Mary Lou McDonaldQuestion:
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk. [15015/19]
Vol. 981 No. 6
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk. [15015/19]
2. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he has had recent discussions with President Macron of France; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11990/19]
3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Mr. Donald Tusk; the persons who attended the meeting; and the issues that were discussed. [13887/19]
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Mr. Donald Tusk on 19 March 2019. [13955/19]
5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with Mr. Donald Tusk. [13970/19]
6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he and Mr. Donald Tusk discussed various scenarios on Brexit and the withdrawal treaty; and if they discussed the length of the extension to Article 50. [14281/19]
7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Mr. Donald Tusk since 27 March 2019. [15113/19]
8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Paris and his meeting with the French President, Mr. Emmanuel Macron on 2 April 2019. [15750/19]
9. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with President Tusk or Mr. Michel Barnier since 1 April 2019. [16355/19]
10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the meeting he attended with President Macron; the persons who attended on both sides; the issues that were discussed; the responses that were made; and the actions that will be taken. [16361/19]
11. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings or conversations with the President of France, Mr. Emmanuel Macron. [16387/19]
12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with President Macron. [16403/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 12, inclusive, together.
I met Donald Tusk in Dublin on 19 March. The focus of our discussions was on Brexit, ahead of the European Council which took place in Brussels later that week, on 21 and 22 March. We exchanged views on political developments in the United Kingdom. We agreed that the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and protect the Good Friday Agreement was to ratify the withdrawal agreement. We were clear that this is not open for renegotiation and that there can be no withdrawal agreement without the backstop. We also agreed that if the UK were to change its red lines about the future relationship, then the European Union would be willing to amend the political declaration. I expressed my appreciation to President Tusk for the strong leadership that he has shown throughout the Brexit negotiations and his support and understanding for Ireland.
In addition to Brexit, President Tusk and I discussed other items on the agenda of the March European Council, including jobs, growth and competitiveness, seeking to boost the European economy, which is showing some signs of slowing down; preparations for the EU-China summit; climate change; and efforts to combat disinformation, particularly in the run-in to the European elections. President Tusk and I were accompanied by advisers and officials from our respective teams but we also met tête-à-tête in private.
I met President Macron in Paris on 2 April at his invitation. Our discussions focused on Brexit in advance of the special meeting of the European Council, which is being held tomorrow. We were both accompanied by advisers and officials from our respective teams but again, there was a tête-à-tête. We exchanged views on recent developments in London and our shared priorities in advance of the special meeting of the European Council, which has been scheduled for 10 April. President Macron and I discussed contingency planning at both EU and domestic level in the event of a no-deal exit. We also exchanged views on bilateral relations between Ireland and France, which are excellent, and welcomed progress on the proposed Celtic interconnector for energy, and how we can develop links between our ports. I appreciate the strong ongoing support of President Macron and my other EU counterparts with regard to Brexit.
I met Michel Barnier in Dublin yesterday in advance of the special European Council tomorrow. We exchanged views on political developments in the United Kingdom and I expressed my sincere appreciation for the work of Monsieur Barnier and his team in having negotiated the withdrawal agreement with the United Kingdom. I reiterated my view that this is the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal. I will continue to engage closely with EU member states and institutions with a view to protecting Ireland's interests and ensuring positive outcomes on Brexit and other issues.
Tomorrow marks the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It was and is an agreement that, despite the challenges that remain as a result of the partition of our country, we can collectively hold up as an illustration that tolerance and inclusivity are the way forward for our island. Over the past two decades, our island has changed beyond recognition and for the better. Regrettably, Brexit fundamentally alters the relationship between Ireland and Britain and threatens the progress that we have made over the past 21 years. Yesterday, in London, I met with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. I pressed him on the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure that a hard border on the island of Ireland is avoided. He fully understands and supports these imperatives. I put it to him that these objectives must be met whether or not there is agreement and whether or not there is an extension of any duration.
I thank the Taoiseach for his response in setting out some of the matters that he discussed with Messrs. Tusk, Macron and Michel Barnier. What is the Taoiseach's understanding of Monsieur Macron's view of any extension that might be afforded, as requested by Mrs. May? What, if any, measures do any of the parties, Michel Barnier or Donald Tusk, envisage to ensure the objectives of protection of the Good Friday Agreement, the avoidance of a hard border on our island and protections of citizens' rights, in the event of a crash or disorderly Brexit?
