I welcome the Minister.
Northern Ireland: Statements
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to attend the Seanad for statements on Northern Ireland, for which this is a critical week. On Sunday it became clear that there was a need for further engagement by all sides to reach agreement on the formation of a new power-sharing Executive. Yesterday Article 50 was formally invoked by the British Government. It will have profound implications for Northern Ireland, as it will for the island as a whole. I wish to outline what the Government’s approach will be in the period ahead in continuing our intensive and comprehensive work to deal with both of these major and connected issues as they affect Northern Ireland.
All of our engagement is guided by our responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and our stated headline priorities in dealing with the matter of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The Government’s overarching objective in all respects is, simply and fundamentally, to protect and further the peace process in Northern Ireland, living up in full to our duty as a co-guarantor of the Agreement. In the past three weeks I participated for the Government in the discussions in Belfast where the political parties and the British Government sat down to seek progress on outstanding commitments under the Agreements and support the setting up and formation of a new Executive. While there was good engagement by all parties and significant progress was made across a number of issues, in the event, an agreement on the formation of a new Executive was not reached in the timeframe set out. This is extremely disappointing, most importantly for the people of Northern Ireland who look to the Assembly for representation and governance.
I am sorry, Leas-Chathaoirleach, but I think everybody in the Seanad is on his or her phone. Is there anybody who is not?
I am sorry. Are Members on their phones? Is there some interference?
No. I just remarked that everyone in the House was on his or her phone while I was speaking.
I was not.
I was not.
I was not.
I was making sure mine was in silent mode. I am sorry.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.
On Monday morning when it became clear that an agreement would not be reached, I had a further discussion in Belfast with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We agreed on the imperative of continued devolved power-sharing government for Northern Ireland, which is at the core of the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. I strongly welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation in the House of Commons on Tuesday that the British Government does not want to see a return to direct rule. It is important to be clear that there is no statutory provision at Westminster for direct rule following its removal which was, of course, supported by the Irish Government as part of the St Andrews Agreement more than ten years ago.
Following the intensive discussions of recent weeks and despite the failure to meet Monday’s deadline, I remain firmly convinced that all parties in Northern Ireland want to see the devolved institutions back up and running. The only route to that goal is through continuing dialogue which should be respectful and must recognise the need both for honouring previous commitments and a measure of compromise. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who has statutory responsibility for the next steps indicated on Tuesday that there was a short additional window of time to find an agreed basis for the re-establishment of the Executive. I spoke by telephone yesterday evening to the Secretary of State and we discussed the details for the additional and finite discussions which I anticipate will start in the near future. In these urgent circumstances and with time in short supply, all concerned must redouble their efforts to achieve the re-establishment of power-sharing government in Northern Ireland in the interests of all its citizens. The Irish Government will continue to play its part in meeting its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement in encouraging others to meet theirs and in seeking to facilitate a climate of compromise and accommodation that is always required if any negotiation is to be successful.
In looking ahead to the further discussions in Belfast I specifically mention the work on dealing with the painful legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government is very conscious that victims and survivors are long overdue some evidence of delivery on the legacy framework of the Stormont House Agreement and the reform proposals of the Lord Chief Justice on legacy inquests. Determined efforts were made in the past three weeks by the two Governments and the parties to move forward. A final push in the days ahead can and must get all of the participants to the point where the necessary legislative processes to establish the legacy bodies can definitively commence in both jurisdictions. Legislation will be required at Westminster and in his jurisdiction. I will be urging all participants to the discussions to display the necessary compromise to ensure this can be achieved for the benefit of victims and survivors and society as a whole across Northern Ireland. Effective devolved government for Northern Ireland and the full operation of the North-South and east-west institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are particularly crucial as we deal with the urgent and important issue of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. In that context, the absence of agreement so far on establishing an Executive is deeply concerning and must be immediately resolved. A new power-sharing administration with a new mandate, given by the people in full sight of the challenges of Brexit, can be a powerful advocate for Northern Ireland’s interests. Following the British Government’s Article 50 notification yesterday, we are now in the operational phase of the Brexit process and Northern Ireland’s voice must be represented.
