Post-European Council Meeting on 15 and 16 October: Statements (Resumed)

The Taoiseach, in his introductory remarks, referred to the work of Mr. Michel Barnier as the EU's chief negotiator. He outlined that Mr. Barnier had given a detailed report at the Council meeting on the negotiations with the British on the withdrawal agreement and the Ireland–Northern Ireland protocol. I was glad the Taoiseach stated that Mr. Barnier had in his contribution laid particular emphasis on peace in Ireland. He is not a new convert to peace in Ireland. I was a colleague of Mr. Barnier on the Council of agriculture ministers from 2007 to 2011. At that time, he always displayed a great knowledge of, and interest in, Ireland. He had been regional affairs Commissioner in the late 1990s or early 2000s and he was very familiar with Ireland and the potential for all-Ireland development and to develop the economy on an all-Ireland basis.

He was very supportive of the then Fianna Fáil Government's applications for structural funds for infrastructural development, particularly in respect of projects of a cross-Border nature. He is very familiar, knowledgeable and interested in ensuring that we have a lasting and stable peace in our country. He fully understands the damage that Brexit can do to our island.

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 has been transformative for the entire island. It has been particularly transformative and beneficial for the region I represent. I have had the privilege of representing two Border counties over many years, including in the bad days prior to the Good Friday Agreement and in the more positive days in which we have enjoyed so much political progress. Michel Barnier understands the progress that has been made. He has reiterated on many occasions the need to ensure that that progress and also the economic progress that have been made for the people North and South are not lost.

The word "Brexit" has been in our political lexicon since January 2013, when the then British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, announced that his Government was proposing to hold a referendum on British membership of the European Union. That referendum was held on 23 June 2016. Unfortunately, the decision was made at that time to leave the European Union. The issue has dominated political debate here. The second deadline of 31 October 2019 was missed and Brexit continues to dominate our political discussions. To the credit of both Houses of the Oireachtas and all of the committees over the past number of years, particularly since 2016, people of every party and none have given an extraordinary amount of time to working on and dealing with the Brexit issue, mindful of the impact that it can have on our island.

It has been heartening for everyone, particularly those of us who live in Border communities and have the privilege of representing those communities, to witness the progress that has been made since 1998. We have had the development of the all-Ireland economy, with, for example, enterprises located in our State going on to develop interests in Northern Ireland. Similarly, businesses in Northern Ireland which only had a presence there prior to 1998 now have a strong presence in our State as well. In so many instances, those companies have developed into all-Ireland operations, creating jobs for people north, south, east and west. This has been facilitated by the Single Market and the dismantling of the Border. Thankfully, in effect, the Good Friday Agreement dismantled the Border infrastructure on our island.

Last week, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I instanced the central Border area, comprising Cavan and Monaghan in the South and Tyrone and Fermanagh in the North, as being the least developed area on the island. These four counties are heavily dependent on three particular sectors - namely, those relating to agrifood, construction products and engineering - to generate employment, in the context of economic development and to generate earnings from exports. Those sectors are heavily dependent on the Northern Ireland and British markets. The imposition of tariffs on products from those sectors going to Britain, our primary market, will create major problems regarding the viability of those enterprises and their ability to remain competitive. We have the double negative of sectors that are the primary economic drivers in the least developed regions being the most heavily dependent on the British market to export their products to in order to generate earnings.

I have appealed for a deal to be reached on numerous occasions. In the event of there being no deal, and these sectors being very exposed, Government assistance must be targeted at the areas to which I refer. There is massive interdependence in the Border economy, North and South. I can instance it. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, knows my county and County Monaghan well. He will know the enterprises I am speaking about, some of which are situated on our side of the Border and their sister companies on the Fermanagh side. These are companies are interdependent, part-manufacturing in one jurisdiction and part-assembling in the other. There will be unbelievable complications and additional cross-Border issues if we do not have a deal. This is why a deal is particularly important. The messages from Westminster in recent days in the context of the UK wanting to forge ahead without a deal are very worrying. Like Deputy Haughey, I thought the Taoiseach was somewhat optimistic that a deal can be reached. We sincerely hope that it can be achieved because it is absolutely necessary.

The progress that has been made will be knocked back incalculably if we do not get an agreement. At the first committee meeting following the British referendum in 2016, I stated that the decision of the British people to leave the European Union knocked the stuffing out of Border communities. Those of us who lived there through the bad days saw the complete change whereby communities came together, regardless of whether they were located on the northern side of the Border or on the southern side, be it in Fermanagh, Cavan, Monaghan or Tyrone. These are huge stakes for our communities and for the entire island.

The Taoiseach stated that, understandably, the commentary by all of the Heads of State and Heads of Government at the Council meeting was very sombre in regard to Covid. I have said on many occasions in this Chamber that we need an all-Ireland approach to dealing with this pandemic. We need the restrictions to be comparable North and South and for those restrictions and other measures to be implemented in a similar way as well. Imposing restrictions and not implementing them on one side of the Border will not help us to eliminate this virus from our island.

