Northern Ireland: Statements

I welcome the ongoing engagement of the Seanad on matters related to Northern Ireland, which is a key priority for all of us in both Houses. I look forward to listening to the contributions of Senators. As they will appreciate, this is a critical time for Northern Ireland which is again in election mode less than a year after the previous election. In the weeks before the election was called I was in close contact with the Secretary of State, Mr. James Brokenshire, and the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland. I travelled to Belfast on a number of occasions to meet in person the Secretary of State and the then First Minister and deputy First Minister. Both Governments pursued all appropriate avenues to encourage the Executive parties to find a way beyond their difficulties. However, an agreement could not be found and the Secretary of State, as required under statute when the joint office of First and deputy First Minister cannot be filled, called an election, which is scheduled to take place on 2 March.

The circumstances that contributed to the breakdown in trust between the two parties in the Executive gave rise to a good deal of public acrimony and risk a divisive election campaign. As the campaign gets under way, I have urged the parties to remain measured and respectful in their electoral rhetoric in order that the political institutions will not be damaged in the longer term. The people of Northern Ireland expect nothing less than an effective Assembly and Executive at Stormont underpinned by a genuine spirit of partnership. In my discussions with party leaders I have strongly emphasised the imperative of the swift resumption of the power-sharing institutions after the election period. In support of this, I will remain closely engaged with the political parties and the British Government in the weeks ahead.

In the time leading up to the dissolution of the Assembly the question of compliance with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement was a key focus of debate and discourse. The interlocking political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are at the heart of the Agreement and the delivery vehicle for many of its commitments. Within this framework, the devolved power-sharing institutions are vital, both for effective government in Northern Ireland and the overall functioning of the Agreement. For instance, without the devolved institutions, the North-South Ministerial Council cannot operate and North-South co-operation on a wide range of matters is somewhat compromised. This has tangible and serious impacts on all people across the island of Ireland. It is, therefore, of vital importance that the institutions of the Agreement return quickly to full operation after the election. In that regard, the relevant legislation provides a narrow window of three weeks from the date of election to when a new First Minister and deputy First Minister must be nominated.

If the institutions are the heart of the Good Friday Agreement, the principles of the Agreement are its lifeblood and vital to the success and sustainability of any power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland. These principles were articulated in the Agreement and are worth recalling today: "full respect for, and equality of civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities". They constitute the essential template for political and civic relations on this island and between Ireland and the United Kingdom. There has been discussion of deficits and shortcomings in upholding these principles and the need for parties that comprise the Executive to fully live up to the commitments made in the Good Friday Agreement and successor agreements. I fully understand the rightful insistence on the principles of equality and parity of esteem being respected at all times. I also understand the frustration in the Nationalist community when these principles are disrespected. It is a great pity that the spirit of friendship Mr. Martin McGuinness sought to espouse as deputy First Minister was not at all times reciprocated in equal measure. While acknowledging the deficits, we also need to find solutions. I hope, therefore, that in the weeks ahead specific proposals to address the deficits in the respect agenda will be brought forward for consideration and discussion.

As typically occurs at moments of challenge in Northern Ireland, there have in recent days been calls on the two Governments to discharge their obligations in the peace process. Neither I nor the Government need any encouragement to fulfil our responsibilities as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. That serious and solemn responsibility is hard-wired into the performance of my duties as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Taoiseach and I have been steadfast in acting to pursue full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I may touch on this issue in more detail in my closing remarks.

Looking beyond the Assembly election, Northern Ireland will still have to manage the challenges of the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union. The Government will be fully supportive in that regard. In the upcoming negotiations protecting the gains of the peace process and upholding the Good Friday Agreement is one of the four major priorities on the part of the Government. We are continuing our comprehensive preparations for the negotiations, including through the all-island civic dialogue. The Taoiseach and I will co-host a second plenary meeting of the dialogue on 17 February and a series of sectoral consultations are under way. On 13 February, I will convene a sectoral consultation on human rights under the Good Friday Agreement to look at how they will be fully upheld and sustained following the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. All-island consultation through the dialogue and engagement with the Northern Ireland Executive through the North-South Ministerial Council are essential in addressing the challenges of withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. In that regard, the Northern Ireland Executive is primarily responsible for politically representing the interests of Northern Ireland. It is very important that this direct representation can quickly resume following the election to the Assembly on 2 March.

The risks posed by Brexit are not the only considerations facing Northern Ireland, but they are an example of why fully functioning and effective political institutions are needed. Northern Ireland requires these institutions to protect what has been built and secure a peaceful and prosperous future for all of its citizens. In the coming days the Taoiseach will welcome the British Prime Minister to Dublin. At the top of their agenda will be the welfare of Northern Ireland and its people and the related need to protect the interests of the island of Ireland in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. None of their discussions will be easy, but no two issues are receiving as much priority attention in government. Our commitment, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, is a constant one, in good times and, as now, when they are more challenging.

I expressly acknowledge the commitment of all parties in this House to the Agreement. That spirit of co-operation, from those in all parties and none, has been an enormous support to successive Governments in the past three decades in achieving and sustaining peace and stability on the island. I look forward to hearing the perspectives and analysis of Members.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. I extend my best wishes to the former deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness. I acknowledge his contribution to the peace process and commitment to the institutions when they were established. I will not claim that he and I have sung from the same hymn sheet at all times, as that was certainly not the case, but it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the major contribution he made. I extend my best wishes to him as he fights his illness and wish him and his family many years of good health and happiness.