The North-South Ministerial Council has had a strong Brexit focus in the past year in working to identify impacts, risks, opportunities and contingencies for the island arising from the United Kingdom's departure. Last November the Council agreed to a set of common principles to guide future work. This work needs to continue in even greater depth and detail as the negotiations commence. However, it can only do so following the formation of an Executive. Northern Ireland’s needs must also be articulated in London as its negotiators in Whitehall prepare British compromises. Again, this is something that can only be achieved by a cohesive and inclussive power-sharing Executive. In that context, I am glad that during the course of the recent discussions at Stormont there was a wide measure of agreement between the parties on the need for a new Northern Ireland Executive to articulate a strong common position on Brexit. All parties must make the final effort in order that a new Executive can be formed and thereafter deliver the necessary strong representation on Brexit to protect the overall interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
The United Kingdom has triggered the Article 50 application to leave the European Union. Brexit is not an EU policy. Neither is Brexit an Irish Government policy. In fact, in last year’s referendum the Irish Government made clear its view that Brexit would be bad for the European Union, Ireland and British-Irish relations. That remains the case. While the Irish Government accepts and respects the overall outcome of last June’s referendum, it is also mindful of the fact that 56% of voters in Northern Ireland opted to remain in the European Union. We have been preparing, since well before the UK referendum was held, for how to deal with the consequences. As all Members of this House know well, there are many challenges, both political and economic, and they are particularly acute in Northern Ireland.
In relation to the peace process, the Irish Government has been and will continue to be very clear that both the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement must at all times be respected through the process of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union and in the future relationship between the United Kingdom outside the Union and the remaining 27 member states, including, of course, Ireland. Nothing can be allowed to undermine the peace process which, founded on the Good Friday Agreement, has brought us definitively beyond the horror of the Troubles and transformed the political relationships across the islands. A huge peace dividend has been the opportunity to increase prosperity for all communities and regions on the island. A headline priority for the Irish Government in dealing with Brexit is to protect our economic interests, including on an all-island basis. Anything less would be a partial and flawed effort. The European Union facilitates and directly supports the development of the all-island economy which provides a crucial source of employment and business activity, particularly in the Border region. The maintenance of an open border and the preservation of the common travel area are of the utmost importance for the all-island economy. They are, therefore, part of our headline priorities in dealing with Brexit.
The interdependence of agriculture and the food production chain between the islands is a striking example of the challenges that we face. Farms can and do straddle the Border, with sterling sheep at one end and euro sheep on the other, secured by the EU single farm payment. Milk processed in Cavan is sold as butter in Belfast, Balbriggan and Birmingham.
Working closely with our EU partners and as a committed EU member state, the Government is determined to find the right solutions for this challenge. In building understanding and support for the unique situation on the island of Ireland, I have brought a number of EU colleagues to see at first hand and to walk the Border and to speak to people, North and South, who will be directly affected by the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union or, rather, as I have been reminded in many cases, to not see our Border, which, thanks to our membership of the European Union and the changes since the Good Friday Agreement, remains invisible. As the Taoiseach has made clear, the Government is determined to find a political solution that will enable the maintenance of the open Border on our island well into the future.
On the basis of our continuing intensive political and diplomatic engagement with every EU member state and across the EU institutions, I am heartened by the solidarity and support that our EU partners have shown for the imperative of protecting the peace process on the island of Ireland. Mr. Michel Barnier, who leads the EU negotiating team, indicated last week his aversion to anything that would "weaken dialogue and peace" in Northern Ireland.
The EU-UK negotiations that will commence in the weeks ahead will be tough and difficult compromises will be required on all sides. The Government has prepared extensively in pursuit of our headline priorities and we are ready to advance these now through the EU-UK negotiations. Our interests in, and responsibility to support, a stable, peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland are key imperatives in our approach to the negotiations on the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. The Government will continue to do all it can to ensure that the interests of Ireland, North and South, are at the heart of the long negotiations process and protected in the final outcome.
With the same resolute determination, the Government will proactively engage in the renewed discussions in Belfast to restore confidence in partnership politics in Northern Ireland and allow for the formation of a new power-sharing Executive, as well as for the full implementation of commitments from previous agreements over the past number of years.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and look forward to hearing the contributions of the Members of the Seanad.
I thank the Minister for outlining the immediate problems in terms of the discussions in the North. We all welcome the extension of time given by the Secretary of State to seek a resolution. Often, the immediate problems mean that time cannot be given to the long-term and legacy issues which, as the Minister pointed out, continue to dog Northern Ireland and its politics. As outlined by the Minister, the Irish language Act is one of those issues that have not been resolved despite previous agreements. Even what we would term the simple issue of the civic forum cannot be resolved. It is 18 years since the Good Friday Agreement and it has been a long and torturous process.
