Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Questions (3, 4)

Brendan Howlin

Question:

3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the British-Irish Council in Manchester. [29286/19]

View answer

Joan Burton

Question:

4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council. [29954/19]

View answer

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 and 4 together.

These questions both relate to my attendance at the British-Irish Council. I attended the 32nd British-Irish Council summit, which was hosted in Manchester by the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Mr. David Lidington, MP, on Friday, 28 June. I was accompanied by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton. The First Ministers from Scotland and Wales, along with Heads of Administration from the Crown dependencies, also attended the summit.

The discussion at the summit covered important political developments for administrations since the last summit in November. The discussion focused largely on the implications of Brexit, particularly for relationships across the islands. The council also discussed the current political situation in Northern Ireland and I again stated my regret that Northern Ireland, without the Executive restored, was not represented at the British-Irish Council anymore.

Building on the shared goal of decarbonising our economies, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, took part in a thematic discussion to explore how we could best facilitate the transition by modernising our energy systems. Ministers explored policy approaches to enabling this transition, the facilitation of key technologies, smart energy at a local scale and also funding for innovation. The council also received an update on the British-Irish Council marine litter event held in Glasgow in February.

I took the opportunity to have bilateral discussions with Mr. Lidington, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the new First Minister of Wales, Mr. Mark Drakeford, who was attending his first summit meeting. In all meetings, we exchanged views on issues of mutual interest and continued co-operation, with discussions mainly focusing on Brexit and its impacts on business and citizens. We also spoke about the developments in Westminster and Brussels. At my meeting with First Minister Sturgeon, we also discussed developments on Rockall and we agreed that our shared aim was to resolve differences in a way that was satisfactory to both countries and to continue to develop a very strong bilateral relationship.

Following the summit, I officially opened the ESB's new offices in Manchester and I attended Enterprise Ireland's first business roundtable with Irish companies operating in the UK's "northern powerhouse" region. The House will be aware that it is the Government's intention to establish a new consulate in the north of England as part of our efforts to continue to enhance and deepen the British-Irish relationship after Brexit. I also met the mayor of Greater Manchester, Mr. Andy Burnham, and visited the new Sisk development at Circle Square in Manchester city centre.

At the most recent meeting of the British-Irish Council, the Taoiseach expressed regret that no Northern Ireland representatives were present due to the prevailing political impasse at Stormont. I am of the view that the latter is adding to the Brexit difficulties for the whole island. There is a real prospect of direct rule in Northern Ireland in the case of a no-deal Brexit. The Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy McEntee, recently stated that the Taoiseach has always indicated that the Government would never accept such an outcome. The Taoiseach has called for real and meaningful involvement in Northern Ireland if devolution is not restored, with a role for the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Did the Taoiseach raise the issue of direct rule with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, during their recent meeting? How does the Taoiseach intend to respond if direct rule is imposed on Northern Ireland in the wake of a no-deal Brexit?

I am sure Deputies across the House will agree with me regarding the magnitude of difference a few months can make in British politics. British Ministers who attended the 32nd meeting of the British-Irish Council struck a different tone on the importance of protecting the Good Friday Agreement to that emanating from the new Government there. I am not sure how the Taoiseach and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Deputy Bruton, felt about Ireland being indirectly referred to as a dependent territory of the Crown in the communiqué issued by the council after the summit. I am sure the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, may also have had something to say about that. The acknowledgement by the council of the need for continued engagement and collaboration between members, as well as the value of strengthening relationships, was welcome. Sadly, the actions of the new British Government have not matched the intent signalled by the Council.

The June summit marked the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the council. Strengthened relationships at this turbulent time would be welcomed by us all. However, the reality is very different to the sentiments that were expressed. The council is an institution established under the Good Friday Agreement of which the British are co-guarantors. The British Prime Minister's madman-theory Brexit tactics are fundamentally undermining the agreement. We need to be clear that Brexit is incompatible with the agreement and the views of the majority in the North who wish to remain in the EU. Given that the council is a body established under the Good Friday Agreement, it is disappointing that there was not a deeper discussion at its summit of Brexit and its implications for advancing positive and practical relationships among the people of the islands. After all, that is its tasked responsibility. I ask the Taoiseach to update the House on Brexit discussions at the summit and whether the implications of British withdrawal from the Good Friday Agreement will be high on the agenda for the next summit.

I was reflecting on the change of personnel since the meeting. Has the Taoiseach discussed the British-Irish Council in his conversations with the new British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson? Is the Prime Minister aware of the council's existence and its potential value as an institution that could do so much good in terms of climate change?

The Taoiseach touched briefly on the issue of Rockall, which flared up recently out of nowhere. Can the Taoiseach guarantee that that will not happen again and that he and the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, have set up a mechanism to ensure that any such disagreement will not flare up in the fashion which it did earlier this year?

In the context of Rockall, First Minister Sturgeon and I and our respective Governments are very keen to de-escalate the issue. Neither Scotland nor Ireland have an interest in coming into conflict over fishing rights around Rockall, particularly given that Ireland and Scotland are currently so aligned on some bigger-picture questions. However, it is the case that in the event of no deal, there will be difficulties around fisheries as EU vessels, including Irish vessels, will lose access to UK waters and UK vessels will lose access to our waters, which could be very disruptive. The European Commission has proposed that the status quo should continue until the end of the year at least, even in the event of no deal. However, the UK Government has not yet reciprocated in that regard.

The imposition of direct rule by Westminster on Northern Ireland is not something that the Government can support. We believe it would be contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and, in particular, the St. Andrews Agreement. However, if the sovereign British Government were to impose it, we would seek a consultative role under the auspices of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement. I imparted that view to Prime Minister Johnson when he was in Dublin recently.

As the House is aware, the British-Irish Council is an institution of the Good Friday Agreement. It and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference are the two east-west institutions that form part of the agreement. Post Brexit, both of those institutions have the potential to be strengthened and deepened. All seven jurisdictions covered by the British-Irish Council are part of the common travel area. As all Members are aware, the term "common travel area" is a misnomer because what is involved relates to far more than travel. We are talking about what is almost a form of common citizenship that exists across the seven jurisdictions. The British-Irish Council could become the body to take that forward and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference could be deepened to ensure that the Irish sovereign Government and the UK sovereign Government are in contact in a structured way with the secretariat. We currently meet our counterparts three or four times a year in Brussels, but that will come to an end and we should have mechanisms to continue to have a close relationship.

The Government is deepening the State's presence in the UK, having re-established the consulate in Cardiff and beefed up the embassy in London. There are plans to establish a new consulate in the north of England.

The next summit of the British-Irish Council will be held in Dublin in November. Prime Minister Johnson raised the issue of the summit with me and expressed an interest in attending. I expressed the view that it would be a positive statement on his part if he were to do so because it has not been the practice of British Prime Ministers generally to attend; they have usually been represented by the deputy Prime Minister. It would be a positive statement if the Prime Minister to attend if he is able to do so.