Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Questions (1, 2)

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement with the US congressional delegation that visited Ireland. [21570/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the US Congressional delegation that visited Ireland recently. [21771/19]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

On 16 April last, I had a meeting at Government Buildings with a delegation from the US House of Representatives, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. On the following evening, I was honoured to host the delegation at a dinner in Dublin Castle, which was attended by guests representing diverse aspects of the US-Ireland bilateral relationship, including from politics, business, culture and civil society. The delegation, which comprised nine members of Congress, also included Congressman Richie Neal, who is co-chair of the Friends of Ireland caucus and chairman of the influential Committee on Ways and Means in the House of Representatives. Our meeting in Government Buildings was an opportunity for a broad-ranging discussion covering Brexit and Northern Ireland, US immigration reform and Ireland-US bilateral relations.

The delegation apprised me of its visit to the UK immediately before it arrived, where it had held a number of meetings to discuss the implications of the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union. The delegation explained that, during its visit to the UK, it repeatedly emphasised its view that Brexit should not impact on the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and that a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland should be avoided in all circumstances. Speaker Pelosi, Congressman Neal and the other members of the delegation were unwavering in their support for peace in Northern Ireland. I welcome the continued, unequivocal support of the US Congress on this matter, which is testament to the deep and historical bonds between our two countries and the strong attachment of US politicians to the Good Friday Agreement, given the enormous contribution that some US politicians made in its creation.

I also thanked the delegation for its continuing backing of Irish immigration priorities, specifically the E3 visa Bill, which has since been reintroduced in the US Congress. We will continue to work hard to secure the passage of the Bill, which would offer new opportunities for Irish citizens to live and work in the US. Speaker Pelosi is also aware that we are keenly interested in resolving the situation for the undocumented Irish community in the US and that we will continue to engage with Congress and the US Administration to seek a satisfactory resolution.

I welcome the ongoing support from Congress and the Irish Americans who make up the Congressional Friends of Ireland caucus for the peace process, the backstop and protections for Ireland in the context of Brexit.

The Taoiseach mentioned the issue of the undocumented Irish. There are 50,000 undocumented Irish citizens in the United States. The Taoiseach has met some of them and has raised this issue on a number of visits to the United States. They live in a state of continuous fear and worry and are concerned about the failure of the US Congress to pass an immigration reform Bill during the previous congressional term. The Taoiseach said he had a discussion with Speaker Pelosi on this issue. What was the outcome of that discussion? What was her view on how this matter would be progressed? Was there any sense of a new Bill coming before Congress? Is there hope that this matter will finally be resolved for the undocumented who need Congress to act to ensure they no longer live in fear?

Did the Taoiseach discuss the issue of climate change, particularly in the context of the forthcoming visit of Donald Trump to this country and the extreme damage Mr. Trump is doing to efforts to address the climate emergency by encouraging denial of the scientific facts, including the reality of climate destruction, and the sabotage of the movement to address climate change? Did he have any discussions on the possible impact this visit will have on legitimising efforts to sabotage climate change and, more generally, on promoting his toxic agenda on a whole range of issues, whether it is supporting Israeli annexation of Palestinian and Syrian territory, the denial of rights to Palestinians or his sale of arms to despotic regimes such as Saudi Arabia? The list goes on. Did the Taoiseach discuss the manner in which Mr. Trump is encouraging very dangerous policies, whether it is from a foreign policy point of view or from a planetary sustainability point of view, and how all of that will be viewed in terms of him coming here and how it will play in the United States? It seems to me that it does nothing but advance and encourage his agenda.

The recent visit of Speaker Pelosi and the wider congressional delegation was welcome and reinforced the strength of contact between our two parliaments and countries. Many in Congress are just as worried as the majority here about the possibility that we are entering into a period where there will be rising conflict on trade matters. At various times in the past two years, the Trump Administration has initiated moves against trade with the European Union. President Trump backed off from some of these moves and there are negotiations under way which appear to be going nowhere. The expectation is that as he gets closer to his re-election campaign, he will ramp up his rhetoric against trade deals and there will at least be serious turbulence. There also appears to be no possibility of reactivating the ambitious deal which was being discussed by the European Union and the Obama Administration. This is serious for Ireland, given how much we rely on international trade for employment. As we keep seeing from various parties and candidates, anti-trade rhetoric here is strong. Those who use it are almost never challenged to explain to the workers who rely on trade where else their jobs and wages will come from.