On the EU Council meeting, pandemic solutions come to mind. We have taken particular initiatives in terms of a health solution. We need co-ordination across Europe in that regard. We have had an element of co-ordination in regard to financial packages and the possibility of future financial initiatives. This needs to happen on a global basis and on a Europe-wide basis. Yesterday, in response to a question, the Taoiseach spoke about the difficulties arising if we are not lucky enough to get a vaccine. There has been much scientific work done and there has been some really good news regarding a number of vaccine programmes that are operating at this point. However, there are no guarantees. We need to ensure a free-flow of money so that businesses and families can access the supports they need. Beyond this, we need co-ordination in respect of testing regimes. A number of Deputies have spoken about the difficulties around the test, trace and isolate infrastructure, particularly in the context of schools. We have a particular difficulty here regarding the speed with which we carry out rapid testing, including through the use of antigen and LAMP tests. I realise that this is being operated in some places in Europe, particularly in the context of air travel. We could also use it alongside PCR testing to deal with some of the specific difficulties we face.

It goes without saying that at this point that we also face Brexit. I welcome what appears to be solidarity from across Europe. We need to ensure that this is the case. We also welcome solidarity from the US. We have a difficulty in regard to the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and what it promises. We have had commentary that is not helpful from David Frost, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.

Some of the mood music today is better and that is to be welcomed. We hope this is a negotiating gambit and that it is a case of Britain trying to put its head into Europe's head and put on the pressure.

We accept what has been said in this House and many other places, which is that Britain needs a deal with the EU and that 45% of its exports are to the European Union. My understanding is that figure is correct. However, the fact is that we have to take into account what Britain threatens. We have to make preparations. It is vital that there are contingency plans, including supports for businesses, supports across the Border and east-west preparations. We need to ensure beyond all doubt that there will be no return to a hard border. It is without doubt that soon we will be looking at a constitutional change on this island as the solution to the relationship with Britain.

Deputy Brendan Smith was in the Chamber a few seconds ago. He mentioned that there should be cross-Border co-operation on Covid-19. We have been saying that for months and still there is absolutely no cross-Border co-operation on Covid-19. I have asked the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs where the locus of co-operation is. Is it within the Dáil, the Department of the Taoiseach or the Department of Foreign Affairs? Is it in the Department of Health? Is there a secretariat? Is there any structure for co-operation, North and South, on Covid-19? I am still to get an answer in that regard.

Covid-19 is obviously a significant threat to life and health and we must do our best to keep the numbers down. We also need balance because the restrictions can also be a threat to life and health throughout the country. There needs to be a balance between the two. Will the Minister of State explain why Ireland is currently an outlier in terms of Covid-19 restrictions? Accordingly to the government response stringency index produced by Our World in Data, Ireland is the second most restricted country in the EU when it comes to Covid-19. That is before level 5 is put in place. A comparative analysis between European countries has found Ireland is mid-ranking for incidence of Covid-19. Many other countries with higher rates of Covid than Ireland have far fewer restrictions in place.

The World Health Organization has stated that restrictions are necessary to protect a health service that is under pressure. Last night, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, stated on "Claire Byrne Live" that there is no crisis in the health service at the moment. Indeed, consultants in hospitals throughout the country have called openly for people to come to the hospitals because we have a wave of hospital avoidance throughout the country. People are too fearful to answer the invitations they have received for treatment.

There are three countries in the world where church services are currently cancelled, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and this State, the Republic of Ireland. Restaurants, pubs and retail outlets are functioning in many other countries throughout Europe safely and in a social distanced way.

There is an extraordinary cost to this. I have asked the National Public Health Emergency Team, the HSE and the Government to research the costs in the areas of cancer care, heart disease, stroke and mental health. What is the level of mortality and morbidity as a result of these restrictions? No one from these organisations has told me that they have carried out any research. In many ways, the information is missing from half of the equation and decisions are being made blind.

After seven months of talking about Covid-19 and €18 billion in the budget in recent weeks, we still have one of the lowest levels of hospital intensive care beds in the European Union. The front line of Covid-19 is the people because the Government has failed to invest the money needed to ensure we have a health service that is able to protect our society.

As I have stated many times in this House, I firmly believe we are heading towards a no-deal Brexit. This is an incredibly serious situation for Ireland, particularly areas close to the Border like my home town of Dundalk. Unfortunately, the Government is sleepwalking into this and has not made the necessary arrangements to prepare us for a no-deal Brexit. Such an outcome would benefit nobody, least of all the United Kingdom. What is done is done, however, and we have to deal with the facts.

I speak daily to citizens and businesses in and around the Border region. Brexit is the biggest danger to the region in our lifetime. We can all remember the dark days of daily bombings, killings and security checkpoints. We do not want to go back to those dark days and we cannot do so. What concerns people and businesses along the Border is the lack of preparation for a hard Brexit. No one seems to know what to expect on 1 January 2021, which is only ten weeks away. Many workers live on one side of the Border and work on the other side. They have concerns, especially about possible checkpoints on the Border and the rules that will apply for cross-Border workers. Will they be taxed differently? How will social welfare benefits operate? These people need clarity. The concern about checkpoints also relates to customs checks. Can the Minister of State give any clarity on whether there will be fixed customs checks on Border crossings? Tariffs are another major issue for businesses.