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I acknowledge the receipt of the Taoiseach's letter last Friday evening with details on Brexit preparedness, which I had sought, along with others in the House, for quite some time. That includes details of levels of business preparedness for a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. The letter came after that date and contained information that was put in the public domain after 29 March. It is fair to say that Mr. Donald Tusk has been very supportive and that support is welcome. He has also called for patience. Notwithstanding the fact that some European Union leaders are becoming impatient or are losing patience with the British political system, I think that an extension is clearly in Ireland's interest. A no-deal exit would significantly damage the United Kingdom, Ireland and other EU countries. It is in Ireland's interest to have as long an extension as possible. There are clearly ramifications for the United Kingdom and the European Union elections. We are in an unprecedented situation with a country leaving and then the onset of European elections, and whether that country participates in the Parliament for a period. We have legislated to deal with that. Did the Taoiseach have any discussions with Donald Tusk on Britain's continued participation in the Union after the European elections and the likely participation by the UK in those elections?
In terms of the Good Friday Agreement we must agree and I am somewhat concerned that there was a sense and attitude from the Government side and from all parties involved in the North that we should postpone any attempt to reinstate the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement in the North until after Brexit was dealt with. That seems questionable because the only way to sustain the Good Friday Agreement is to live and work the institutions. Their absence has been a contributory damaging factor to what has been a very difficult process on Brexit. It seems to me there is no accountability in the North. There is no voice for the anti-Brexit majority in the North and it is time, even in the context of Brexit, to push the parties very strongly for an immediate restoration of the Executive and the assembly so that dialogue can develop and people can be accountable to some parliament and executive in the North.
What views did President Macron express in the Taoiseach's discussions with him on the request for an extension of the time limit before the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty? It is reported today that President Macron would support an extension not later than 31 December of this year. I am confused about why an arbitrary date would be picked. I am interested in the Taoiseach's views on this key issue. I understood the real concerns were about an extension that went beyond the date of the European Parliament elections because there are consequences to that. Now that Secretary Lidington has signed the orders to prepare for British participation in those elections, I do not understand why there would be any arbitrary date put beyond that rather than allow as much time as necessary. There are concerns that Britain might be disruptive in the process after that, but it if is in the ring, if its members are there, they are participating in the election of the Commission President, the President of the Parliament and so on. It is involved. Would it not seem more logical to allow sufficient time, whatever time, for Britain to reconsider the position? The tumult happening in Britain is evident to everybody. Rather than the view that seems to be emerging there of, "We know what is going to happen is profoundly wrong, it will be damaging for all but let us do it", would it not be better to give as much space and time for calmer thought processes to prevail and to allow those decisions to be made in a rational way with a real prospect of Britain remaining a member of the European Union? I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's views on what exactly President Macron said about ports and shipping connections between Ireland and Britain, as the Taoiseach instanced.
It is clear since Theresa May abandoned her futile attempt to engage with headbangers like Boris Johnson, the European Research Group, ERG, Rees-Mogg and the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, that there is now a little bit of hope that reason might prevail and we might avoid the crash-out because she is talking to a man much maligned in this House, Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist and left-winger, and Corbyn does not want a race to the bottom Brexit. He is saying he is willing to consider backing the deal as long as workers' rights and environmental and health standards are not undermined. It is the headbanger politics on the right of the Tory party that have left us in this mess. What is the European Union's attitude and the attitude of the Taoiseach towards the possibility of a general election in Britain? If that becomes a prospect, that would be a very good thing for us and Europe. Ireland should be very tolerant of creating the space for a general election that might change the political landscape in the direction of the left and of Mr. Corbyn in Britain because we would be looking at a far better opportunity for a deal that was not a crazy crash-out.
I note from the Taoiseach's comments about meetings over recent days that there were more detailed discussions about arrangements for the Border issue and so on in the event of a crash-out, which we hope does not happen. Will the Taoiseach elaborate on these because there is an anxiety, notwithstanding positive statements from European leaders, that in the event of a crash-out, Europe might push for Border infrastructure to protect the Single Market?
