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All-Island Civic Dialogue

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 5 March 2019

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Questions (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)

Micheál Martin


6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the all-island civic dialogue held on 15 February 2019.. [8465/19]

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Brendan Howlin


7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the all-island civic dialogue on 15 February 2019. [9092/19]

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Eamon Ryan


8. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the all-island civic dialogue held on 15 February 2019. [9391/19]

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Joan Burton


9. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the fifth plenary session of the all-island civic dialogue on Brexit; if he had subsequent conversations with the political party leaders present; and the issues that were discussed. [9421/19]

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Mary Lou McDonald


10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the all-island civic dialogue held on 15 February 2019. [9459/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the all-island civic dialogue on 15 February 2019. [10515/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the all-island civic dialogue held on 15 February 2019. [10927/19]

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Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 12, inclusive, together.

More than 400 political, business and civic society leaders from across the island attended the fifth plenary session of the all-island civic dialogue on Brexit in Dublin Castle on 15 February. This was a valuable opportunity to update participants on the Government’s position on the latest Brexit developments and on our intensive contingency planning work to prepare for a no-deal withdrawal by the UK.

Having met the five main political parties in Belfast the previous week, I welcomed the opportunity once again to engage with political parties, North and South, and to hear the concerns of society and business, through interactive discussions on people, citizens and rights and on business preparations. This has been a deep consultation exercise, which has helped to shape the Government’s policies, strategy and objectives in the Article 50 negotiations and our domestic response to Brexit. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will produce a report of the proceedings and this will be published on its website.

Some of the most consistent themes we heard at the all-island civic dialogue are the frustrations of people about the lack of detail on potential aid programmes and the clarity from the Government about what people will be faced with on 29 March, or whatever date Brexit kicks in. Many businesses have told me about how slow everything has been to move from calling on people to be prepared and actually delivering substantive aid at the level of individual companies. One and a half years after aid for the agrifood sector was announced, the loans are only beginning to be approved now. Since last summer we have been seeking an update from Government on the preparedness data, which were formerly being prepared on a six-monthly basis. For some reason the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Government have decided to discontinue this research series. Will the Taoiseach explain why the Government has not published any recent data on the level of business preparedness? We have lots of data on the number of companies seeking basic information, but the more important information on the impact of Brexit and preparedness levels has disappeared.

Last December the Taoiseach stated that the Government's intention was to ensure that every business which needs to be ready will be ready by 29 March. What is the Taoiseach's current assessment of the level of preparedness? Does the Taoiseach still believe that everything that can be done has been done? If, as expected, there is an extension, what will be done to address clear deficiencies in preparations in the added time?

The civic dialogue process has been an important and very useful device in confidence-building across the State. One of the aspects that impacted on that confidence over the last weekend was the sudden blowing up of the voisinage dispute when a Northern Ireland-registered vessel was arrested in Irish territorial waters. I am aware there was immediate contact between the Government and Fianna Fáil to fast-track legislation that has been stalled for some time. What exactly is the Taoiseach's legislative solution? There are concerns around finding a solution - which is important for all of us - but not one that does not address the issues that caused the court case to be taken in the first instance. The case was taken by a number of fishermen who were very concerned about the impact of mussel dredging by Northern registered boats.

The concern is that one cannot restrict the impact to Northern boats only, as all UK-registered boats could avail of this gentleman's agreement, as it has been constituted to date. Can the Taoiseach indicate, on foot of his deep involvement with this over the weekend, what exactly he understands the dispute to be and what specific legislative measures he wants to fast-track to address the matter into the future? Will that provide the guarantee and assurance to people that it will not be a backdoor to wholesale access to Irish waters from other UK registered or, indeed, London agreement vessels, which would be very significant for the Irish fishing industry?

The atmosphere at the conference was one of apprehension and concern, in particular on the part of the business people there. It is particularly an issue for small businesses, of which there are many on both sides of the Border. Most hauliers in Ireland are small to medium-sized businesses and the average fleet size is approximately five trucks. No matter what happens, there will be a significant increase in the volume of documentation that will have to accompany imports and exports. That means massive costs in time, administration and money for most medium-sized businesses. I heard on the fringe of the meeting people voicing their concern that very little has been made explicit to them. I understand that because the Taoiseach does not know exactly what is going to happen, he does not want to frighten people. On the other hand, people need to undertake a great deal more preparation than we have seen. There has not been enough outreach. For instance, works on the former customs building in Dundalk are the talk of that town, notwithstanding claims that nothing is going to happen. Clearly, however, documentation will have to increase with any change in the UK's status. It would be better if people were prepared for that now in order that they can minimise the disruption that might, unfortunately, happen.

I agree with the Taoiseach that the all-island civic dialogue has been a necessary and useful exercise. I am interested to know what his future plans for the dialogue are. Does he foresee it becoming a forum for exchanges on Ireland post Brexit? Whatever way this lands and whether it is hard or soft, Brexit will have huge implications for the entire island. We need to work to involve unionism in this format. I note that the Taoiseach spoke at the Alliance Party conference at the weekend, which was extremely positive. More unionist opinion needs to be engaged, whether that is through political parties or more generally across society, or civic unionism, if I can use that term. The forum needs to be a space for those views to be articulated. Can the Taoiseach share with the House what he sees as the future of the dialogue?

