Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4)

Brendan Howlin


1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the leader of the UK Labour Party, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn. [24098/19]

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Mary Lou McDonald


2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the leader of the UK Labour Party, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn. [25073/19]

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Joan Burton


3. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the leader of the UK Labour Party, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn. [25168/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the UK Labour Party leader, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn. [25211/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

I met with the leader of the British Labour Party, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, MP, at Government Buildings on Thursday, 30 May 2019. Mr Corbyn was accompanied by Tony Lloyd, MP, shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and advisers.

We discussed Northern Ireland, Brexit, and the current political situation in Westminster. Discussions on Northern Ireland focused principally on the need to restore a power-sharing Executive and the importance of ongoing engagement with all political parties in the North.

Mr. Corbyn and I also considered Brexit, with both of us sharing serious concerns about a no-deal scenario and its inherent dangers, including the possibility that the UK may end up with no deal by default unless alternatives are pursued. We also discussed the importance of avoiding any return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

We agreed to stay in touch with regard to both Northern Ireland and Brexit.

After their meeting, the Taoiseach and Jeremy Corbyn expressed serious concern about the possibility of a no-deal scenario and the danger that it may happen by default. Those concerns are not shared by members and prospective leaders of the Conservative Party. Boris Johnson described anxiety expressed by citizens, businesses and farmers as "pure millennium bug stuff". A poll of Tory members released yesterday suggests that 59% would prioritise leaving the European Union even if it meant Northern Ireland breaking away from the rest of the UK. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have repeatedly stressed the need for an open border on the island of Ireland and for a second referendum as the second best option. Their first option is for a general election in Britain. During their meeting, did the Taoiseach discuss with Jeremy Corbyn his attitude to a second referendum?

Both the Taoiseach and Jeremy Corbyn pledged to stay in touch with regard to Brexit and Northern Ireland. Has there been any further contact and are there structured contacts between his office and the office of the leader of the British Labour Party in the context of a potential general election happening in Britain? Could the Taoiseach update us on whether there have been any other contacts between Ministers and Front Bench members of the British Labour Party so that if there was to be a change of Government that the real concerns of Ireland would be fully briefed to all of them? We are having our own party-to-party discussions but I think that would be a good thing.

I very much welcome the fact that the Taoiseach had this exchange with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party. It is important that such contact would continue because we need to have ongoing open communication with all of our allies, with every person across political persuasions who understand the real impact Brexit will have on Ireland and the potentially disastrous impact on the island, the economy and the peace agreements of a disorderly or crash Brexit. The meeting was a positive step. Does the Taoiseach intend to continue the contact or was it simply a one-off meeting?

In the course of the Tory leadership contest under way across the water, we have heard different perspectives on Brexit, the backstop and the position of Ireland and no small measure of ignorance as well. It seems that Boris Johnson remains the front runner. As the Taoiseach is aware, he has openly dismissed concerns held by all of us here on this island. Has the Taoiseach had any contact with Mr. Johnson or any of the other leadership contenders? How are the plans at Government level for the prospect of a no-deal scenario progressing?

I also welcome the fact that the Taoiseach met Jeremy Corbyn. Whatever else one might say about the mess in Britain, we would be in a far better position if Jeremy Corbyn was the Prime Minister. He is far more sympathetic to the situation in Ireland, far more knowledgeable about what the reinstatement of a border might mean and he is not somebody who wants to be in a conflictual relationship either with Ireland or wider European society. That marks him out as being a long way from pretty much anybody in the Tory Party.

One of the reasons Mr. Corbyn gained popularity is that he tries to channel in a progressive direction the anger and alienation in British society, the justified and legitimate feeling in large parts of British society, which played a big part in the Brexit referendum, of being left behind because of inequality, poverty, unemployment, alienation and so forth. That is relevant not just to the Brexit debate but also to the wider European situation. Europe has an incredible 112 million people who are at risk of poverty. One in five people in Europe is suffering from mental health issues and there is a massive overlap with poverty, exclusion and so forth. Does the Taoiseach not think that European leaders must take that seriously and address it? Even in the exit poll from the recent European and local elections, and this has been little remarked on, more than 80% of the people who voted in those elections in Ireland said they wanted something done about the gap between the haves and the have nots. This is a problem across Europe and if we do not address it in the way Mr. Corbyn is trying to, the far right will exploit the vacuum.

Most Members will have much sympathy for the British Labour Party in trying to block or reverse Brexit. Notwithstanding what has been said here, however, the reality is that the British Labour Party's principal tactic so far has been to block the withdrawal agreement. It is a remarkable fact that each of the Tories campaigning to project their Brexit purity last night has voted for the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons. Even Boris Johnson, who now says it is dead, voted for it, yet nobody in the leadership of the British Labour Party has done so at any point. Given the arithmetic in the House of Commons and the fact that the next Prime Minister will be less accommodating than Mrs. Theresa May, it may well be that the only possible route to ratification of the withdrawal agreement is the confirmatory public vote that most members of the British Labour Party support, but which the Tories are blocking.

