Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

Citizens Assembly

Joan Burton

Question:

1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his plans for a citizens’ assembly on gender equality. [10602/19]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his plans for a citizens' assembly on gender equality. [11858/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his plans for a citizens’ assembly on gender equality. [12013/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his plans for a citizens' assembly on gender equality. [15044/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

Work is under way in my Department on proposals for the establishment of proposals for the establishment of a new Citizens' Assembly to consider gender equality. I am also proposing a Citizens' Assembly on a directly elected mayor for Dublin and the form that this should take.

The function of a Citizens' Assembly is to inform the public and increase overall awareness and comprehension of topics being examined. Consideration is being given to the parameters of these topics and how best to optimise the use of an assembly's time and the taxpayers' money. I expect these proposals to come before the Government shortly.

As with the Convention on the Constitution and the previous Citizens' Assembly, I expect the establishment of the assembly will be the subject of a resolution of each House of the Oireachtas and that the assembly will also report to both Houses.

We would all welcome the Taoiseach's promise in relation to a citizens' assembly on gender equality being established. While women have made great progress in this country, nonetheless there is a lot still to do. This is the centenary of Constance Markievicz becoming a Cabinet Minister, the first such woman, certainly in Britain or Ireland.

In terms of gaps, we have the gender pay gap, which in Ireland is 14%. Some 25% of Irish companies acknowledge that there is a significant gender pay gap in their business. We have a serious deficiency in the number of women involved in the governance of the universities and institutes of higher education. That needs to be specifically addressed. If women are not involved in governance, for instance, fully represented as presidents of universities and educational institutions, which they are not at all at present, it means women are absent from a very significant sphere of Irish life.

We have the issue of domestic violence. On International Women's Day, the Government signed up to the Istanbul Convention but, like the signing up by the Taoiseach's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, nothing has been done by Government to implement the requirements of the Istanbul Convention, which would mean far more refuge spaces provided in Ireland for victims of domestic violence who are mainly and principally women and their children.

The sooner this citizens' assembly is established, the sooner it can do some serious work to improve the position of women in Ireland.

Deputy Howlin was the next to table a question.

I apologise because I nipped out to say hello to the wonderful Special Olympians for a minute and I missed the Taoiseach's response.

I raised this issue of the citizen's assembly on gender equality with the Taoiseach in October last. At that stage, the Taoiseach stated he would bring forward proposals. I presume the Taoiseach is still saying he will bring forward proposals. We need to see them.

The citizen's assembly is a good model. It worked well in the past. It is one that could be utilised effectively in the neighbouring jurisdiction as well. We need to see action on these matters now.

I want specifically to ask the Taoiseach a question on the gender pay gap. The Taoiseach will be aware that a Labour Party Bill has passed in the Seanad. Amendments could be progressed if the Government took on that Bill to deal with the egregious issue of a gender pay gap now existing in 2019.

The Government has promised its own legislation which we have not seen. If the spirit of new politics is to mean anything, if there is advanced legislation that can be amended to suit the collective will of these Houses, why would the Government not simply take the Bill that is already well advanced and deal with the issue of gender pay inequality?

I, like others, welcome the focus on gender equality. The deliberative methodology of the citizens' assembly affords an opportunity to delve into the fundamentals of gender inequality.

Some of the issues have been rehearsed, such as the gender pay gap and the absence or invisibility of women at senior levels in public institutions, and the universities have been correctly cited. It is important that we examine not only the gender pay gap but the phenomenon of women in low pay, women in insecure and precarious employment, women and poverty, women and poor housing, women and a system that not alone discriminates against them on the basis of their gender but also on the basis of their social class, and women and their health. We saw in the course of the CervicalCheck scandal the shocking finding by Dr. Scally of institutionalised misogyny within the health system. We need to look at how, even now, and let me refer to that scandal which still plays its way out, 80,000 women are affected by delays in smear tests and yet those who can pay privately can have their results in a fraction of that waiting time. If we are seriously to get under the bonnet of gender issues, we must get under the bonnet of equality issues. That has to be about class. It has to be about poverty. It has to be about the fact that women disproportionately experience poverty.