There has also been the search for truth for the victims of violence. This is an ongoing concern for families and ongoing trouble for the entire process. Getting the documents required to ensure that the truth comes out seems to be an amazingly difficult process for the British Government to engage in. It has the documents but is not willing to give them over. The largest mass murder in the history of the State was the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and there are concerns about collusion and the British security forces being involved in it. If I was accused, as that Government is being accused, of being involved in any way, I would give every document going and say I had nothing to hide. That is one of many different acts of violence that were perpetrated in Northern Ireland and on these islands and the truth simply has not come out because the documents are not being revealed. National security is being cited as an issue but I cannot imagine how Britain's national security could be threatened by the release of documents that would give families the truth.
The Minister pointed out the ongoing Brexit issue. The common travel area was discussed in this Chamber last Thursday when the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality attended. Following lengthy consultation, he is of the view that there is no necessity for immigration officials to be on the southern side of the Border. The EU has no desire for it and there is no legal reason to have it in place. Whether there will be checks of people going across the Border is at the will of the British Government. As I have previously pointed out to my colleagues, there are already immigration officers at Derry, Belfast and Larne. Operation Gull has been in operation for more than three years and 792 people trying to get into Britain through Derry, Belfast or Larne were stopped and arrested in one calendar year alone. There is no necessity for people to be checked going over and back across the Border for work, but it is for the British to choose to do so. It is at their will. An inconvenience would be a very nice way of putting it, but it would be an unnecessary imposition on those living on either side of the Border.
The issue of trade is an entirely different problem. We have obligations under EU treaties to ensure that the European markets have the proper trade agreements and processes in place with the UK post Brexit. It is interesting that East Germany was treated by the European Communities as if it were in the communities long before the wall came down. West Germany and East Germany were able to trade with each other. East Germany was able to send goods into West Germany and on throughout the European Communities. European laws did not apply. This comes back to the point of the special case that we are making for Northern Ireland. The case made by West Germany for East Germany for decades is a precedent for inter-trade between the North and the South of Ireland. It is also a precedent in terms of citizenship. East German citizens were treated by the European Communities as if they were West German citizens. The same case applies to citizens living in northern Cyprus who are treated as if they are EU citizens even though northern Cyprus is practically and actually not within the control of the Cypriot Government. This is of relevance to us because the Good Friday Agreement provides that those living in Northern Ireland are entitled to be British citizens, Irish citizens or both.
The Dáil passed a motion on a special status for Northern Ireland and we need to seek that special status. There are many precedents for special status including that of Cyprus and its citizens and that of East German citizens prior to the wall coming down. We need to ensure that it is also the case here. There is also the curious case of how the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey Islands, which are in the UK, are not in the European Union. There are loads of precedents that have been set by other European countries on which we can draw and which will allow us to make a special case for Northern Ireland and its citizens.
Time and time again the Taoiseach and the Minister have raised the ongoing issue of the EU preparing for a united Ireland. This issue made the front page of the Irish Independent when the Taoiseach first broached it at the McGill summer school in County Donegal last year and he has raised it at many meetings of Heads of Government since. The issue comes under Article 227. It is not an accession process and the approval of the EU is not necessary as it is an extension of national territory. This has only happened on three occasions in the history of the European Union. One time involved Saarland between France and Germany and another related to an island off Canada which was a French colony that was brought in as forming part of French national territory without an accession process. The final one, which we all know, relates to East Germany, which was brought in as part of West Germany without any necessity for the approval of the European Communities. The European Communities were simply informed that this had happened. This is one of the issues that we have to address as part of the overall agreement but the precedents that have been set, most especially that set by Germany, allow Ireland to make a special case for Northern Ireland in the long term.
In the immediate term, the issue of trying to get the parties around the table in Northern Ireland and the Assembly and Executive up and going is something that will take a huge effort, not only from the Irish Government and the British Government, but also from the US Government, which I believe has to be brought back into play for the important role that it has had all along in this process.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, to the House. I express my appreciation and the House's appreciation to him for the work he is doing to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the principles it is built on, to ensure that it is implemented as fully as it can be and to protect the Irish Government's position on it. He represents the Taoiseach in that work, with whom he is in regular communication. The Taoiseach also met Prime Minister May before the process began on 5 March. The Taoiseach is remaining very vigilant on the issue as well with the Prime Minister and through the work of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. That is to be noted and acknowledged. That is not to ignore the fact that all is not as it should be, but the Minister is certainly doing his best in that sphere.