It would also be remiss of me to fail to mention his replacement, Ms Michelle O'Neill, a good Tyrone lady. I wish her well in her position.

One must note that the timing of the Executive collapse could probably not have been worse. We are facing into Brexit with all of the unknowns and uncertainties it brings. If we ever needed an Executive to be up and running and singing from the same hymn sheet, it is now. Unfortunately, that is not the case and we are going to be in a state of limbo for quite some time until the election is concluded. I hope, an Executive will be formed sooner rather than later. We are all aware of why the Executive failed. Ms Foster should take note of the situation in which we now find ourselves. If she had taken the advice given to her in good faith by all concerned, she would have stood aside until a proper investigation had been conducted into the renewable heat scheme. Perhaps we might not be in the abyss we are today.

The election will come and go and we will find ourselves back in the same position again. There will then be an onus on all parties, particularly the two major parties which have left the Assembly and which will no doubt come back in the same proportions, to redouble efforts to ensure the institutions in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement will be properly worked on and be a success. There is also an onus on the Irish and British Governments to ensure the institutions in Northern Ireland will be nourished and continue to be run in a successful manner. I find sometimes that the Dublin media, in particular, ignore Northern Ireland, except when there is a crisis such as the current one. All of a sudden, there is a clatter to discuss and expose Northern Ireland at that time. There is an onus on all of us to work to ensure we will nurture and protect the peace process, on which a lot of people have worked very hard and to get to which they even lost their lives for the benefit of the entire island.

That leads us to Brexit. There is no part of this island that will be affected more by it than the North of the country. Coming as I do from a Border county, I note the genuine fear among people of what the future will look like. It appears the London Government has very little sympathy for the plight of the citizens of Northern Ireland, of which perhaps the citizens of Northern Ireland should take note. Until such time as the Executive in Northern Ireland is up and running again, we are in an abyss.

I express the sincere hope the election will not be too bitter and that all parties will stand back if it starts to develop into a slanging match. That is a temptation, but I hope it will not happen and the election will conclude and an Executive will be formed as a matter of urgency. That will allow us to get down to the real business of addressing the massive obstacle before us of Brexit. I hope we can all work together on this island to ensure we will get the best possible deal from Brexit.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to explain the work he has done. I was in Belfast last Sunday and Monday. It was only on Sunday night that we saw the cowardly shooting of a PSNI officer which brought back the reality of a breakdown of trust and peace. All parties have worked and are working extremely hard to ensure we will never go back to the awful times we saw in the past 30 years in Northern Ireland, on the island generally and these islands. We had a meeting of committee A of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly to consider a great many submissions received on the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Some very stark submissions were made and, as someone said, we must muddle through. In effect, that is what we are doing. We are muddling through.

It was very sad to see the breakdown among the political parties at Stormont. Trust was breached and things were said that should not have been. I thank the Minister for going to meet the Secretary of State, Mr. James Brokenshire, and the leaders of the political parties to try to mend fences. Unfortunately, that did not happen and an election has been called for 2 March. Like other speakers, I hope we will continue in the vein of heretofore and that the election will not be divisive. I hope the power-sharing institutions will not be damaged. I believe they will not be and that after the election, the function of government in Northern Ireland will continue to deliver on the commitments made in the Good Friday Agreement.

I thank the retiring deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness, for the work he has done. He has been a great inspiration having come from very difficult times. He has been a leader. I wish him every success and thank him for the work he has done in the past ten to 20 years. I wish Ms Michelle O'Neill every success in her work as leader of Sinn Féin. I also wish every success to the other parties, including the SDLP, UUP, DUP, etc.

Human rights must be fully upheld under the Good Friday Agreement. With Britain exiting the European Union, we have to uphold European law on human rights. The judgment of the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom yesterday puts a lot of things in play. From my discussions with many MPs, I am aware that many in the House of Commons were against Britain leaving the European Union. The people of the United Kingdom failed to take into consideration the impact Brexit would have on the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland generally and Scotland, as well as the island of Ireland. We now have a case to say the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement may well be undermined by an agreement of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. We must articulate our views to MPs and Members of the House of Lords that, whatever happens in the next two or three months when there is a vote on Article 50, they must now look at the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions and avoid undermining all of their great aspects. The welfare of the people of Northern Ireland and the interests of Ireland must be taken into account.

I again thank the Minister for the work he has done, a great deal of it behind the scenes. We are a committed member of the European Union, albeit we will be at a certain disadvantage in some ways. However, I know that the Minister will ensure the interests, first, of the Republic of Ireland and then the island of Ireland will be considered and maintained. I again note that the structures and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement must be maintained and enhanced. I wish the Minister well in that regard.

Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a bheith linn. Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach agus dearfach go bhfuil sé anseo linn inniu chun cúrsaí ó Thuaidh a phlé. Sílim gur cheart dúinn smaoineamh air sin agus é a dhéanamh níos minice.

I thank the Minister for being here to comment on current political developments in the North. It is a welcome move and something he should consider doing more of in this House, given the current climate and the acute attention being paid by both Houses and broader society across Ireland. We are all hoping for a swift, positive and resolute outcome to the current difficulties.