With the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's indulgence, I will mention one final issue, that of single-parent families generally, but headed up by women. In the course of the austerity that was unleashed on the population, those families more than any others took the raw end of the stick. In a way, if one were to be cynical, which I wish to assure the Leas-Cheann Comhairle I am not, one might suggest that looking at gender equality now is a bit of a political manoeuvre to take the bad look off matters.

Rhetorical or even legal commitments to gender equality are welcome, all fine and good, but to deal with many of the most serious inequalities or disadvantages that women suffer, we need tangible supports for women. I recommend that we look at two areas: domestic violence and women's refuges to support women in situations of domestic violence. We are woefully inadequate in this regard. We are operating a standard of one to 10,000 women whereas across Europe it is one to 10,000 persons. Ireland is the only country that is doing this and that means we are massively under provided for.

I was shocked to learn during the week that the first purpose-built women's refuge, built in Rathmines, has been closed for two years, ostensibly because of rewiring that was needed to be done. However, that rewiring was completed in September of last year and that refuge is still not functional. The reason, it turns out, it is not functional is because Tusla is trying to outsource it. It is the only women's refuge that Tusla runs and Tusla is trying to offload it and offload and redeploy staff who have worked there for decades. Because of Tusla's determination to outsource or the Government's obsession with outsourcing, that will remain closed, maybe until the end of the year. This is a refuge that had thousands of callers and hundreds of women and children utilising it.

The other matter I will mention briefly is the pathetic lack of childcare facilities. For example, a considerable development in my area, the Honeypark-Cualanor housing development, which was a NAMA development, included provision for a crèche. There is no crèche, despite the development being completed a while ago, because it is dependent on the private market to deliver crèche facilities. A bit like housing, it is not happening. There is a stark lack of affordable crèche and childcare facilities and the State is hoping that the private sector will deliver. It is not delivering. The Government needs to intervene directly and provide public and affordable childcare facilities.

There is a range of issues around gender equality that one could focus in on and we do not have the time in such a short space here. I say to the Taoiseach that the issue of gender equality should be a consistent integral part of daily Government policy and we should not have to await a citizens' assembly to improve and focus on services for women and policies around women.

Although people talk about the gender pay gap, the key issue, more specifically, is that many women are in low-pay occupations and very little has been done to change that story.

We can take childcare as an example. There are many strategies which note the importance of childcare, particularly between the ages from birth to three years and six years old. A child will learn more from birth to three years than he or she will for the rest of his or her life. Nevertheless, people in the childcare sector are among the lowest paid. Many people complete degrees in college in early childhood development, Montessori and a variety of areas specifically focused on professional childcare and early education. We could contrast and compare their salaries with those in primary, secondary or third level education but there is really no comparison. The bulk of people in childcare - they are not all but are mostly women - are on the minimum wage in many instances. I predict this will be a great inhibitor of the growth and expansion of childcare. We have all received representations in that regard.

We could also look at section 39 organisations, taking in nurses and allied health professionals, that are again discriminated against under Government pay policy. The pensions anomaly hit many more women than men. The decisions in that regard were taken by the Fine Gael-Labour Government. We must ask fundamental questions as to why, in many of the professions in the areas of healthcare and childcare, women are at the centre of what is essentially a low-pay regime. That needs to change and we do not need the Citizens' Assembly in order to start working on it.

Work is under way to finalise the terms of reference for the Citizens' Assembly. I hope to bring proposals to the Government on this shortly. I had hoped to have them for International Women's Day but we have not yet finalised them. There is a discussion within the Government as to whether it should examine constitutional issues that have already been examined by the Constitutional Convention. Perhaps they require re-examination and there is a question regarding the extent to which issues that have a gender aspect but are much wider than gender should be examined. For example, there is the area of caring. There are pluses and minuses in carrying out that examination.

It will require a resolution of the Houses of the Oireachtas, indicating precise terms and arrangements, to establish the assembly. Once we have a draft, we will be happy to consult with the Opposition on it. Consideration is also being given to the length of service of members and the payment of an annual stipend, transparency, research, timetable and work programmes and resourcing the establishment of the advisory group. It is expected topics will be dealt with consecutively by the assembly, with two separate cohorts of members, one chairperson and one secretariat.