It is very disappointing, saddening and wrong that we do not have an agreement with the backdrop of Brexit and all that goes with that. It is a very difficult situation. I believe it is very regrettable and leaves a very dangerous vacuum. On my own behalf, on behalf of my party and I think on behalf of all of the Members of the House, I call on all of the parties in Northern Ireland to make a renewed and vigorous effort to achieve agreement. I believe it is so important and I will come back to that point. We very much need a functioning Administration in Northern Ireland at this time.
I am strongly of the view that we should support an Irish language Act being put on a statutory basis in Northern Ireland. It should be in existence. I hope that in the process of the completion of the talks that will be achieved. I say that from a number of perspectives. I am proud to be a member of Comhchoiste na Gaeilge, Gaeltachta agus na nOileán, the all-party committee on the Irish language. I hope that Irish language Act will be achieved. I know the Minister is clearly in support of it and he might comment further in his reply. I ask him to specifically comment further on his expectations around the Act as agreed in the St. Andrew's Agreement of 2006.
I gather and understand anecdotally, and it would seem from what the Minister has said, that progress has been made on dealing with the painful memories of the past and the legacy issues. I am very keen that the legacy institutions come into place. It is part of normalising society, dealing in some way with the awful memories of the past and getting closure for so many people. There is a huge necessity to build a functioning democracy and to hopefully eliminate sectarianism and all forms of human angst there. I am supportive of that. I am supportive of a very high level of public commitment to human rights in the North and statements thereof.
The Brexit issue is of such critical importance, as elucidated by the Minister and by Senator Daly. It is of crucial importance. It is estimated that about 30,000 trips are made up and down across the Border on a daily basis. Roughly 30,000 seems to be the best estimate, though there are varying estimates. People make those trips for schooling, social trips, kinship, agricultural business where people process on one side and produce in another farm straddling the Border, hospitalisation, medical reasons and a whole gamut of reasons. In very many cases, people make the trip for work as they live on one side of the Border and work on the other. For those people who cross the Border on a daily basis, the maintenance of a soft or invisible Border is vital.
It is vital to maintain the common travel area. We should acknowledge progress on two levels. We must acknowledge Prime Minister May's commitment to it and we can applaud ourselves as a Government, and the Minister too can be happy, that Prime Minister May in her letter to Mr. Tusk clearly stated that she is not in favour of a hard Border and wants to maintain the common travel area. That is progress.
Some months ago, we would have considered that to be a big issue. Now that it is achieved, we should not ignore it, nor should we be remiss in acknowledging what the Prime Minister has said. Through a lot of personal contact with Members of the UK Parliament that we meet through our work on committees and various means - the Council of Europe in my case and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in the case of the Leas-Chathaoirleach and Senator Feighan - I sense that there is a huge desire among the ordinary Members of Parliament in the UK to maintain the good relations that we have. I believe that should happen. We must maintain as much normality as we can. It is encouraging that the Secretary of State, Mr. James Brokenshire, was very clear yesterday in a statement in the House of Commons that direct rule was not an option he favoured. He was still asking and encouraging the parties to reach agreement. That is good.
I agree with Senator Mark Daly with regard to the interesting points he raised about East Germany and Cyprus. I agree that those should be cited. I ask the Minister to respond to that. The Minister knows from within our parliamentary party and in other fora that I have always had the view that we must find a specific solution for Ireland. We all aspire to Irish unity but, acknowledging the current political realities, we still effectively need a unitary solution for the country to maintain trade, business, tourism, agriculture and all of the sectors. That is crucially important and remains so. It is encouraging to see that there is at least a commitment there.
I again appeal to the parties in Northern Ireland to make an enormous effort to reach agreement. If ever there was need for a power-sharing Executive and for a distinct voice and advocacy for Northern Ireland, it is now. While we will of course seek a good outcome for the entire island as anything else would be wrong, and the Minister expressed a commitment to that in his address to the House, it is not as good as having an up and running Executive functioning in Northern Ireland and supporting that effort. There is a moral imperative on the parties in Northern Ireland to try to come together and form an agreement given the gravity of the situation and the threats presented by Brexit to Northern Ireland socially, economically, culturally and in every way. It is almost like an emergency situation. This is a very timely and important debate. I hope that the next time we discuss it in the House, we will be wishing the new Executive well.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a bheith linn inniu, go háirithe ag an am tábhachtach agus criticiúil seo fá choinne ní hamháin na Sé Chontae ach an t-oileán ina iomlán. I thank the Minister for joining us today. We all acknowledge that this is a critical time not just for the North but, given the triggering of Article 50, for the island in its entirety. I wish to deal with two elements of the Minister's statement: the current conclusion of negotiations in the North and the issue of Brexit. I take great heart from the clarity of the Minister's words and his statement today.
