Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Brendan Howlin


1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the special meeting of the European Council from 30 June to 2 July 2019. [29287/19]

Brendan Howlin


2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the agreed candidates to hold the key EU posts following the European Council meeting held from 30 June to 2 July 2019; and if he has met or spoken to them since then. [29753/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

I attended the meeting of the European Council in Brussels from Sunday, 30 June, until Tuesday, 2 July. President Tusk convened this extraordinary meeting of the European Council to secure agreement on high-level EU appointments. Our objective, which I believe was achieved, was to propose candidates who reflect the diversity of the EU, including its gender, geographical and political balance; and to ensure that suitable and qualified people are in these posts.

We agreed that the current Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, should be our next President of the European Council. Euro area leaders agreed also to appoint Charles Michel as President of the Euro Summit. He will take office on 1 December and remain in post until 31 May 2022.

We also decided to propose Ursula von der Leyen as candidate for President of the European Commission. I am glad that she was subsequently elected to this position by the European Parliament on 15 July. We agreed that Spanish Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell Fontelles, would be our High Representative for Foreign Policy, subject to the agreement of the President-elect of the Commission; and that Christine Lagarde, until recently the head of the IMF, was the best candidate to be the next President of the European Central Bank. In July, the European Parliament elected David-Maria Sassoli of Italy as its new President.

I met the new Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, on the margins of the European Council. I took the opportunity to congratulate her on her election and I noted the excellent bilateral relations between Ireland and Denmark, including our strong co-operation as EU member states. I updated her on the state of play with regard to Brexit and the Prime Minister confirmed Denmark's ongoing solidarity. I spoke with President Anastasiades of Cyprus by phone on several occasions to update him on the discussions at the European Council and to seek his views, as he was unable to attend the meeting.

I spoke with Prime Minister Michel following the meeting and congratulated him on his election as the next President of the European Council. On 12 July, I spoke with Ursula von der Leyen to congratulate her on her nomination as candidate for President of the European Commission. I said that I looked forward to the opportunity to work together in the future and spoke to her about the composition of the new Commission and our strategic agenda with regard to the future of the European Union and Brexit.

I am speaking on behalf of Deputy Howlin. I thank the Taoiseach. The future of the European Union depends in many ways on the quality of the incoming Commission. For all our sakes, we hope its members do well. Do the Taoiseach and his party, as members of the EPP, accept Dr. von der Leyen's decision to label the Commissioner in charge of migration issues as the vice-president for protecting our European way of life? We are all used to dog-whistle politics whereby words are used to set a certain tone. This has a history in different European countries. Dr. von der Leyen has nominated a Hungarian politician, Mr. Trócsányi, who has been specifically asked to carry out a number of obligations with regard to "Neighbourhood and Enlargement". In Hungary, this man, while minister for justice in Viktor Orbán's Fidesz Government, led attacks against civil society, the independence of the judiciary, and the media. He also made giving assistance to refugees a crime under what has been called the stop George Soros law.

It is important for us in Ireland to be aware of these developments. It is understandable that we are deeply concerned about Brexit at the moment but this use of language and these placements of portfolios are extremely strange. It unfortunately harks back to the language used in the 1930s, and we all know how that ended. As a member of the EPP, does the Taoiseach feel that the language used to describe the portfolios and the appointment of the Hungarian vice-president who has a history of attacking the judiciary are appropriate? Was there an opportunity to discuss this at the meeting of the Council?

Yesterday we discussed a number of questions relating to Oughterard. In fairness, the Taoiseach has made his own view clear on that matter. We discussed how part of the problem in Oughterard was caused by a lack of consultation with local people by the Department of Justice and Equality. I believe we made some progress in that discussion. What is the Taoiseach's understanding of Dr. von der Leyen's choice of title, vice-president for protecting our European way of life? In most of Europe it is seen as inherently anti-refugee and anti-migration.

When defending the controversial Mercosur trade deal, Phil Hogan admitted that Ireland's beef market had been passed up to gain concessions in other areas. The produce of Irish farmers is to be, quite literally, the sacrificial lamb in the much-maligned trade agreement, championed by the former Fine Gael Minister. Astonishingly, Commissioner Hogan told us that the Mercosur deal would protect food and environmental standards. Not even the Government believes that. In a shocking display of naivete, the Commissioner seems to believe that, having identified the problem of deforestation in Brazil, the EU can set out an agenda under the Mercosur deal to "put them right".

