Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

European Parliament Elections

Niall Collins

Question:

48. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the steps being taken at EU level to address potential interference from outside actors in the upcoming European Parliament elections; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17781/19]

I ask the Minister what, if anything, is being done at EU level to address the political interference from outside actors in the forthcoming European Parliament elections? I ask this against the backdrop of alleged outside interference in numerous other major elections across the globe, which we have seen reported and argued on across the media.

The European Council conclusions of June 2018 called for the formulation of an action plan with specific proposals for a co-ordinated EU response to disinformation. A joint action plan was subsequently developed by the Commission and the European External Action Service and endorsed by the European Council in December 2018, with the aim of improving the detection and analysis of disinformation, strengthening co-operation and joint responses, mobilising the private sector, raising awareness and increasing societal resilience.

The objective of the action plan is to create a consolidated approach among the EU institutions and member states to disinformation activities, especially in the context of the upcoming European parliamentary elections. In particular, the EU has established a rapid alert system focused on electoral disinformation. Comprising national points of contact, this system informs member states of disinformation activities and facilitates information-sharing on threat analysis, trends, best practices and lessons learned.

The EU Commission has also prepared a code of practice on disinformation, which was signed in October 2018 and saw a range of online platforms, leading social networks, advertisers and the advertising industry agree a self regulatory code of practice to address the spread of online disinformation and fake news. This code of practice sets out a wide range of commitments from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts. The code is an essential step in ensuring transparent, fair and trustworthy online campaign activities ahead of the European elections.

We all agree that the European parliamentary elections are important in light of Brexit, the rise of nationalism and the suffocation of civil society and the threat to the rule of law in some EU member states, including Poland and Hungary. While interference in and manipulation of elections is not necessarily new the methods being deployed are new. The European Parliament elections in May will take place in a different political and legal environment to that which prevailed in 2014 and so all the actors involved, in particular member states and political parties, have to assume a responsibility.

The Tánaiste will be aware of the nine conclusions adopted by the European Council in February. I would welcome an update on what has been done to ensure that we have free and fair elections and on what actions the Government has taken in recent weeks following on from the European Council conclusions in regard to this matter.

I share the Deputy's concerns. The European elections, because they will be taking place across the entirety of the EU, potentially can be undermined by disinformation, fake news and people paying for false information to be used on social media platforms to try to impact the result of elections. The sense across the European Union that we need to work together to combat this activity is strong. The Deputy is correct that in February the General Affairs Council adopted conclusions under which countries have committed to work together to share information and best practice and to red flag issues emerging in one country so that they can be looked for in another country. Ireland is very much part of that discussion. We have a cyberecurity response in Ireland that is active anyway. It is managed by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and is linked to An Garda Síochána when necessary. No one country can combat this threat on its own, particularly in a Union that is as open and border-free as the European Union. For this reason, a collective approach across the European Union, with countries leaning on and learning from each other in terms of best practice, is the approach we are taking.

I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that the integrity of our democratic processes is of paramount importance in any election, particularly in light of the advance of disinformation and fake news. It is a silent agenda, as we know, operating in the dark web across social media platforms.

In regard to the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017, sponsored by my colleague, Deputy Lawless, I would like to see more urgency on the part of Government in regard to the progression of this Bill. I would also like to note that in June 2018 the Government published the report of the interdepartmental group on security and Ireland's electoral process and disinformation, which concluded that the risks to electoral processes in Ireland are relatively low taking into account the mitigating factors already in place but that it is recognised that the spread of disinformation online and the risk of cyber attacks on the electoral system pose a more substantial risk that is in line with EU findings in recent international experience. Has the Government taken any specific actions on foot of the 2018 interdepartmental group report on the security of Ireland's electoral processes and disinformation? The Fianna Fáil Party supports sanctions against countries that manipulate elections. Will the Tánaiste outline the Government's position in that regard?

