Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Questions (1, 2)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, last met; and when the Cabinet committee on Brexit, foreign and European affairs is next scheduled to meet. [41383/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, last met. [41979/19]

View answer

Oral answers (27 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

Cabinet committee C last met on Thursday, 21 June 2018. Following a Government decision on 25 July 2019 on the establishment of Cabinet committees, Cabinet committee structures were reorganised. The Cabinet committee on Brexit and European affairs was established to ensure a co-ordinated approach in the areas of Brexit and foreign and European affairs, including Global Ireland 2025. The committee met for the first time on 10 September 2019 and is due to meet again shortly.

Given the particular significance of Brexit, it is important that Cabinet Ministers are all fully across what is happening. Consequently, over the past 12 months Brexit has been discussed more than 30 times at length at the full Cabinet level, where all formal decisions are made. Several other important EU and international issues, including the EU budget, the strategic priorities for the EU and Global Ireland 2025, have also been discussed at Cabinet level in recent months.

I also meet regularly - at least weekly - individual Ministers or groups of relevant Ministers to focus on particular issues, including those relating to Brexit and other EU and international issues, to agree on and ensure delivery of priorities and commitments.

I noted the Taoiseach's earlier comments on the need for politics in the North not to be defined simply as nationalist or unionist. Not surprisingly, he did not mention People Before Profit in his list of all-Ireland parties with-----

I still cannot work out whether People Before Profit is nationalist, unionist or "other".

I know it is pro-Brexit so I think it is unionist.

We declare as "other", and since the assembly was set up we have railed against the fact that it is a requirement to designate oneself in that way because it institutionalises sectarianism. We need concrete measures, not just aspirations. I have suggested to the Taoiseach - and we have gone to the extent of writing to him today - how we could concretise the effort to cross certain boundaries, specifically asking him to contact Wrightbus, a company in which 500 workers, Catholic and Protestant, have been threatened with redundancy. It looks as if that has now been overcome and a new buyer has come in. Given our need to decarbonise our bus fleet, we suggest putting an order in with Wrightbus for 500 electric buses to add to our fleet. This would help to decarbonise our fleet and would be a tremendous gesture, across the Border and across sectarian lines, of the value of co-operation, North and South, while also maintaining jobs and positively impacting the environment. It seems to me a very good suggestion we are making to the Taoiseach. He will receive the email today, but I would be interested to know whether he thinks we could do this, for both our own sake and the sake of challenging sectarian demarcation lines in a positive way that brings people together.

When the people of Catalonia cast their votes on independence two years ago, they were met by riot police. These were extraordinary scenes not only for the people of the region but for all of Europe. The brutality meted out by the riot police on behalf of the Spanish state was as unnecessary as it was horrific. Police seized ballot boxes and used batons and rubber bullets to remove voters from polling stations and injured hundreds of people. Election observers, including elected representatives from Ireland, witnessed at first hand this state brutality against young and old who simply wanted to cast their votes.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights articulates the right to free and fair elections as a fundamental right for all people. It states, "The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government". That is the central proposition. Catalan leaders were imprisoned this week. They are elected representatives of their people. The referendum on independence in October 2017 should have been a triumph for democracy, no matter the result, but instead it became a battering ram to close down the call for independence and an opportunity to imprison or exile elected representatives who support independence. I am sure that, like me, the Taoiseach would condemn these actions. Nine representatives have now received lengthy prison sentences and are suspended from public office. By pursuing this course of action, the Spanish Government is undermining not only the stability of Catalonia, but also the values of the European Union itself.

Therefore, at the European Council summit tomorrow there must be an appropriate and proportionate response, one that is not simply about palming the prison sentences off as an internal matter for Spain. This is an issue that cuts to the core of democratic values right across the European Union, a union based on the rule of law, respect for democracy and respect for the right of the peoples of Europe to self-determination. I ask the Taoiseach to raise this issue tomorrow and to bring a very clear message on behalf of the Irish people that the behaviour of the Spanish state is not acceptable and that we stand with all peoples in defence of their right to free and fair elections and, crucially, their right to self-determination.

We will have a full session on European matters later, so quite a number of questions can be left until then. We have not seen the text of any proposals, and we have received no substantive briefings at any point in the past week. We must proceed on the basis of media reports.