The solidarity shown to Ireland by President Macron, Chancellor Merkel and the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, in recent days has been quite remarkable and very welcome. The UK is scheduled to crash out of the European Union, this Friday, 12 April. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has suggested an extension to 30 June. Donald Tusk has suggested a one-year extension. What is the Taoiseach's thinking on this? There will be pre-Council meeting statements later today. In some member state parliaments the parliament plays a much bigger role in mandating the Head of State on these meetings. Will the Taoiseach be forthcoming either now, or in the statements later, on the Irish position on an extension? Does he agree that a long extension is far preferable to a crash-out Brexit? I would welcome the Taoiseach's views. Views are being sought throughout the EU. I am sure the draft of the communiqué is being put in place. What is the Irish view of an extension? Are we looking for a short-term or a long-term extension?
The second batch of questions deals with the meetings with Chancellor Merkel. Given that there are so many questions, can we maybe take five minutes from the second group of questions, to get an answer to them because the Deputies have consumed all the time asking questions? Is five minutes all right, Taoiseach?
Deputy McDonald asked me about President Macron's disposition towards an extension. I am always reluctant in this House to act as a spokesperson for a Head of Government or, as in this case, Head of State, of another country. I do not want to misquote or misrepresent him in any way but I think it is fair to say he is certainly open to it. I have no reason to believe, despite some suggestions in some newspapers, that France would even consider vetoing it. He certainly wants to know about conditionality, particularly the issue of the United Kingdom being involved in future decision-making. If it is leaving, should it be involved in shaping the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, in the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, or in electing the next President of the Commission? It is also fair to say that, as is the case in many European countries, people are increasingly concerned that Brexit is taking up so much of the EU agenda that it is causing other important work not to be done, and many countries are frustrated about that.
I am confident that an extension will be agreed tomorrow at the European Council but there will be different views and there will be a discussion on the length of it and the conditionality connected to it. The United Kingdom has only asked for an extension until 30 June. If we were to offer a longer extension, what would that offer be? Would it be that the UK must accept this longer extension or it must leave on Friday? We will have to think this one through. It is requesting an extension. It does not want a crash-out on Friday. If we are to offer a longer extension, it will have to be an offer that it is willing to accept because we do not want to cause a crash-out on Friday by only offering a long extension which it would then be forced to refuse. I will need a bit of flexibility from the House and Government in getting that right. In my discussion with Prime Minister May last night, she was very firm in saying that no matter how long the extension, the UK should be allowed to leave once it has ratified the withdrawal agreement and passed the necessary legislation.
Even if it was nine months, 12 months or 15 months, they would not have to stay in that long if they ratified the agreement and ratified the legislation it needs to do it could then leave earlier and that is a reasonable request from Prime Minister May.
The Irish Government obviously prefers an extension to no deal and we have no objection to a long extension, but we need to bear in mind that if the extension is very long, certain dates in the withdrawal agreement start to be passed. The withdrawal agreement has specific dates in it such as a date to agree on fisheries so once a certain point has been passed, the withdrawal agreement has to be amended and I would not like to see the withdrawal agreement opened up because one amendment can lead to another and that is something that we have to bear in mind when it comes to any extension.
On the participation of the United Kingdom in the European elections, it will be required to take part in the European elections if they have not left the European Union by 22 May. As I understand it, the European treaties say that it is the right of European citizens resident in the European Union to be represented in the European Parliament so we would have to amend the treaties in order to stop the elections happening in the UK and that is not feasible. If they are in the European Union beyond 22 May, it certainly seems that they will have to take part in those elections although there are others who express the view that were they to leave before 30 June they still would not have to participate because the European Parliament does not sit until 2 July. Either way, if they are staying they will have to participate in the European elections because EU citizens will still be EU citizens and therefore they have a right to have seats in the European Parliament. There is a concern, however, about the European Parliament not being constituted legally. If the United Kingdom were to stay a member of the European Union but not hold European elections, then there is a risk that the new European Parliament would not be legitimate and therefore would not be able to legislate and would not be able to agree to a new President of the European Commission and that would be a big problem for everyone, so that is a real concern.
I very much agree that the Good Friday Agreement institutions should be re-established. That is principally up to Sinn Féin and the DUP but the Government stands ready to assist in any way that it can as a co-guarantor of the agreement.