What we are doing with gender equality more generally is tangible and I agree that we do not have to wait for the assembly for such action. Building on the commitments in the programme for Government, there are initiatives in line with the National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020, which aims to change attitudes and practices preventing women and girls from participating fully in education, employment and public life. We recently approved the text of the gender pay gap information Bill, which will promote wage transparency by requiring companies to complete a wage survey periodically and report the results showing gender pay gaps. The Bill, which will be published shortly, will also provide a range of enforcement mechanisms. It has already been approved but there is a technical delay.

We have also reformed the working family payment to ensure working families do not face poverty. We have pursued reforms in the one-parent family payment. In the past three years, under this Fine Gael-Independent Government, we have increased the working family payment by €15 per week or approximately €850 per year. We are allowing lone parents who are working to hold on to more of the money they earn. There has also been the introduction of two years of free preschool education and a universal subsidy for childcare paid to all people availing of childcare for children between the ages of six months and three years. This autumn, the new national childcare scheme will kick in, resulting in increased subsidies for those people already receiving them. Many middle income families with incomes of up to €100,000 will receive subsidies for the first time.

A new initiative, Better Balance for Better Business, was announced last July and it is all about increasing women's representation in senior management positions in the private sector. It is led by Ms Bríd Horan and Mr. Gary Kennedy. The Government recently decided to establish a public sector network within the 30% Club to promote greater gender balance in the senior leadership of the public sector. We also committed to and subsequently held a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment. Abortion in Ireland is now legal and provided without charge. We have also introduced two weeks of paid parental leave, which will kick in later this year.

Noting that the initial sexual assault and violence in Ireland, SAVI, report was compiled a very long time ago, we have commissioned the production of a national survey on the prevalence of sexual and domestic violence, and that will be conducted by the Central Statistics Office. It is currently in the planning stage, with research stakeholder consultation and scoping to take place this year. Work is also ongoing on the implementation of a proposal to create 45 female-only senior academic roles within the higher education sector to correct the gender imbalance that exists in the area. As has been mentioned by others, on International Women's Day we had a special Cabinet meeting when we ratified the Istanbul Convention, among other actions.

We may well need more women's refuge spaces and that is currently being examined. Crucially, we have changed domestic violence law and there has been a change of approach that enables courts to ensure that the abuser leaves a home rather than the person who is subject to violence. That is the correct approach, although I realise it may not always be possible. The person perpetrating violence - the abuser - should leave the family home rather than the victim and the kids. That is the approach we would certainly like to take in future and legislation is either enacted or under way to allow that happen more frequently than it does now. In the context of gender balance on State boards more broadly, we have now exceeded our 40% target for representation by women on such boards but, as mentioned on previous occasions, this is patchy across the different State boards.

European Council Meetings

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the issues he raised at the European Council meeting on 21 and 22 March 2019. [10925/19]

Micheál Martin

Question:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the March 2019 EU Council meeting; the issues that were discussed; and if he had bilateral meetings before or after same. [13888/19]

Micheál Martin

Question:

7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if European Union reform was discussed at the March 2019 European Council meeting. [14283/19]

Seán Haughey

Question:

8. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach the outcome of the European Council meeting held in Brussels on 21 and 22 March 2019. [14723/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the March 2019 meeting of the European Council; the issues that were discussed; and if he held bilateral meetings before or after same. [15012/19]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the European Council meeting held on 21 and 22 March 2019. [15022/19]

Joan Burton

Question:

11. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the March 2019 European Council meeting and the issues that were discussed. [15145/19]

Michael Moynihan

Question:

13. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the detail of his contributions at the March 2019 European Council meeting when the European Union-China summit was discussed. [15419/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 11, inclusive, and 13 together.

I attended the European Council in Brussels on Thursday, 21 March, and Friday, 22 March.

As I outlined in my statement to the House on 27 March, the agenda included: Brexit; jobs, growth and competitiveness; external relations; climate change; and efforts to combat disinformation. European Union reform was not an item for discussion at this meeting.

We also met the leaders of Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein and marked the 25th anniversary of the European Economic Area.

