Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Questions (12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18)

Micheál Martin

Question:

12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting in Egypt with Prime Minister May and her comments regarding a deal being done on the EU withdrawal treaty by 29 March 2019. [10589/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May since 26 February 2019 when she announced her intention to allow a meaningful vote in the House of Commons on a revised exit deal and that this was to be followed by a vote on a no-deal scenario on 13 March 2019. [10590/19]

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Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

14. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when he last spoke to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [10784/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

15. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with Prime Minister May. [13971/19]

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Eamon Ryan

Question:

16. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent discussions with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, regarding Brexit and the recent developments. [13973/19]

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Brendan Howlin

Question:

17. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when he last spoke tothe British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [11857/19]

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Michael Moynihan

Question:

18. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he spoke to Prime Minister May before or since she wrote to the European Council seeking an extension of Article 50. [14016/19]

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Oral answers (37 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 to 18, inclusive, together.

I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister May on the margins of the European Council on 21 March at which we discussed the current state of play with Brexit. The Prime Minister outlined the approach she planned to take at the European Council meeting. Prime Minister May explained that she was seeking an extension of the Article 50 deadline until 30 June, which she hoped would provide sufficient time for her to secure agreement and to complete the legislative arrangements needed to implement it in the UK. I reiterated our wish to see the withdrawal agreement ratified so negotiations on a close, comprehensive and ambitious future relationship between the EU and the UK can start. I also made it clear that we are sympathetic to the case for an extension.

Members will be aware that the European Council, after some discussion, agreed to an extension until 22 May if the withdrawal agreement is approved by the House of Commons this week. Absent that approval, an extension to 12 April was agreed, by which date the UK would be expected to bring forward alternative proposals and give an indication as to whether it intends to take part in the European elections.

I continue to believe that approval of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland, is the best way to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to avoid a hard border on our island. I was pleased to have the continued backing of my fellow European Council members on this objective.

For completeness, I should add that I met the Prime Minister on the margins of the EU-Arab League summit in Egypt on Monday, 25 February.

Before addressing the wider issue, will the Taoiseach say when we will receive the assessment of no-deal preparedness levels and updates on business preparedness, which he promised me three weeks ago?

Yesterday, the Taoiseach continued his strategy of aggressive partisanship relating to Brexit, which drove much of his behaviour in trying to bring down his Government last year and was a defining feature of the Fine Gael event last weekend. He has aggressively attacked anybody who has challenged him to be open with the Irish public about what is being planned. Trading on the understandable focus on the national interest by the media and others, the Taoiseach has been desperate to try to paint others as up to no good. Now he has gone even further and said that it is a conspiracy theory to suggest that anything has been discussed about what would happen at the Border if there was a no-deal scenario. Anybody who raises what was discussed is engaging in conspiracy theories, yet the Taoiseach has been forced to admit on the record of the House that talks with the Commission have been happening at official level. He went on to say yesterday that there are no papers or documents and there is nothing to share. For months he has said there are no talks and that it will only be necessary to have talks if there is no deal, but now he admits there are talks and expects us to believe that these talks are taking place without anybody saying or sharing anything.

Businesses throughout the country are desperate to know what scenarios to plan for, and the Irish people have a right to know what is being discussed. Every country in Europe, except Ireland, has informed its people what will happen if there is no deal. Will the Taoiseach confirm what he said yesterday, that while talks are being held with the Commission, these talks are without papers or documents and nothing has been discussed that needs to be shared? What instruction, if any, has been given to officials for these discussions?

We will see a version of Westminster roulette this evening-----

"It's a Knockout".

-----and we do not know how it will conclude or whether through a series of indicative votes we will get any clarity to replace the chaos we have seen over recent years. There is a withdrawal agreement in place and there is still a possibility that Theresa May will put it to the House of Commons at some stage and get it passed, but it is also possible that she will not. If she does not and through a series of indicative votes there is some proposition relating to a softer Brexit, a customs arrangement, a Norway plus arrangement or the like, how much clarity on that will be necessary, from the Taoiseach's understanding of the European Union's perspective, to enable a long extension to occur? What we must avoid is a further nine months, year or two years of more uncertainty, more game playing and more unreasonable and unworkable solutions being put on the table by politicians in Britain. We must get to a point where businesses, farmers and citizens on the island of Ireland and across the European Union have some certainty about what is going to happen.

The Taoiseach said that his comments in the past regarding a no-deal scenario and what would happen at the Border have been taken out of context by politicians in Westminster. Perhaps he will take this opportunity to make it clear that if there is a hard crash, it will be a disaster for the Border and for Ireland and that while some solution will have to be put in place through a negotiation between the British Government and the European Union, it would fall far short of the protections the backstop currently provides.

Obviously we hope that a deal might be done to resolve this matter, but we do not know if it will be done. Did the Taoiseach have any discussions with Theresa May about her view of what Britain intends to do in the event of no deal? The Taoiseach has said he is not making preparations. I welcome that because he should not. I am not so sure about the EU's intentions in that regard if there is no deal given its desire to protect the Single Market. Did he have discussions with Theresa May on what Britain is planning for the Border if there is no deal?