Did the Taoiseach advocate to Mr. Corbyn that in the choice between the withdrawal agreement and a no-deal Brexit, ratifying the agreement is by far the best outcome for these islands? Did he ask if the British Labour Party would join with us in opposing the imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland, which appears to be the intended route to be taken by the Tories if there is no deal? In this context, did the Taoiseach seek Mr. Corbyn's support in pushing the parties blocking the restoration of the Northern institutions to show more urgency and to recognise the damage the continued suspension is causing?

To discuss the meeting with Mr. Corbyn first, I considered it a very good meeting. It was an opportunity for us to speak and get to know each other a little and for our respective teams to engage and get to know each other. It was a tête-à-tête at first and then there was a meeting of our teams. We had the time to discuss some of the different scenarios that might arise over the next couple of months and for me to get an insight into how the British Labour Party might respond from a position of opposition. We talked about the possibilities of the deal being ratified, of a second referendum and of an election. We also talked about the British Labour Party's proposal for a permanent customs union with dynamic alignment on regulations and about how and if parliament could block no deal. We have not spoken since then but our advisers are in touch. I will be in London next month so there might be an opportunity for a follow-up meeting then.

Ministers mainly engage with other Ministers in the EU member states, but occasionally will meet with opposition spokespeople. The Tánaiste has met Sir Keir Starmer, the Brexit spokesperson for the British Labour Party, on a number of occasions.

Direct rule was discussed. I stated our opposition to the restoration of direct rule in Northern Ireland under any circumstances. In fairness to Mr. Corbyn and his team, they had a good understanding of the Good Friday Agreement, how it ought to work and why it is not working now.

I have not had any contact with the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Needless to say, the Government will stay out of it as it is an internal party matter for the British Conservative Party, but we are observing events, watching the debates and noting what is being said. I look forward to meeting the new leader, who presumably will be the new Prime Minister, in the weeks ahead. I hope it will be an early meeting, if possible. In the meantime, Mrs. Theresa May is still the Prime Minister and I will meet with her in Brussels tomorrow. There will possibly be a telephone call today but certainly there will be a meeting in Brussels tomorrow. That will give us a chance to talk about Northern Ireland, the European Union and bilateral relations.

Work and talks are still ongoing in Northern Ireland. I had an opportunity to meet with the Sinn Féin leader there, Ms Michelle O'Neill MLA, yesterday and I will be in touch with others in the coming days and weeks. Talks are ongoing and it is probably best not to say too much about them at present other than to state that the Irish Government will do everything it can to support the parties to come together and come to an agreement to get the institutions back up and running, if possible.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett's question about poverty and inequality in the European Union, these are largely domestic issues for national governments but the best way the European Union can respond is twofold: first, by ensuring there is a strong economy that generates wealth and jobs and, second, by pursuing a social Europe agenda. The European Union has been very successful in recent years in ensuring there is a strong economy. There have never been more people at work in Europe than there are now. It varies from state to state but, overall, there has been a significant increase in employment and incomes in the last couple of years. There has been much job creation and Single Market policies, trade policies and the like help to generate employment.

In addition, there are the broad macro economic policies pursued by the European Central Bank, ECB. We meet the Governor of the ECB at every European Council meeting; it is a regular engagement. The policies pursued by the ECB to keep both inflation and interest rates low have been very beneficial in terms of alleviating poverty and inequality. High interest rates tend to benefit the better off because they are the people who have the savings. Lower interest rates benefit those who may need to borrow to buy a home or who have debts. Those economic policies are going in the right direction in that regard. There is also the implementation of the Gothenburg declaration, which I was privileged to sign on behalf of the State. That declaration essentially sets out the next steps towards a social Europe in the social agenda being pursued by the European Union. It ranges from employment law, such as the parental leave regulation that is now going through the European institutions, across many other labour rights and laws to other measures being introduced across the European Union to raise minimum social standards. I was involved in drafting that declaration and strongly support it. We must do both.

On our preparations for Brexit, the Government's contingency action plan was published last December. It will be updated and a revised version will be published in July. It sets out comprehensive cross-Government preparations that have been in place since before the referendum. The work continues at both national and EU levels and all Departments have sector specific plans in place. The Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act 2019 was signed into law by the President on St. Patrick's Day. We have taken further steps to prepare our economy, including the future jobs programme, our trade and investment strategy, Project Ireland 2040 and investing in infrastructure. Engagement with stakeholders is also an important pillar of the Government's domestic response. Within the framework of the all-Ireland civic dialogue, five plenary dialogues and 20 sectoral dialogues have taken place across the country. The Brexit stakeholder forum has met 18 times since its establishment in September 2017, most recently on 29 May. The stakeholder forum brings together the voices of business, unions, State agencies, political parties and leading experts and makes an important contribution to helping to shape the Government's response to Brexit.

In terms of business preparation, dedicated actions to get Ireland Brexit ready were in announced in the budgets of 2017, 2018 and 2019. The budget 2019 arrangements included the introduction of a new longer-term loan scheme of up to €300 million, the future growth loan scheme to assist strategic capital investment for a post-Brexit environment by business at competitive rates for terms of eight to ten years.