Brexit was the main focus at this European Council and we spent most of Thursday on this. We had a lengthy exchange and question-and-answer session with Prime Minister May and listened carefully to her requests. She asked for an extension of Article 50 until 30 June and also for formal endorsement of the agreements reached in Strasbourg the previous week between her and President Jean-Claude Juncker.

The 27 EU leaders then had a detailed discussion about the best way forward and we endorsed the two documents agreed in Strasbourg.

We also agreed to extend Article 50 until 22 May if the withdrawal agreement was approved last week.

If it was not approved, as has proven to be the case, we agreed to extend Article 50 only until 12 April, a key date in terms of the European Parliament elections, by which time the UK must have outlined an alternative way forward for consideration by the European Council.

We stated that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, is not for renegotiation and that any unilateral commitments the UK Government might make must be compatible with this in spirit as well as in letter. In light of the rejection of the withdrawal agreement by the UK Parliament on 29 March, we now await indications from the UK of its intentions.

On Friday, we met European Central Bank President Mario Draghi and discussed the economic outlook, as well as how best to prepare the European Union for increasing global economic competition.

This includes the strengthening and deepening of the Single Market, a matter in respect of which Ireland has been very active in calling for progress, particularly in the areas of services and digitalisation.

We discussed our priorities for the EU-China summit on 9 April and our overall relations with China, including in the context of issues relating to trade, industry and human rights.

I was very pleased that we formally appointed Professor Philip Lane as chief economist of the European Central Bank and a member of its six-person executive board.

Under external relations, we committed once again to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and expressed our readiness to continue backing the countries affected by the recent cyclone in Africa.

On climate change, we reaffirmed our commitment to the Paris Agreement and endorsed the development of a long-term climate strategy the EU. We also discussed disinformation and agreed on the need for further efforts to protect the European Parliament elections and elections across the EU.

Before the first working session on Thursday, I attended two meetings. One was the EPP summit while the other was a meeting of the Nordic-Baltic Group, which Prime Minister Rutte and I attended as guests. We are like-minded small northern European countries and share interests and perspectives on issues across the EU agenda. This is a useful way to strengthen our co-operation.

I also had a short bilateral meeting with Prime Minister May on Thursday afternoon. I did not have any other formal bilateral meetings in Brussels but across the two days, I engaged with my EU counterparts using the opportunity as I always do to promote Ireland and Europe's interests.

Does the Taoiseach think, because I certainly do, that the belated realisation by Theresa May that pandering to the DUP and the crazies on the right of Tory Party has failed dismally to resolve the Brexit situation and that she is reaching across to Jeremy Corbyn is a welcome development? Notwithstanding the Taoiseach's obsession with having pot shots at socialists and the left, whatever he may think about Corbyn, he is an internationalist and not an little Englander and is far more likely to want a softer kind.

Regarding the Taoiseach's comments about climate change, notwithstanding the pot shots he and the Labour Party took at the socialists this morning-----

The Socialist Workers Party.

People Before Profit actually. The Taoiseach's affirmation of his support for the Paris climate change agreement is a bit ironic when we will suffer major fines because of our failure in this area - a failure for which the Labour Party-Fine Gael Government must bear responsibility because it did nothing on climate change. While in government, it tried to sell off the forests and issued lots of licences for oil exploration and Coillte harvesting rights only for protests organised by the nasty left - the awful left - to defeat its proposals.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Howlin certainly did not attend the protests. He signed up to a memorandum to sell off the forests.

(Interruptions).

He did. It was in the memorandum.

We cannot invite interruptions.

(Interruptions).

Just check the protests in-----

Let us be orderly. We have only a short period of time.

Pat Rabbitte was the Minister.

On 5 March, I pressed the Taoiseach to detail the level of business preparedness for a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. He said at the time that he had the details and would provide them but for the fact that we were running out of time. A parliamentary reply to Deputy Michael McGrath last week revealed that on the date scheduled for Brexit, an incredible 40,000 businesses - 50% of those identified by the Revenue Commissioners as trading with the UK - did not have the most basic registration required to continue trading in the event of no deal. Will the Taoiseach publish full details of the current level of preparedness in the economy and provide much more than just giving numbers in terms of inquiries to State agencies? What is the reality on the ground in terms of preparedness?

