Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Questions (6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

There appears to be slight confusion on the next batch of questions. It would seem to make sense to take Questions Nos. 6 to 10, inclusive, together, if that is possible.

I looked at this. I do not mind but the question in respect of the visit to Belfast is slightly different from the other four questions.

The Taoiseach could answer both of them and we could take them together then.

Gerry Adams

Question:

6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach to report on his visit to Belfast. [16859/16]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the status of the next British-Irish Council meeting. [16863/16]

View answer

Ruth Coppinger

Question:

8. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach to report on the meeting of the last British-Irish Council. [17154/16]

View answer

Paul Murphy

Question:

9. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach to report on the meeting of the last British-Irish Council. [17155/16]

View answer

Mick Barry

Question:

10. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach to report on the meeting of the last British-Irish Council. [17156/16]

View answer

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 10, inclusive, together.

I last visited Belfast on Monday, 13 June, when I addressed a conference on "Working Together for Peace and Prosperity", organised by the University of Ulster. I took the opportunity in my remarks to outline the Irish Government’s position regarding the imminent UK referendum on European Union membership. I outlined our particular perspective on the issue, including the importance of avoiding any hardening of the Border in whatever form. Following my speech, I took part in a panel discussion on the issues raised.

While at the university I met the vice chancellor, Mr. Paddy Nixon, and a number of community and non-governmental organisation representatives attending the conference, including some of those currently involved with the "Stronger In" referendum campaign. I also visited the newly opened premises of CPL Recruitment at a networking event attended by business representatives. I also took the opportunity at that event to ensure that the Irish Government's position on the forthcoming referendum was understood.

I attended the 26th summit of the British-Irish Council on 17 June, hosted by the Scottish Government in Glasgow. The heads of delegation were welcomed by First Minister Sturgeon on behalf of the Scottish Government. She commenced the meeting with a minute's silence to mark the untimely death of Ms Jo Cox, MP. The council reflected on priorities for member administrations and discussed how the council could continue to promote co-operation on issues of common concern. The council also noted that there might be scope for new areas of co-operation based on emerging government and member administration priorities across these islands, many of which have had elections in recent times.

In the context of current issues, the forthcoming UK EU referendum was discussed. I clearly set out the Irish Government's position and our programme of outreach to Irish citizens in Britain who have a vote. The Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, met counterparts with particular responsibility for unpaid carers in advance of the summit to consider a detailed paper prepared by the council’s social inclusion work sector. The discussion was then taken forward by heads of administration, where the council agreed that carers are an integral and vital part of society, caring for family, friends and neighbours affected by physical or mental illness, disability, frailty or substance misuse. It was agreed that further sharing of research and good practice in this important area will be pursued by member administrations.

The Scottish Government updated the council on the work done in advance of the summit to take forward work being undertaken to review the operation of the council. It also noted the secretariat's end of year report and agreed a new council communications plan for 2016 to 2018. The council also approved publication of the British-Irish Council annual report for 2015, and the next British-Irish Council summit is scheduled for Wales in November 2016.

I welcome very much the Taoiseach's visit to Belfast. It is really important that the Taoiseach and other Ministers visit the North often and regularly and that they meet people in all the sectors. During the Belfast visit, the Taoiseach went to the new Belfast office of CPL Recruitment and spoke to business leaders, among others, about the importance of encouraging economic growth on both sides of the Border. This is a very important area of potential for people, no matter what part of Ireland in which we live. I will concentrate, if I may, on that issue.

There are significant similarities between the two economies on the island and all of us, including Unionists, accept that we work best when we co-operate. They use the phrase, "to our mutual advantage". There are also differences, largely as a consequence of partition, which mean we have two different currencies, tax systems and laws impacting on business. There is a need to stimulate the economies of both parts of the island, which requires greater co-operation between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government here. In this respect, the work of the North-South Ministerial Council is of particular importance.

I understand the last meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council was postponed. Will the Taoiseach confirm when the next meeting will take place? It was also agreed in December at a plenary session that a report would be prepared for the Narrow Water bridge project, to which the Acting Chairman has given his support. The project will significantly enhance business and tourism opportunities between Louth, south Down and south Armagh, as well as the wider Border region. Last week I visited the site of the proposed Narrow Water bridge with the Narrow Water Bridge Community Network, including Ms Caitríona Ruane, MLA, Councillor John Loughran and the Executive finance Minister, Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. I know the Taoiseach is aware there is very strong support for this on both sides of the Border and from all shades of political opinion. It is across the Border and across communities. It is also included in the Irish Government's capital investment plan for 2016 to 2021 and the Oireachtas committee for jobs, enterprise and innovation recently reported that the bridge is essential to the economic development of the region. Will the Taoiseach confirm if the report for the North-South Ministerial Council has been completed? Will it be published after the council meeting?

