1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Belfast; the meetings that he attended; and the issues that were discussed. [25651/18]View answer
Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 20 June 2018
1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Belfast; the meetings that he attended; and the issues that were discussed. [25651/18]View answer
2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the opening of the west Belfast festival. [25653/18]View answer
3. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at Féile an Phobail; and the community groups he met. [26472/18]View answer
4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the Orange Order. [26473/18]View answer
5. Deputy Alan Farrell asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Northern Ireland with particular reference to his visit to a museum (details supplied). [26542/18]View answer
6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Northern Ireland; the meetings he held; and the issues discussed. [26546/18]View answer
7. Deputy Peter Burke asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Northern Ireland with reference to his engagement with civic society groups from all traditions. [26547/18]View answer
8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to a museum (details supplied). [26616/18]View answer
9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to west Belfast and his address at the launch of Féile an Phobail. [26617/18]View answer
10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Belfast; the meetings that he attended; and the issues that were discussed. [26894/18]View answer
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 10, inclusive, together.
I visited Northern Ireland on Thursday and Friday, 7 and 8 June. I had a number of different engagements during my recent visit to Northern Ireland. This was part of my own and the Government's continuing commitment to stay engaged with all parts of society in Northern Ireland, notwithstanding the absence of functioning political institutions there.
On Thursday, 7 June, I met a group called Civic Space, which is made up of civic unionism and others in Belfast. The meeting was a good opportunity for me to hear from a range of perspectives on major issues such as the political situation in Northern Ireland and Brexit.
On 8 June, my first engagement was a private meeting with Baroness Eileen Paisley at the Bannside Library, which houses the personal collection of Dr. Ian Paisley, Lord Bannside. That morning, I had another private meeting with Mr. Peadar Heffron and his wife, Fiona. Mr. Heffron was a Catholic PSNI officer who was seriously injured in an attack by dissident republicans in 2010. I also visited the Museum of Orange Heritage, where I was welcomed by the Orange Order Grand Master, Mr. Edward Stevenson, and met Orange Order representatives from across the island, including from Cavan, Donegal, Monaghan and Leitrim. I received a warm welcome from the Orange Order in Schomberg House and also from local residents outside the museum. I hope that my visit will be seen as a stepping stone to building relationships and a greater understanding between the Irish Government and the Orange Order into the future.
I also had a meeting with business and community leaders at Queen's University where I heard their views on the political situation in Northern Ireland and on Brexit. In the afternoon, I spoke at the launch event for the 30th year of Féile an Phobail in St. Mary's University College. Following my speech, I met some local guests and had a brief conversation with the vice president of Sinn Féin, Ms Michelle O'Neill.
On Friday evening, I had a very enjoyable visit to Down's oldest GAA club, Mayobridge. During the visit, I met the club chairperson, committee members and many club members, both young and old, including distinguished former All Ireland winning players, and the Down GAA county chairman, Mr. Sean Rooney. I was given a tour of the club grounds by the club secretary, Mr. Thomas O'Hare, during which I met a number of the club's teams.
The final event in my programme was a meeting with the CEOs of the cross-Border, North-South bodies in Newry, where we discussed the current cross-border issues relevant to their work and the future development and role of those bodies.
I was really glad to have the opportunity during this visit to meet with a range of groups from all sides of the community in Northern Ireland and to hear their concerns on the issues.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I welcome the return to a policy of regular visits to Northern Ireland by taoisigh. The Taoiseach, however, would be well advised to understand that the visit two weeks ago was not nearly as historic as he seems to be believe. It is a decade since Uachtarán na hÉireann visited the Orange Order and there has been a 12 July event in Áras an Uachtaráin for quite some time.
What stood out from the visit was the lack of hard substance in terms of the urgent crisis concerning the political, economic and social future of Northern Ireland. It is 520 days since the Northern Ireland Executive was collapsed and the assembly suspended, but there is not the slightest sign of movement. Alarmingly, Northern Ireland remains with no voice in the Brexit discussions, with the assembly denied even the basic right to make a protest similar to that of the Scottish Parliament, which is doing a great deal of good work, against London's catastrophic policies.