The Minister has outlined his engagement with the British Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, MP. In his response to the debate will he refer to the nature of this engagement? Was the Secretary of State aware that the institutions were in danger of hitting the rocks? Did the Minister articulate the concerns of the broader Nationalist, republican and other communities in the North who have reached the end of their tether when it comes to the disrespect being shown by the DUP, not just to elements and minorities within society in the North but also to the core components, as eloquently outlined, of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements?

We need to choose our language very carefully because we have all been around these corners before and know the sensitivities involved in various crises when they manifest. The Minister made reference to both Governments pursuing all appropriate avenues to encourage the executive parties to find a way beyond their difficulties but that an agreement could not be found. That almost implies that there was a broad range of problems to be addressed. It is important, therefore, to set all of this within its context.

On the alleged financial corruption surrounding the renewable heating incentive, RHI, scheme, details of the scandal are emerging on a daily basis, with more allegations coming to light since it first found its way into the media. A climate of Tory austerity is being driven from London. The Executive has seen a cut of £4 billion in its block grant. There is now the potential for a further £500 million being lost to the public purse. This money could have been better spent in schools and hospitals, on infrastructure or in preparing for the negative aspects of Brexit, as outlined by other speakers. I do not know of another government that would allow for that to happen and not take what I consider to be the honourable and noble steps Mr. Martin McGuinness took in order to bring it to a conclusion. The Minister will know that Mr. McGuinness, privately initially and subsequently publicly, offered the DUP the opportunity for Ms Arlene Foster to step aside in order that an investigation could be carried out into the RHI scandal. That offer was not taken up and we are now where we are.

It also sits very firmly in the context of a failure to deliver an Irish language Act, with disrespect and disregard regularly being shown to the Irish speaking population and those who have a grá for the Irish language, or simply anyone who has an Irish sense of identity or sees his or her place within the Irish nation. That is a regular occurrence and can be seen through the media in continuous base bigotry, hostility and sectarianism shown to anyone who differs from a DUP stereotype.

There is also the context in which the Minister's counterpart in the British Administration, the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, claims jurisdiction over the entirety of Lough Foyle. There is a failure to implement a Bill of Rights which has been blocked by the DUP. Marriage equality has also been blocked by the DUP through the misuse of the petition of concern mechanism in the institutions which, as the Minister knows, was negotiated as a protection. There is a horrible irony that a mechanism that was put in place to guarantee protection and a defence for minorities is actually being regularly and flagrantly abused and misused by the DUP to hinder progress, rights, equality and respect for all communities. Sometimes I think we should call a spade a spade. If there is an identifiable problem with something, whether it be a political institution or something else, we need to call a spade a spade and say, "That is the problem, that is what is holding us back". I will stand in this Chamber or anywhere else and defend the record of integrity and leadership shown by Mr. Martin McGuinness over ten years. Every one of us involved in political life has it easy compared to what he was asked to do in the past ten years, as someone with a progressive mind and a progressive ideology in politics who wants to see this country and our community move forward. Let us shine a light on where this problem lies.

The Minister has said he is encouraging the speedy resumption of the institutions. That is hopeful, positive and the correct approach, but I ask if he would be of the same view, given everything that has been outlined, including the scandal surrounding the RHI scheme, the alleged financial corruption and the overt and clear corruption of the principles of the Good Friday Agreement which are indisputable and undeniable. The Good Friday Agreement and its protections, guarantees, institutions and structures have been warped and are in danger of warping further as a result of DUP manipulation and opposition to it. We would all love to see a speedy restoration of the institutions. The election will give people the opportunity to decide what institutions they want. Do they want a progressive, thoughtful focus on the institutions or do they want to return to corruption, sectarianism, the misuse of the petition of concern mechanism and the type of politics that states, "We do not trust Muslims to go to the shop for us"? Do we want to return to the type of politics where we say, "Curry my yogurt," and abuse the Irish language, or where we tell LGBT citizens that they do not have the same rights and entitlements to marry and express their love in the same way as everyone else, or do we want something different?

We could ask for a speedy resolution and pat ourselves on the back if we get it. However, I think the Government should join the rest of the Nationalist and republican constituency in the North and also many from within the Unionist constituency who are saying there can be no return to the status quo and what prevailed in the past. There must be a fundamental change. We, in Sinn Féin, have laid out our stall under our new leader, Ms Michelle O'Neill. I thank Members for their wishes to her and Mr. Martin McGuinness. The institutions failed, despite the best efforts of those of us who tried to sustain them, who tried to make them work, who did their best and who made a valiant effort, not least embodied by Mr. McGuinness in recent years. The Irish and British Governments need to step up to the mark and send a very clear message that any resumption of the institutions has to be to the word, letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. We will accept no less and the Irish Government should be of the same view. As the Minister knows, the people, both North and South, decided democratically and with an overwhelming mandate that they are the structures they want to see in place, not conditional, not half baked, not half cocked, but the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements in their entirety which were hard fought for and hard won.

I thank the Minister for coming. He has a very big challenge ahead.

I take the opportunity to pay tribute to Mr. Martin McGuinness who, as we all know, was instrumental in the peace process. We all know that he has worked tirelessly to connect with people to whom he has been diametrically opposed politically, most notably the late Rev. Ian Paisley. We may not see his kind in office again and I hope he will make a full recovery. I also send best wishes to his successor, Ms Michelle O'Neill, and all of the democratic leaders in the North.

