Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Questions (1, 2, 3)

Brendan Howlin

Question:

1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [22698/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [23993/19]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, EU and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [24205/19]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The International, EU and Northern Ireland division of my Department covers work on all international, EU and British-Irish and Northern Ireland affairs within the Department, including Brexit.

The division assists me in my international role, including as a member of the European Council, and in my other EU and international engagements, including overseas visits.

The division also provides advice to me on Northern Ireland, British-Irish relations and, of course, Brexit. This includes work to advance peace, prosperity and reconciliation on the island of Ireland, including assisting me in my engagement with the British Government, in institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement and on restoration of the institutions, including the devolved Assembly and power-sharing Executive.

The division provides advice and briefing related to my varied international engagements, including meetings of the European Council and other EU summits, bilateral engagements with Heads of Government of EU member states and other countries and international affairs more generally. The division also works closely with other relevant Departments, notably the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Augmenting the ongoing work of my Department's international, EU and Northern Ireland division on Brexit is the Brexit preparedness and contingency planning unit. This assists a Secretaries General group overseeing work on national Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The unit works closely with other divisions in my Department, including the economic division, and with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit.

I wish to ask the Taoiseach two separate questions about the work of this committee. First, we had a debate yesterday about Northern Ireland, one of the very rare debates we have in this House on Northern Ireland. It is unfortunate the Taoiseach could not attend. I am sure there was a very good reason he could not. A Minister of State attended. We need to be clear on the Taoiseach's assessment now. I would be interested in his personal assessment, having talked to the Tánaiste, of the prospects for restoring the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. Is there anything we as a House can do to assist the process? It is critical to have progress on this matter. One of the comments I made in my contribution yesterday - I have made it repeatedly since I first made it well over 12 months ago at the James Connolly memorial lecture I gave - was to call now for us to prepare a new all-Ireland forum. I would be interested to know whether the Taoiseach has had a chance to reflect upon this idea. I think there is now a consensus in the House that we need to think about the future relationship between the North and the South and the future of this island. Is it time we embarked upon this?

My second question concerns the ongoing trauma we see in Britain, with contenders for the position of leader of the Conservative Party and future Prime Minister now making ever wilder promises about either conducting new negotiations for a new deal with the European Union or, more likely, a hard exit from the European Union on 31 October. I will ask the Taoiseach a direct question. Since the latter tragic likelihood is becoming more of a potential reality, is he satisfied that Ireland, particularly Irish businesses, will be prepared for a hard UK exit from the EU on 31 October?

A popular revolution in Sudan has been ongoing for several months to overthrow the dictatorship of al-Bashir. He fell in April, but a military junta is viciously repressing a popular movement of ordinary people demanding democracy. Just in the past week we have seen a massacre in which up to 100 people were killed, bringing the overall death toll to many hundreds more. It is worth saying that while the official line of countries such as the US is to support a transition to civilian rule, key allies of the United States, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are all essentially backing the regime in its vicious persecution of this popular movement for democracy.

What is the European Union doing about this? I point in particular to the Khartoum Process and the need for us to call for the Union to suspend that. Essentially, the Khartoum regime behind this vicious repression and persecution is being given money by the EU to control migration out of that country, leading in particular to incredible suffering and persecution for Eritreans and Ethiopians. They are treated in an unbelievably vicious way by this regime. Will the Taoiseach indicate what he is doing in talking to our EU colleagues and if he would support action by sanction, such as suspending the Khartoum Process?

Our party has long advocated that those who espouse the view that Ireland should be united need to come together and start to plan that process. We have done that in many different guises over the years. More than a decade ago we tabled a motion in the House relating to the preparation of a Green Paper on Irish unity. Our former leader, Deputy Gerry Adams, and I have engaged with all the different parties in the past two years on the need for a sub-committee of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement to deal with Irish unity. That has been blocked at this point. Whatever the vehicle, whether it is a Green Paper, a sub-committee or a new Ireland forum, as suggested by Deputy Howlin, it is a secondary point. We need to start to come together to plan what a new and united Ireland would look like, including how all the traditions can be respected, accommodated and cherished in that new Ireland and what we need to do to convince others of the merits of that. I would welcome the views of the Taoiseach on the matter at this point.

I also raise the role of the Government with respect to the standoff over Rockall. We know Scotland is subject to the Common Fisheries Policy and that the policy allows Irish fishing vessels to fish around Rockall. We know quota are allocated through the EU to Irish fishermen in that region annually. It is baffling how the Scottish authorities have taken us to this position, as there are now serious threats and risks that our vessels, which are currently fishing in those waters, will be boarded by Scottish authorities, with boats and gear impounded and individuals arrested. Calls have been made for a council to be appointed and located in Scotland. There is also a need to escalate this diplomatically. Has the Taoiseach raised this with the Scottish First Minister and was he aware of the matter at the time of their meeting last month? Has the Taoiseach spoken to her since, and if he has not, does he intend to speak to her? The fishermen deserve no less than that.