Another issue of concern is cross-Border students. Dundalk has one of the top institutes of technology in the country. DkIT has almost 5,000 students, many of whom travel from the North to attend. These students are in the dark and do not know what is ahead of them. Is the Minister of State concerned for the future of these students if there is a no-deal Brexit?

Another subject of particular concern along the Border is that of security co-operation. Will the Minister of State indicate what measures or plans are in place to ensure security co-operation will continue to exist in the event of a no-deal Brexit? Access to security databases has been a major concern.

Hauliers are also facing into an uncertain future. What obstacles will they face when they have to travel through the UK? There are horror stories circulating that hauliers from Ireland could face delays of up to ten hours once they reach the UK. That would have a devastating effect on many food producers, who need to get their produce on supermarket shelves as quickly as possible. What additional red tape and paperwork are hauliers likely to face?

Last week's budget allocated €100 million to the shared island unit. I understand this unit will work towards investing in border infrastructure, cross-Border co-operation and related matters. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the unit will play a vital part in maintaining close relations between North and South. Has the Minister of State discussed this unit with his European counterparts? If so, has he discussed the idea of the EU matching any funds the Government invests in this unit? This unit will play a vital role in the Border region and I have no doubt the EU will see this and be only too willing to support such a worthy cause. I would welcome the comments of the Minister of State on this. If he does not have a chance to answer all the questions, I would appreciate if he could respond in writing.

On this day last week, the General Affairs Council of the European Union met in Luxembourg and agreed on what is now being called a traffic light system. It is a risk-rating system to co-ordinate travel across EU member states. This agreement will mean that the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control will publish a weekly map of European regions, as opposed to countries, and use the colours of green, orange and red to categorise the contagion risk of Covid-19 in these regions. On the surface, this would appear to be a good development. When Covid rates, hopefully, start to fall back across member states we will start to see people once again having the confidence to fly with airlines without complications. It will be advantageous to green countries. However, the situation regarding countries designated green seems to be fluid. Crucially, when people arrive from green countries they will not have to quarantine. That is good but beyond that, I have grave concerns about how orange and red regions will be treated. Each member state will decide the appropriate health measures to be put in place for incoming air passengers from these regions. This does not equate to simplifying Europe-wide air travel. I am concerned that without a uniform approach by all member states to orange and red regions, we will not see a normal return to air travel any time in the near future. I implore the Government to seek an immediate overhaul of the traffic light system at the next European Council meeting to ensure there is a common approach across Europe.

There is also an acute need for member states to adopt a common approach to travel from outside the European Union. What we have now is a patchwork of policies for flights coming from America, Canada, the Middle East and beyond. With Covid-19 cases on the rise throughout Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, there are few airplanes in our skies. The real point, however, is that we have time at the moment to devise an A to Z aviation policy that instils confidence in people and gets our airlines back flying. Airlines are planning their spring and summer schedules for 2021.

They need certainty and the Government and the European Union need to give them that certainty. Only last week, Ryanair announced the closure of its bases at Shannon Airport and Cork Airport due to the uncertainty. What we need in this quiet time in global aviation is the expeditious introduction of testing at all our airports. We also need to use this unprecedented quiet time to overhaul aviation policy. Without these changes, Shannon Airport will be in a dogfight for its survival and I am sure the same could be said for Cork Airport.

The Minister of State will probably remember that in the pre-European Council statements I mentioned the Palestinian village of Khirbet a-Rakeez, where a school funded by the European Union and Irish Aid has been demolished. At the time, I urged the Minister of State to engage with his European colleagues to seek compensation for the demolition by the Israeli military of aid structures funded by Irish taxpayers. In the post-European Council statements, I want to raise the issue of Ras al-Tin, an area just outside Ramallah where another Irish Aid-funded school is facing imminent demolition.

Despite Covid-19, demolitions of Palestinian homes and EU and Irish Aid-funded structures have continued. The civil administration that oversees the occupation claims these homes are built without planning permission. For a Palestinian to get planning permits is next to impossible. The system is deliberately designed to prevent Palestinians from obtaining permits. At the same time, the Israeli Government has legalised in recent weeks what would, in its eyes, have been illegal settlements. These are outposts built without planning permission. What we have on the ground is one geographic region where two laws operate in different ways based simply on nationality. That is not good enough. By not seeking compensation, we are somewhat complicit in this. As I said before the European Council meeting, at a minimum, we must demand compensation and work with our EU partners to get it. Better still, we should work with them to prevent the demolition of these much-needed aid structures in Palestine.

There is a history of the Israeli military and occupation acting with impunity towards international law. We cannot allow this to continue. It is up to us, as the people who provided this funding, to demand that it end. On the ground in Palestine, annexation in name has been paused but de facto annexation continues. According to Peace Now, almost 5,000 settlement units were announced recently. The building of settlements, the confiscation of Palestinian land and the imposition of Israeli sovereignty on Palestine continue. This is de facto annexation even if it does not go by that name and we need to do more about it.

I will speak about the village of Ras al-Tin and the school that is facing imminent demolition, which was built with Irish Aid funds. We need to work with our European Union counterparts to prevent this demolition and demand compensation if it goes ahead. This is an ongoing issue and it will only end if we find a way to end the occupation. In the meantime, we need to ensure that any breaches of international law do not take place with impunity or without consequences, as has pretty much been the case to date. I urge the Minister of State to use whatever diplomatic channels he can to address this issue and to seek compensation.