The British Government has refused to re-establish the intergovernmental arrangements required in these circumstances. The Taoiseach might update me in that regard on his engagement with the British Prime Minister. The parties are not talking and neither of the heads of the two Governments has yet had even one day of inter-party negotiations. In the circumstances, it is surprising how little the Taoiseach appears to have had to say in recent times, including on this visit. Perhaps it is his policy to leave it to others. Is something going on, on which the media have yet to be briefed by the Taoiseach's normally hyperactive briefing staff?
As the Taoiseach knows, there was some surprise that, in visiting Féile, he had decided that it was not necessary to make any comment on attempts to distort history and give false equivalence to illegitimate campaigns which had been waged in the face of the opposition of the people. Was that a deliberate decision on his part or an oversight? It is an important issue. There has been an attempt for quite some time to shove a particular narrative of Irish history down everybody's throat with reference to the campaign of violence that continued for 30 years. Many innocent people were murdered and there were many unacceptable atrocities, yet some of the events were celebrated at Féile. It is an ongoing narrative led by Sinn Féin which needs to be challenged on every occasion. They are atrocities about which we all know and we cannot allow a distorted narrative to emerge which should be challenged. Perhaps it has something to do with the Taoiseach's satisfaction with the new electoral alliance with Sinn Féin which he recently road-tested in the Seanad elections.
I have not been able to find any copy of the Taoiseach's script at the launch of Féile. Will he explain why that is the case? Other remarks he made on the day are freely available but not this particular script. Is there a reason for it?
In launching Féile an Phobail, the community festival in west Belfast, the Taoiseach was seen as lending his authority and that of his office to the event. Nobody has any difficulty with Olly Murs or the many cultural and music events that took place. However, it is unprecedented for a Taoiseach to be involved in launching an entire programme which included events such as IRA Prisoners' Day at the Felons' Club, particularly when the Chief Constable, Mr. George Hamilton, recently referred to his concern that the IRA army council was still involved in Sinn Féin's strategy. I understand the Taoiseach received a letter from our former Oireachtas colleague and Labour Party Senator, Mairia Cahill, in which she expressed her unhappiness and hurt at the Taoiseach launching Féile, given the resolute refusal of Sinn Féin to address the issue of child abuse, including her own case which we have debated in this Chamber and on which the former Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, Deputy Enda Kenny, took a strong line. I know that the Taoiseach has to be aware, from articles she has written, that effectively she had been groomed for sexual abuse through her participation as a child and teenager in Féile's radio station. Like many others, she was shocked by the Taoiseach's endorsement of the event, given its connection with the IRA in west Belfast. By extension, he will potentially be seen as either staying silent or, worse still, endorsing IRA violence, in respect of which we have never had an absolute apology. Will the Taoiseach consider apologising to people like Mairia Cahill and the Stack family who have also mentioned their unhappiness and concern, as well as other victims of IRA violence, for, in effect, failing when he visited Belfast for purposes we welcome, but there is a clear line to be drawn in the sand when it comes to violence perpetrated by the republican movement - the atrocities, killings and injuries.
The Taoiseach is reported as having said during his visit to Northern Ireland that the tectonic plates were shifting. My understanding is the tectonic plates shift very slowly, but, whether they are speeding up, the Taoiseach's meaning is that there are significant shifts in opinions on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. That will be in very sharp focus in the event of a hard Brexit which, unfortunately, as we will discuss when we deal with other questions, increasingly is becoming more likely. Many weeks ago, at the James Connolly commemorative event at Arbour Hill, a Labour Party event, I called for the establishment of a new forum. The knee-jerk reaction in saying let us have a Border poll if the numbers stack up such that a figure of 50% plus 1 changes the dynamics is very dangerous in that we could find ourselves, like the Brexiteers, arguing for something and not knowing how to proceed. I have asked for the establishment of a forum involving all of the political parties that will participate in it and also civic society to discuss the shape of a new Ireland. We previously had the New Ireland Forum and there is now scope for a new forum, rather than the knee-jerk reaction of simply making a demand for a Border poll. These issues have to be thought out very carefully. They will have to be the subject of much discussion which will have to be framed very carefully. If we could have dialogue to allow all citizens on the island of Ireland to feel at home in a new settlement, it would be a good process to begin. Will the Taoiseach consider sitting down with party leaders to explore that possibility?