The forthcoming election in the North is taking place in an atmosphere of crisis. It does not seem likely that a new power-sharing executive will be formed easily unless there can be a fresh start, renewing the commitments made in 1998 and 2007. While we await the people's verdict in the North, we all know what is occurring. There are also the consequences of the referendum held in the United Kingdom last June, but it is not just about that. We can all agree that the cash for ash scandal needs to be addressed, respecting principles of good and clean government. The costs to the people of the North must not be forgotten, as they look at the prospect of the drying up of EU funding for agriculture and numerous other important functions, including cross-Border and peace programmes, areas in which I am specifically interested as I have worked in the community in the North on many occasions.

Ever since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement it has been obvious that there has been resistance by the DUP to the equality agenda. In addition, the DUP has been reluctant to engage in all-Ireland bodies or treat Nationalists as equals within the Executive. Sadly, its reluctance to embrace equality goes further as shown by the party's strong opposition to same-sex marriage. Given that the Irish Government is co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and has equal status with the British Government, will the Minister urge his British counterpart to put pressure on the DUP to fulfil all its current and future obligations?

The British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, seems to be on course for a hard Brexit. All considered opinion suggests this will have a significant effect on the island of Ireland because the Border between the North and the South will be the only land border between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The reimposition of a hard land border will have implications both for trade and security. Britain's departure from the customs union suggests there may have to be some physical barrier in the transport of goods between both jurisdictions on this island.

The fact that the Brexit campaign was strongly focused on the issue of immigration also suggests freedom of movement between the European Union and the United Kingdom may be at risk, thus affecting North-South travel. Recent submissions to the parliamentary Northern Ireland affairs committee highlight the impact on people's lives Brexit will have. The head of the Northern Ireland arm of Dairy UK has warned of the damage ahead. No longer being part of EU trade deals will see dairy exports to major markets such as Malaysia and Thailand face at least double tariff rates which "would kill that business". On the possibility of a hard border with a customs barrier and with immigration officials behind it, he stated:

This is a major issue for the dairy industry. We are very dependent on what we call an all-island value chain. If we have any interruption in the current practices it is going to effect the longer term viability of the industry.

Now that the ideal outcome of a soft Brexit for the whole of the United Kingdom seems unlikely, what plans have been put in place to establish a separate strand in the negotiations focusing on the specific concerns which arise for the island? Will the Minister be asking our EU partners to ensure the Good Friday Agreement is fully protected? Will that request include special status for the North to enable it to stay within the Single Market and the customs union and to place the practical border between Ireland and Great Britain in the Irish Sea at ports and airports? That seems to be the best way to keep the borderless island we were promised in the outworkings of the Good Friday Agreement and which we have enjoyed for over a decade. The status of the North was supposedly enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement through an act of Irish self-determination, North and South. The modification of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution was based on the understanding a majority in both jurisdictions had to vote in favour of any change in the status of the island.

Does the Minister agree that, as envisaged, Brexit contravenes these agreements, both in word and spirit? Has he given any consideration to the possibility of the North and Scotland remaining in the European Union and also in the United Kingdom, reflecting the wishes of their respective peoples? Professor Brendan O'Leary has argued that possibility in what would seem to be a rational democratic compromise as both areas voted to remain in the European Union. The case of Northern Ireland is different from that of Scotland because of the Good Friday Agreement and the treaty. However, we must have regard both to the current and future interests of Scotland, whether its parliament and people choose to stay in the United Kingdom. In any case, the position advanced by Professor O'Leary and others emphasises the need for Ireland to have a well thought out and coherent strategy before the negotiations begin. It is the view of most of those I meet in my new role, North and South, that defending the Good Friday Agreement and the 1999 British-Irish treaty should be the firm red line of the Irish Government both with the United Kingdom and our EU partners. The Good Friday Agreement and the treaty signed by two EU member states assumed a borderless Ireland and created a North-South Ministerial Council tasked with addressing relevant EU matters. It is vital that no physical land border should be reintroduced, in addition to having no customs posts, immigration officers, police, military portakabins or watchtowers. This should be a red line for us and Mr. Michel Barnier should be so advised.

The ideal scenario would be for the North to stay fully in the European Union or, failing that, to keep its existing European status as much as possible, for example, within the Single Market and the customs union. This option would exclude Northern Ireland from full UK exit, but it would do so precisely because of the United Kingdom's previous commitments to a borderless Ireland. It would express the preferences of the North's voters.

I understand the Minister's concerns, including protecting the economic interests of citizens and its resident businesses. However, these interests have much less traction with Ireland's allies in the rest of the European Union because they are our competitors in these matters. Focusing on the Good Friday Agreement, therefore, makes moral, political and strategic sense. It is simply the best way to deal with all of the prospective difficulties. We should also do our best to protect Scotland's current and future interests.

On Tuesday the Supreme Court in London decided that the Northern Ireland Assembly need not be consulted as a matter of domestic UK law on the UK Government's decision to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. This unfortunate and controversial decision is at odds with many Irish people's understanding of what was agreed to in 1998, namely, that all of the institutional relations within the North, between the North and the South, east and west, and between these islands and our European partners were one complex unity and that any constitutional change would require the consent of the people of Ireland, North and South. I am asking the Minister to explain what he intends to do to ensure the Good Friday Agreement will be protected in its integrity to ensure the wishes of the majority in the North are upheld and that the status of all-island relations are treated distinctly as a separate strand in the Article 50 negotiations.