I have been following the Minister's public utterances and those of his colleagues in government. I read his platform piece in the Irish News yesterday or the day before. In light of all that and given the severity of the issues we are dealing with in the North, what we need to do now is go beyond words and start to find ourselves in a place of action.
My colleagues are right that we need to deal with the outstanding issues, some of which have been identified. An Irish language Act was signed up to, agreed and committed to at St. Andrew's over ten years ago. A Bill of Rights was signed up to and agreed at the Good Friday Agreement almost 20 years ago. That agreement and all aspects of it were overwhelmingly endorsed by the democratic mandate of people in this State and the North. There is a huge onus on us to see the implementation of the agreements in their fullest. I do not need to tell the Minister that one of the main points of contention in recent times has been the issue of legacy. Instead of hearing about James Brokenshire and his role as some kind of mediator or arbitrator, we need to identify the British Government as players in these negotiations. I am sure the Minister will agree with us on the need for an Irish language Act and the need to respect each other's cultural traditions and identities. We also need to acknowledge and shine a light on the very negative role the British Government is actively playing in these negotiations to hinder progress on the Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements. The legacy elements were agreed there. The British Government is actively hindering progress on those issues, not least through the unwillingness of the Secretary of State to release the funds for legacy inquests. We need to start hearing more about what actions the Irish Government, as co-guarantors of those agreements, will take as opposed to words.
Does the Irish Government want to see the implementation of an Irish language Act? What is it doing as co-guarantors to make that come about? I read with interest the Minister's recent contribution to the Pat Finucane memorial lecture in Belfast which was a very positive and worthwhile intervention on the Minister's behalf. Does the Minister agree the British Government is not acting impartially in these negotiations? The onus is on the British Government to move proactively to bring a conclusion to the outstanding issues of legacy and to release the much needed funding for legacy inquests, which the Lord Chief Justice has asked them to do very clearly on the public record.
On Brexit, the Minister said in his contribution that nothing can be allowed to undermine the peace process which, founded on the Good Friday Agreement, has brought us definitively beyond the horror of the Troubles. I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister. Many people would put forward the argument that it is too late and that Brexit has done exactly that. It is not just me or people on this island who think that. Earlier I read the European Parliament's constitutional affairs committee's report into Brexit. On page 41 of that report, it states, "The impact [of Brexit] will be both political, in particular since the Good Friday Agreement - an international agreement - will require alteration". That which the Minister is calling for not to happen, the European Parliament contests has already happened. My question in terms of other issues applies to that. What will the Irish Government do? I offer a suggestion that has already been articulated by Senator Daly. It is one which the Minister is mandated to seek by the Dáil, which in February passed a motion compelling the Government to make the case for special designated status for the North.
I appreciate we are tight for time. I have put a number of questions to the Minister. I could probably put about 100 more. The Minister has engaged regularly with this House. I look forward to him coming back in to us again.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I am sorry he thought I was on my phone, I was taking notes on the Minister's speech.
I express my sorrow at the passing of Martin McGuinness who was a great leader. He will be sadly missed in the negotiations that need to be finalised before the Executive is restored in the North. Michelle O'Neill is well capable of the work ahead but Martin McGuinness will be sadly missed. I know the Minister will agree with me that we should all strive to ensure that his vision of a society of equals is realised. There must be respect for all people and traditions in the North. I am glad to hear the Minister has given his support for Acht na Gaeilge. I welcome that the Minister has participated in the discussions in Belfast with the political parties and the British Government over the past three weeks to seek progress on outstanding commitments under the agreements and to support the formation of the new Executive. The disrespect shown by members of the DUP to our language is a cause of great concern and is a symptom of the attitude that anything Irish is somehow inferior. If we are to go forward, this attitude has to change.
The only way to safeguard the peace we now have in the North is for an equality agenda to be agreed and supported by both Governments. The Great Repeal Bill will end the EU’s legal supremacy in the UK and give Parliament the power to absorb pieces of EU legislation into UK law and scrap elements it does not want. Is there a danger that EU legislation that deals with equality issues may be scrapped and therefore undermine the Good Friday Agreement. As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government must insist this does not happen. If agreement cannot be reached between the parties in the North, the only option is another election as the return to direct rule from London is unacceptable. The situation in the North has been changed by the recent election and unionism no longer has a majority. This change should also empower the Irish Government to act as an equal partner and support the demands of the nationalist people in the North.
