Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Questions (11, 12)

Michael Moynihan


11. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has met or spoken to the leader of the UK Labour Party recently. [37417/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett


12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he has met or spoken to the leader of the UK Labour Party. [38538/19]

View answer

Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 12 together.

As I reported to the House on 19 June, I met with the leader of the British Labour Party, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, MP, in Government Buildings on Thursday, 30 May 2019. Mr. Corbyn was accompanied by Tony Lloyd, MP, shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and several 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 no deal and its inherent dangers, including the possibility that the UK may end up in a no-deal situation by default unless alternatives are pursued. We also discussed the importance of avoiding any return to a hard border on the island of Ireland. We agreed to stay in touch with regard to both Northern Ireland and Brexit.

Did the Taoiseach ask the leader of the Labour Party why he did not support the withdrawal agreement and why he did not facilitate the passage of that through Westminster? While I accept his good faith in terms of the Good Friday Agreement, it has to be said that his position on Brexit has not been constructive and has not really contributed to a resolution of the issue.

The reports last evening in regard to Boris Johnson's proposals confirm that, again, there is a lack of understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland. I think his attendance, with his party members shouting "No surrender", at a fringe event last evening was not good in terms of the future of this island and the relationships and sets of relationships in Northern Ireland or on the island itself.

It is being reported that an aide to Mr. Johnson came to Dublin in the last 48 hours to brief the Taoiseach and the Government. I would appreciate if the Taoiseach would confirm whether there was a verbal briefing from an aide to Prime Minister Johnson on the proposals that have been leaked and that he is about to announce today, on the basis that what has been leaked - separate customs, VAT zones, a time limit on regulatory alignment and, essentially, the UK having a veto on everything - does not represent a serious proposal. The Taoiseach might indicate if it is true that, in the last 48 hours, he was briefed on this proposal.

When we look at the mob scenes at the DUP meeting and Boris Johnson being part of that mob last night, and we consider that Johnson is clearly willing to risk everything in this country, economically and politically, I think people should be a little less keen to join in the sort of Johnson-type attacks on Jeremy Corbyn. There are a few things we know about Jeremy Corbyn. First, he is very committed to peace on this island and to Ireland in general, and he takes these issues very seriously. Unlike Johnson, he does not want a race to the bottom, not just for the North but he does not want a race to the bottom for Britain in the context of exit. He has said that he wants to remain in the customs union, so many of the problems Johnson's version of exit would cause would not even be at stake if we had a Corbyn government.

Is it not the fact, whatever the Taoiseach might think about him ideologically and all the rest of it, that in the context where a general election is now looming and, indeed, may be the only way we can actually stop a hard Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn is the best of all options available in terms of the outcome of the British general election?

I ask that we take a 30-second question from each of the remaining speakers, which will give us a chance to get a response from the Taoiseach. I call Deputy McDonald.

Certainly. I want to place on record, lest there be any misunderstanding, that Boris Johnson's behaviour is not driven by ignorance. It is not that, as Deputy Martin suggests, he does not understand. Boris Johnson understands full well the consequences of his recklessness. It is not ignorance of Ireland; it is more belligerence towards Ireland, North and South, that is at play, and I want to place that on the record as we await whatever proposals he may publish this afternoon.

I too met with Jeremy Corbyn when he was here in May and, of course, I met him last weekend at the British Labour Party conference. I also met Tom Watson, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and Tony Lloyd, who was actually on his way to the United States to meet congressional friends of Ireland. The British Labour Party position is that whatever emerges in negotiations should be put to the people by way of a referendum, with the option to remain.

That is a good position for Ireland because although this House have voted for the backstop, and the Labour Party strongly supports it, it will always be second best to the United Kingdom not exiting the European Union. We should not yield that position. If there is a general election in Britain, that possibility might re-emerge. I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's view on this matter.

The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government recently gave an interview to Village magazine in which he expressed his admiration for Boris Johnson. The Taoiseach could say, and I would expect him to suggest, that for people on the left in Ireland, Jeremy Corbyn is a problem. For people on the right such as those in Fine Gael, a party which has shown admiration for him, Boris Johnson is a nightmare because he is recklessly destructive of the interests of the island of Ireland, North and South. The Taoiseach should therefore not go point-scoring on this. Jeremy Corbyn and, in particular, Keir Starmer have put forward very well-thought-out proposals as to how Brexit-----

I thank the Deputy. Her time is up. May we hear the Taoiseach's response, please?

-----can be handled in a way that would not be destructive of Ireland, North and South.

Deputy Micheál Martin asked me whether I asked Jeremy Corbyn why he did not support the withdrawal agreement. I did do so, and he essentially explained that the Labour Party wanted a different and closer relationship with the EU than that envisaged in the withdrawal agreement and the joint political declaration. Specifically, the Labour Party wants the UK to be part of some kind of customs union with the European Union and to have a say in that and wants a close relationship with the Single Market. Again, however, this is very much a cherry-picking kind of relationship. As Taoiseach and Head of Government, I will work with whoever is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Britain is on its third Prime Minister since the last general election here. We worked with David Cameron, we worked with Theresa May and we have worked with Boris Johnson. If Jeremy Corbyn or anyone else were to become Prime Minister, we would work with him or her too. That is our duty and obligation and it is exactly what we will do.

I can confirm that two of Prime Minister Johnson's aides visited Dublin and came yesterday morning to Government Buildings, where they gave my officials and advisers a verbal briefing on the UK Government's proposals. No documents were exchanged, however, and we will have to see what those proposals are later today. I intend to speak to Prime Minister Johnson this evening by telephone. I do not want to comment on any proposals being produced today until I have had a chance to see them and study them.

The Taoiseach knows what they are, though.

What we are hearing is certainly not encouraging and, in my view, would not be the basis for an agreement, sadly. We want there to be a deal and an agreement and we will work until the last moment to secure an agreement, but not at any cost. We are ready for no-deal if that is what the British decide. However, I ask everybody in the British Government and the British political establishment to listen to all the people of Northern Ireland and not any one party. The people of Northern Ireland voted by a clear majority against Brexit, the majority of Members of the Stormont Assembly support the backstop, and the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland do not want customs posts between the North and the South.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.