I am delighted to welcome the Minister and thank him for his remarks. I wish everyone well in the coming weeks and months as they go electioneering in Northern Ireland. I know that a number of Members of this House will be going up to campaign and canvass for various candidates and parties. We are all professional politicians and know the strains and stresses of elections, be they local or national, including the hazards of climbing ladders to put up posters, as well as dogs biting and chasing candidates. I appreciate that it will be a difficult and stressful time, but I sincerely wish the best of luck to everyone who enters into the spirit of true democracy.

Everyone acknowledges that it is unfortunate we are having an election and that the Assembly did not run to its full term. It is good, however, that we are having a peaceful election. We should take care with our own rhetoric in this House and avoid point-scoring or attacking those who cannot answer back; rather, let us enter into the spirit of the debate. We should let the parties and individuals contesting the elections in the North have it out. I hope they will resolve the issue in order that we can have a fully functioning Executive after the election in March. Northern Ireland faces many great challenges, including Brexit. I am sincerely disappointed that the Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, will not take the opportunity in her forthcoming visit to address either House of the Oireachtas. I trust that the Government is going to enter into talks with the other 26 member states ahead of Article 50 being invoked and the Brexit negotiations to put the best case for the island of Ireland.

Other things need to be sorted concerning scandals and the stability of Northern Ireland. I fear that we take stability for granted. We take a lot of things for granted, which was apparent in the referendum. People took so many of the benefits of EU membership for granted that they simply forgot how far things had come since Ireland and the United Kingdom joined in the 1970s. An emerging generation is taking for granted the peace and stability we have in the North, which required great sacrifices on every side. The shooting incident in the North earlier this week brought home how closely we could slip back into the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s.

My grandfather would be rolling in his grave if he heard me say this, but I too want to add my best wishes to Mr. Martin McGuinness. If it is good enough for Ian Paisley Jnr. to say so, there is no way I can stand in the way. He must be commended for what he has done and the sacrifices he has made. There are many people on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland who have made great sacrifices, as has the average Irish man and woman on both sides of the Border. Let us take that spirit of optimism and realism into the next few weeks.

I have full faith in the Government and perhaps the British Government to act as co-guarantors and allow the election to take place in the appropriate environment in order that we have a resolution that will allow peace and stability to continue on both sides of the Border and Northern Ireland and the Republic to face the unique challenges of the coming years.

I welcome the Minister. I join others in expressing my thanks to the former deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness, for the journey he has taken and his commitment and work in the past few years. I wish Michelle O'Neill, MLA, the very best in her new role. I disagree with Senator Neale Richmond in his belief the British Government will act in good faith in meeting its responsibilities as co-guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.

I watch the debate and I am outraged by the complete and utter indifference of the British Government and the Brexit campaigners to their responsibilities to this island. They are a massive part of the problems on this island for a very long time. Now it appears that we are almost completely indifferent to their negotiations and thought processes. It was very decent of the Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, to place us at No. 4 on her list of 12 items of concern. It is possible that the Minister had some role in that regard, on which he is to be congratulated. If it was to be seen in the cold light of day as to where we stood in her thought processes, she had an historic opportunity to come to the Houses of the Oireachtas to speak in the Dáil Chamber and express her commitment and that of the British Government to meeting their responsibilities on this island, but she decided not to do so.

I have a deep distaste for hardline nationalism. It bores me to tears. I am not necessarily looking forward to the debates in the North when the electioneering begins because I find hardline nationalism particularly tedious. There are other issues in Northern Ireland to discuss. I was very taken by a speech made by Colum Eastwood, MLA, on the child poverty rate and the numbers of adults in west Belfast who had no formal qualifications. Other speakers have mentioned marriage equality and other social issues that rarely get an airing. I attended a meeting in Belfast before Christmas on the issue of drugs. There are serious social issues such as equality that need to be addressed. The hardline nationalistic stances on either side of the debate are the ones that come to the fore. It is the hardline nationalist instinct in the United Kingdom which is at the centre of the debate on Brexit. It is the campaigning zeal of those in favour of Brexit that has led to Britain walking away from its historical responsibilities in Europe as a whole and off the stage in meeting its responsibilities here.

We have had 20 years - perhaps longer - in which everything we said about the United Kingdom and our relationship with it was couched in friendly terminology. It was important to do so. It was important and responsible that Irish Governments and those representing the State did not say anything that would have inflamed tensions or made things worse, particularly when lives were at risk. However, there comes a stage when one has to call a spade a spade. When the Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street is pandering to the worst excesses of British nationalism, we must call it out. The new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had a fantastic opportunity to come to the Houses to speak to Members about the Good Friday Agreement, her commitment to it and the fact that Brexit would not impact necessarily on peace on this island, but she is reportedly refusing to do so. I suggest it is important for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, as a representative of the Government, to speak in frank terms about our dismay that Ireland and Northern Ireland are not on the real priority list for the Prime Minister and her Government and also when overseeing and commenting on events in Northern Ireland in the coming period say it is social issues, including equality and empowerment, the issues beyond orange and green, that will come to the fore. It is time to put to one side the niceties of language and the pretence of friendship because if one cannot speak frankly to people who are walking away from their historical responsibilities, we are doing the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland a disservice. This is not about a flag waving blame game. I am the last person in the world who would stand with a Tricolour and fly it in somebody's face to try to score a nationalistic point off them. That is not me. It worries me to the bone that such a powerful country with such historical responsibilities to a place on which it has had a significant impact for centuries does not give a thought to it and does not take the opportunity to settle nerves about its intentions.