Another issue that needs to be tackled is the need for the outstanding legacy inquests to be held. These are being held up due to the refusal of the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, to provide the necessary funding. There is also the defence of national security used by the British to refuse information to the families who have been bereaved. It is the responsibility of the Irish Government to represent the Irish people and to ensure their rights are safeguarded. The British Government is taking the North out of the EU against the express wishes of the majority of the people in the North. The Good Friday Agreement was based on the fact that any change in the status of the North must be agreed by a majority in both jurisdictions. While Brexit was not predicted at the time, it is a definite change in the status of the North. As this change is being imposed on the North by a vote only supported by majorities in England and Wales, does it bring into question the bona fides of the British Government in its commitment to respect the will of the people, North and South, in the event of a vote for the reunification of the country?
A major concern for all Irish people is the plan by Theresa May to remove Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights. Has this issue been raised with the British Government and, if so, what was the response and, if not, why not? Ireland, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, must defend the integrity of the agreement. Ireland is clearly the country that will be most impacted by Brexit. The British Government will partition Ireland once again when it finalises the Brexit process and 20 years of freedom of movement will come to an end. The social and economic consequences for the Border region will be catastrophic. The wish for a soft border is unlikely to happen as Britain intends to exit the customs union which will mean goods cannot move freely between the two parts of the island and delays are inevitable for both people and goods. The introduction of customs controls could not only make the Border a site for increased criminality linked to smuggling activities but also, if such controls require a physical presence, a target for renewed violent activity capable of undermining the ongoing peace process. These would be enormously retrograde steps.
The Irish sector most affected by the outcome of the UK referendum to exit the EU is the agri-food sector. This is an integrated all-island sector that operates efficiently and seamlessly through the invisible border. An all-island sector requires an all-island response this is why there is a need for an all-island strategy for the agrifood sector to address the consequences of Brexit. All parties in the Dáil are against Brexit as are a majority of the people in the North so this is being imposed on the Irish people against their will. We must ensure the interests of the North are high on the agenda of the Republic’s negotiations with the EU’s other 27 states because it is they, not Britain, who will decide the ultimate arrangements.
It is vital that the Taoiseach negotiates a special designated status for the North. The best outcome would be for the wishes of the majority of the people on the island of Ireland to be respected and that the island of Ireland remain within the EU.
I welcome the Minister to the House. He is no stranger to the Seanad. I thank him for his hard work over the past few years, much of which has been conducted in London and Belfast.
For some time, we have known Brexit was coming. Yesterday was a very interesting, for want of a better word, day for the UK, as Prime Minister Therese May triggered the formal two-year process of negotiations that will lead to the UK leaving the EU after 44 years. Times have changed since Britain and Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973. Our neighbour is now going it alone. The external environment for Ireland is about to radically change. Events such as the Sunningdale Agreement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Good Friday Agreement, the visit of the Queen to the Republic and the visit of our President to the United Kingdom were once unimaginable.
Trade between Ireland and the United Kingdom has been taken for granted. After the Queen's visit here, the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce was formed. It is going extremely well. It is hard to believe that trade with our nearest neighbour and biggest trading partner, where most of the Irish diaspora lived, was once taken for granted. Much more can happen.
In the past, there was no great political understanding between the two countries, and certainly no great goodwill. I know from visits with our colleagues that there is now incredible goodwill across all the parties. However, understanding is not always as good as it could be. It would be helpful to continue to deepen people's understanding of the unique situation of the island of Ireland.
There are very valuable economic and trading ties between Ireland and the UK. The media continue to highlight the possible impact of Brexit on towns and villages. Ireland was the only EU member state specifically mentioned in Prime Minister May's Lancaster House speech, in the UK Government White Paper or in yesterday's Article 50 letter. I thank the House of Lords, which produced a report on Brexit that referred to the difficulties the island of Ireland will face. This is testament to the hard work and influence of the Irish Government. It shows that our plan is working.
Many multinationals and other organisations are seeking to establish European bases outside the UK. There is no doubt Ireland, with modern facilities such as Dublin Airport, is becoming increasingly attractive. As I have highlighted previously, the European Medicines Agencies could relocate to Carrick-on-Shannon, a town the Minister knows quite well. I felt that if Brexit happened, the European Medicines Agency and European Banking Authority could locate in areas like Carrick-on-Shannon, resulting in thousands of jobs. It is encouraging to note that the Central Bank has confirmed that 30 insurance firms have expressed an interest in establishing new bases here. While there are huge issues regarding exporters and cross-Border trade on the island of Ireland, there are also opportunities. We need to protect those opportunities.