The Taoiseach will recall that he said last week that it was nothing less than a conspiracy theory to ask about discussions with the European Commission about the Border in a no-deal scenario. He said they were purely at official level and that no advices or instructions were given to officials and that Government had not been briefed on any discussions. Since then, the Commission has come out and said on the record that it had been holding intensive discussions with the Irish Government and that practical matters such as the nature and location of checks had been the core subject of these discussions. It has been confirmed to RTÉ that officials representing the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade have been involved in these discussions and that other intense discussions involving the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are ongoing. I would accept what RTÉ is saying because I think it is well briefed by the Taoiseach's people and has been good and on the button regarding Brexit all along. What was the problem with the Taoiseach accepting that there were ongoing discussions about it? What was the reason for this sense of denial? The Taoiseach took an aggressive approach and cast aspersions on people who were asking very basic questions about what would happen at the Border and what kind of discussions were ongoing in the event of no deal. He was very dismissive and I believe he was wrong in that regard.

I welcome the fact that Jeremy Corbyn has responded so constructively to the British Prime Minister's belated initiative in terms of bringing both leaders together. Regarding the Taoiseach's attempt last week to put Jeremy Corbyn in the same bracket as Viktor Orbán, thankfully, with all the excitement at what was happening in Westminster, I do not think they got to hear that but I think the opportunity for this country is that something sensible emerges from the discussions between the British Prime Minister and the leader of the British Labour Party that could result in a softer Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn could yet be very important in terms of the outcome for this country.

I think most people are looking on in disbelief at what is happening in the House of Commons. Politics in the UK is dysfunctional, the UK Government is dysfunctional and the UK Parliament, the mother of parliaments, is dysfunctional. Most people recognise the efforts being made to provide political stability in this country and to ensure that our minority coalition Government, which includes a number of Independents and is facilitated by a confidence and supply agreement with the major Opposition party, has provided the time and space with this enormous challenge confronting us.

The Taoiseach met President Macron in Paris yesterday and will meet Chancellor Merkel tomorrow in Dublin. There is a view that both these leaders are taking a strong stand as regards the protection of the Single Market in the event of a no-deal Brexit. This, of course, will have serious consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, efforts to avoid a hard Border and our all-island economy generally. What is the position of Chancellor Merkel and President Macron in this regard? Is the big stick being waved at and pressure being put on us? I have observed Government long enough to know that sometimes confidentiality is required in respect of Government intentions but this not such a case. What plans are being put in place for the Border in the event of a crash-out Brexit?

I welcome the decision of Theresa May to finally reach out to the Labour Party in order to resolve the current impasse. I also welcome the fact that the withdrawal agreement is no longer under discussion and that it is taken as given. Regarding the EU summit next Wednesday, what will be the Taoiseach's position concerning any new request by the UK Prime Minister for a further extension to Article 50 - either a short-term or a long-term extension?

While the latest throw of the dice by Theresa May in reaching out to Jeremy Corbyn is welcome, it provides no certainty that anything conclusive will emerge much less that the withdrawal agreement will be endorsed and, therefore, the backstop will become operational. As others have said, the circus at Westminster is certainly something to behold. The default position of a crash-out Brexit remains. Just because the House of Commons, the mother of parliaments, votes against the notion of a crash out does not mean it will not happen.

I was in Brussels earlier this week and had conversations with very many people. It appears to me that some travel more in hope than expectation that this issue will be resolved at Westminster. It is clear we need to be prepared for a no-deal Brexit much as none of us wish that to be the outcome. The Taoiseach has made it clear that he will not support any hardening of the Border on our island and that he will protect the integrity of the Single Market - a position reiterated by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade earlier today. Could the Taoiseach tell me how he will reconcile those two objectives? Can he categorically rule out any hardening of the Border? That includes but is not solely about Border infrastructure.

I want him, as the Head of Government, to reassure people across this land, particularly in Border communities North and South, that he categorically will not give way, blink, bow and allow any hardening of the British Border on our island.

