Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Questions (4, 5, 6)

Mary Lou McDonald


4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the leader of the SDLP, Mr. Colum Eastwood MLA. [11217/18]

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Mary Lou McDonald


5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement with representatives of civic nationalism from Northern Ireland on 27 February 2018. [11218/18]

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Brendan Howlin


6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the SDLP leader and engagements with representatives of civic nationalism. [12797/18]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, together.

I met representatives of a group of nationalists from civil society in Northern Ireland in Government Buildings on Tuesday, 27 February. I heard from the group their concerns about rights and equality in Northern Ireland and also discussed the current political situation in Northern Ireland and Brexit. I acknowledged the concerns of the group and pointed out that, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government is cognisant of the concerns of all communities in Northern Ireland. I also emphasised the Government's unwavering commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and its determination to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions. I encouraged the group to reach out to civic unionism for cross-community dialogue on these issues for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland. I have also made clear that I am equally happy to meet representatives of civic unionism on a similar basis. Finally, I assured the group that the Government will continue to work with the nationalist and unionist communities, political parties in Northern Ireland and the British Government to support the formation of a new Executive, to further the peace process and to protect the interests of the island as a whole through the ongoing Article 50 negotiations.

I also met Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP, on 28 February in Government Buildings, along with Nichola Mallon. At the meeting we discussed the current political situation in Northern Ireland and Brexit. The SDLP outlined its concerns in the wake of the unsuccessful conclusion of the latest talks on Executive formation in Northern Ireland. I also had an opportunity to meet Mr. Eastwood in Washington last week, along with the Secretary of State and a number of other politicians who were represented there. I assured the SDLP of the Government’s continued commitment to working to support the parties, with the British Government, with the aim of having all of the institutions under the Good Friday Agreement back in operation.

I very much agree with the Taoiseach when he says civic nationalism and civic unionism need to have a conversation and also that he would meet the group which drafted that letter from the civic unionist side of the public discourse. I think it is extremely important and very heartening that this initiative has been taken within the unionist community.

I met the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, on a recent trip to the United States. I am very sorry to report that, as yet, there is still no plan - not the outline of a plan, not the notion of a plan - coming from the Secretary of State, coming from Theresa May or, so far as I can ascertain, coming from the Government here in respect of those very issues that Colum Eastwood rightly raised with the Taoiseach around Acht na Gaeilge, marriage equality and legacy inquest funding, which are crucial. Civic nationalism is as one. The SDLP, Sinn Féin and others such as the Alliance, the Greens and People Before Profit are as one in demanding that these issues get sorted out. We cannot ask or suggest that everybody stands still because the DUP, unfortunately, and I do not want to get into recriminations, on this occasion, could not get the deal we struck over the line. It is not acceptable to say to people that, therefore, we freeze things.

I know the Taoiseach has called previously for the convening of the intergovernmental conference. I believe that is the framework within which those outstanding issues need to be named and a pathway forward identified. I think that can be done entirely within the structures and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, and it is important that we protect the integrity of that agreement, as the Taoiseach knows.

It is good the Taoiseach is having these meetings but we can meet each other from here to kingdom come. At some stage we need to call it and we need a plan. What is the Taoiseach's plan?

The SDLP has for a long time called for a British-Irish intergovernmental conference to be convened. I raised this issue yesterday with the Tánaiste and he indicated to me that he had raised this with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Has the Taoiseach raised the convening of an intergovernmental conference with the British Prime Minister and, if so, what was her response? As I said in statements on Northern Ireland in recent weeks, it would be a platform, for example, for both Governments to table the draft agreement that was virtually over the line with the parties involved in the discussions on the reconvening of the Executive in Northern Ireland.

The two Governments, as guardians of the Good Friday Agreement, obviously have a responsibility to forge a path forward. Would the Taoiseach support the return of the civic forum for Northern Ireland that was created under the Good Friday Agreement in 2000 but which last met in 2002? The assembly voted to recall the forum in April 2013. It was proposed in the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 that a smaller civic advisory panel be established. Recreating it would, I think, provide a space for those in civic nationalism, as the Taoiseach has described it, and in civic unionism to have a forum to address some of the issues people are talking about in silos now.

It was regrettable that the Taoiseach was not in a position to participate in full statements on Northern Ireland in recent weeks. His predecessors would always have contributed to such statements, especially at a critical moment in regard to the peace process.

