Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Questions (3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Micheál Martin

Question:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, since Dáil Éireann adjourned for the Easter recess; and if so, if he discussed the Northern Ireland talks, Brexit or other matters. [20558/19]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when he last spoke to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May. [21569/19]

View answer

Michael Moynihan

Question:

5. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report of the ongoing talks in Northern Ireland; and if he has discussed same with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May. [21769/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent conversations with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, about Northern Ireland. [21772/19]

View answer

Micheál Martin

Question:

7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, about the talks on Northern Ireland recently. [22680/19]

View answer

Oral answers (17 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 7, inclusive, together.

As the House is aware, last Friday, the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, announced her intention to step down as leader of the Conservative Party on 7 June, although she will remain as Prime Minister until a new Prime Minister is appointed. As I said in my press statement, I got to know Theresa May quite well over the past two years and I wish her the very best for the future, as I did personally in Brussels yesterday. The Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and I are committed to maintaining close contact while she continues to be Prime Minister and there will be ongoing engagement between our respective officials. We will meet again next month in Brussels. I look forward to working closely with her successor, whoever it may be.

I saw the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, most recently at the European Council meeting dinner in Brussels last night. We also met, along with other world leaders, at the Christchurch Call to Action meeting in Paris on 15 May. While we did not have a substantive meeting on these occasions, we had the opportunity to engage and recalled our prior meeting on 24 April when we both attended the funeral of Ms Lyra McKee in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. In coming together with other political and civic leaders, we paid tribute to Lyra McKee and gave expression to the clear will and determination of all the people of these islands to reject violence and to support peace and a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland. We also heard the unmistakable message to all political leaders that people throughout Northern Ireland want to see a new momentum for political progress. At that time, the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and I agreed to initiate a new round of political talks, involving the main political parties in Northern Ireland, together with the UK and Irish Governments, and we issued a joint statement to this effect on 26 April. The aim of these talks is to re-establish to full operation the democratic institutions of the Good Friday Agreement that are not currently working, namely, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council. The other institutions, namely, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, and the British-Irish Council remain in operation.

The talks process started on 7 May in Stormont, led by the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mrs. Karen Bradley. As Taoiseach and Prime Minister, we agreed to review progress in the near future. The talks are now in their fourth week and I welcome the constructive engagement by all parties. The Prime Minister and I also agreed in April that a meeting of the BIIGC would take place in London on 8 May. At this meeting, the BIIGC considered east-west relations, security co-operation and political stability in Northern Ireland. The opportunity was used to sign a memorandum of understanding to underpin the common travel area.

I, too, pay tribute to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, for her contribution to public service. She had a difficult time, having inherited a difficult issue. While she doubtless made mistakes, no one could doubt her commitment to the public well-being, her sense of duty as a Prime Minister and her best endeavours to arrive at a reasonable resolution of the Brexit impasse. Nevertheless, she failed to win the support of her party or the wider British Parliament.

Two and a half years after the democratic institutions of Northern Ireland were wrongly collapsed due to a heating scheme, there have finally been some serious talks about how to overcome the blockade created by the two largest parties in the North. It has been reported that next week the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister will carry out some form of stock-taking. Will that happen? Following the conclusion of the opening period of the talks, very little is known in public about what has been discussed, except the red lines that have, at various times, been reiterated. Yet again it appears that some participants believe that a parliament is somewhere to go after one's demands have been met, rather than being a place where one goes to promote one's demands. I will never understand why the entire edifice of the assembly was collapsed over a heating scandal. We in this Parliament do not decide to collapse Dáil Éireann, nor leave and stay outside for two years, because our demands are not met. Parliament is not the property of any political party; it is elected by the people, which should be respected but it has not been in the North.

Equally, it appears that others cannot understand that equality is not an option but an imperative. In the light of the overall budget review that the British Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced, given that the assembly and the Executive have been suspended, Northern Ireland has no one at the table speaking for its concerns. Will the Taoiseach commit to raising with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, a concern that some means must be found to ensure that Northern Ireland's interests are represented in the spending review? Will he press on her the need to reverse the policy of cutbacks, spanning the past eight years, which set a bad foundation on which to build stable institutions and overcome deep problems? There have been several cutbacks in the North and they hurt all communities.

I assume the Taoiseach understands that for a government to function, it needs a programme for government. It is not about making demands outside of institutions in some vacuum. Rather, parties must agree on programmes for government.

We are up for that. As the Taoiseach knows, there was an agreement last year but it was reneged on. We have to move on and get agreement. We accept this and will do our best.