People in Ireland are in a difficult position. They are weary of Brexit, which we have been dealing with for three or four years, and now we have Covid-19. We have seen the ineptitude of the Government in dealing with Covid-19. We have also seen the ineptitude of the HSE, which has been unable to cope in any winter in recent years despite having €1 billion extra in annual funding thrown in for good measure to expand the health system. Now we see that we are unable to deal with Covid-19.

I have to wonder if it is all a plan to let the people eat cake. When mention is made of solidarity from Europe, I wonder where that solidarity is. We hear all these statements from Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Michel Barnier and many others but we are in the dying minutes of the game. We will be in November next week. We have only two short months left, including one of the shortest months of the year, and then we have Christmas season. Before we know it, we will be in 2021 and there will still be no deal.

People need to know what will happen. Exporters, farmers, ordinary workers and the many machinery companies that create and export wonderful products need some certainty. What will happen to the truckers? Will there be ten-hour delays at ports? Will there be customs checks and so on? The game is too serious and the stakes too high for all these small business people and those they employ.

We know about all the milk and other exports that go up and down through Northern Ireland and across what is, thankfully, an invisible border that should not be there. The Border is there, unfortunately, and we have to deal with it. We cannot hide and run away from it. I do not know how long ago the then Taoiseach and current Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, came back with a game-changer known as the backstop. Everything was supposed to be fine once we had the backstop. It was as if the Alps were protecting us but that is all gone and the sands have shifted.

We need solidarity from our European partners now more than ever. They should be able to give us that. After all, we have been the best boys in the class in Europe. When the Taoiseach came home from the most recent summit, it became clear that we will be the fourth highest net contributor to the EU. The Taoiseach told us it was a good deal, even though we will be cleaned out. We were cleaned out in the so-called bailout after we bailed out the banks. The EU charged us 6% interest, the highest rate it could charge. We got money from the IMF at the time at a rate of 2.9%. Where is the solidarity? I do not see much of it. The people who I represent in Tipperary, be they farmers, manufacturers, exporters or families, do not see any solidarity. They are worried about the future of their families and their ability to live and survive in 2021 with Brexit, not to mention Covid-19. Where is the solidarity?

We are already at the top of the class in Europe for restrictions. At 12 midnight tomorrow, we will again be at the top of the class. We are jumping up again to show how good we are to Europe. We want to show we are great people because we do this and that. We have the fourth lowest number of cases, although there is no transparency on case numbers and PCR tests. Other Deputies have mentioned the tests that should be done but will not be done. What is the HSE protecting? Why will it not take on some of the people who have come forward with tests at a minuscule cost of €10, €20 and €30 per head? The HSE prefers to pay €195 per head. It is all about control because if there is a new test, the HSE might be found out.

We need honesty and integrity in the system. We need support and we need to remove the blindfolds from people's eyes. We must be honest and level with the people because, thankfully, the numbers of deaths in Ireland are lower than they were in 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2015. One death is one too many. Why can people not wake up and see this and tear the answers out of the Government if it will not give them freely? The Government will not give the answers because it is all about control. The media are controlled as well.

The House will discuss restrictions tomorrow night and we will have the Garda issuing fines. We will crucify and perish our people. We are commemorating the anniversary of the death of Seán Treacy and the two O'Dwyer brothers who were murdered in Bansha by crown forces last Sunday 100 years ago, yet here we are perishing our nation and destroying our children and our future. We are throwing billions of euro at this. Where is the Government getting that money? Who is giving it the money which has to be paid back?

We have no honesty or transparency. We have a health system that is not fit for purpose and has left us in this perilous situation. I have come to the conclusion that this is being done deliberately to let old people die. We will kill all the young people with abortion. Some 6,666 of them were aborted last year in Ireland. That is what the Government is at. We cherish the people equally but not the unborn or the elderly. I ask the Minister of State to level with the people. We should get solidarity from Europe on this. Why do we have to be the best boys in the class when we get nowhere and get no thanks for it?

I will return perhaps to the European Council. I completely agree with Deputy Mattie McGrath to the extent that we are an outlier in Europe. We have imposed far greater restrictions on people than any other European state over the past six months consistently, and for what? For a policy that has utterly failed. I appreciate that this is not necessarily the remit of the Department of the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, but I am sure he will troop through the lobbies and we will roll over all these restrictions without debate. Democratic oversight, parliamentary accountability and so on are key tenets of the rule of law, which we criticise Hungary for not adhering to. When it does not suit us here to adhere likewise for political reasons, we do exactly the same thing. Is Viktor Orbán still in the same European Parliament political group as Fine Gael and the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, or has he left it? In any event the approach Fianna Fáil is adopting is very much at odds with what the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE, its European family, is advocating, which relates to parliamentary accountability.