Before and after he was elected, President Bolsonaro could not have been clearer about his views on climate change and Brazil's indigenous people. His comments about women are utterly shocking. His intention has always been to deregulate and open up the Amazon for agribusiness, logging and mining. In August, he fired the head of a Brazilian Government agency that had revealed the significant increase in deforestation in the Amazon. The dismissal of Professor Ricardo Magnus Osório Galvão, a well-respected physicist, came after the Brazilian President claimed that Government officials and workers were damaging the country's image abroad by informing the public of the rate at which the rain forest was being destroyed by him.

With all due respect, the Deputy is wandering a little bit from the subject matter of the questions. We are discussing the Taoiseach's attendance at a special meeting of the European Council. I do not know where President Bolsonaro comes into it.

It has to do with Commissioner Hogan and his new role.

He has not joined the European Commission yet.

I will conclude on this. What confidence can we have in Commissioner Hogan in his new role and in this Government to deliver on climate action commitments if they do not set their faces against this deal?

Our focus is entirely on Brexit at the moment, but other major issues will arise in this Commission's lifetime, particularly the discussions around the future of Europe and the future shape of the EU. What input is the Taoiseach making to those discussions and what time are we putting into them, particularly in terms of defending the interests of smaller nations?

Another issue that needs to be discussed at European Council level is the climate change agenda. It will be the major challenge facing the incoming Commission, as approved at the meetings in question. A Commission that comes into office on the back of these meetings cannot profess to be a climate change-friendly Commission while endorsing the Mercosur deal as currently framed. In light of the Brazilian rainforest fires, the Taoiseach has signalled his potential opposition to the deal. Will he clarify his remarks on that?

Due to the passage of time, people have forgotten the political games that were played around the appointment of President-elect von der Leyen. The candidate that the Taoiseach proposed and in whose campaign he was involved during the European elections was Mr. Frans Timmermans. Will the Taoiseach recall for the House the circumstances in which Mr. Timmermans was effectively dropped in favour of the President-elect?

I thank the Deputies for their questions. Regarding President-elect von der Leyen, she was nominated unanimously by the European Council, albeit with one abstention by her own country of Germany. She has now secured the majority support of the European Parliament, and only did so with very strong support from the EPP, to which my party is affiliated, the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, to which the Labour Party is affiliated, and Renew Europe, to which Fianna Fáil is affiliated. I particularly want to thank the social democrats and the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil and Renew Europe for helping to ensure that President-elect von der Leyen will, indeed, be President von der Leyen.

When it comes to individual Commissioners and their portfolios, that is actually not a matter for the European Council of prime ministers and presidents. It is a decision that the President-elect will make herself. However, each individual Commissioner will be subject to parliamentary ratification in the European Parliament, and I have no doubt that many MEPs will want to scrutinise their appointments as individuals but also their portfolios, what exactly their roles will be and what the various titles mean.

Regarding Mercosur, political agreement has been reached between the EU and the Mercosur countries after about 20 years of negotiations. However, it is only a political agreement and it will be at least two years before there is a legal text in front of us. Once there is a legal text, we are going to have to consider it very carefully to see how ratification will proceed. The Government has committed to carrying out an independent, comprehensive economic assessment and, indeed, an environmental assessment to assess the overall implications for Ireland. As I have indicated before, I would not support a free trade agreement that is not in the interests of the Irish economy and Irish jobs as a whole. We have both defensive and offensive interests, as is the case in all trade negotiations. We know that the beef sector could be very exposed. The agreement provides for an additional 99,000 tonnes of tariff-rate quota phased in over five years, which is clearly more than we would have wanted, but it is important to say that this is having no impact on beef prices at the moment, as it does not kick in for many years, if it ever does. Currently, 270,000 tonnes are already imported into the EU from Mercosur countries, so it would mean a 7.5% tariff on just over one third of that.

In terms of our offensive interests, Ireland currently exports roughly €2 billion in goods and services to the Mercosur region, a region with 260 million people now. We believe that trade could double over the next decade, with particular sectors benefitting like the dairy sector, the drinks industry, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, industrial goods and Irish small and medium-sized enterprises. We believe that it is absolutely crucial that we have safeguards in place for labour standards and environmental standards, and it is intended to write into the agreement specifically that Mercosur countries must honour and not depart from the Paris accord. As President Macron and I have indicated, it is our view that Mercosur is off should they do so. We will of course work to protect the interests of Irish beef farmers so that they can compete on a level playing field when it comes to product standards, traceability, the environment and climate action.