The ports are an issue I raised in the meeting with President Macron. I raised the possibility that we would need to enhance sea links between Ireland and France if there were delays in using the UK land bridge or if there were delays at Dover of course. For some products it might make more sense to go directly from Ireland to France and that would logically be new or enhanced sea links between Cork and Rosslare and Cherbourg, Le Havre and some other ports but we did not get into much detail on that. It will all really depend on demand. I am told that there is already excess capacity on the existing lines.
13. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with Chancellor Merkel since the last EU Council meeting. [15115/19]
14. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the German Chancellor, Mrs. Angela Merkel in Dublin on 4 April 2019. [15751/19]
15. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the Chancellor of Germany, Mrs. Angela Merkel. [16386/19]
16. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with Chancellor Merkel. [16402/19]
17. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Chancellor Merkel; and the issues that were discussed in relation to Brexit and the Border. [16666/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 to 17, inclusive, together.
I was pleased to welcome Chancellor Merkel to Dublin on Thursday, 4 April. We had a very constructive and friendly meeting at Farmleigh House and our discussions focused mainly on Brexit, looking ahead to tomorrow's special European Council meeting. Chancellor Merkel has been a strong and consistent ally of Ireland throughout the Brexit negotiations and I was pleased to be able to reiterate our gratitude to her in person.
Both Ireland and Germany want the future relationship with the United Kingdom to be as close, comprehensive and ambitious as possible and we would like the withdrawal agreement, which represents a fair and balanced outcome to almost two years of difficult negotiations, ratified, so we can begin negotiations on a new economic and security partnership without delay. We must, however, continue to prepare ourselves for all outcomes and therefore we discussed planning at EU and domestic level for no deal, including how we can work together to meet our twin objectives of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and protecting the integrity of the EU Single Market and customs union, on which our economic model, jobs and prosperity are founded. On this the Chancellor expressed her understanding and support.
Before our formal meeting, the Chancellor and I had an opportunity to meet with, and hear directly from people for whom the Border is a very real and live issue, people from communities along the Border, from business, and some whose lives have been profoundly touched and shaped by the Troubles. I would like to express my appreciation to those who gave their time to explain why the issue is such a fundamental one and for sharing their stories with us. The meeting served to underline, for both the Chancellor and me, the importance of what is at stake. We also had the opportunity to take stock of wider EU developments ahead of the European Parliament elections in May and to discuss other international issues including EU-US trade and the events in Ukraine. Our exchanges also acknowledged the excellent bilateral relations between Ireland and Germany, including our plans to open our new consulate in Frankfurt later this year to complement the embassy in Berlin.
It is very clear that Chancellor Merkel represents a sane and supportive voice on Brexit but also on avoiding a hard Brexit. She has experienced difficulties before at European level in various crises and she knows that a hard Brexit would be difficult for Europe as a whole, given the precarious nature of the European economy. She is clearly anxious to avoid it.
From what the Taoiseach said earlier, it seems to me that the British Prime Minister has indicated to him that she wants to give the withdrawal agreement one more go. Is that the Taoiseach's sense? A short extension is probably more preferable to the British Prime Minister than a long extension at this stage because a longer extension could have implications for her premiership and for the cohesion of her Cabinet, given that the majority of the Cabinet are apparently against a long extension. We are in a very precarious situation in terms of British parliamentary politics and its governmental system. Am I correct in saying that the sense is that the British Prime Minister will give the withdrawal agreement one more go? Or alternatively, will she look to whatever emerges from her talks with the British Labour Party Leader because the Taoiseach said earlier that she indicated to him that if she manages to get the withdrawal treaty through, she would be anxious to leave the European Union as early as possible.
In very recent times the Taoiseach has had the opportunity to speak honestly with Chancellor Merkel, Monsieur Barnier, Prime Minister Rutte, Prime Minister Bettel of Luxembourg and Prime Minister Muscat of Malta as well as holding direct talks with the British Prime Minister again. Several times we have got to the point of this being the defining week but one week will be the defining week and this may well be it. In terms of the critical decision, and I understand the Taoiseach's explanation of how he will ultimately decide on the length of the extension, has the Taoiseach given up on the prospect or is it still the understanding that the optimum outcome is if the possibility existed for Britain to remain a member of the European Union? My judgment on this, which is a political judgement and no more than that, is that given sufficient time that would be an achievable objective and the optimum objective. In the absence of that, the withdrawal agreement is obviously the optimum option on the table.