On the interdepartmental group on security of Ireland's electoral process and disinformation, which reported in December 2017, there are three initiatives in this area that are worth noting: an open policy forum on regulation of transparency of online political advertising to identify balanced and transparent policy solutions to protect our electoral processes from hidden influences and disinformation; the opening of public consultations by my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for local government and electoral reform, on the establishment of an electoral commission, which I think will have a strong role in this area; and the establishment by Media Literacy Network Ireland, supported by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, of a media literacy campaign entitled, Be Media Smart. This campaign aims to tackle disinformation and support our citizens in learning how to critically analyse the information they consume.

Good Friday Agreement

Seán Crowe

Question:

49. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if his attention has been drawn to the ongoing difficulties being faced by Irish citizens in Northern Ireland in asserting their Irish citizenship and that in certain cases Irish citizens are being forced to renounce British citizenship even though they are not and have not claimed to be British citizens; the steps he is taking to ensure that the British Government fully upholds the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, including those relating to citizenship; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17697/19]

I tabled this question because I am deeply concerned about the rights of Irish citizens, particularly those living in the North. Time and again, we have seen attempts by the British Government to row back on provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. Citizens in the North are angry and frustrated that we have celebrated the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and it has not yet been implemented in full. Has the Tánaiste raised these issues with his British counterpart and will he update the House on developments?

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to address this issue because I know there has been a lot of online activity in regard to these concerns in recent weeks.

The Government is committed to ensuring that the vital citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are respected and upheld in all relevant policy areas.

I am fully aware of the concerns that recent statements by the UK Government raise for Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, particularly given the uncertainty linked to Brexit. It is important to clarify that these statements in no way change the position that Irish citizens in Northern Ireland continue to be EU citizens in all circumstances.

In the Good Friday Agreement, the Governments "recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both" and "confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments." The Good Friday Agreement therefore includes an explicit right to both Irish and British citizenship and an explicit right of people to identify and be accepted as Irish or British or both. These rights must be fully respected and taken account of in all relevant circumstances. The Good Friday Agreement was agreed at a time when both Irish and British citizenships also entailed EU citizenship. After the UK exits the EU, this will no longer be the case. In order to fully uphold the spirit of the Agreement, where issues arise they should be addressed in a way that avoids any difference in entitlements based on citizenship. In particular, people in Northern Ireland should not be required to renounce Irish or British citizenship in order to access an entitlement.

This question has specifically arisen in relation to immigration rules. Last December, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to raise the case of Ms Emma De Souza, with whom the Deputy will be familiar, and the concerns in regard to the citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and to ask for a review of the issues. In February, the British Prime Minister acknowledged the serious concerns in this area and pledged to "review the issues around citizenship urgently to deliver a long term solution consistent with the letter and spirit" of the agreement.

The Government is now actively seeking the outcome of that review.

As we know, the Good Friday Agreement is an internationally binding agreement between two sovereign states. As the Tánaiste said, it recognises the "birthright" of the people of Northern Ireland to choose to hold Irish citizenship, British citizenship or both. Emma DeSouza, who is a citizen's rights campaigner from Derry, published material earlier this month which shows that the British Government has changed the definition of "European Economic Area national" in its updated immigration laws. This fundamentally undermines the rights provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. Irish citizens are angry that the specific provisions they were promised regarding their rights in the North are not being delivered. Does the Tánaiste accept that the current situation is leaving people deeply exposed and worried and is creating a tiered level of citizenship? The Tánaiste has said that the Irish Government, as a co-signatory, is aware of the concerns that exist in this regard and is fully committed to alleviating them. What is the next step for the Government in relation to this matter? The Tánaiste has said that Irish citizens in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy EU citizenship. What rights are they losing as a result of what is happening?