I would like the Minister to respond to my remarks. I understand he has responsibility for this ministry and his words carry weight. That is very important. It is important that Members speak frankly about the direction the Prime Minister and her Government are taking in dealing with the situation in Northern Ireland and issues that affect the entire island of Ireland.

The grouping to which Senator Gerard P. Craughwell belongs missed its place on the rota, but I have pleasure in calling him now.

Go raibh míle maith agat. I was attending the presentation at the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I am trying to keep a lot of balls in the air today.

I welcome the Minister. I congratulate him on the work he is doing on Brexit. After that, I will start to take things apart.

Let me put the matter in context. There is a great deal of talk about nationalism in Northern Ireland. It is no secret that I spent five years of my life in the British army, in the Royal Irish Rangers. It is also no secret that Sinn Féin voted for me to have me elected to this House. I have no axe to grind with it and never had, although I would not have seen eye to eye with the IRA during the years.

One of the things that has frightened me considerably is the increase in polarisation in the North. For the first time, as far as I can remember, I was attacked recently on social media by a member of the Unionist community who told me to keep my "effing" nose out of Northern affairs. I was so delighted when some of my Unionist pals kicked in to say, "Hey, back off. This man has no interest in trying to colonise or take over the North of Ireland." I have no doubt that the North and the South will be unified at some stage, but I am not advocating for it as a result of Brexit. I want to show due regard to our friends and colleagues of the Unionist tradition who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, they signed up to the Good Friday Agreement and are as much a part of it as we are and our Catholic friends, or at least they should be, although I know that certain things that happened in the recent past call that into question.

Like most Members who have spoken mentioned, the former deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness, has played the greatest role as leader of the Nationalist group in Northern Ireland. I have the greatest admiration for the man. He did a good job.

That brings me to an issue I raised on the Order of Business when I requested the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to address it following the Supreme Court's ruling. As I was told he would be in the House today, I did not press the issue.

The Supreme Court was asked to consider the question of whether any provision of the Northern Ireland Act, read together with the Belfast Agreement and the British-Irish Agreement, meant that primary legislation was required before notice of triggering Article 50 could be given. The Supreme Court, in paragraph 131 of its judgment, found:

[It] is unquestionably right, however, to claim that the NI Act conferred rights on the citizens of Northern Ireland. Sections 6(2)(d) and 24(1), in imposing the EU constraints, have endowed the people of Northern Ireland with the right to challenge actions of the Executive or the Assembly on the basis that they are in breach of EU law.

The Good Friday Agreement confers rights on Northern Ireland citizens which will vanish in two years' time with no recourse. Amending the Good Friday Agreement is not the concern of the European Union. As we go through the negotiations, we are one of 27, but the 27 collectively has no interest in the Good Friday Agreement, other than what the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and his fellow Ministers can bring to the table. Neither is it the unilateral concern of the British state, which brings the Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, into the picture. It is the concern of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the elected Executive of Northern Ireland. We now find that we are coming back to the tripartite arrangement that led to the Good Friday Agreement. We cannot allow a situation to arise where the Prime Minister will trigger Article 50 without first enshrining the Good Friday Agreement in primary legislation. If that requires the Irish Government taking the British Government to the European Court of Justice before Article 50 is triggered, so be it. We must take every possible step.

I am somewhat concerned by the benign statement that came from the Minister's office following the decision of the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom. When I was young, my mother told me to be quiet and that my uncle would look after me. I was quiet all of my life, but my uncle died and left me nothing. Are we sitting quietly in the background, hoping it will be all right on the night? I do not think it is going to be. I have met parliamentarians from all over Europe, some of whom are very sympathetic to our situation, but, by and large, they are concerned about their own countries and whether they will be able to sell their Volkswagens, Fiats, Bosch washing machines and so forth. That is their concern, rightly so.

A colleague of mine recently asked a member of the European Commission about the possibility of relocating various European agencies to Dublin. The answer he received was: "Get in the queue." Following Brexit, this is an island on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, far removed from the United Kingdom and mainland Europe. We now have a hostile US Administration. While there is a good chance we will see high-quality financial services jobs coming to Dublin, given the work of the Ministers for Finance and Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Taoiseach, what will happen to the 41% of our agricultural produce that is sold in the United Kingdom if we lose part of that market? It is not easy to take a farm-hand or a production operator in an agrifood business and transfer him or her into IT or financial services.

I have some serious concerns. The time has come for the Taoiseach to make a state of the nation address to explain to the people of Ireland exactly where we are and outline the work the Government is doing all over Europe to ensure we will have the smoothest transition possible.

I am sorry if it seems that I am taking a negative view. I am sure the Minister will put me right when he gets to his feet. I thank him for taking the time to listen to me.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. I have two brief queries. I am well aware of all of the hard work being done by the Minister and his Department, but it is the Taoiseach who is our main point of contact for all matters related to Brexit. I do not believe that is the right policy, with all due respect to the Taoiseach. One man can only do so much. It would be in the nation's interests to have a Minister for Brexit. I was one of the first politicians to ask that question, to which the Minister responded last October. We should think outside the box on this matter. We need another point of contact, if only to meet representatives of business and various interest groups that have genuine concerns about Brexit. We should consider this, rather than just saying "No".