The evidence of recent days seems to be that the two Governments agree on nothing more than the general idea that it would be a good idea if the institutions were re-established. On two specific occasions the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have made public statements concerning what should happen next but, subsequently, these points have been rejected both on and off the record. Following last week's debate, the Tánaiste expressed support for the idea of changing the dynamic of the negotiations by making them genuinely all-party and potentially bringing in an independent chair. Does the Taoiseach support this, given I understand he did so at one stage? The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said, however, that this should not happen and that it should be left up to the DUP and Sinn Féin to sort things out.

In other words, it is the same strategy that has failed miserably in recent years.

The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste correctly supported the demand for the convening of the intergovernmental conference. However, it is being reported that the British Government is refusing to move on that demand. That suggests that, away from the banal generalities, the two Governments are at loggerheads on the basic strategy to resolve the issue, something that has not happened for more than 30 years. Does the Taoiseach intend to take any initiative on the matter? Will he insist on the negotiations being changed in order that all parties will have an input and that there will be an independent chair? At what point will he tell the British Government that it does not have the right to block the convening of the intergovernmental conference? What discussions has he had with Prime Minister May on the matter, specifically in the past three weeks? Why is there a growing divide?

Does the Taoiseach agree with the suggestion of People Before Profit representatives in the North that, in the light of the political paralysis, we need a new civil rights movement to break the logjam and from the failed paradigm of green and orange politics? Since the civil rights movement that it tried to quell in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that paradigm has paralysed Northern politics. The issues that could break through it include extending marriage equality and abortion rights into the North. These issues cut across sectarian divisions, as does that of the Irish language. It is not the case that support for the Irish Language Act is limited to nationalists and Catholics. Growing numbers of Protestants are learning the language and support having such an Act. Should we not start to discuss building a new civil rights culture in which these and other issues could break through the failed paradigm of green and orange politics that is locked into the North's political structures?

From my conversations with people in my business in the North, I detect among civic unionism and nationalism, each of which is diverse - it is not fair to say anyone speaks for it; I would not agree with Deputy Mary Lou McDonald's claim to speak for civic nationalism because I do not think that is correct - and also among what I call the Agreement generation, people who were born after 1998 or who were too young to vote in 1998, a huge sense of frustration that the institutions are not working and that even when they were up and running, they were not really working in the view of civic society in the North. At least, that is my impression. There is huge frustration with all of the political parties in the North and a real sense that they are just not doing the people's business. It is so striking to see and I would not be surprised if we were to see falling turnouts at elections and so on into the future as a consequence unless there is some change.

What I intend to do more and more in my engagement in Northern Ireland is to talk more and more to civic groups, business, farmers, trade unions, campaign groups and also, in particular, younger people, the Agreement generation to which I referred. In that sense, I have some sympathy for Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett's analysis that there are a lot of issues in Northern Ireland that transcend unionism and nationalism, orange and green. As I said last week in the United States, in the Library of Congress, it is my strong view that any right or freedom an Irish citizen has in Ireland or a British citizen has in Britain should also apply to British cand Irish citizens in Northern Ireland. Such rights include marriage equality and the recognition of native languages, as well as others. When I spoke in the Library of Congress, I set out what I thought should be the plan, that, after Easter, the two Governments - the UK and Irish Governments - should come together again to agree a joint paper or proposal, on foot of which they should have all-party talks. However, I am a realist, in that it is the case that the DUP represents a clear majority of unionist voters, while Sinn Féin represents 70% of nationalist voters. Therefore, there can be no agreement unless there is an agreement between these two parties. That is just the way the numbers stand. There is no meeting of minds with the British Government on this issue. The Tánaiste when speaking to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I in my last telephone conversation with the Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May - I am not sure whether it was in the last three or four weeks, but it was recently enough - suggested the BIIGC be convened. While there has been no formal refusal from the UK Government, it certainly has not committed to doing so, which is a disappointment.

The political context is different - it is not the same as it has been for the past 30 years - and it is different for two very big reasons, the first of which is Brexit which has changed the climate and the weather around all of this issue, while the second is the UK Government has a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP at Westminster which does change the context. That is the reality of what we face, but by no means are we going to give up. We will keep pressing these issues. That is our solemn role as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

On the civic forum, I have not given it much consideration, but I will give it consideration and certainly speak to the Tánaiste about it and seek his views.