From the start of the Brexit discussions, we have been working to ensure Irish and British citizens in Northern Ireland will continue to be able to access the rights and privileges that come with EU citizenship. Irish citizens in Northern Ireland are EU citizens, just like Deputy Crowe and me. They will not be resident in the EU, however. Obviously, this poses obvious challenges. The Deputy asked about the rights associated with EU citizenship. We have been working on certain EU programmes and benefits, notably the EU health insurance card, in this context. When EU citizens travel across the EU, they have health insurance cover. We are working to extend this right to Northern Ireland and we will ensure this happens. That will involve passing legislation here. If necessary, the Irish Government will pay for citizens in Northern Ireland to be able to avail of that insurance cover in the same way as EU citizens. Likewise, we want to make sure students in Northern Ireland can continue to benefit from accessing universities across the EU under the Erasmus programmes. We are working to make sure the practical benefits that come with EU citizenship continue to apply to people in Northern Ireland. If necessary, we will fund that to make sure it is paid for as part of the package that will be necessary in the cases of the EU health insurance card and Erasmus.

After centuries of conflict, the Good Friday Agreement indicated to the world on a legal basis that we had created a path out of conflict which involved upholding and respecting people's identity, allegiances and rights. The worry is that this aspect of the agreement is dissipating in front of our eyes. There are significant concerns about the rights of citizens' partners. What is the Government's view on that? What can it do? The Tánaiste has spoken about the provision of funding to some extent to uphold citizens' rights. Are there other measures that the Government intends to take in respect of this matter?

We are trying to ensure that where necessary, we ask for the British Government to review its approach towards immigration issues. When asked for that, the British Prime Minister responded positively. We have not yet seen the result of that review. I expect we will see it shortly. It is a matter for the British Government. We expect that the British Government will follow through on both the language and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement by ensuring there are no consequences or disadvantages for people when they choose to be Irish or British, or both, in the context of who they are and where they come from in Northern Ireland. I think that is important. I expect that the British Government will respond to that, just like we need to. That is why the Good Friday Agreement has become such a central part of the Brexit negotiations and discussions. We are seeking to ensure that being Irish means one enjoys the rights and privileges of EU citizenship, regardless of whether one is north or south of the Border on this island. Regardless of whether it costs money, in these negotiations we will continue to prioritise the actual recognition of those rights to ensure they can be enjoyed.

Brexit Negotiations

Lisa Chambers

Question:

50. Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of Brexit in view of the granting of a flextension to 31 October 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17782/19]

I understand permission has been given to Deputy Niall Collins to introduce this question.

I would like to ask for an update on Brexit in light of the recent granting of a flextension until 31 October. Given the damage that a no-deal Brexit could potentially inflict on the country, Fianna Fáil welcomes the extension until October.

As we all know, the European Council agreed on 10 April last to extend the date of the UK's departure from the EU until 31 October. If the UK ratifies the withdrawal agreement before then, it will leave the EU on the first day of the following month. One of the conditions of the extension is that the UK must now hold European Parliament elections. If it does not, the UK will leave the EU on 1 June.  I am glad the necessary preparations to hold European Parliament elections in the UK are under way. Although many people do not want those elections to take place, preparations for them are necessary for the reasons I have outlined. The Government welcomes the European Council's decision, which gives the UK more time to ensure there is an orderly withdrawal. Of course, the UK retains the right to revoke its Article 50 notification at any time if it chooses to do so. The European Council has reiterated that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop and the Irish protocol, cannot be renegotiated and that any unilateral commitments made by the UK Government should be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the withdrawal agreement. We welcome these important assertions.

 The European Council has made it clear that the additional time which has been made available cannot be used to begin the negotiations on the future relationship, which will begin when the UK's withdrawal from the EU has taken place. If the UK's position evolves, the EU will be prepared to reconsider the political declaration on the future relationship. The UK will remain a full member of the EU throughout the duration of the extension. We welcome the UK's commitment to act in a responsible and constructive way during the extension. While we had no expectation that the UK would act in any other way, this commitment is important because we must safeguard the effective functioning of the EU. Therefore, the EU 27 can discuss matters relating to long-term decisions without the UK.  Responsibility for avoiding a no-deal Brexit now lies firmly with the UK. We hope the ongoing process between the UK Government and the main opposition party in that country, the British Labour Party, will lead to a positive outcome and an orderly withdrawal, which is what we are all looking for.