Deputy Calleary was absolutely correct in saying that there was a lot more happening on the European stage than Brexit - issues such as climate action and issues such as trade - but it is a reality that Brexit takes up so much Government time that we do not have the time to focus on those issues as much as we would like. We do give them adequate time, though.

British-Irish Council

Brendan Howlin


3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the British-Irish Council in Manchester. [29286/19]

Joan Burton


4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council. [29954/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 and 4 together.

These questions both relate to my attendance at the British-Irish Council. I attended the 32nd British-Irish Council summit, which was hosted in Manchester by the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Mr. David Lidington, MP, on Friday, 28 June. I was accompanied by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton. The First Ministers from Scotland and Wales, along with Heads of Administration from the Crown dependencies, also attended the summit.

The discussion at the summit covered important political developments for administrations since the last summit in November. The discussion focused largely on the implications of Brexit, particularly for relationships across the islands. The council also discussed the current political situation in Northern Ireland and I again stated my regret that Northern Ireland, without the Executive restored, was not represented at the British-Irish Council anymore.

Building on the shared goal of decarbonising our economies, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, took part in a thematic discussion to explore how we could best facilitate the transition by modernising our energy systems. Ministers explored policy approaches to enabling this transition, the facilitation of key technologies, smart energy at a local scale and also funding for innovation. The council also received an update on the British-Irish Council marine litter event held in Glasgow in February.

I took the opportunity to have bilateral discussions with Mr. Lidington, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the new First Minister of Wales, Mr. Mark Drakeford, who was attending his first summit meeting. In all meetings, we exchanged views on issues of mutual interest and continued co-operation, with discussions mainly focusing on Brexit and its impacts on business and citizens. We also spoke about the developments in Westminster and Brussels. At my meeting with First Minister Sturgeon, we also discussed developments on Rockall and we agreed that our shared aim was to resolve differences in a way that was satisfactory to both countries and to continue to develop a very strong bilateral relationship.

Following the summit, I officially opened the ESB's new offices in Manchester and I attended Enterprise Ireland's first business roundtable with Irish companies operating in the UK's "northern powerhouse" region. The House will be aware that it is the Government's intention to establish a new consulate in the north of England as part of our efforts to continue to enhance and deepen the British-Irish relationship after Brexit. I also met the mayor of Greater Manchester, Mr. Andy Burnham, and visited the new Sisk development at Circle Square in Manchester city centre.

At the most recent meeting of the British-Irish Council, the Taoiseach expressed regret that no Northern Ireland representatives were present due to the prevailing political impasse at Stormont. I am of the view that the latter is adding to the Brexit difficulties for the whole island. There is a real prospect of direct rule in Northern Ireland in the case of a no-deal Brexit. The Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy McEntee, recently stated that the Taoiseach has always indicated that the Government would never accept such an outcome. The Taoiseach has called for real and meaningful involvement in Northern Ireland if devolution is not restored, with a role for the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Did the Taoiseach raise the issue of direct rule with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, during their recent meeting? How does the Taoiseach intend to respond if direct rule is imposed on Northern Ireland in the wake of a no-deal Brexit?

I am sure Deputies across the House will agree with me regarding the magnitude of difference a few months can make in British politics. British Ministers who attended the 32nd meeting of the British-Irish Council struck a different tone on the importance of protecting the Good Friday Agreement to that emanating from the new Government there. I am not sure how the Taoiseach and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Deputy Bruton, felt about Ireland being indirectly referred to as a dependent territory of the Crown in the communiqué issued by the council after the summit. I am sure the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, may also have had something to say about that. The acknowledgement by the council of the need for continued engagement and collaboration between members, as well as the value of strengthening relationships, was welcome. Sadly, the actions of the new British Government have not matched the intent signalled by the Council.

The June summit marked the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the council. Strengthened relationships at this turbulent time would be welcomed by us all. However, the reality is very different to the sentiments that were expressed. The council is an institution established under the Good Friday Agreement of which the British are co-guarantors. The British Prime Minister's madman-theory Brexit tactics are fundamentally undermining the agreement. We need to be clear that Brexit is incompatible with the agreement and the views of the majority in the North who wish to remain in the EU. Given that the council is a body established under the Good Friday Agreement, it is disappointing that there was not a deeper discussion at its summit of Brexit and its implications for advancing positive and practical relationships among the people of the islands. After all, that is its tasked responsibility. I ask the Taoiseach to update the House on Brexit discussions at the summit and whether the implications of British withdrawal from the Good Friday Agreement will be high on the agenda for the next summit.