The other matter I wish to raise has particular pertinence given the possibility that Jacob Rees-Mogg and his gang might throw the DUP under the bus, as it were, and that their solidarity with the DUP might disappear for their own parochial English reasons. Is it not time, as Professor Colin Harvey and others are saying today, to point out that the single lesson from this debacle is that it does not make sense to have administrative, political or economic divergence between two parts of this island and that it is time to open a discussion on a united Ireland in a serious way?

Do not upset Deputy Micheál Martin.

Even Jacob Rees-Mogg and his gang are willing to jettison the North for their own parochial purposes.

For some time now, the Taoiseach has been exhorting us all to be very careful in what we say and the language we use about the ongoing discussions in the British Parliament, yet today he gratuitously had a go at the British Labour Party, the votes of which will be pivotal in deciding the outcome. I put it down to a lack of experience, but it was very unhelpful. The British Labour Party has announced that in the indicative votes it will be whipping its Members to support the holding of a second referendum. That is in Ireland's interests in that it could help to reverse the situation. For Prime Minister May's deal to be passed, it will need a substantial number of Labour Party Member votes. The Taoiseach's reference to anti-Semitism and so on runs counter to the sensitivities he implores everybody else to have regard to in the ongoing discussions happening in the United Kingdom. It seems that there are parallel processes. For instance, there is the preferendum in the multi-choice ballot Members will have. This morning I asked a question of the Tánaiste who indicated to me that, as far as he was aware, the Theresa May deal was not one of the options being put; therefore, there will be a twin-track approach, whereby the Prime Minister will try to build support for her deal separate from it. As I said, if there is not to be a second referendum, in my judgment, it would be a better outcome for us. The most recent opinion poll yesterday showed that 54% of people in the United Kingdom - it is not a huge majority, but it is still a majority - would like to remain part of the European Union. We need to be careful to ensure we will not allow a situation to occur such that there will be a fall-out in a disorderly way. The Tánaiste also promised this morning to brief privately the parties represented in this House on preparations. Will that happen?

I do not want to dwell on the particular issue of the British Labour Party, but a lot of people, particularly Jewish people, have real and genuine concerns about anti-Semitism in that party.

The British Labour Party has taken strong action against it.

I do not think those concerns should be dismissed. They were sufficient to cause Jewish MPs to resign from that party, or at least it was among the reasons people like Luciana Berger and others gave. There are sufficient concerns for the Board of Guardians and the Council of Guardians that represent Jewish people in Britain. Deputy Howlin is right that the support of Labour Party MPs, or at least their goodwill, may well be needed in the votes that will take place in the House of Commons. The goodwill of Fidesz MEPs may also be needed in the votes that will take place in the European Parliament or at the European Council which, of course, have to be unanimous when it comes to a Brexit date extension. I am aware of this, but I do not think it is a good enough reason to turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism or issues surrounding the rule of law.

To link Fidesz with the British Labour Party is shocking.

It may not be of the same scale, but it is still a double standard that is being practised.

Absolutely not.

There is no comparison.

It is due to the Taoiseach's own naivety, but he is doing harm.

To respond to Deputy Micheál Martin's questions, he sought a particular date and information on the level of preparedness, as he also did yesterday. I asked my officials to check it out and we will provide the data for him, if they are available. I do not know if they are, but if they are, we will provide them for him. In fairness, I cannot do so if they do not.

With the greatest of respect to the Deputy, I do not think he can accuse people of partisanship when he engages in it regularly. Whatever standard one seeks is the standard one should set. There are plenty of examples of partisanship on the part of Fianna Fáil and Deputy Micheál Martin as leader. I do not need to provide examples because he will be able to find them without much research.

The conspiracy theory seems to be that we have a secret plan for a hard border between the North and the South that we are not sharing with people. It is not true. We have no secret plan.

No one said that.

That is what I am surmising.

It is what the Taoiseach is surmising.

It is, but it is what-----

I quoted directly from what the Taoiseach said yesterday.

The sooner we have the election the better.

On the talks and discussions with the European Commission on no-deal planning or what we would do to avoid a hard border and protect the Single Market and the customs union in the event that there is no deal, as I said at the weekend, they have been rough and preliminary. They are really only going to start when we end up in a no-deal scenario. There are no documents that I have seen. The discussions happen at official level and I am not a party to them. I have given no specific instructions to officials.

The Government has given no instructions to officials as it discusses what will happen at the Border when there is no deal.

As I explained before, the conspiracy theory is-----

On what basis-----

On what basis are the discussions taking place then?

The conspiracy theory is that there are certain discussions ongoing-----

I am not talking about conspiracy theories. It is long-standing practice for the Government to instruct officials when it is in discussions on an issue.

We have run out of time.

No instructions have been given because the discussions which the Deputies believe are happening are not happening.

The Taoiseach said they were; I did not. It is not that I believe they are happening. The Taoiseach has said they are.

Perhaps there might be an opportunity to discuss the matter further during the statements post the European Council meeting.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.