Since the Bill of Yvette Cooper MP has become an Act and received royal consent yesterday, parliament in Britain has declared clearly that it does not want a no deal exit. It still can happen by accident because if no deal is in place and Britain runs up to the deadline for Article 50 to be triggered, then a disorderly fallout would happen by mistake. We should provide sufficient time for Britain to think again. Does the Taoiseach have a view on that matter and what tactics will he deploy with that objective in mind?
Most people were relieved that Chancellor Merkel made references to the Berlin wall and the problem that the division of Germany and walls and borders made. She showed empathy with the cause of preventing a hard border on this island. On foot of the earlier question, there have been discussions about intensifying the detailed discussions on that outcome which we hope will not happen, can the Taoiseach tell us anything about the details of those negotiations?
On the day of the Israeli election, where we have a government in Israel that is all about walls, borders, annexing people's territory, dividing people up and so on in the most brutal way, did the Taoiseach take any time to discuss that with Angela Merkel?
Germany is one of the most unflinching supporters of Israel and the most muted in criticising Israel for its mistreatment of the Palestinians. Given her welcome comments about borders and walls in Germany and Ireland, she might take the same view in terms of Israeli walls in Palestine.
I think that is a very worthy question in respect of Palestine and I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's answer. It is hard, when we look at Germany now and witness its political and economic strength, to imagine what it was like 30 years ago when it was divided, disunited and split by the iron curtain. I very much welcomed the fact that Chancellor Merkel made the equivalence between any notion of hardening the border on the island of Ireland and the Berlin wall itself. Politically, there is certainly a parallel. A decision was taken by the European Council in Dublin Castle in April 1990 and, as a result of that decision, the EEC as it was then became an active persuader for the reunification of Germany, quite correctly.
The Irish Prime Minister of the day was a certain somebody's father.
What I would like to know is the extent to which the Taoiseach has had discussions with Chancellor Merkel in respect of Irish reunification. Has he started that conversation? I imagine it is a conversation in respect of which she could offer very valuable insights and perhaps some wisdom.
There was an expectation before the Taoiseach's meeting with Chancellor Merkel that she was going to be very strong on the issue of protecting the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union, even despite the other aim of protecting the Good Friday Agreement. I think that expectation did not come to pass, but did Chancellor Merkel offer any practical suggestions or solutions to that major problem, having regard to her experience? If the UK gets a longer extension to Article 50 and it contests the European Parliament elections, presumably it will be a full, legal member of the European Union, entitled to participate in the institutions and to make decisions along the same lines as other EU member states. Would that be the Taoiseach's understanding of the situation as well? They cannot be half in and half out. It is either one or the other.
Picking up on some of the questions I missed earlier, Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned that the leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, wants to see dynamic alignment between the UK and the EU when it comes to workers' rights and environmental standards. That is something we would welcome and support too. Part of what the European Union is all about is preventing a race to the bottom. In fact the European Union has caused us to raise labour and environmental standards across the Union. Competition with a level playing field and high standards is what the European model is all about. We would very much like the United Kingdom to still be part of that, should it agree to do so.
In terms of the general election in the United Kingdom, that is really not my business so I would prefer not to comment on it. I was asked about the Celtic interconnector. That is an undersea electricity connection which will link Cork to Brittany. It has been officially designated as an EU project of common interest, meaning it is an EU energy project of the highest importance. We strongly back it, as it would create a direct electricity link between Ireland and continental Europe. It also reflects our strong and deepening links with France. Our national regulatory authorities are working closely on this and we should be in a position to sign a memorandum of understanding, MOU, between our two Governments in the near future.
In my conversations with Prime Minister May, my impression is that she accepts that the withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation. She is not seeking to reopen it and the focus of her talks with the Labour Party and other parties is very much on the future relationship. If possible, she would like to come to an agreement with the main Opposition party which would allow the withdrawal agreement to be ratified. Then we can go on to discuss the future relationship. If not, it is intended to try to agree on a series of proposals with the Opposition which would then be put to a vote in Parliament. She is committed to being bound by such a vote. That is what is intended.