I wish to return to the traffic light system. We shut down our aviation and travel sectors and told people they could not go on holidays and told public and civil servants we would penalise them and make them take two weeks' unpaid leave if they did. We did so without any statutory basis which was, I think, entirely unlawful but, ultimately, the Irish courts and I presume the European courts will end up adjudicating on that. In any event it is now proposed, as the Government prepares to lock down society, that we will open up aviation. We could not open up during the summer. We could not even allow people to meet outdoors during the summer, but now it is suddenly safe to meet outdoors. We will open up aviation. I welcome the fact that we are to open it up. We badly need it. We are members of the European Union but we never talk about that as something important other than as a means to say how much better than Boris Johnson we are. We were so proud of how much better than Mr. Johnson we were in our response to Covid until we ended up taking the same knee-jerk reactions but just before he did. Britain does not have the same centralised government structure we have, and now its cities, in particular the northern cities, are fighting back. They are right to do so and to say this is a punishment of the poor, effectively for being poor. If one looks at a map of incidences of Covid-19 and a map of incidences of poverty across Clare, Dublin, Meath or anywhere else on this island, they are essentially the same map, as they are in the United Kingdom and in most other countries.

I want to know one thing in particular. A green system is proposed which requires less than 4% of tests being positive and fewer than 25 positive cases in 10,000 people over the previous week. Notwithstanding all the sacrifices the Irish people have borne, due to the failure of the State's reaction and the failure to set up any sort of tracing system we are far in excess of that, so what will we do about orange and red areas? Will there be testing? What is being done with other members of the European Union to agree a protocol on testing between these countries? If I understand the outcome of the Council correctly, there can be no impediment whatsoever on travel - other than the impediment the Irish Government in its genius dreamt up which said people are free to travel, that freedom of movement is part of the European Union, but those who do so will take two weeks' unpaid leave. The Government says that is not a punishment, a restriction or an impediment. Is "my ass it is not" unparliamentary language?

How on earth could that not be an impediment? Does the Government intend to continue with this canard and pretend there is no impediment to travel abroad between green list countries while telling people they have to take two weeks' unpaid leave?

What will the Government do to develop a testing protocol to enable people to travel between orange list and red list countries? It is quite clear from what the Council agreed that people can travel between green regions without any restrictions, that a person is always allowed to go back to his or her member state of nationality and that any measures restricting freedom of movement need to be proportionate but that one should not in principle be refused entry. I think the only way that can happen is if there is an agreed testing protocol. What are we doing about that?

I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.

We now move to questions and answers. I propose that the Minister of State answer the questions that have arisen during debate and then, if Members wish to ask questions, there will be 20 minutes available.

I propose to read my response regarding Africa first and then to go through the questions Deputies have asked. There will probably still be time at the end if any of the Deputies wish to ask further specific questions. One of the points made was that I am not the Minister for Health so I cannot answer questions relating to health. I can answer on what I did at the General Affairs Council last week, but that involves a wider Government response as well.

I thank the Deputies for their statements and questions and also for the solidarity they are showing on Brexit. We are unified on that approach here and I am very keen for that to continue. The European Council, as the Taoiseach said, discussed external relations. The focus this time was on the relationship with Africa and African countries, but a number of other issues were also discussed.

Leaders at the summit agreed to hold a strategic discussion on the southern neighbourhood, that is, Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia, in December coming.

The European Council also returned to its discussion on Belarus. Leaders again condemned the continuing violence against peaceful protesters, which we on every side of this House again condemn, I am sure, and expressed our solidarity with Lithuania and Poland in light of retaliatory measures imposed on them by Belarus.

The leaders held a lengthy discussion on Turkey at their meeting on 1 and 2 October and further discussions last week in light of renewed unilateral and provocative maritime activity by Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. In light of Turkey's recently announced plan to open the coastline of Varosha, a city on the eastern edge of Cyprus, the European Council again urged respect for UN Security Council resolutions and reiterated its full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus. Leaders will return to this topic in upcoming meetings.

Relations with Russia again featured at the meeting, this time in the context of the 2014 shooting down of flight MH17. The European Council called on the Russian Federation to continue the trilateral negotiations between Australia, the Netherlands and the Russian Federation. The victims of this tragedy deserve truth and the leaders expressed their support for all efforts to establish truth, justice and accountability.

The major item on the external relations agenda was the EU's relationship with Africa. A summit with African Union leaders had originally been planned for October 2020 and will now take place in 2021. Last week's discussion was a welcome opportunity for European leaders to consider our strategic priorities for our relationship with our neighbouring continent. While there is extensive co-operation between the EU and Africa across a range of areas, there is potential for much greater coherence and synergy. Leaders confirmed the high priority the EU places on strengthening its strategic relations with Africa and on its partnership with the African Union. Ireland fully supports this approach. A more ambitious and effective EU-Africa partnership is a strategic objective of Ireland's Africa strategy. Stronger political partnerships with Africa and African countries are essential to consolidate peace, stability and sustainable development. Ireland has strong partnerships right across the continent and we will build on these to help deliver a strong partnership between the EU and Africa. Co-operation between the EU and Africa is more important than ever in the context of the current pandemic. We must show solidarity with Africa in the fight against Covid-19, including through work on vaccines as global public goods. To help address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the European Council also agreed to further international debt relief efforts for African countries. In this respect the Council was asked to prepare a common approach by the end of November 2020.

