated for that approach. It is long overdue that we move in that direction because criminalisation has not worked. As shown in Portugal, decriminalisation and wrap around support policies can make a difference in dealing with this problem. Did the Taoiseach discuss that model and does he think it needs to be considered for this country because the way we have dealt with it up to now in terms of criminalisation has not worked?

In the end game of the Brexit saga a critical issue will be the stance of the Taoiseach and the Government in respect of what is acceptable as a final outcome. I did not understand the point Deputy Micheál Martin was trying to make in regard to the backstop. I am assuming he was not suggesting or encouraging that the Government might resile from the content of the backstop. If he was, I want to pour cold water on it. It is essential at this juncture that the Government does not blink and that it is not distracted or unnerved on any level. The backstop is the absolute bare minimum. Whereas legal assurances and words of comfort are one thing and might be entertained, nothing that in any way compromises what are the absolute bottom line requirements as per the current Irish protocol should be entertained for a second. There needs to be clarity around that. For what it is worth, I also think that the Taoiseach as Head of Government deserves and should expect the support of the Oireachtas in adopting and maintaining that stance.

The Taoiseach said he has not seen the form of reassurances that the British side might want. Has he had any indication as to what they will be putting on the table? I am sure, through his contacts, formal and informal, he must have some notion of how they are proposing to come at this.

I will allow the Taoiseach five minutes to respond.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The informal meeting in Lisbon with Prime Minister, António Costa, was exactly that. We got to know each other a little over the years and I was there on a personal visit. I told him I was there and he invited me over to his residence for a glass of wine and a chat. I brought the ambassador with me and he brought one of his officials with him. That was about the size of it. I do not think there is any need for conspiracy theories on this one.

We did not have a chance to discuss hospital construction. I imagine construction costs are lower in Portugal. I imagine labour costs are lower as well and professional fees are less. I do not know if material costs are lower but they may well be. Generally, Governments and Government agencies examine capital programmes in other countries and try to learn from what they do well and what they do badly and vice versa. A lot of people examine our programmes too. By and large for the past ten years we have been successful in delivering a capital programme on time and on budget. This is true for the massive Irish Water investment programme, the school programme, which is really big, the primary care centres, the €300 million Luas cross-city project and the €500 million projects such as the M17 and M18 and Enniscorthy-New Ross. The vast majority of projects have come in broadly on time and on budget in the past ten years, the children's hospital being the notable exception.

There are examples of how it has gone wrong in other countries. Karolinksa hospital in Sweden will probably cost somewhere around €6 billion by the time it is finished. It is easily the most expensive hospital project in the world. We all know the problems that have arisen in Australia as well in terms of the parliamentary inquiries into the cost of the new hospital in Perth and the problems that have arisen in Adelaide. Those of us who are interested in aviation will know about Brandenburg Airport, a new airport for Berlin completed five years and not yet open. There is a lot to be learned from what other countries get right and what they get wrong. Unfortunately, big capital projects go wrong in all countries. We need to ensure, particularly when it comes to the new children's hospital, that we do not run into the problems around commissioning that other countries have had. We need to prepare now for that. I have seen examples of other children's hospitals built, which it took three years to commission when construction had finished. We cannot allow that to happen in Ireland. We need to plan for that now.

In terms of the Brexit negotiations, briefings are, of course, available to Opposition Leaders. We are happy to provide them. The position as of today is that we have no texts or draft texts to consider or get legal advice on. I am not entirely sure what MPs are looking at in London but we have no legal texts or draft legal texts to consider, to propose amendments to or to seek legal advice on. What happens a lot in London, as Deputies will be aware, is internal negotiations.

The UK Attorney General has been to Dublin and met our Attorney General. That is not internal negotiations.

They may be exchanging legal texts among themselves and getting advice from each other's lawyers but that does not mean that they have any status in terms of the real negotiations that are going on in Brussels.

In terms of drugs policy, we did not talk about it but I am aware of the decriminalisation model that was pursued in Portugal. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, under the Chairmanship of the now Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, did an interesting report on the issue. There is no doubt in my mind that the Portuguese model has been successful in terms of harm reduction and not imposing criminal convictions on people for minor possession, thus keeping people who were found to be in possession of minor amounts of narcotics out of the criminal justice system and dealing with them in the health system, thereby ensuring that these people, who are mainly young people, do not get a criminal conviction which then causes problems for them for the rest of their lives in terms of getting employment, visas and so on. That seems to me to be a humane approach, although it is evident that drugs and narcotics are very available in Lisbon. They are sold openly on the streets and squares. People will probably tell me that is true of Dublin too but they seem to be more available there than they are in our cities so we would have to bear that in mind as part of any model that we may wish to consider. The issue of decriminalisation is being examined by a group headed up by Mr. Justice Garrett Sheehan and I look forward to seeing the report when it is done.