Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Questions (18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26)

Brendan Howlin

Question:

18. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Northern Ireland on 1 March 2019. [11462/19]

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Michael Moynihan

Question:

19. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has met or spoken with Ms Arlene Foster since the beginning of March 2019; and if so, the issues that were discussed. [13893/19]

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Eamon Ryan

Question:

20. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings and discussions with Ms Arlene Foster and political party leaders in Northern Ireland. [13974/19]

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Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

21. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Northern Ireland and the meetings and engagements he attended. [12012/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

22. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Northern Ireland on 1 March 2019. [15043/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

23. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken or met with the leader or members of the DUP since 27 March 2019. [15108/19]

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Joan Burton

Question:

24. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent visit to Northern Ireland; and the meetings he had with political party leaders. [15146/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

25. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with Ms Arlene Foster since the DUP announced that it would not vote for the withdrawal treaty; and if so, the issues they discussed. [15377/19]

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Michael Moynihan

Question:

26. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the leader of the DUP since 29 March 2019; and if there were discussions on the plans to protect the Single Market after 12 April 2019. [16357/19]

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Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 18 to 26, inclusive, together.

I travelled to Belfast on 1 March to deliver a keynote address at the Alliance Party conference dinner. I emphasised the Government's commitment to being fair and impartial in working with all parties in Northern Ireland and particularly with individuals, groups, civic society, civic nationalism and civic unionism. I met with Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long, and other senior party members during the evening. We discussed a wide range of issues including the political situation and citizens' rights in Northern Ireland, and Brexit. Prior to the Alliance Party dinner, I had the opportunity to meet with representatives from Northern Ireland business organisations to hear their views and concerns on the latest Brexit developments and the ongoing political impasse in Northern Ireland. We discussed the all-island economy, challenges that businesses in Northern Ireland are facing and Brexit contingency planning being undertaken by the Irish Government.

I last met with DUP leader, Arlene Foster, while in the United States last month for St. Patrick’s Day. We discussed the situation regarding Brexit, as it stood at the time, including prospects for the ratification by the UK of the withdrawal agreement. We also discussed political developments in Northern Ireland, including the importance of the restoration of the institutions under the Good Friday Agreement. I also spoke with Ms Foster at various events that we both attended.

Previously, I met Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin vice president, Michelle O'Neill, when I travelled to Belfast on Friday, 8 February for a series of meetings with each of the five main political parties. I also met with the UUP leader, Robin Swann; the Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long; and Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP, on that day. These meetings provided an opportunity to engage with the Northern Ireland political parties and to hear their views on latest Brexit developments and on the current political situation in the North. We discussed what could be done to get the institutions up and running again. Once again, I emphasised the Government’s commitment to all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement and our continuing determination to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions. The Government wants to see an agreement in place to secure the operation of the devolved institutions and we will continue to engage with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek to progress that in the period immediately ahead.

On Brexit, I outlined to each of the Northern Ireland parties the Government's position, shared by the EU, that the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation and represents the best way to secure an orderly Brexit while avoiding a return to a hard border. We also discussed the negative implications of a no-deal outcome for Northern Ireland business and farmers.

For completeness, I would like also to add that I spoke with Claire Hanna, Jeffrey Donaldson and Naomi Long when they attended the Fine Gael Party conference in Wexford on 23 March 2019.

We have only eight minutes remaining. I ask Members to limit their contributions to 30 seconds if they want an answer.

Only 30 seconds?

The Deputies can use all the time but then they will get no answer. Whatever they like.

Since the Taoiseach visited Northern Ireland, another layer of uncertainty has emerged in respect of Northern Ireland citizens.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, citizens born in Northern Ireland are guaranteed the right to identify as Irish, British or both. However, in the case of Emma DeSouza, a Derry-born Irish citizen, which was highlighted last week, it appears that the goalposts have been moved by the British Government, with new immigration rules introduced on 7 March. Under those rules it is stated in future, "dual British nationals who are British by birth will not be considered an EEA national in the UK". Ms DeSouza and other Irish citizens have been told that in order to access an EU right of residence for her US husband she must renounce her British citizenship which she acquired automatically at birth but never sought. Has the Taoiseach raised this matter either with the British authorities or with Mr. Barnier when he was here yesterday?