I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that we are not out of the woods. While the prospect of a no-deal Brexit may have diminished, there can be no room for complacency or assumptions in light of the political chaos and instability in London that we are witnessing. We know that the UK will ultimately leave the EU, but the type of Brexit is still uncertain. It is fair to say that people are growing weary of Brexit. The ongoing uncertainty and the shifting deadlines are having an impact on the environment in which small and medium-sized enterprises and other businesses operate. According to a recent report in The Irish Times, Ms Verona Murphy of the Irish Road Haulage Association believes "State agencies were trying to deflect blame by saying that businesses had not made sufficient preparations" and considers "the State would struggle to process the millions of additional customs declaration forms if it is going to be a hard Brexit". She continued:

They are unable to answer basic questions for us. If Brexit happens on Friday, it is just going to be utter chaos. The least of their worries will be who has signed up for an EORI.

The point I want to reinforce is that preparations seem to be rather patchy. Against this backdrop, and in the hope of trying to allay people's fears and concerns, has the Tánaiste any insight into how the talks between the Labour Party and the Conservatives are progressing, particularly in regard to a customs union, which has such an impact on business?

I assure the Deputy that our contingency planning for no deal will continue. We would have been able to manage no deal but there is no question but that it would have put a lot of pressure on the system. There are certain areas of the economy that would have been, and still are, very vulnerable to a no-deal Brexit.

I do not believe anybody is trying to blame anybody else. Ireland is trying to act collectively here. There are businesses working with State agencies, policymakers and politicians from all political parties to try to raise awareness of what we all need to do to prepare for the consequences of a no-deal Brexit. Part of that includes the discussion to try to ensure the 82,000 or so companies in Ireland that trade with or across the United Kingdom regularly are registered for customs in a way that will allow them to continue to trade in a no-deal Brexit scenario. I and many others have been raising the profile of this issue to ensure that people take the time to get the number they need in order to register online with the Revenue Commissioners.

We have done a really good job so far in preventing sectors of the economy or political parties from blaming one another regarding preparations for Brexit. Unlike in the United Kingdom, we have worked together and we are much stronger for it.

I agree. On an obviously related matter, has the Tánaiste had any recent conversations with the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, regarding its continued opposition to the withdrawal agreement? Could he enlighten us on any contact or discussions he has had?

The most recent conversation I had was with Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson at the Fine Gael national conference. I have not had any detailed discussions. I suspect there may have been some back-channel conversations between the Government and the DUP but certainly nothing of any real substance. I do not get the impression that the DUP is proposing to change its position so we are now focusing on the talks between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. It will be no news to this House that I am in regular contact with David Lidington in particular but we also reach out to the Labour Party to understand its approach to the discussions between the two parties. I do not believe we should comment on the progress or otherwise of the talks because they are at a sensitive point. They are continuing this week, as one would expect. Of course, the hope is that the Labour Party and Conservative Party will be able to agree a middle-ground position that may involve a change of approach to customs issues and alignment with the Single Market. Obviously, it will involve a discussion in regard to a confirmatory people's vote as well but that is a political matter for the two parties concerned.

Passport Services

Michael Healy-Rae

Question:

51. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if airlines will be contacted to request the passport details of persons when they book flights (details supplied); and if a printing service will be provided in the Cork passport office. [17821/19]

What I would call the passport season is upon us. Unfortunately, many people run into difficulties at this time because of a lack of preparedness in having their passports ready. There are very simple, straightforward measures that could be put in place to alert people to the need to check their passport expiry dates. If when booking flights they were prompted to furnish their passport numbers and expiry dates, it would certainly help. It would prompt people to check their passports. I am sure the Tánaiste could not argue about providing a service in Cork.

A number of us in this Chamber know a lot about passports.

My Department engages in advertising and public messaging where there is important information on passports that needs to be brought to the attention of citizens. Several passport service public information campaigns have been initiated in recent years, including promoting the online passport renewal service. There has also been engagement with airlines and other travel-related agencies on how they can encourage good passport practice among citizens. My Department shall be raising the matter of airlines encouraging good passport practice at the next meeting of the national facilitation committee, which is chaired by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and of which all Irish-based airlines are members.