While the EU is Africa's biggest trading partner, our trading relationship is not as substantial as it could be. The African Continental Free Trade Area has enormous potential to advance economic integration in Africa and to boost EU-Africa trade and investment. We must work in partnership in order that Africa and Europe can each achieve green and digital transformations to underpin our shared future prosperity. Engagement with African issues and with African partners will be a key part of Ireland's UN Security Council membership from 2021. The EU-African summit, which is planned for 2021, presents a valuable opportunity to raise the level of political co-operation between our two continents. By working together in support of multilateralism, the EU and Africa can make a greater impact on the global agenda.

Again, I thank Deputies for their statements and questions. I assure them that the Taoiseach will continue to report to the House in advance of and following the regular meetings of the European Council. I will now do my best to deal with the questions that arose.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked for an explanation of the text of the European Council conclusions. Members asked the Commission "to give timely consideration to unilateral and time-limited contingency measures that are in the EU's interest". What I think is meant by this is that the European Commission will look at the issue of state aid, what we can do to help business in the event of a no-deal Brexit and what other contingencies will be there. It is notable that despite the mood music being better and the fact that talks are proceeding, there are - I would say this at the General Affairs Council as well - more countries engaging on this issue and wondering what are the preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

To explain to Deputy McDonald, that is there in terms of important preparation.

Deputy Brady raised an interesting point on nuclear co-operation and nuclear materials. That is an area of common interest between Britain and the European Union and was a feature of the political declaration last year. It is something Britain wants progress on and is willing to make agreement on despite the fact that, as the Deputy rightly pointed out, it is not part of Europe. That is obviously a critical issue for us where I, Deputy Ó Murchú and Deputy Brady live on the east coast. Progress is being made and hopefully that will be finalised but the Deputy is right to raise the issue.

I will give the Deputy the exact answer on the issue of the Moria camp. The actual mechanics of that are a matter for the Departments of Justice and Equality and Children and Youth Affairs. However, the issue of migration is, obviously, a key feature of what leaders do at the European Council and is a key issue when one deals with member states, particularly, in the Mediterranean area. We are aware that, this year, 675 migrants lost their lives - the poor souls - after crossing the Mediterranean Sea. We notified the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy McEntee, and she notified the Commission that Ireland will admit 50 people in family groups who were displaced from Moria and who are beneficiaries of international protection as part of our programme. We will relocate four unaccompanied minors and this forms part of a previous commitment to accept six unaccompanied minors, eight of whom arrived in the State in June.

Deputies Howlin and Mac Lochlainn raised the issue of fish. Deputy Mac Lochlainn asked us to hold the ground in this regard. That is important. The Taoiseach and I met with President Macron and my counterpart, Mr. Clément Beaune, last week and the issue of fish, it must be said, was really the main item on the agenda. Holding the ground is what we are doing. The Government has forged an informal alliance among European Council members on the issue of fish and has certainly been in touch with Mr. Michel Barnier about the importance of that issue. It is crucially important for our economic prospects but, particularly, in areas that do not really have other economic prospects. The British see it as a totemic issue of nationhood. It is that, but it has practical consequences in terms of both jobs and the food supply. It is important. The Government is therefore very much holding the ground. In my discussions with European colleagues, namely, the Belgian deputy Prime Minister and my French and Dutch counterparts, the issue of fish has been part of the agenda. That is the same with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue. He had a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Michel Barnier, as did the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, at which the issue was high on the agenda. I assure fishing communities right across the country that we have their backs on this matter, which is critical for us. We will, however, let the negotiations play out. I will not say too much more about that.

I was interested by the comments of Deputies Carthy and Fitzpatrick on the issue of preparations. I am aware Deputy Carthy rowed back his criticism somewhat in the context of us not holding roadshows at this time of year when he acknowledged after some time that this was obviously because of the pandemic. The Department of Foreign Affairs hosts a monthly Brexit stakeholder forum. As I understand it, politicians are invited to attend. I will check that but we do not have massive numbers of political representatives in attendance and, certainly, those who have been present have not contributed. I propose to hold a Brexit preparedness briefing for members of the Oireachtas. I will arrange that with the officials. The complaints in this regard are not valid. We are doing a huge amount and it is up to all of us in our own communities to show leadership on this.

Deputy McGrath asked whether there will be customs checks. There will not be customs checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic but, deal or no deal, there will be customs checks between Britain and the island of Ireland. That is the reality. I am concerned that not every business is really in the zone for that change. We are certainly doing as much as we can-----

They do not have to be when the Government is shutting them down.

We are not shutting down trading companies that are involved in importing and exporting.

The Government is shutting everything down.

There will be an opportunity for questions.

There is no shutdown of that type of activity, which continues. That type of misinformation is unfortunate. Regarding the level of preparedness, I will organise a briefing for Oireachtas Members at which we can go through all the issues and give all the ammunition and information Deputies need to give to their constituents in terms of preparation.