I will address two specific points. The first is the overall Brexit agreement and the other specifically relates to Northern Ireland. Yesterday, I asked about the overall economic impact of Brexit, but I did not receive an answer. I would like to give the Taoiseach another opportunity to answer that as he may have been under time constraints yesterday. The proposal as explained by the British Government is that the United Kingdom, excluding Northern Ireland, wishes to adopt the hardest of Brexit options, amounting to it fully leaving the customs union and the Single Market and pursuing regulatory dealignment to attain competitive advantage. Over 80% of our trade with the United Kingdom will be hit by this hard Brexit if it materialises. Of course, there has been much focus on the North-South aspects in the exit agreement, but the large volume of trade between east and west is critical for small and medium enterprises and the agrifood industry.

Will the Taoiseach confirm if this is the case and the move from the May Administration to the Johnson Administration will prove to have been a move to a nearly complete hard Brexit? It is clear the former British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, envisaged a softer Brexit and she needed a customs union because she understood it was in the best interests of British manufacturing.

Is the mechanism proposed for Northern Ireland a so-called all weather process and does it answer the issue permanently? What is proposed to avoid the consent mechanism becoming a permanent source of instability that would keep alive the deteriorating position of the past two years?

I will pick up on Deputy Boyd-Barrett's comments on People Before Profit in Northern Ireland. He is absolutely correct that it is one of the three parties designated as "other" - these are the Alliance Party, the Green Party and People Before Profit - and it does this on the basis that it rejects sectarianism, which is good. I acknowledge that. It is also a party that campaigned for Brexit-----

It did not campaign for Brexit.

It at least advocated Brexit, which is regrettable. There are some in the radical left family in Ireland who advocate a socialist federation of England, Scotland and Ireland.

It is not People Before Profit but Solidarity. We have unionists in this House, which is interesting.

It is not the people we may think. I am pretty sure Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann or both get some of their buses from Wrightbus already. When any public bus company wants to get buses, it must go to tender. Not only is that the law under the rules of the European Single Market but it is also the right course of action. It is how we ensure we get the best product at the best price, which is right for taxpayers and people who use public transport. It would not be right for a politician to intervene and direct a State company to give any particular firm a contract for political reasons. I appreciate it would be a good political gesture-----

The Taoiseach might speak to the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring.

-----but it would be very wrong and it would probably constitute corruption.

I am not suggesting the Minister, Deputy Ring, is corrupt.

In socialist systems around the world, that form of corruption is normal but it is not normal in this State.

It is hardly corruption to try to save jobs in the North.

A politician directing a company to give a particular contract to another private company would constitute corruption. That is under law and it is not just my opinion.

It is not allowed.

Deputy McDonald raised the events in Catalonia, and this is an internal matter for Spain. We can have opinions and take stands on internal matters in other countries. The Government totally respects the constitutional integrity of Spain, but we firmly believe these matters should be dealt with through dialogue. We have seen independence movements in other parts of the European Union, including Scotland, and people have not been imprisoned for advocating self-determination, secession and so on. I have spoken to Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez about this before and I will do so again. In my conversations with him I have told him a little about Ireland's historical experience in 1916, when there was a revolution. Most people at the time did not support independence, but the very heavy-handed approach taken by the authorities of the time radicalised people and helped give rise to independence. Sometimes acting with too heavy a hand against people making a proposition can end up helping those people. It is a conversation I have had with previous Spanish Prime Ministers and I will have it again. In no way am I suggesting that we do not totally respect the constitutional integrity of Spain and its unity.

No text has been stabilised for the Brexit deal. I have seen some draft texts but none has been stabilised and for that reason they are confidential, so governments, unfortunately, are not in a position to share them. We intend to have a briefing for party leaders today. I know some are travelling so arrangements will be made for those briefings, which we are happy to organise. We want it to be a briefing on a stable text rather than when things are changing, as they are currently. Those briefings will be provided.

What about the east-west aspect?

That is the east-west trade issue.

This is an alternative to the withdrawal agreement advocated by the former British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May. That seems to be the case from what has been made public.

Deputy Martin's analysis is correct and there has been a change in the position of the United Kingdom Government. The former British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, always advocated a relationship with the European Union that would be as close as possible, if we use her terms. British Prime Minister Johnson has taken a different view and it is more about dealignment. He envisages a harder Brexit and a relationship closer to the Canada model. At the same time, in our conversations he has said he wants a very close trading relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, with no tariffs or quotas. That will have to be teased out in the future relationship treaty and the free trade agreement when we come to it. For our part, we will certainly want a trading relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom with no tariffs or quotas. There must be a level playing field and we cannot have tariff or quota-free trade with a country that does not have similar or better standards with regard to the environment, health and safety and labour rights. British Prime Minister Johnson has said his intention for the United Kingdom after Brexit is to have world-class environmental, health and safety and employment standards. All that will have to be written down and teased out if we get to that point of negotiating a free trade agreement and a future relationship. I hope we do.