The recommendation made by Deputy Brendan Howlin has merit. It is similar to a suggestion we put to party leaders in the past. Attitudes to Irish unity are changing. We can see the mess caused by the Brexit negotiations. The Brexiteers achieved the outcome they wanted without any thought being given to the shape it would take. I welcome the Taoiseach's recent visit to the North which was beneficial. There is no doubt that it was well received. We, in Sinn Féin, support the Taoiseach's ongoing engagement with both communities in the North. That is essential and I hope and have no doubt that it will continue. The small amount of criticism levelled at the Taoiseach was uncalled for - we have heard some of it again today - as was the criticism of Féile an Phobail, which represents all that is good in west Belfast. At the launch I am sure the Taoiseach got a taste of the vibrancy, creativity, talent, inclusivity and energy of the community. We know that Féile an Phobail is a grassroots organisation and that it has become the largest community festival throughout Europe. There is huge anticipation in advance of its landmark 30th anniversary. The Taoiseach's participation in the launch was a boost for all those who have made Féile an Phobail what it has become. I echo the words of the former Democratic Unionist Party mayor when he attended and launched the Féile an Phobail programme. He said it "reflects the true cultural tapestry of our city."
The Taoiseach's meeting with the Orange Order in Belfast was very welcome. I am glad to hear of the welcome he received both inside and outside the room. I hope the initiative might open a new era of engagement with the Grand Lodge and wider society, something which has been lacking. I do not want to downplay, as has been suggested, the importance of the initiative. We need many more such initiatives.
Ireland's greatest revolutionary and socialist James Connolly believed passionately in uniting the country, not by trying to square the circle of green and orange tribal politics or, for that matter, scoring political points off others in the political debate, as we have heard in the last few comments made by Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party. He tried to find the social and economic issues that might practically unite people and advance a radical social and economic agenda that could break down sectarian divisions.
The issue that presents itself very much at the moment in the aftermath of the referendum to repeal the eighth is the demand which is across the communities in the North - Catholic and Protestant, progressive people, young people - demanding the decriminalisation of abortion in the North. The situation persists and has resulted in, for example, the shocking prosecution of a 21 year old young woman for taking an abortion pill when she was reported by her house mates. She had taken that pill because she could not afford to go to Britain for an abortion. It is criminal for her to have an abortion in the North even though it is not in England or Wales. It seems to me that is the thing we should be advancing if we want to unite people across the sectarian divide and North and South. I appeal to the Taoiseach to lobby Prime Minister May directly on this matter and call on her to decriminalise abortion in the North.
I attended a fantastic demonstration in the North on Saturday of the week before last. Bus loads came from Together for Yes down here. We were involved in organising them. Thousands of people were in Belfast - Catholics and Protestants - on the streets saying they want rights for women and they want abortion rights in the North. Why does the Taoiseach not align with them and pressure Prime Minister May to decriminalise abortion in the North? That would be a step towards a united Ireland.
I share with Deputy Micheál Martin a deep concern that the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive are still not functioning. In order for them to function the two largest parties, namely, the DUP and Sinn Féin, will need to build trust and they will need to compromise. I know there were compromises but ultimately trust needs to be built. I have been involved in two coalitions and I know that neither building trust nor compromise is easy but it is what the two parties have to do and the two Governments as co-guarantors will assist them in any way possible to bring about the compromise and trust building that is necessary.
When I was in Northern Ireland I remarked on the fact that there were quite a number of billboards. There was a billboard campaign by the Simon Community telling us about the 100,000 people who it says are homeless in Northern Ireland currently. I read the Irish News last week. It commented on the fact that the Bengoa report, the ten-year plan to reform, modernise and save the NHS in Northern Ireland, has not been implemented. The Irish News called on politicians in particular to make sure there was a Minister for health in Northern Ireland to do that. There are major issues in Northern Ireland similar to the issues we have here around housing and homelessness and also a health service that is struggling. The failure of politicians to take responsibility for those issues in Northern Ireland cannot go without comment.
We have requested a meeting but we do not have a date yet for the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. I will be attending the BIC, British-Irish Council, in Guernsey on Friday where I will have an opportunity to have bilateral meetings with First Minister Sturgeon and First Minister Jones and I will also be speaking to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, David Lidington, about that particular issue.