Deputy Howlin asked me what I thought the optimal outcome would be. I believe in the European Union and I believe that the United Kingdom is part of Europe. The optimal outcome in my mind for Ireland and for Europe and the UK would be for the United Kingdom to remain. However, we have to respect their democracy and their referendum. They voted to leave. We also have to respect the fact that Parliament voted not to have a second referendum. That may change but it is none of our business really. We have to respect the decisions of their Parliament and their people in a referendum. In the absence of an option to remain, the withdrawal agreement is the best outcome for us and I think it can be achieved. Whatever happens, if the United Kingdom does leave the European Union, and I expect that it will, I think we should always leave a light on for it should it ever decide to come back. Ultimately, the United Kingdom is part of Europe and if it ever wishes to return, even if it is ten, 20 or 30 years' time, I think we should welcome it with open arms.
18. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Northern Ireland on 1 March 2019. [11462/19]
19. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has met or spoken with Ms Arlene Foster since the beginning of March 2019; and if so, the issues that were discussed. [13893/19]
20. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings and discussions with Ms Arlene Foster and political party leaders in Northern Ireland. [13974/19]
21. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Northern Ireland and the meetings and engagements he attended. [12012/19]
22. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Northern Ireland on 1 March 2019. [15043/19]
23. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken or met with the leader or members of the DUP since 27 March 2019. [15108/19]
24. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent visit to Northern Ireland; and the meetings he had with political party leaders. [15146/19]
25. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with Ms Arlene Foster since the DUP announced that it would not vote for the withdrawal treaty; and if so, the issues they discussed. [15377/19]
26. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the leader of the DUP since 29 March 2019; and if there were discussions on the plans to protect the Single Market after 12 April 2019. [16357/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 18 to 26, inclusive, together.
I travelled to Belfast on 1 March to deliver a keynote address at the Alliance Party conference dinner. I emphasised the Government's commitment to being fair and impartial in working with all parties in Northern Ireland and particularly with individuals, groups, civic society, civic nationalism and civic unionism. I met with Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long, and other senior party members during the evening. We discussed a wide range of issues including the political situation and citizens' rights in Northern Ireland, and Brexit. Prior to the Alliance Party dinner, I had the opportunity to meet with representatives from Northern Ireland business organisations to hear their views and concerns on the latest Brexit developments and the ongoing political impasse in Northern Ireland. We discussed the all-island economy, challenges that businesses in Northern Ireland are facing and Brexit contingency planning being undertaken by the Irish Government.
I last met with DUP leader, Arlene Foster, while in the United States last month for St. Patrick’s Day. We discussed the situation regarding Brexit, as it stood at the time, including prospects for the ratification by the UK of the withdrawal agreement. We also discussed political developments in Northern Ireland, including the importance of the restoration of the institutions under the Good Friday Agreement. I also spoke with Ms Foster at various events that we both attended.
Previously, I met Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin vice president, Michelle O'Neill, when I travelled to Belfast on Friday, 8 February for a series of meetings with each of the five main political parties. I also met with the UUP leader, Robin Swann; the Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long; and Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP, on that day. These meetings provided an opportunity to engage with the Northern Ireland political parties and to hear their views on latest Brexit developments and on the current political situation in the North. We discussed what could be done to get the institutions up and running again. Once again, I emphasised the Government’s commitment to all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement and our continuing determination to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions. The Government wants to see an agreement in place to secure the operation of the devolved institutions and we will continue to engage with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek to progress that in the period immediately ahead.
On Brexit, I outlined to each of the Northern Ireland parties the Government's position, shared by the EU, that the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation and represents the best way to secure an orderly Brexit while avoiding a return to a hard border. We also discussed the negative implications of a no-deal outcome for Northern Ireland business and farmers.
For completeness, I would like also to add that I spoke with Claire Hanna, Jeffrey Donaldson and Naomi Long when they attended the Fine Gael Party conference in Wexford on 23 March 2019.
We have only eight minutes remaining. I ask Members to limit their contributions to 30 seconds if they want an answer.
Only 30 seconds?
The Deputies can use all the time but then they will get no answer. Whatever they like.
Since the Taoiseach visited Northern Ireland, another layer of uncertainty has emerged in respect of Northern Ireland citizens.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, citizens born in Northern Ireland are guaranteed the right to identify as Irish, British or both. However, in the case of Emma DeSouza, a Derry-born Irish citizen, which was highlighted last week, it appears that the goalposts have been moved by the British Government, with new immigration rules introduced on 7 March. Under those rules it is stated in future, "dual British nationals who are British by birth will not be considered an EEA national in the UK". Ms DeSouza and other Irish citizens have been told that in order to access an EU right of residence for her US husband she must renounce her British citizenship which she acquired automatically at birth but never sought. Has the Taoiseach raised this matter either with the British authorities or with Mr. Barnier when he was here yesterday?