On the last occasion we met, in addition to issues around business, commerce and trade, huge issues were raised around citizens' rights. Famously, the Taoiseach assured Northern citizens that they would never again be left behind. The truth, however, is that they are being left behind. Even in the best-case scenario now, where the backstop or protocol is honoured and delivered, there nevertheless will be a significant move away from the initial promise to Irish and EU citizens that they would be free to exercise and enjoy their rights where they resided. That is now not the case, which is a very serious matter and one people are very seized of at this moment. It is a pity the Taoiseach did not avail of the opportunity to afford the two additional European Parliament seats to the people of the North. It could and should have been done. The Taoiseach should have put his money where his mouth was as regards not leaving people behind and allowed people right across society in the North to return two representatives to the European Parliament.

I also attended the dialogue and while dialogue is, of course, important in this current situation of Brexit, it is not much good if some of those involved are not in full possession of the real story. The Taoiseach says he has not read the report on the front page of one of the national newspapers on hundreds of gardaí being deployed to the Border counties. It is astonishing that he has not read the report. If I understood his reply correctly, the Taoiseach said the deployment had nothing to do with Brexit and the possibility of a hard border. It is simply a coincidence and involves a more general concern about organised crime. Can the Taoiseach clarify that is what he is actually saying in order that the House understands? Most people reading the newspapers today will have considered the report to have something to do with preparations by An Garda Síochána for the possibility of a hard border. That anxiety and fear will have been fuelled by comments the Taoiseach made in Davos referring to the deployment of the Army.

Another important item of information I seek in this regard is whether the Taoiseach has had any discussions with EU Commissioners, Barnier, Juncker or leaders like Macron and Merkel about what they mean when they talk about the need to protect the integrity of the Single Market in the event that there is no deal. What are they expecting? I am fearful that there will be pressure from that quarter on the Taoiseach in the event that there is no deal. I find it hard to believe the Taoiseach has not asked them what they mean when they make those sorts of statements.

To clarify matters for Deputy Boyd Barrett, the position is that we are improving and increasing Garda resources all over the country. There are more gardaí, more armed support units, more vehicles and more investments and, as such, it should surprise no one that the Border region, or the northern division as the Garda calls it, should see increased deployment of gardaí and armed support units. It is happening everywhere in the country, which is the context in which it is happening there. I am happy to clarify that it would be happening, Brexit or no Brexit, due, unfortunately, to the level of crime people experience in Ireland, not least on foot of armed burglaries in rural areas on which we are determined to crack down, not only in Cavan, Donegal and Louth, but everywhere in the country.

Deputy Burton asked about customs declarations. At the meeting, figures were released on the number of customs declarations which will increase from approximately 1 million to 20 million. That is a roughly 20-fold increase in the level of information and documentary obligations falling on business, which would impose considerable costs in time and administration. We are trying to make the process, if it happens, as simple as possible through the use of ICT that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago and training is also on offer for businesses that want it.

The Government's policy on voisinage is to restore the situation to the status quo ante, which means going back to what we thought the law was before the Supreme Court struck it down in 2016. That situation involves a reciprocal arrangement to allow vessels from Northern Ireland to enter our six-mile limit just as vessels from Ireland can now enter the six-mile limit in Northern Ireland. It is quite an unfair situation currently as vessels from south of the Border can enter the Northern Ireland six-mile limit waters whereas vessels from Northern Ireland cannot enter ours. We want to correct that situation. While there were complications previously around large vessels, large vessels are all now banned from the six-mile limit and I hope we can, therefore, get cross-party support to get the relevant legislation through. The Bill has been published and passed on Second Stage in the Seanad and I hope it can be enacted by Easter. It would help if the UK Government clarified its intention not to withdraw Northern Ireland from the London convention, but we are not going to make that a precondition.

With regard to European Parliament representation, it is not possible to have a constituency for the European Parliament that is outside the European Union and only EU citizens can vote in European elections. That is in the treaties. It would not be possible to have a constituency of Northern Ireland. Even if it was possible, only EU and Irish citizens would be allowed to vote. One would have to forbid UK citizens from voting and that would be a problem. However, in voting for Mr. Mark Durkan in the European elections people will have an opportunity to ensure there is somebody living in Derry who can represent all of the island in the European Parliament. We will look at other mechanisms that might work. Accession countries can elect observers to the European Parliament and perhaps we might do something similar for Northern Ireland, but I cannot promise that at this stage.

Regarding citizens' rights, people living in Northern Ireland who hold Irish citizenship and, therefore, EU citizenship will continue to have citizens' rights. They include the right to work, study and travel anywhere within the European Union without the need for a visa, permit or the like. If the withdrawal agreement is adopted, they will continue to have access to the European health insurance card and be able to participate in the Erasmus programme during the transition period. I committed in Belfast last weekend to making it a negotiating priority for me in the future relationship talks to ensure EU citizens living in Northern Ireland would be treated as though they were resident in the European Union when it came to practical rights and privileges such as the European health insurance card and participation in the Erasmus programme. I also want Northern Ireland's universities to be able to opt into EU research programmes.

We will move on to the next questions.

I asked questions about business preparedness.

I have the answers if I can have more time to continue.

Does the Deputy wish to continue to the third group of questions?

Yes, we can continue to the third group.