I was reflecting on the change of personnel since the meeting. Has the Taoiseach discussed the British-Irish Council in his conversations with the new British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson? Is the Prime Minister aware of the council's existence and its potential value as an institution that could do so much good in terms of climate change?

The Taoiseach touched briefly on the issue of Rockall, which flared up recently out of nowhere. Can the Taoiseach guarantee that that will not happen again and that he and the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, have set up a mechanism to ensure that any such disagreement will not flare up in the fashion which it did earlier this year?

In the context of Rockall, First Minister Sturgeon and I and our respective Governments are very keen to de-escalate the issue. Neither Scotland nor Ireland has an interest in coming into conflict over fishing rights around Rockall, particularly given that Ireland and Scotland are currently so aligned on some bigger-picture questions. However, it is the case that in the event of no deal, there will be difficulties around fisheries as EU vessels, including Irish vessels, will lose access to UK waters and UK vessels will lose access to our waters, which could be very disruptive. The European Commission has proposed that the status quo should continue until the end of the year at least, even in the event of no deal. However, the UK Government has not yet reciprocated in that regard.

The imposition of direct rule by Westminster on Northern Ireland is not something that the Government can support. We believe it would be contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and, in particular, the St. Andrews Agreement. However, if the sovereign British Government were to impose it, we would seek a consultative role under the auspices of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement. I imparted that view to Prime Minister Johnson when he was in Dublin recently.

As the House is aware, the British-Irish Council is an institution of the Good Friday Agreement. It and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference are the two east-west institutions that form part of the agreement. Post Brexit, both of those institutions have the potential to be strengthened and deepened. All seven jurisdictions covered by the British-Irish Council are part of the common travel area. As all Members are aware, the term "common travel area" is a misnomer because what is involved relates to far more than travel. We are talking about what is almost a form of common citizenship that exists across the seven jurisdictions. The British-Irish Council could become the body to take that forward and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference could be deepened to ensure that the Irish sovereign Government and the UK sovereign Government are in contact in a structured way with the secretariat. We currently meet our counterparts three or four times a year in Brussels, but that will come to an end and we should have mechanisms to continue to have a close relationship.

The Government is deepening the State's presence in the UK, having re-established the consulate in Cardiff and beefed up the embassy in London. There are plans to establish a new consulate in the north of England.

The next summit of the British-Irish Council will be held in Dublin in November. Prime Minister Johnson raised the issue of the summit with me and expressed an interest in attending. I expressed the view that it would be a positive statement on his part if he were to do so because it has not been the practice of British Prime Ministers generally to attend; they have usually been represented by the deputy Prime Minister. It would be a positive statement if the Prime Minister were to attend if he is able to do so.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Brendan Howlin


5. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he has met the leader of the DUP, Mrs. Arlene Foster, or the vice president of Sinn Féin, Ms Michelle O'Neill, recently. [29749/19]

Micheál Martin


6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to or met the leader of the DUP, Mrs. Arlene Foster, recently; and if not, his plans to do so. [37408/19]

Micheál Martin


7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to or met Mrs. Arlene Foster since she met Prime Minister Johnson on 10 September 2019. [37687/19]

The media will be delighted to hear that Prime Minister Johnson may make a reappearance in Dublin.

He might be busy in November.

People will be fascinated with what he will wear on the day and the hairstyle to go with it.

We will allow the Taoiseach to provide his answer before the Deputies ask supplementary questions.

On a related matter, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland , Mr. Julian Smith, this week stated that a revived Stormont Assembly-----

The Taoiseach normally answers before the Deputies ask supplementary questions.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 7, inclusive, together.

The Tánaiste and I met the leader of Sinn Féin, Deputy McDonald, and Ms Michelle O'Neill in Dublin on 18 June. We discussed Brexit developments, the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time and what could be done to get the institutions in Northern Ireland up and running again. I emphasised the Government's full 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 will continue to engage with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek urgent progress in the period immediately ahead. I organised a briefing for party leaders last Monday. Although Deputy McDonald was unable to attend, we spoke at length that day by phone.

I met the leader of the DUP, Mrs. Arlene Foster, at the funeral of Ms Lyra McKee in Belfast in April. I also met her in Washington in March during my visit there for St. Patrick's Day. We have spoken by phone in the interim and arrangements are being made for me to meet her soon.

The Government is in ongoing contact with the Northern Ireland parties at official level and through the work undertaken by the Tánaiste to progress the restoration of the Northern Ireland institutions.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Julian Smith, stated that a revived Stormont Assembly could be part of the solution to the Brexit impasse.