I will ask my office to send Deputy Micheál Martin a script of my speech at Féile an Phobail. It is not controversial. I am sure it was recorded so if it had been controversial it would have been reported by now. There is no need for any new conspiracy theories from the office of the Fianna Fáil leader. I am sure it was just an oversight the fact that the particular speech is not on a website.
Normally, all the Taoiseach's speeches are available.
While I understand the terrible personal experience and the trauma that former Senator Cahill was put through, and I understand where the Stack family is coming from, Féile an Phobail is really not a Sinn Féin event, it is a community event in west Belfast. There are many Sinn Féin supporters involved in it. This is a part of Northern Ireland where Sinn Féin wins five out of six seats. Quite frankly, nothing is going to happen in west Belfast without having some people there who have a history or background in Sinn Féin or the republican movement. It is my view that one does not boycott an entire community because it happens to vote for or support a party one does not agree with. My policy is always one of engagement, not one of boycotts or no platform. That is one of the reasons I was very honoured to have been invited to attend the launch.
The event was set up in what was a very dark time in west Belfast when Belfast was a very difficult city to live in, very different to what it is now. When it was set up it gave people, in particular young people and children, a little bit of light in their lives during the summer and a little bit of hope. I do not think that is a bad thing. Other people who have attended in the past include Arlene Foster, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Reg Empey and Mary McAleese. I cannot attend because I am not available the week it is on, but if the opportunity arises in future years I would like to be able to attend some of the events. I really do not think that launching an event is an endorsement of the entire programme. People launch film festivals, theatre festivals and art exhibitions. That does not mean they are endorsing everything on the programme or every piece of art that is being displayed. I think that is a very narrow-minded view. It is almost the kind of view one would have heard from Archbishop McQuaid or extreme Catholics in the past, that even to attend an event or launch an event implies an endorsement. It is a form of censorship and backward thinking that I do not share. It is the new version of the kind of extremism that existed in the past. The shoe is on the other foot so often when it comes to matters like this.
In terms of tectonic plates, Deputy Howlin is absolutely right - tectonic plates do shift slowly and also quickly. That is the nature of tectonic plates, but I did not say anything about tectonic plates on my visit at all. I did say that I was opposed to a Border poll and that I think it is a bad idea at this time and for the foreseeable future. First, I think it would be defeated, and all the polling indicates that. I also think it would be divisive and now is not a time when we need further division in Northern Ireland. I also think in particular it would send out the wrong message at this time of Brexit when all the time the Government is saying to the unionist parties and the unionist community that we have no hidden agenda when it comes to Brexit. All we want from Brexit is to retain the relationships we have currently, namely, that there is no hard border, that citizens’ rights are protected and that we do not see Brexit as an opportunity to change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. We are not going to try to take advantage of Brexit or exploit it to bring about a united Ireland any faster than the people of Northern Ireland want it. That is why we need to be very careful about these types of things.
The same thing would apply to the suggestion of a forum on the issue. In principle, the idea of a forum on what a united Ireland might look like in the future sounds attractive. We could have a discussion with civic society and political parties on what that might look like but the difficulty is that I feel, in particular at this time, when people are talking about border polls and Brexit, that the vast majority of people who feel themselves to be British - the vast majority of unionist people - would not participate in that and then it would be seen as a pan-nationalist gathering or front.
We could try.
That is why we should not engage in something like that unless we knew that there would be a critical mass of people who feel themselves to be British, who are unionist or Protestant, who would be willing to participate in that, and I do not believe at the moment that is the case.
What about abortion?
I have given my view on that, in the North and in an op-ed. My view on this is very simple. Any right or freedom that an Irish citizen has in Ireland and any right or freedom that a British citizen has in Britain should be enjoyed by Irish and British citizens in Northern Ireland, and that applies to things like marriage equality and abortion rights. I have said that to Prime Minister May. I have said it publicly, but ultimately this is a decision that should be made by the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly, not by people in Dublin or London.
What about the narrative on the North?
I did not understand the Deputy's question.
Is the Taoisech dense? He is not.
No, I am not.
He understood it all right.