Early this year, the Passport Office ran a three-week public information campaign targeting citizens planning their holidays abroad. It included adverts on social media, video and other digital platforms, print advertisements in national and regional news papers, radio advertisements and radio interviews with the director of passport services. Another campaign will commence early next month.

The passport service will continue to promote good practice among citizens and encourages Deputies to remind citizens to register their details on the passport e-reminder service online.

The passport service operates three passport-printing machines, two of which are located in our main production facility in Balbriggan, County Dublin, and one of which is located in the Passport Office on Mount Street. All production facilities can print a passport irrespective of the channel in which the application was processed. This printing system allows for flexibility between printing machines if any one machine has reached capacity.

The three printing machines meet the passport service printing demands and have additional capacity remaining. The printing requirements of the Passport Office in Cork are met by these machines. As a result, there are no plans to add a printing facility. If, however, an applicant needs to travel for emergency reasons, an emergency passport can be issued in the Cork office to facilitate travel. I will elaborate on that when I get another opportunity.

I ask the Tánaiste to relay, on behalf of all Members, our gratitude to the people who work in the passport offices. At times, they must deal with customers in a state of distress because of their having to travel in emergencies. Even a person going on holiday may be in a distressed state if he or she finds he or she does not have a passport with which to travel in a day or two. All I can say about everybody working in the service is that they are courteous, kind and understanding. They may be working in pressurised circumstances in many cases and dealing with people who are upset. Having said all that, I really believe our airlines could be more proactive. If when booking a holiday, the passenger were specifically asked to give a passport number and expiry date, it would help.

Enhancing the service in the Cork office would require further investment but it would create balance and take pressure off the office in Dublin. It would service the lower part of the country. One could get a passport and avail of a printing service in Cork.

I thank the Deputy for his comments on the staff of the Passport Office. They do an extraordinary job under very pressurised circumstances. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of applications for passports this year, on top of a big increase last year. We have made a significant amount of change in the office in terms of efficiency and extra staff. We strengthened the capacity of the passport service by recruiting over 80 permanent staff to respond to the general increase in passport applications. The passport service has obtained sanction for the recruitment of over 230 temporary clerical officers. The new staff will be spread across all offices, including in Cork.

The challenge over timelines is not just about printing the passports themselves, for which the printers are necessary, but the processing and associated security issues. This is very much a feature in the other passport offices, including in Cork. If I felt we needed another printing facility, we would consider it. It would be expensive but we would seek to achieve it. We have increased the capacity significantly.

We have seen a pretty good result from that so far this year compared with the challenges faced last year when many Members came to me or my office seeking assistance with significant numbers of passports. We have not had a repeat of that this year because we learned lessons and put better systems in place this year.

I welcome any additional resources for extra personnel. They certainly will not be idle because of the massive increase in applications over the last two to three years. More people are travelling, including people who may not have travelled in a decade, and that is most welcome. There are simple measures that we can take to alert people that they ought to check their passports. It is a simple error to make when people do not check their passports, but people do make it. When it is only in a day or two from travelling they look for their passport and find it is out of date. There is an emergency service for people who find themselves in that position and I know the staff always push out the boat and do everything that is humanly possible. We should recognise that they do brilliant work at the last minute to get people travelling if at all possible.

Can the Deputy ask a question, if there is one?

Is there any possibility of really looking at the value for money of a printing machine in Cork?

That is a question that I have asked in the Department. The assessment has been that the focus needed to be on more staff. Last year, many people who were waiting for the return of renewed passports were simply unable to get someone at the end of a phone to give them accurate information because there were too many calls and not enough people to answer them. Because we do have the capacity to print the volumes we need with the three printing machines we have, the focus this year has been on the staff who are focused on processing, process delivery and answering phones and queries, to keep people up to date. The result has been quite impressive. We now turn around both online and postal applications on time, and sometimes ahead of the recommended time.

We respond as best we can with emergency passports. Sometimes political intervention is needed and justified. We try to accommodate emergency cases when we can.