Will the Taoiseach give some indication of the work that has been done on the issue of target investment in cross-Border economic infrastructure agreed in the Fresh Start agreement? I will be as brief as possible but these include the M5, which will open the north west, including Donegal; the Ulster Canal project; and the north-west gateway. Has there been any progress on sourcing further investment either from the European Union or the private sector for all-island infrastructural projects that would be to the mutual benefit of both economies on the island? Is é sin an méid.

Ní aontaím leo siúd a mhol gur cheart na ceisteanna seo a ghlacadh le chéile. The Taoiseach was right and the question on Belfast is very specific. I have other questions on the other matters but I will leave it at that for now.

I note in the Taoiseach's comments on the British-Irish Council that he referred to the discussion on the referendum. Will the Taoiseach comment on the tenor of the debate? It has, rightly, come in for widespread criticism. It does not surprise me, given that one side is led by the leadership faction in the Conservative Party and the other side is led by the opposition faction in the Conservative Party, with the support of the UK Independence Party. Disgracefully, we have seen finger pointing and blame laid at the feet of immigrants; the most disgusting example is Nigel Farage's UKIP "Breaking Point" billboard. Both sides have framed the debate in such a way that they each speak of immigration and immigrants as though that were a problem.

Many community and trade union activists and socialists are campaigning for an exit, but for very different reasons to those I outlined earlier. Their motivation is to defend the welfare State and the National Health Service from the neoliberal drive being spearheaded by the EU, and to stand up against the race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions in employment being promoted by the European Union elite. I share the disappointment of those activists that the Labour leader, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, has not pitched in on their side as had he done so the debate would have been decisively won for a "leave" position and immigration would be pushed back and less of an issue. The "leave" side would win, first and foremost, on the basis of progressive politics. Additionally, the Tory Government would be facing a shattering defeat and the likelihood of being driven from office. Will the Taoiseach comment on the tenor of the debate to which I referred at the start?

We have a genuine interest in the development and stimulation of both economies, and that is why I am glad the Sinn Féin Party supports the opportunity for people to vote to stay as a member of the European Union. Deputy Adams is aware there is €3 billion on the table for peace and reconciliation and cross-Border activities for communities, etc.

No date has yet been fixed for the next meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is going there in the next two weeks and I expect the date will be announced then. That meeting will be hosted in Dublin, as the Deputy knows. In regard to the infrastructure commitments under the Fresh Start agreement, the Irish Government reaffirmed in this agreement its existing commitment to providing £50 million for the A5 western transport corridor serving the north west. A further £25 million was committed to ensure that phase one of the project can commence as soon as the necessary planning issues have been resolved by the Northern Ireland authorities. The Government will provide this money in three tranches of £25 million in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The Government and the Northern Ireland Executive have agreed that construction on the first section of the A5 will commence in 2017, with a view to completion in 2019. The first section will be the route between Newbuildings outside Derry to north of Strabane.

In respect of the Narrow Water bridge, the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to undertake a review of the project, with a view to identifying options for its future development for consideration by the North-South Ministerial Council at its next meeting. Initial discussions by a group of officials, North and South, took place in December. Further meetings have taken place. A report will be provided to the next meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council. In addition, officials from North and South met with people in Newry in April with a view to feeding local proposals into the review of the project. I assure Deputy Adams that the Government remains committed to the concept of the Narrow Water bridge, which has the potential to create jobs on either side, but also to provide a real stimulus to both economies in terms of tourism and the opportunities that exist in that respect.

In respect of the Ulster Canal, the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to undertake a review with a view to looking at how this might progress. It is to be considered, again, by the North-South Ministerial Council at its meeting in Dublin. The Government will continue to explore the development of further cross-Border greenways and blueways, leisure routes, including the Ulster Canal as it is a matter of considerable interest to us.

Regarding the north-west gateway, the Government provided €2.5 million to support this initiative, which will be complemented by matching funding from the Executive in the North. A report on the north-west gateway will also be provided at the next meeting.