Deputy O'Callaghan mentioned rule of law. That is important. The issue of LGBT-free zones in Poland is absolutely horrific but it is not part of the rule of law discussions at the moment. Such discussions in respect of Poland centre on the issue of the judiciary. I will say to our Polish friends that when people look at what is going on with the judiciary and with LGBT-free zones in their country, it is, to say it most politely, a huge disappointment. Poland is a strong partner for Ireland. There is strong solidarity regarding Brexit and, through our economies, in respect of the benefits of the Single Market. When we see what is going on in Poland, it gives rise to a sense of disbelief. Poland needs to look carefully at what it is doing in respect of the judiciary and LGBT free-zones and how its image abroad will affect its economy because people will look twice when they see what is going on. I am concerned about this. I suggest that it is a matter for the Dáil and the Seanad and, indeed, the European affairs committee. I am more than happy to be involved but it will be a matter for the Dáil in a debate on the rule of law in Poland. When we discussed it at the General Affairs Council last week, member states were keen that people would interact with their own parliaments in respect of it. It is great that Deputy O'Callaghan and many other people are raising these issues. However, we need to have a full debate on them in the Oireachtas, possibly at some point in the new year.

In terms of Covid-19 engagement, people are telling me in the Chamber that we are much stricter than in other countries. The reality is, however, that even since last weekend, there have been many changes in European countries. I do not have any responsibility for health but I am kept apprised of what is happening in European countries or where there are a lot of green zones. The number of patients in ICUs in Sweden has doubled in a short time. Finland has seen a massive increase in the past few weeks. Latvia introduced new restrictions last week and Belgium introduced new measures yesterday. France re-entered a state of public health emergency on Saturday. A partial lockdown went into force in the Netherlands on Wednesday. Luxembourg is having a meeting of its Government Council this weekend. Germany is not quite as badly hit at the moment but new measures were taken last week. A new Covid-19 decree came into force yesterday in Italy. Portugal has raised its state of contingency to "higher state of calamity" status. In Spain, new measures came into effect in Catalonia from Friday.

Do any of them have a 5 km limit in place?

What I am saying is-----

I accept that they all-----

I am saying that as of-----

On a point of order. I am entitled to raise a point of order.

There is no point of order. Will the Deputy take his seat? He knows there is no point of order.

I am not giving detailed information about what other countries are doing because I do not have it. In the past few days, governments all around Europe have been taking significant and serious steps.

They are taking steps.

Portugal has a state of calamity, for example.

The Government of Portugal is not shutting down the country.

The mood at the European Council and the General Affairs Council regarding Covid-19 was extremely grim. The pattern is the same all over Europe in terms of how health systems are coping, how countries are dealing with Covid-19 and what the worries are. Deputies Boyd Barrett and Ó Murchú and others questioned Deputy Richmond on Covid-19 engagement. The European Union does not have the health competence. I know that if tomorrow we held a referendum for a new treaty to give Europe a health competence, there would be massive opposition to this from some of the left-wing parties because they have opposed every European Union treaty.

The truth is this and the Taoiseach would say it as well. He said to me that he was Minister for Health during the SARS-CoV-2 crisis and he believes the difference is fundamental in terms of co-operation at European level. The point, however, is that it still does not have a health competence. As I understand it, there will be video conference meetings between the leaders regarding Covid-19 co-ordination. These will be organised by the Presidency and the proposal that they be held was certainly suggested at the Council. That is useful. The travel restrictions will be reviewed regularly. By the end of October, the Commission will outline the further Covid-19 responses it believes are necessary and it will co-ordinate in respect of emergency health assessment testing strategies, quarantine and contact tracing.

Our app has been linked with those of two other countries as the start of an integration process. The Commission is working on improving the overall EU framework for response to health crises and is examining the revision of the mandates of the European Centre for Disease Control, ECDC. The Commission is launching a pharmaceutical strategy and is taking a lead on the issue of vaccines as well and common vaccine purchase. There is significant activity at EU level despite the fact it does not have a health competence. Earlier on in the year there was a great deal of criticism of the Union's response but there has been a major change. The Taoiseach feels it very useful to talk to his health colleagues about what is going on. One of the points raised by Members related to antigen testing. The Taoiseach was certainly talking to colleagues from France and many other countries that have brought it in. He is determined to do that. Testing has been approved by HIQA and a clinical examination is under way in this country. The Taoiseach is determined to do this as quickly as possible because it will be a game changer, particularly for education settings but also for travel, as Deputy Cathal Crowe pointed out in his strong appeal for a strong commitment on Shannon Airport.

The traffic light system is in place. Nearly everywhere is now a red zone. Parts of Finland and Greece are green zones. The restrictions will be removed from green zones tonight or tomorrow. The Deputy is correct that it is part of the recommendation and they will be gone. There was a Government decision today that I am not privy to because I was not at Cabinet, but it will set out the remainder of that in detail. Antigen testing is a key part of making sure that can be done quickly. Unfortunately, it is not relevant when almost everywhere is red and we are at level 5 but it at least provides a framework to allow airports such as Shannon to have some certainty as to what will happen when circumstances change.

Deputy Richmond was concerned that countries are ready to move on from Brexit. In a way they are because whatever has to happen must happen by the end of the year. He was concerned that only two and a half hours were spent talking about Brexit but that is a long time in the context of a meeting that started at 4 p.m. Brexit was the first item, there was dinner later on for the leaders and then there was a meeting the following morning on a number of issues. In the context of the time allowed, two and a half hours was a strong time commitment at that meeting. It was a confidential session; there was none of what is called Antici reporting whereby meetings are reported outside. It was highly confidential. Leaders were extremely frank with each other, with Mr. Charles Michel and with Mr. Michel Barnier and it was very productive as well.