However, he stated that efforts aimed at securing an agreement to revive power-sharing have been very difficult because there are issues, including the Irish language and culture, that need to be resolved. It seems that neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP, at a time of grave political crisis for the North and for the whole island, has shown its ability to put the common good above party politics and devise a compromise that will honour the Good Friday Agreement and allow for Northern Ireland's voice to be heard in the Brexit discussions. The situation does not appear to be sustainable. The people of Northern Ireland deserve an end to the impasse and to have a real say in any Brexit decision that undoubtedly will affect their future, given that they voted against leaving the European Union.

Last April, the Labour Party called for a Northern Ireland citizens' assembly to address the issues that are still causing trouble between the two parties. We found that useful for resolving deeply conflicted issues here in the Republic. I believe that could be useful and would allow citizens' voices to break the deadlock in Stormont. I know the Taoiseach is committed to exploring every avenue to stop a no-deal outcome but will he commit to proposing the idea of having a Northern Ireland citizens' assembly to the Northern parties and to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State? It has proven tremendously useful in resolving many difficult issues here and, similarly, it could be of great value in resolving the Brexit impasse in the North.

The Taoiseach mentioned that one of his meetings with Ms Foster was at the funeral of Lyra McKee. The celebrant of that funeral, Fr. McGill, set a challenge for all politicians to act. That was in April. It is now September. Are we any further on in that regard? We do not have the institutions up and running and I fear the vacuum that existed in April still exists coming towards the end of September. What we have seen in recent weeks is an increase in activity and community-related violence that seems to be trying to fill that vacuum, and we cannot allow that to happen. We cannot have another tragedy like that involving Lyra McKee while this vacuum still exists. What is the Taoiseach's sense now, at the end of September, of a restoration of the institutions this year on the basis of his conversations with Ms Foster? I am intrigued that she is coming to Dublin this weekend and that there will be no meeting at Government level. She is coming to speak to the business community. I know that has been a regular and welcome move over the years but given the vacuum the Government should be engaging with her at every opportunity to try to move this on.

The Fianna Fáil Party and the Labour Party leaders' interest in these meetings has to be welcomed but when was the last time they were in the North and engaged in discussions with party leaders and representatives across the political spectrum? I suspect it was quite some time ago. The Deputies should be in no doubt that people in the North, regardless of their political view, recognise self-interest when they see it. Both parties would be better served if they took part in the political system in the North as opposed to being hurlers on the ditch-----

You could do the same yourselves. Take part in what you were elected to.

-----as their founding fathers and mothers would have expected them to do. To describe the issues in the North as party politics is unhelpful given the well-recognised and debated issues of fundamental rights. Playing party politics with those issues is certainly not helpful.

The development of a Citizens' Assembly here solved the problem.

The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, is the forum set out in the Good Friday Agreement for both Governments to exercise their responsibilities towards equality of treatment and removing the obstacles at the heart of the political crisis in the North. It provides political parties with the opportunity to hold the Taoiseach and his British counterparts to account in honouring their shared responsibilities to past agreements and to the rights of the people in the North on behalf of those same citizens. As we approach the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, with all the implications that scenario has for the Good Friday Agreement, when will the next British-Irish summit be held to discuss these matters?

I thank the Deputies. In respect of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, I had the opportunity to meet him with the Tánaiste on Monday evening, and I am very much aware of the content of his Cambridge speech. Work is ongoing on restoring the Assembly and the Executive. There is deep engagement between the Tánaiste and the Secretary of State at the moment. It is fair to say that they have already developed a very close working relationship.

In terms of a citizens' assembly in Northern Ireland, it is a new idea. It is one that has some merit and I will certainly give it some consideration with my team but it would not be our call to establish it. It would have to have the support of the parties in Northern Ireland and also the Northern Ireland Office. The Good Friday Agreement already provides for a civic forum so perhaps that mechanism could be used too.

In terms of the prospects for restoring the Executive and the Assembly, much of that hangs on Brexit. If we are able to secure a deal we would be in a good position to do so. If we are not, I believe it will be very difficult to do so for many reasons that are obvious to every Member in the House.

The next British Irish Council will be held in Dublin in November. We do not have a date for a summit of the BIIGC. However, both Prime Minister Johnson and I will be in New York next week and we are trying to find a time where we are both in the same building in order to have a follow-up meeting.

Written answers are published on the Oireachtas website.