The local and European elections have dominated the news in recent days but something that has received little coverage thus far in the South is the fact that the people of the North have elected two remain MEPs. This sends a very strong message to people in Britain and in the European Union that the DUP does not speak for the people of the North when it comes to Brexit. The electorate has made this fundamentally clear. Theresa May will be gone soon, as people have said, and a new prime minister will be in place in July. Where does the process go from there? People will be concerned there is again the prospect of a hard crash. We are hoping this will not happen. It is something we are all trying to avoid. What is the process now to get us to a point where we can avoid it, given the vacuum in British politics, the turbulence in the Tory party and what has happened in the European elections in Britain and throughout the European Union? Where do we go from here and what is the Irish Government's response to what has happened over recent weeks and months?

Theresa May has played the political price for pandering to extreme forms of right-wing nationalism in her own party and beyond, with the fairly obnoxious politics of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Frankly, it is rather depressing that Farage in particular has done well in these elections. Ultimately, this is the failure of the political centre and Theresa May. It is the consequence of the disastrous failures of Theresa May's policies and the British political centre and of pandering to these obnoxious forces. In this regard, I ask the Taoiseach in all sincerity whether the European People's Party is making the same mistake when it comes to people such as Viktor Orbán. If we do not face down these people and instead pander to them or soft peddle around them we promote and encourage their agenda.

The idea the noxious far right is only a problem across the water in Britain is self-evidently not the case. The noxious, dangerous far right is on the rise in Europe and Europe has to take a good look at itself, and the European People's Party has to take a good look at itself, and ask to what extent are their political failures responsible for creating a ground for these forces to rise and what are they going to do about it.

This brings me briefly to the North. One of the other features of the recent election that I very much welcome, and which has not been fully trumpeted, is a resurgence in the growth of left-wing politics seeking to offer an alternative to green and orange tribal politics. I am delighted that People Before Profit won three seats in Belfast, going from one to three, and two seats in Derry, where we had none. This indicates something else happening in the North, which we should very much welcome. To some extent it is manifest in the growth of other forces that are not associated with the green-orange divide but seek in different ways to offer an alternative to it. It is a reflection of the grassroots movement we saw on issues such as marriage equality, environmental issues and other issues. In this context, I disagree with Deputy Martin because if we do not challenge corruption on something such as renewable heat incentive and state there is a problem with being in government with a Minister who has presided over a rotten corruption scandal involving hundreds of millions of quid-----

One does not collapse a Parliament.

Sinn Féin collapsed a government not a parliament.

Yes, and a parliament.

Gentlemen, please.

With regard to the renewable heat incentive, and following up what has been said, an inquiry is under way and it has not yet reported or made any findings. I do not think we should assume there was corruption, at least until the inquiry reports and states there was. I want to put this on the record. The general approach is to carry out the inquiry before making a judgment and this is the approach we should generally take.

The interparty talks are now under way. They involve all of the major parties and not just the two main parties but, of course, the two main parties are crucial to this given that they represent 50% or more of the electorate. Now that the local and European elections are over there is a small but real window of opportunity to secure an agreement. The Prime Minister, Mrs. May, is very keen in her last months in office to see this happen. I am very keen to work with her and the parties to make it happen. There will be a stocktaking exercise. It was initially intended to happen at the end of May and now it may happen in June but we will do it. Deputy Martin asked about the spending review and I will certainly raise that with the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, when I see her again in the next couple of weeks. I will also have an opportunity to meet the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, tomorrow and I will talk with him about some of these issues. We met briefly at the funeral of Lyra McKee but this will be the first time we will have a substantial meeting and I look forward to hearing his reflections on Brexit and Northern Ireland issues.

When it comes to the possibility of a no deal hard Brexit at the end of October I am still confident it will be avoided. Whether by the ratification of the deal, revocation of Article 50 or a further extension that may be requested by a new Prime Minister or even a new Government I am confident it can and will be avoided but we must be prepared for it. Our preparations, which were complete at the end of March, are still complete but are continuing and will be augmented. We particularly want to send a message to businesses that have not yet engaged in Brexit planning not to assume it will be all right on the night and if they have not yet engaged in Brexit planning to do so please. I emphasise this message. Many businesses have done so but some have not and they need to prepare for this very real possibility.

With regard to the far right and far left, the House will know that for me very often they are two sides of the same coin and agree on many issues. Hostility to the European Union and opposing European integration and treaties is something the far right and far left often coalesce around.

You are the one in the same party as him. We have nothing to do with the far right.

Mr. Farage was mentioned earlier, as were the Brexit party and UKIP. They all want to withdraw their country from the European Union. I understand that People Before Profit in Northern Ireland also supported Brexit.

We have nothing to do with the nationalist far right criticism of Europe.

Perhaps I am wrong about that. People Before Profit in Northern Ireland is a pro-Brexit party-----

It is not pro-Brexit. It is an internationalist party.

-----and aligned with the views of Farage in that regard. I am not clear whether People Before Profit in this jurisdiction wants us to withdraw from the European Union but I know it opposed all European treaties, the Single Market, the euro and European integration more generally. This says to me that, as is so often obvious to me, there is a lot in common between the far left and far right.