I apologise to the Minister of State but I am conscious that there are two minutes left for questions and he must have his wrap-up as well.

I gave my wrap-up at the start when I spoke about Africa. I thought it would be useful to get through some of these.

The European Council has completely failed to address the issue of the Israeli annexation of the West Bank. It is quite poignant that the Minister of State answered every question that was put to him but did not address the issues raised by his Government colleague, Deputy Costello.

That is because I did not get to them. It was not deliberate. The Acting Chairman cut me off.

It was interesting to see the statement from the Minister for Foreign Affairs last Friday, in which he stated that a de facto annexation is occurring in the West Bank, which is illegal under international law. Does the Minister of State agree with the Minister's assessment? What pressure is being put on the EU to impose sanctions? It is rightfully very quick to impose sanctions on other countries and leaders but no action is forthcoming coming against the illegal actions of the Israelis and the continued annexation of the West Bank. What pressure is being put on at EU level to impose sanctions to ensure Israel is held to account under international law for its ongoing actions?

I welcome the answer about co-ordination. I accept what the Minister of State said regarding health competencies but it is just about that level of cooperation and coordination. It is not only from a health point of view. There have been a number of financial initiatives, for want of a better term. It is probably about looking for a point in time when we will have something which is perhaps more holistic and imaginative. That is what is meant when people talk about a Marshall Plan-type scenario that will be necessary to get us through the gap and then stimulate the economy afterwards - whenever that is.

In response to Deputy McDonald's question, the Minister of State said EU leaders discussed the contingencies in the event of a no-deal Brexit. I welcome that much of the mood music from Europe is that they will stand with Ireland in all circumstances but I want to know what that looks like in respect of the Border in particular.

I refer to the practice during the summer of recommending that public servants, or anybody else, quarantine at home. Will that still apply for people coming from a green list country and will it apply to those coming from countries that are orange or red? In the event that a testing protocol is agreed, will a test be sufficient for orange and red? Likewise, will there be no restriction whatsoever in the requirement to self-isolate, quarantine or limit one's movements in respect of people coming from green list countries?

The Government agreed the procedure for the traffic light system earlier. It was a Government decision and I am sure the details will be announced in due course. I am not at Cabinet so I am not privy to that. I presume the Minister for Transport will deal with that. We want to implement the traffic light system.

On Israel and Palestine, I did not answer Deputy Costello's question only because the Acting Chairman asked me to wrap up to allow Deputy Brady and others to ask questions. On the very specific points Deputy Costello raised, I will ask the Minster of State, Deputy Brophy, to get back to the Deputy on Irish aid. The Middle East peace process was not discussed at the Council last week. The Mediterranean neighbourhood is on the agenda for December so Israel will be discussed there. Ireland's support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is long-standing. It should be noted that this was something that was put forward, I think, during our Presidency in 1990. The Minister for Foreign Affairs at that time was the late Brian Lenihan Sr. I am very proud to come from a party that has been a long-standing supporter of the two-state solution and of the Palestinian people.

Fianna Fáil bottled it when it came to the occupied territories Bill, however.

When Sinn Féin was occupied with other states' issues we were very strong on this and we remain very strong on this. When the Taoiseach was Minister for Foreign Affairs, he visited Palestine at that time as well, as have some of my party colleagues. We will continue to prioritise the Middle East peace process on the Security Council. We will do whatever we can to advance efforts towards a just and normal peace. We resolutely oppose annexation. Any such moves are illegal under international law and jeopardise the prospect of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. Any announcements Israel is making on suspending plans to annex parts of the occupied territories are welcome but these plans need to be permanently withdrawn.

Everyone speaks of solidarity with Ireland but the practical measures from member states are real as well. When the Taoiseach spoke of Michel Barnier's priorities for the negotiations, he almost understated it. When Mr. Barnier, or Mr. Maroš Šefovi from the Commission speaks, their number one priority is peace on the island of Ireland. The understanding these key individuals have about our country, North and South, the difficulties there and the Border is incredible. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and my predecessor, Deputy McEntee, brought many ministers over to the Border and they still talk about that. Those visits to the Border were very useful to let people know the reality of life on the ground. Many of Deputy Ó Murchú's constituents and many constituents in south County Armagh and south County Down met other European colleagues and that has had a profound impact on the negotiations and it was welcome.

Regarding other practical solidarity measures, the Brexit adjustment fund was sought by Ireland and Belgium. It is a €5 billion fund for countries and sectors most affected by Brexit. We are the most affected and officials are working with the Commission on this. Many hands will be up of course whenever money becomes available. The PEACE PLUS programme is a hugely significant financial commitment from the EU and the State. It goes back to the shared island concept. It has been matched by us and expanded on by the Government. It is a huge gesture of solidarity. Money from the EU will be spent in the North of Ireland despite the fact that it is leaving the Union. I thank our European colleagues for this. One of the issues I will work, which the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is very concerned about, is to ensure that in future years we avail of whatever discretionary funding is available from Europe to the best of our abilities and make sure we get as much as possible. I thank everyone for their contributions and I will follow up on any specifics directly with Members.

Sitting suspended at 6.51 p.m. and resumed at 7.12 p.m.