The voice of Northern Ireland must be heard. We must be conscious that 56% of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The legacy of the past is an issue. We must ensure the Good Friday Agreement is not affected by Brexit.
The UK has been our strong allies in the EU for many years. We are now losing its support within the EU. We have our differences but it was our ally and next door neighbour. We must look for opportunities or areas where we can increase our influence. There are huge opportunities and huge difficulties. Politicians can play a vital role in preserving links to the North, the South, the east and the west by keeping lines of communication open with our colleagues in the EU and the United Kingdom.
I thank the Minister for all his work. He can see that his plan is working and I hope it will work even better in the future.
I thank all Members for their contributions to the statements on Northern Ireland. There were many views and perspectives expressed. There was a good measure of accord around the House for the Government’s principles and approach on Northern Ireland. That approach is consistent with our role as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, in which the Government is supported and guided by the Oireachtas, including the Seanad. That is why I am very pleased to be here this afternoon. It is my duty to listen to and be guided by Members of the Seanad.
In the further discussions that are shortly to take place in Belfast to support the formation of a new Executive, the Government will maintain its proactive and determined engagement. We want, and Northern Ireland deserves, a positive and a prompt outcome - the formation of a new Executive, operating on the basis of partnership and respect. The Government believes that on the major outstanding issues, some of which have been mentioned by Members, dealing with the past, the Irish language, rights and equality frameworks, the appropriate and necessary compromises can be found by relying on the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. Principles such as mutual respect, parity of esteem, partnership and engaging in compromise are not zero-sum in nature. They are not the exclusive property of any one party or interest group. They are the basis of our peace process and of all the progress that has been achieved in the peace process, particularly since the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Resolute attention must be given in the discussions to moving forward with outstanding commitments under the Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent agreements. If these outstanding commitments are faithfully implemented, they will deepen confidence in the peace process and in the political institutions on all sides. For example, achieving a way forward on legacy issues in accordance with the Stormont House framework will serve the interests of people from all communities in an equal, consistent and principled way. Addressing legacy issues in a comprehensive way will help ease the strain in Northern Ireland in the day to day conduct of politics, policing and the administration of justice. The establishment of the legacy institutions envisaged in the Stormont House Agreement will allow us to focus instead on meeting the real needs and legitimate expectations of the tens of thousands of victims and survivors of horrific violent activity across Northern Ireland over a period of 30 years or more. An agreed way forward with the Stormont House framework, encompassing the legacy bodies, legacy inquests, and other supports for victims and survivors, will advance the peace process.
In advancing this process, it will also deepen reconciliation which is so fundamental to the ongoing process of peace and stability, fragile though that appears to be from time to time. The Government will continue to do all that it can in the discussions immediately ahead to support and contribute to the achievement of such a momentous step for Northern Ireland and the peace process.
Senators O'Reilly, Ó Donnghaile, Black, Daly and others referred specifically to an Irish language Act and the need to ensure that a specific reference to the language is incorporated into the legislative framework in Northern Ireland. That, to my mind, as I have said publicly on numerous occasions, can only engender the appropriate level of confidence throughout Northern Ireland if it is done through a legislative instrument, an Irish language Bill becoming, in due course, an Irish language Act. I very much support an Irish language Act for Northern Ireland and have made it clear, time and again, that this is a commitment that has already been entered into, as Senator Ó Donnghaile also pointed out. I believe a single, stand alone Act is, in the circumstances, the best way of dealing with this issue. I hope we can reach agreement on this and I think that we will. Concerns have been rightly expressed by Senator Mark Daly and others about the prospect of direct rule in Northern Ireland. I want to be very clear that the Government does not in any way support such a step. I made that clear to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement provides an agreed framework for devolved government in Northern Ireland. There is no statutory provision for direct rule in Northern Ireland following the St. Andrews Agreement. It is incumbent on all parties to make the necessary political commitments and compromises now so that power-sharing devolution is sustained. Speculation about alternative scenarios is unhelpful and distracts from the primary objective of making partnership politics work in Northern Ireland.
Senators Mark Daly, Ó Donnghaile, O'Reilly and Feighan spoke about the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. This act, which commenced yesterday, presents fundamental questions for Northern Ireland and for the entire island of Ireland. The question of special status was raised. I must respond by saying that there is already a special status for Northern Ireland, namely, the Good Friday Agreement, which is recognised and fully supported by the European Union. That agreement may not have even been reached in the spring of 1998 were it not for the active support of the EU.