Like other Deputies, I, too, welcome the final reach-out beyond the narrow confines of the hard-line Brexiteers in the DUP to a broader consensus in the British Parliament. Had this been done two years ago, I think there would have been a greater likelihood of a successful, clear majority favouring a softer Brexit. I hope to be in a position to meet Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday with other socialist group leaders in advance of the emergency summit. A lot of positive work has been done by people such as Keir Stamer, Hilary Benn and Tom Watson as well as Jeremy Corbyn up to this point, but these are critical times. Time is running out and we are at the last edge. I wish to ask the Taoiseach about his approach to this now. I am not asking him to have a crystal ball as it is impossible to know exactly what will transpire hour to hour, much less day to day. If Theresa May requests a short extension up to 22 May, without Britain's participation in the coming European elections, what will the Taoiseach do? What will his vote and strong counsel be on this matter? I believe he will be listened to. What is his intention in this regard if that is the request that emerges?

Deputy Burton has also tabled a question.

I want to know whether there was a discussion at the summit meeting on the issue of how to protect the Single Market in the event of the emergence of a difficult Brexit. None of us wants any installations or hardening of the Border, as has been said. Nonetheless, the Minister for Finance advised me the other day that there are a total of 210 Revenue customs and excise staff employed in the Border counties on what are called compliance issues, that is, customs and excise. The Taoiseach must be aware and must have Garda briefing to the effect that there is a significant upsurge of smuggling along the Border. It is a problem for both sides of the Border. There is a real issue for all the Border communities as to how legitimate traders will be protected. Let us be honest, 210 compliance staff and 20 trained detector dog teams are just not going to do it for us. We understand that the Taoiseach must play his cards close to his chest, but Chancellor Merkel will ask him this question tomorrow because it is the Single Market that must be protected. We want to stay in the Single Market and we would like Britain to be in it as that would be a very good outcome that would help us. However, I find the figures of 20 trained sniffer dog teams and 210 compliance staff scary. The Taoiseach promised us on various occasions that 400 staff would be recruited by now. I am not aware that they have been recruited. They are being recruited. Another 200 were to follow. Perhaps the Taoiseach could update us on that.

I will allow a short question from Deputy Eamon Ryan and then return to the Taoiseach.

I would like to hear the Taoiseach's assessment of the risk that the European Council would refuse a long extension of Article 50, if the European Union was asked for one by the United Kingdom, for fear that UK involvement in the European parliamentary elections would lead to further instability in the next European Parliament, which is the last thing we want. Will the Taoiseach give an assessment of the risk that such an extension would not be accepted?

We would not do justice to the next group of questions if we took it now as we have only seven minutes left. I suggest, with the House's agreement, that it be taken at the next available time. Is that agreed?

We should give the Taoiseach the remaining time.

I genuinely thank Deputy Howlin for acknowledging that I do not have a crystal ball, cannot predict the future and do not have an answer to every hypothetical question. I have learned from experience over the past year or so that it can be dangerous to look into the crystal ball and make predictions about the future or to answer hypothetical questions because when it turns out that one cannot predict the future or answer every hypothetical question, one gets attacked for it. This is why I am guarded in answering questions that ask me to predict the future or come with a hypothetical answer to every hypothetical question, and I appreciate the House's understanding of this.

A request for an extension will really depend on the nature of the request. I have not had a chance to speak to everyone yet but my general sense across the European Council is that it is open to granting a further extension to the United Kingdom. However, we do not want that further extension to be merely a licence for further indecision. We need a decision from the United Kingdom Government and Parliament. We need a clear plan. An extension in this context is one thing but a rolling extension that just leads to further indecision and further majorities against things but for nothing is not a solution for anyone. There is a real concern that if the UK stays in the European Union beyond the date of the European elections and does not hold European elections, there is a risk the European Parliament will not be properly constituted and that any decisions it makes, whether on legislation, budgets or the appointment of a new Commission and Commission President, may therefore not be valid. This is a real concern that many people hold. There is also growing frustration among the majority of countries that will not be adversely affected by Brexit - a frustration I do not share because Brexit is so important for us and could impact us so severely - that the concentration on Brexit is taking us away from other important issues and matters. This is worrying for us, needless to say.