I extend my best wishes to Mr. Martin McGuinness. I have met him previously and found him to be very amiable. I wish him a speedy recovery. Ms Michelle O'Neill has been appointed as the new leader of Sinn Féin in the North and I wish her all the best. It is estimated that £500 million will be wasted as a result of the cash for ash disaster and it must be pointed out that Sinn Féin was in power when the scheme was set up. Sinn Féin was in power and was working together with the DUP. It should have done the deal and reversed the wrong. I firmly believe that should have been done before Sinn Féin pulled the plug. I have no problem whatsoever-----

Does the Senator want to give way to allow me to respond to that question?

Please allow Senator Aidan Davitt to speak, without interruption.

We cannot just say what we want to say when it suits. I fully agree with many of the points made by Sinn Féin. However, it was in power with the DUP which needed Sinn Féin for the power-sharing arrangement to work. In the context of all of the money that will be wasted, I cannot understand why Sinn Féin did not reverse the terrible mistake made with the aforementioned scheme before pulling the plug on the Executive in the North. That is the only query I have in that regard.

I thank the Minister for being with us to discuss this important subject. I pay tribute to my colleague, Mr. Martin McGuinness. I wish him and his wife, Bernie, well and hope he will enjoy a speedy recovery. I thank him for the wonderful work he has done for peace on this island. I also thank Senators for their acknowledgement of his work. I hope he will be able to work in another capacity in the future. I know that he will spend all of this days working for peace in this country, as many of us do. I completely agree with his final act as deputy First Minister in stepping down. Let us be clear about it - we did not want an election in the North. I know that there are some in the Dáil who would have advocated the collapse of the institutions, even as late as a number of months ago. That was never what we wanted. We understand the importance of the institutions and have participated fully in them, but we were left with absolutely no choice.

A Fianna Fáil Senator asked what Sinn Féin did about the scheme. As soon as we became aware of the scandal of the renewable heat initiative, RHI, scheme, the Sinn Féin Minister for Finance, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, suggested the First Minister step aside because of her key role in the scheme.

We also advocated for a full public inquiry with compellability into the issue. That was our response. I could never be part of a party which did not stand up against corruption and cronyism, least of all because I have seen what it has done in this state when it has not been addressed. As I have said before, my 15 year old son will be 54 when he has finished paying for the cronyism and corruption that were allowed to happen under and facilitated by a Fianna Fáil Government. We were not prepared to let that happen. I commend Mr. McGuinness.

Money is still being wasted in the North.

That matter has to be sorted out and we took the only decision that was available to us.

I am heartened by the many good wishes I have received for Mr. McGuinness, both in this House and from all political persuasions, for his speedy recovery.

I want to address the distaste and disdain shown for hardline nationalism, which does a real disservice to the good work done in the North. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has played a role in that regard. Before Christmas, I met cross-party women’s and youth groups on the issue of domestic violence, from both the Nationalist and loyalist sides. This shows the excellent work being done. That is not hardline nationalism. I was on the Short Strand in Belfast the other night where, again, the discussion was about housing and other issues, as well as the DUP’s position, including its pro-Brexit stance, and extreme British nationalism. While good work is being done, I will not take lectures from a party that will not stand any candidate in the North or go there to work to ensure the peace process is upheld and everyone will prosper.

In case there is any doubt, discussions on the situation in the North take place regularly both on the Order of Business in the Seanad and during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil. My party leader, Deputy Gerry Adams, often uses Question Time to encourage and implore the Taoiseach and his Ministers to take a more active role in the North. That is done in a genuine manner because there are many in the North who look to the Irish Government to protect their rights and defend their interests. As a gesture to Irish citizens in the North, will the Minister show them that he truly understands the principle of equality by supporting the call for voting rights here for them? I have much more to say about this subject and have many concerns. I hope this will be the beginning of many sessions we will have in trying to work together to bring about special status for the North within the European Union. That is the way forward and what we need to do to prevent a hard Border being discussed.

I have no doubt that the Senator will have many more such opportunities.

I thank Senators for their contributions, guidance, advice and suggestions. I always very much value the opportunity to come to the Seanad. I agree with Senators that we should have a more frequent and intensified engagement, our respective schedules permitting. I will be happy to explore further opportunities in that regard.

All Members acknowledge that the Good Friday Agreement has secured peace on the island. The Agreement, endorsed by the people, North and South, in effect transformed relationships which had been a source of division, conflict, rancour and suffering for past generations. All parties to the Agreement have a solemn duty to ensure its full implementation, as a transformation and accord resoundingly endorsed by the people. As co-guarantor of the Agreement, the Government continues its unstinting work and application to achieve this end. I acknowledge that, with cross-party support, all Governments since 1998 have taken their obligations in that regard seriously. They have been committed to this solemn duty and obligation.