One can see the EU itself as being a peace process - as I have always done - ending as it did a century of horrific warfare across the continent of Europe. It represents an agreement or pledge by European partners, who had been engaged in horrific hostilities, that this would never happen again. I believe the European Union is still an active peace process. On a micro level, I acknowledge the important role that the EU played in the peace process on the island of Ireland. I look back to contributions that were made, particularly that of MEP John Hume, who almost single-handedly brought the challenge of Northern Ireland to Brussels and Strasbourg in a way that ultimately sensitised the European Parliament, European institutions and Europe itself to the difficulties of the peace process in the North. We have come a long way since then and the EU has played a very important role in that regard.
The task of the Irish Government, the Taoiseach, myself and everyone here who supports the Good Friday Agreement is to ensure that this special status remains fully recognised, upheld and supported by the European Union, in whatever form is both necessary and appropriate. The Government continues to robustly make the case to our EU partners that the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland warrant special arrangements to deal with the specific challenges that arise. We are advancing those arguments on an issue by issue basis. I acknowledge what Senator Feighan has said and thank him for his remarks in that regard. Our plan is working but we will continue to advance our arguments on an issue by issue basis to ensure that our EU partners understand, acknowledge and are sympathetic to the merits of our case and will act accordingly in the context of the challenges that lie ahead. Special status for Northern Ireland may, in many respects, be a compelling soundbite but articulating such a broad and generic demand may actually be counter-productive to the persuasion of our EU partners and to the negotiation of beneficial outcomes on the issues that are of the utmost sensitivity to the people on this island. We have been saying from the start, and will continue to say it until it becomes a reality, that the unique and special circumstances on the island of Ireland, with particular reference to Northern Ireland, North-South issues, the open border, trade, the North-South bodies and the Good Friday Agreement must be recognised and acted upon by our EU partners and the UK in the context of the negotiations. I am not discouraged by what I have heard from the British Government in that regard. We will continue to engage at the highest level in discussions with our EU partners in the years ahead. The Government has made perfectly clear and will continue to articulate its firm determination to protect the peace process, uphold all provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and defend all-island interests, including seeking the maintenance of the open border and of the common travel area.
The operation of the institutions of the Agreement, namely the Assembly and power-sharing Executive, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council, are all critical parts of the ongoing collective work that is required if we are to fully protect the interests of the island of Ireland in the forthcoming negotiations. I undertake to keep this House regularly updated, to engage with Senators on these matters and to draw from them their priorities and issues in the context of the manner in which we set out our plan for our negotiations. North-South co-operation must also continue and intensify on all fronts, through the North-South Ministerial Council and the North-South bodies. It is a matter of regret that there are no power-sharing institutions at either Assembly or Executive level in Northern Ireland because without these institutions we cannot have the proper and adequate functioning of the important North-South Ministerial Council. That body made a very positive contribution in the latter part of last year towards the preparation of our plan on an all-island basis, in terms of the priorities not only for Ireland, but for the island of Ireland, with particular reference to Northern Ireland and the consequences for the North that have been articulated over a long period of time by Senators. We need these bodies to be re-established. We also need to continue our engagement through the civic dialogue process and more broadly across society, through civic society groups, farmer representative groups and so on. I acknowledge the input of Deputies and Senators from Border areas, including Senator O'Reilly, who bring first-hand knowledge of the situation on the ground, which is very welcome. We will continue to champion and defend all-island co-operation which is in the interests of everybody.
In conclusion, the political discussions of the coming days must result in the formation of a new Executive to represent the people of Northern Ireland. That is what the people voted for on 2 March - an Executive to deal with the reality of Brexit. The people have given a very recent and fresh electoral mandate to the parties and all parties must rise to that. They must face the risks and the challenges.
The forthcoming talks will focus on implementing commitments arising from previous agreements and, of course, we will continue to support such implementation. We also know that all negotiations require accommodation and compromise. No agreement is ever reached if it involves complete satisfaction for one side and complete humiliation for the other. Some kind of balanced outcome will be required if all sides are to be able to sell the deal to their respective constituencies. This is at all times crucial in the context of Northern Ireland.
I accept we need an agreement. We need an agreement to ensure previous agreements are fully honoured, but to reach it we will also need the spirit of honourable compromise. It can be done, it should be done and it will be done, but it is time to get on with it now and to do it.
I thank the Minister and I thank all Senators for their worthwhile contributions. When is it proposed to sit again?
On Tuesday afternoon at 2.30.