Deputy Barry raised the question of the tenor of the debate. At the debate of the British-Irish Council in Glasgow, people from Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man were very concerned that the British electorate would vote to leave the European Union, because this would create real difficulties for them as small economic entities and islands. The debate in general was derailed in respect of the issues that were really at stake. All 27 members of the European Council, apart from Britain, agreed on a number of issues to deal with the question of in-work benefits, which was and is an issue for people in Britain in respect of immigrants. For years and years, Irish people who went to Britain began to work, paid their stamp and got their contribution. It was clocked up for them in Newcastle and when people reached pension age or came back to Ireland before then, they were able to avail of that element of contribution, added to what they had from Ireland, to draw a pension or a proportion of the pension under a bilateral agreement. However, in lower-paid jobs, immigrants were entitled to extra benefits from day one, which was a cause for concern among British people. It was conceded by the European Council that this matter could be tapered over a period of four years. Another question related to child benefit being paid at higher British rates than applied in many of the former eastern bloc countries, where children were not living in Britain but were living in their home country. This issue was also raised in this House on many occasions.

On the question of ever-closer union, I agree. I might not agree with everything that Deputy Barry and I have to talk about, but the debate in Britain was derailed. It became very personal, very vindictive and very inter-party. The debate should have focused on issues about the kind of Europe we want, who should constitute that, the potential of a market of 500 million and the potential for political decisions to be followed through to the benefit of the peoples of the 28 countries. I hope when people vote on Thursday that the decision will be to stay. I have seen a strong element of finger-pointing in some social media and in some of the print and spoken media. Until the people actually vote, their decision is not counted. I hope that by 5 a.m. we will have a pretty clear statement as to what they have decided on Thursday, 23 June.

In view of the fact that there is only short of three minutes left on this section, I propose to allow Deputies Adams and Murphy to conclude the debate. To give them justice, Questions Nos. 11 and 12 will come on the agenda again tomorrow.

The British-Irish Council is an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement architecture and it provides an opportunity for the eight administrations that participate to discuss issues of mutual importance and of relevance to the regions and states that make up its membership. I want to come back on the issue that was raised earlier regarding carers. The social inclusion sector of the British-Irish Council had prepared a detailed paper on carers, which was supposed to have been published on the council's website, but it has not appeared on that website so far. Could the Taoiseach either publish it or consider publishing it? It is Carers' Week, which is why the British-Irish Council discussed this matter. From our own experience in this State, the treatment of carers leaves much to be desired. Did the Government make any commitments to improving the situation here at the council meeting? For example, will it provide additional resources to ensure that waiting times for processing applications or appeals will be reduced? I will limit what I am saying just to allow my colleague to get in.

I appreciate that the establishment in this country is extremely nervous about the prospect of Brexit, as is the core part of the establishment in Britain. That is reflected in the desperation of the Government and its increasing intervention in the referendum. It is the Taoiseach's right to intervene in that debate and I would do likewise if I were in his position. Does the Taoiseach not agree at all that a Brexit vote could open up a significant question about what kind of Europe we have? Does he not agree that it could put into sharp relief the fundamentally undemocratic and antidemocratic nature of the European Union, could provoke a crisis for the Tory Government in Britain and could be an opening to the kind of discussion we need to have about building the kind of Europe that does not just operate for the bankers, the bondholders and big business? That is our concrete experience over the course of the crisis, as opposed to the abstract social Europe which we do not have but which people talk about. Does the Taoiseach not agree these potential outcomes from a Brexit vote would be good from the point of view of ordinary people in this country, in Britain and right across Europe, and would constitute a step towards building a Europe of the millions instead of the millionaires?

In respect of the discussion that took place at the British-Irish Council, elections had taken place in a number of administrations since the last meeting. Therefore, those who were representing the different areas gave an indication of the priorities of the new administrations and where they saw developments occurring. In our case, we made the point that Government wanted to learn lessons and understands that many people in this country are still very much challenged in terms of the economic situation. We are now trying to use the benefits of a strengthening economy to deal with social injustice, unfairness and disadvantage, as we have talked about in terms of inner cities and the requirement for infrastructure raised by Deputy Howlin in terms of capital investment. These are things that improve the quality of people's lives and make the country a stronger and a better place. At the meeting, I pointed out the priorities as we see them for the time ahead. Then there was a discussion about carers, the need for support and protection of carers and of those for whom they care and the question of mental health and the difficulties that are experienced in many places and across all ages in this respect.

The meeting took place against the background of a minute's silence in respect of the late Jo Cox, and this tempered it.

In answer to Deputy Paul Murphy's question, we will have to wait and see what is the outcome of the Brexit vote. As I said to Deputy Mick Barry, elements of the discussion were directed along the alleyways of vindictiveness and finger pointing and were not really relevant to the question we need to ask about the kind of Europe we need to have. Everything will depend on turnout and on whether people are sufficiently motivated to go and vote. It is important that they know what they are voting for and the consequences of their vote so we will wait and see.