To respond to Deputy Boyd Barrett's questions, I do not wish to comment too much on the internal politics of the UK but I agree with him that Prime Minister May's offer to engage with the leader of the Labour Party, Mr. Corbyn, on Brexit to come to a compromise is timely. I do not know if Mr. Corbyn will rise to the occasion or whether he will show leadership and be able to come up with a compromise plan with Prime Minister May. I hope he does, but we will see if that is what happens in the coming days.

Regarding business preparedness, I again encourage any business that has not engaged in this regard to please do so. Many businesses are very prepared for Brexit. Many are not and have not availed of the information or supports available and many are still adopting a wait-and-see approach. I would prefer if businesses operated a precautionary approach and made preparations. Even if no-deal is unlikely, preparations should be made in any case.

I confirmed about two weeks ago - if not in the House, certainly in interviews - that preliminary or rough discussions had begun on how we can meet our twin objectives of protecting the Good Friday Agreement, on which the peace in Ireland is based, and protecting the integrity of the Single Market and customs union, on which our economy, economic model and jobs are based. This will be a difficult thing to do. We know that the backstop will work and will ensure we have tariff-free, friction-free, quota-free and bureaucracy-free North-South trade. I do not know for certain whether it is possible to come up with an alternative that does this, other than the UK remaining in the European Union or staying in the Single Market and customs union, but we will do everything we possibly can to avoid the emergence of a hard border on our island. We have the support of our European colleagues on this. We know that some things can be done remotely - the collection of tariffs, for example - and customs duties can be collected as other taxes are collected, either online or through tax offices. We know how to intercept smuggling and we already have a smuggling operation in place in respect of cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, diesel and so on.

A counter-smuggling operation, I hope.

A counter-smuggling operation, indeed. This will have to be stepped up, and Deputy Burton is absolutely right about that. We know how to counteract smuggling. Animal checks are much more difficult. They can only possibly be done physically by vets.

It is our view that those checks should take place at ports and that the island of Ireland should be treated as a whole when it comes to sanitary and phytosanitary standards, SPS. That would, however, require the co-operation of the UK. All we can do at this stage, without knowing what is going to happen, is explore options. That is what we are doing and it is happening at official rather than Government level.

Turning to the question from Deputy Haughey, I was asked about the opinion of Chancellor Merkel and the position of President Macron. It is difficult for me to answer questions like that on behalf of other people. I will have a chance to speak in depth and one on one with Chancellor Merkel when she comes to Dublin tomorrow. We did not have that opportunity in Brussels some weeks ago. I did, however, have the opportunity to spend an hour or so with President Macron yesterday, both one to one and with our teams. I am heartened by the enormous support France continues to demonstrate towards Ireland. As President Macron stated, Ireland will never be abandoned by France or the European Union. If there is a no-deal Brexit, whatever issues arise will be seen as shared problems. Ireland will try to resolve them with our partners like France and the European Commission. It is not a question of there being a big stick or Ireland being put under undue pressure.

Reasonable questions, however, are being asked as to how we will protect the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union. We should not make the mistake of thinking that protecting the integrity of the Single Market or the customs union is just a case of having to follow some awkward European rules or unnecessary regulations. Our jobs and prosperity are based on our economic model and that is based on us being in the eurozone, the Single Market and the customs union. We cannot have that compromised.

I will give a small example, and this is theoretical and hypothetical. If, for example, the UK did a trade deal with the US and that brought hormone-treated beef into the UK or it did a trade deal with another country and that brought in chlorinated chicken or it did a trade deal with an Asian country with environmental or employment standards not up to Europeans standards, those products could enter into Northern Ireland from Britain, through Larne or Belfast, and could cross the Border into the Twenty-six Counties of the Republic of Ireland. There is understandable concern that they could ultimately go on from Dublin or Rosslare into France, Spain or Portugal.

Is the Taoiseach saying there will then have to be checks?

Those goods will have to be checked.

It is entirely reasonable that questions should be asked as to what we are going to do-----

There would have to be checks then.

-----to prevent that.

Businesses in the Republic will be ruined.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 2.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.15 p.m.