When the Taoiseach took office two years ago, he told the House he would conduct a thorough review of the staffing and structure of the Department of the Taoiseach. Based on the information provided, it seems there have been no significant changes to the structure and staffing. Will he indicate if that is correct? The number of major issues having to be dealt with by this division is exceptionally high, although far from unprecedented if we consider points over the years when it dealt with matters relating to the peace process, UN Security Council membership and EU negotiations.

With regard to Northern Ireland, I previously raised the need to return to a more active policy of engagement with groups other than the major parties and the British Government. The most effective activity was never about media events or gestures but ongoing contact about everyday matters. There are still meetings but the level of ongoing engagement with civic society in Northern Ireland is well below what we have seen in the past. Has the Taoiseach reviewed the area and does he have proposals for increasing this activity? The most important action is to work the Good Friday Agreement as for the past number of years, the three strands have not been worked. The Executive and the Assembly should never have been collapsed over the heating scheme and the first recourse can never be the sidelining of important institutions such as those.

With regard to Brexit, the best outcome now would be if something happened in London to cause the withdrawal agreement to be passed. What that may be is as unclear today as it was last March. If it does happen, we will face into immediate negotiations concerning future arrangements on this island. According to the withdrawal agreement, we will be required to make good faith proposals to London or London would otherwise have the right to opt out of its obligations. Given that we were clearly not ready for Brexit on 31 March, I ask, similar to Deputy Howlin, what steps are being taken for us to be ready to meet the requirements of either a deal or no deal Brexit on 31 October. We clearly were not ready on 31 March.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. As the House will be aware, talks concerning Northern Ireland are under way in Belfast. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is leading the Government's presence in those talks and we are in regular contact. It is fair to say he is more optimistic than before about the prospects of an agreement and he sees it is very positive that these are multi-party talks involving all the major parties and not just the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin. He believes it is a helpful dynamic and I agree with the assessment.

We are all very aware that we are operating in a difficult environment with ongoing uncertainty about Brexit and with a new British Prime Minister to be elected in only a few weeks. That is a difficult environment in which to try to secure agreement, and there seems to be major gaps between the main parties, particularly on issues such as the Irish language, sustainability of a new Executive, marriage equality and other matters with which Members will be very familiar.

The suggestion of a new Ireland forum is good but timing is very important. We are again in a particular environment with grave uncertainty around Brexit and we do not know who will be the new British Prime Minister or what the next British Government will look like. We do not know if the talks in Northern Ireland will be successful. It would be best to have the Good Friday Agreement institutions functioning before we move ahead with something like a new Ireland forum. If we went ahead with some sort of forum on future relationships, we would have to assess the willingness of unionists to participate, as well as people who consider themselves neither unionist nor nationalist. A new Ireland forum that does not include the 1 million people who are unionists in Northern Ireland and who are British or one that does not include the many people in Northern Ireland who consider themselves both British and Irish but neither nationalist nor unionist would be much diminished.

That is the exact point I made in my speech yesterday.

I apologise as I did not have the chance to hear the Deputy's speech. Perhaps we agree on the matter. I will take a look when I get the chance.

Deputy Martin asked about the preparedness of business and the Government for Brexit. The Government is, and will be, prepared. Most businesses will be prepared as well but, inevitably, some businesses will not be prepared. I repeat my call from the past to encourage businesses to engage in preparedness for Brexit. Many businesses are prepared but some are taking the view that it will be all right on the night, there will be another extension or there will be a deal. They should not operate on that basis but instead prepare for a no-deal scenario. There is still time to do so and I encourage all businesses and organisations that have dealings with the United Kingdom to do that exactly. We must be realistic and we can only be so prepared for Brexit, particularly if it is going to be a no-deal and hard Brexit. In that scenario, it will be a case of damage limitation and we can only be so prepared for a scenario that could be very grave for our country.

I have followed developments in the Sudan in the news but the issue has not featured in any discussions at European Council level. It is likely it was discussed at Foreign Affairs Council level so I will ask for a note for Deputy Boyd Barrett on what is happening at European level in that regard.

I spoke about Rockall earlier in the Chamber and yesterday as well. I do not want to repeat what I said earlier. I was not aware of this matter at the time of my most recent meeting with Scottish First Minister Sturgeon. I understand that at official level it was decided not to escalate the matter to our level. In retrospect that was probably an incorrect call but it is not particularly relevant now.

Most of the discussions had been conducted at official level but there had been discussions also between the Tánaiste and his counterpart. Since the Scottish announcement last week there had been very close contacts at Government to Government level. It was discussed at the Cabinet meeting here on Tuesday and also by the Scottish Government at its meeting on Tuesday. We agreed some common lines to take, that is, as the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said yesterday, to resolve this issue amicably by discussion and not to escalate it. We have made a decision that it should not be escalated, rather that it should be de-escalated and that we should try to resolve this amicably by discussions at official level at this stage.

In terms of staffing, I do not have the exact numbers in front of me but there have been staffing changes within the Department. For example, the Brexit unit has been established and expanded. There is a group on justice in particular within the Department that is monitoring the implementation of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. We had a Cabinet sub-committee on that only yesterday and officials in my Department are co-ordinating and examining the implementation of those justice reforms, which are happening at a satisfactory pace.

There is also the establishment of the national security advisory council, and the new national security co-ordinator has now been appointed and took up office only a few days ago.