Will the Taoiseach indicate what he expects to happen in the next six months in the context of US-EU trade talks, the wider trade environment and the implications for Ireland? Will he raise this matter with President Trump when he arrives in Ireland, in particular his negativity towards the European Union?

In a wider context, are there any efforts under preparation to explain the central role of trade in Ireland's economy and the implications for us of new barriers to trade being created? When will we have a debate on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement and the EU-Singapore Investment Protection Agreement in this House? We provoked a debate on CETA but that was in Private Members' business. I am at a loss as to why we have not had a full blown debate on the matter in the House.

On CETA, the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement and the EU-Singapore Investment Protection Agreement, I will have to check the position with my colleagues. There is no reason we cannot or should not have a debate. It is just that a debate has not yet happened. I will come back to the Deputy on that. It is appropriate that we should have a debate and I am not entirely sure why we have not had one yet. CETA and most of the agreements are already in operation, although some have not been formally ratified yet.

They have to be ratified by Parliament.

That is correct. They have to be ratified. There is one particular issue around disputes that has yet to be resolved but I will check the position and revert to the Deputy.

I look forward to discussing trade policy with President Trump when he visits Ireland next week. I am a big believer in free trade and free enterprise. Free trade makes us better off in the round and has been very good for Ireland given the extent to which our economy and jobs are based on trade with other European Union countries, the United States and the wider world. As I understand it, President Trump's current focus is on China but there is a school of thought that he may move his focus towards the European Union later in the year. That is something that we need to be aware of. We will need to respond, as a Union of 28 members, to any aggressive action that may take place. When I meet President Trump I will once again make the case for free trade. Free trade between the US and EU makes us all better off in the round and creates more jobs in the round.

I will point out to him again that the relationship between the US and Ireland goes both ways. It is often seen as though it is only a one-way street, as it was decades ago, but that is not the case anymore. The US has a large surplus over us in respect of trade of services, while the inverse is true in respect of trade of merchandise. When the two are taken into account, it works out as approximately even, although often the White House takes only merchandise into account, which I think is flawed.

For investment, too, the relationship works both ways. There are now nearly 100,000 Americans in 50 states working in companies that are Irish and Irish owned but that is not always fully appreciated or well known. It was once very much a one-way street but it is now a two-way street. I will use the opportunity of our meeting at Shannon to emphasise that point and our support for free trade between the US and the EU, subject to environmental concerns, health and safety, employment rights and other standards, or what might be called the level playing field. I will also encourage the President to re-enter negotiations on what would be the largest trade deal ever, namely, between the US and the EU.

Climate change was not discussed with the congressional delegation, to my recollection. The focus was very much on Brexit, the Good Friday Agreement, immigration issues and trade. At the time, there was no indication of the visit of President Trump and, therefore, it was not discussed either.

On the issue of undocumented Irish citizens in the United States, we do not have an accurate figure for the number of people. Figures range between 10,000 or 15,000 and 50,000, although nobody knows for sure. I have met undocumented Irish citizens in the US on many occasions, on both official and personal visits, and I feel for them. Many of them are people who have set up businesses in the US, employ others, pay their taxes and obey the law but they are not able to return home for events such as family funerals. They fear that should they ever commit a minor offence, it could lead to their deportation and separation from their family. Most people who assess the situation believe that immigration reform to assist undocumented Irish people in the US can only happen on a comprehensive basis and that it would not be possible to have a pathway to citizenship for Irish people but not for people from Mexico, El Salvador or other parts of the world. I fully understand that view. We are not seeking, and have not sought, a special arrangement for Irish people. It can only be done in the context of wider immigration reform, which is very much what the Democrats in the US Congress have said to us. The E3 visa is separate and it would be for Ireland only. It would be available to Irish people who currently reside in Ireland to give them the opportunity to live and work in the US. Irish people often did that in the past but it is now very difficult. It would be a sort of modern version of the Morrison visa. Perhaps we will call it the Richard Neal visa if we get it over the line.

The Government has shown a good example on the issue. We should not be two-faced about it. There are undocumented people in Ireland, too, and we have introduced a scheme to regularise people who came from overseas on student visas and became undocumented for various reasons thereafter. It was an important step for us to take as a Government because we cannot go to the US and ask that people who went there on J1 visas and remain there many years later be regularised if we do not adopt a similar approach to people who came here on student visas, remained here, are law-abiding, work and pay their taxes. Perhaps we have given the US an example it could follow if it ever gets around to comprehensive immigration reform.