The Taoiseach said that he last met Arlene Foster in the week leading up to 17 March. It is somewhat surprising that almost a month has gone by without a meeting, especially given the significance of some of the votes in Westminster since then and the narrow margins by which some were won and lost. It is surprising that he has not had more substantive discussions with the leader of the DUP and others. I accept that he has met the leader of the Alliance Party and others. In the context of the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly, the politics of Northern Ireland and the need to get the Good Friday Agreement up and running, and indeed Brexit, he should have ascertained what the issues are. When one particular vote was defeated following the advice of the British Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, there was some indication in advance that there had been movement from the DUP. It would be interesting if light could be shed on why negotiations prior to the vote did not succeed in getting the withdrawal treaty over the line. Some of the votes since then have been narrowly defeated. Was there any sounding out of the DUP position by the Government? Where does the DUP stand now?

I would have thought that the DUP's position is very clear. I want to raise the DeSouza case as well. Does Deputy Burton have a problem?

The DeSouza case represents a real breach of faith by the British Home Office, which, as has been pointed out, now insists that persons are British citizens even when they clearly are not. Not only that, people now have to pay the princely sum of £400 in order to renounce a Britishness that does not pertain to them. This case has caused very considerable anger right across the North of Ireland and beyond. The astonishing thing is that the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, may have told the Taoiseach that this is an anomaly, that the Home Office is aware of it and that it needs to sort it out, yet the British state is pursuing Ms DeSouza through the courts.

I do not believe any clarity is required on the DUP's position, and I disagree with the leader of Fianna Fáil. The raison d'être of the DUP is to maintain political sectarianism, even if it has self-defeating consequences and leads to a hard border or something else. We could more usefully talk about the social and economic transformation of this island in a progressive direction and things that can unite people North and South. One of the most obvious ways to do that is the extension of abortion rights to women in the North. Did the Taoiseach have any discussions with any of the people he engaged with on issues such as that?

There is a widespread fear among businesses in the North due to the possible changes which might come post Brexit and the consequences of those changes. Has the Taoiseach made arrangements for training for those responsible for customs and excise in the North, presumably in locations distant from the Border, with their counterparts in the Republic? Has the Government made progress on recruiting the promised extra customs staff, given that there are only 210 customs staff for all of the counties on the Border?

The Government is following the DeSouza case very closely. I have not raised it personally with the Prime Minister, but I believe the Tánaiste has raised it with his counterparts in discussions. As far as the Government is concerned, the Good Friday Agreement is explicit on this matter. People have the right to be British or Irish or both and to be accepted as such. That applies, and should apply, to both Governments, in our view.

We have regular discussions with the DUP at political level and advisory level. The relationship is good and we understand its position very well. It is that Northern Ireland should leave the European Union on the same terms as the rest of the UK and there should be no difference between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That is its position, and it has never demurred from it. It is a misunderstanding to believe it is open to persuasion on these matters but that is not to say that we do not talk regularly or that we do not have an understanding. We do.

Issues such as abortion and marriage equality are regularly discussed when I meet political leaders in Northern Ireland or when I am in Northern Ireland and speaking to everyday people. Of course, decisions on those matters should be made in Northern Ireland by the Executive and the Assembly, and are not decisions for us to make for them.

I do not know the details of any customs training programmes. I will ask the Revenue Commissioners to reply to Deputy Burton on that matter. In terms of staffing levels, I am told that Revenue had just over 100 staff dedicated to customs and trade facilitation functions at the start of September last year. In addition to the staff assigned to trade facilitation work, there are approximately 120 staff in ports and airports who are responsible for ensuring compliance with customs procedures. In the context of Brexit, the Government approved the phased recruitment of 600 extra Revenue staff in September, and in preparation for a no-deal Brexit, Revenue has accelerated and expanded its recruitment and training schedules to meet the end of March deadline. It is now on track to have over 400 additional staff in place. Existing staff have been reassigned and preparations are being made for any necessary further redeployments on a temporary basis. The balance of additional staff will have to be recruited by the end of this year. Activities are being co-ordinated across the Government to ensure optimal trade facilitation at the ports and airports.