The Taoiseach said that he last met Arlene Foster in the week leading up to 17 March. It is somewhat surprising that almost a month has gone by without a meeting, especially given the significance of some of the votes in Westminster since then and the narrow margins by which some were won and lost. It is surprising that he has not had more substantive discussions with the leader of the DUP and others. I accept that he has met the leader of the Alliance Party and others. In the context of the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly, the politics of Northern Ireland and the need to get the Good Friday Agreement up and running, and indeed Brexit, he should have ascertained what the issues are. When one particular vote was defeated following the advice of the British Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, there was some indication in advance that there had been movement from the DUP. It would be interesting if light could be shed on why negotiations prior to the vote did not succeed in getting the withdrawal treaty over the line. Some of the votes since then have been narrowly defeated. Was there any sounding out of the DUP position by the Government? Where does the DUP stand now?
I would have thought that the DUP's position is very clear. I want to raise the DeSouza case as well. Does Deputy Burton have a problem?
The DeSouza case represents a real breach of faith by the British Home Office, which, as has been pointed out, now insists that persons are British citizens even when they clearly are not. Not only that, people now have to pay the princely sum of £400 in order to renounce a Britishness that does not pertain to them. This case has caused very considerable anger right across the North of Ireland and beyond. The astonishing thing is that the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, may have told the Taoiseach that this is an anomaly, that the Home Office is aware of it and that it needs to sort it out, yet the British state is pursuing Ms DeSouza through the courts.
I do not believe any clarity is required on the DUP's position, and I disagree with the leader of Fianna Fáil. The raison d'être of the DUP is to maintain political sectarianism, even if it has self-defeating consequences and leads to a hard border or something else. We could more usefully talk about the social and economic transformation of this island in a progressive direction and things that can unite people North and South. One of the most obvious ways to do that is the extension of abortion rights to women in the North. Did the Taoiseach have any discussions with any of the people he engaged with on issues such as that?
There is a widespread fear among businesses in the North due to the possible changes which might come post Brexit and the consequences of those changes. Has the Taoiseach made arrangements for training for those responsible for customs and excise in the North, presumably in locations distant from the Border, with their counterparts in the Republic? Has the Government made progress on recruiting the promised extra customs staff, given that there are only 210 customs staff for all of the counties on the Border?
The Government is following the DeSouza case very closely. I have not raised it personally with the Prime Minister, but I believe the Tánaiste has raised it with his counterparts in discussions. As far as the Government is concerned, the Good Friday Agreement is explicit on this matter. People have the right to be British or Irish or both and to be accepted as such. That applies, and should apply, to both Governments, in our view.
We have regular discussions with the DUP at political level and advisory level. The relationship is good and we understand its position very well. It is that Northern Ireland should leave the European Union on the same terms as the rest of the UK and there should be no difference between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That is its position, and it has never demurred from it. It is a misunderstanding to believe it is open to persuasion on these matters but that is not to say that we do not talk regularly or that we do not have an understanding. We do.
Issues such as abortion and marriage equality are regularly discussed when I meet political leaders in Northern Ireland or when I am in Northern Ireland and speaking to everyday people. Of course, decisions on those matters should be made in Northern Ireland by the Executive and the Assembly, and are not decisions for us to make for them.
I do not know the details of any customs training programmes. I will ask the Revenue Commissioners to reply to Deputy Burton on that matter. In terms of staffing levels, I am told that Revenue had just over 100 staff dedicated to customs and trade facilitation functions at the start of September last year. In addition to the staff assigned to trade facilitation work, there are approximately 120 staff in ports and airports who are responsible for ensuring compliance with customs procedures. In the context of Brexit, the Government approved the phased recruitment of 600 extra Revenue staff in September, and in preparation for a no-deal Brexit, Revenue has accelerated and expanded its recruitment and training schedules to meet the end of March deadline. It is now on track to have over 400 additional staff in place. Existing staff have been reassigned and preparations are being made for any necessary further redeployments on a temporary basis. The balance of additional staff will have to be recruited by the end of this year. Activities are being co-ordinated across the Government to ensure optimal trade facilitation at the ports and airports.