I particularly acknowledge the comments of Senators Frank Feighan, Frances Black, Gerard P. Craughwell and others on Brexit. The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union is a challenge. The Good Friday Agreement and the need for peace, stability and engagement are certainly at the heart of the Government's negotiating priorities. I acknowledge, in particular, the remarks of Senator Gerard P. Craughwell. I am encouraged by what my EU ministerial colleagues continue to tell me about their acknowledgement, appreciation and understanding of the peace process on the island of Ireland, with particular reference to Northern Ireland, and the strains which will be imposed on the process by the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. We will continue to engage at the highest level. I am encouraged by the deep understanding of the existence, as well as the terms and conditions, of the Good Friday Agreement and the importance of ensuring they will be fully adhered to in the negotiations. That is a point to which I will return.

Senator Neale Richmond is correct that one can never take peace and stability for granted. It is a work in progress. We need to ensure the process is nourished. I agree on the matter of those elements of the Good Friday Agreement and succeeding agreements which have not yet been fully implemented. It is worth recalling the status of some of them in detail.

The question of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland has been raised. The Good Friday Agreement provided for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to consult and advise on defining rights to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. In the ten-year period between 1999 and 2009 there were three processes of consultation, all engaged in with the strong support of the Government of the day. On each occasion, regrettably, there was insufficient consensus between the parties in Northern Ireland to proceed with codifying rights specific to Northern Ireland. At the Stormont House talks in 2014, on behalf of the Government, I supported a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, but, again, there appeared to be insufficient consensus. There was, however, a commitment by all parties to several important principles, including the promotion of a culture of tolerance, mutual respect and understanding. All parties need to continue to work to fully integrate this commitment in governance in Northern Ireland. A Bill of Rights, focused on the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland, given its history, could be a powerful symbol of a commitment to a better future for all.

The North-South consultative forum is another outstanding provision that has yet to be fully complied with or addressed. In 2008 the Government sent proposals for such a forum to the Executive, but there was no reply. Between 2009 and 2011 three consultative conferences were hosted in Dublin to support the establishment of such a forum.

While the issue remains on the agenda of the North-South Ministerial Council, the Northern Ireland Executive has not been able to give its assent to the setting up of the forum. At the Stormont House talks in 2014 I made a further proposal to establish the forum, but the focus of the Executive parties appeared to be on other issues during those talks. There remains an undiminished obligation to implement the agreed commitment to a North-South consultative forum and the Government's commitment in that regard is undiminished.

Respect for linguistic diversity and the Irish language has rightly been raised as an issue central to the Good Friday Agreement. It can be seen as something of a litmus test for the issue of mutual respect. Both Governments reiterated their support in the Stormont House agreement. An Irish language Act in Northern Ireland, to be enacted by the British Government, was provided for in the St. Andrews Agreement of 2006. Successive Governments have advocated strongly in favour of it and the Government continues to do so. However, to date, there has been no agreement within the Executive to take forward what is now, in essence, a devolved matter.

The British Government stated last week that it had no commitment-----

The Government will continue-----

That is an important point.

Again, I wish to make it perfectly clear to everyone that we will continue to support the Irish language on an all-island basis, including, as we already do, through providing financial support for the work of Foras na Gaeilge.

The St. Andrews Agreement also provided for a review to identify additional areas for North-South co-operation. Again, the Government supported a provision in the Stormont House agreement in that regard and the Taoiseach has raised the issue at successive plenary sessions of the North-South Ministerial Council. A number of new areas of North-South co-operation have been mooted, including, for example, higher education. However, taking new areas forward would require the approval not only of the Assembly but also of the Executive and it remains forthcoming. In review meetings with the Secretary of State, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, I have raised the need to maintain political attention on realising each and every one of the outstanding commitments. I did so, most recently, just before Christmas. It is vital that there be more substantive discussions and progress on these outstanding commitments in the period ahead.

Reference was made to Lough Foyle. I do not agree with the British Government's position and said so as soon as the parliamentary question was replied to in the House of Commons. I also raised the issue directly with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. James Brokenshire, a short time after the parliamentary question was answered. I acknowledge that the issue needs to be resolved. For the sake of clarity, I wish to inform the House that there is a working committee on the issue which met just before the end of 2016. The committee continues to explore avenues towards a solution to this matter which is long outstanding, dating back as it does to the 17th century.

The institutions, principles and procedures of the Good Friday Agreement are the bedrock of the peace process. As co-guarantor of the Agreement, the Government continues to work relentlessly to support its implementation and that of subsequent agreements. The Government will continue to discharge its duty in that regard in order that the full promise and potential of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements are fully realised.

I know that we have run out of time, but I only asked one question regarding the appointment of a Minister for Brexit. Will the Minister give me a "Yes" or "No" response at least?

I am sorry, but the Minister has concluded.

I asked a direct question.

I am sure the Minister will be back in the House regularly to keep us updated.

What I can say to the Senator is that there is a Cabinet committee dealing with this issue on the basis that each and every Department is in some way affected by the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. That special Cabinet committee will be meeting again late this afternoon. Each Department has engaged in an impact assessment on the forthcoming withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. That committee and the Irish negotiating position are being led by the Taoiseach, as a member of the European Council. In effect, the Taoiseach, working in conjunction with all Ministers affected, is in charge of our negotiating position on Brexit.

Given that it is not yet 3.30 p.m., perhaps the Minister might take another quick supplementary question.

I really cannot-----

As it is not quite 3.30 p.m., perhaps the Minister might indicate if he was willing-----

The Minister has been very generous with his time. I have no doubt that he will be back in the House soon to update us.

The Seanad adjourned at 3.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 31 January 2017.