Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Questions (1, 2, 3)

Micheál Martin

Question:

1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the UK Prime Minister since 29 October 2019. [45240/19]

View answer

Joan Burton

Question:

2. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent conversations with the UK Prime Minister. [46441/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the UK Prime Minister since 29 October 2019. [46450/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

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

I was last in touch with Prime Minister Johnson on 27 October, after the withdrawal agreement Bill had passed on Second Stage in the House of Commons but the programme motion for the further passage of the Bill had been defeated. I also spoke to him on Saturday, 19 October, following the events in Westminster, when the UK requested an extension to the Article 50 process. I welcome the unanimous agreement of an extension by the leaders of the EU 27, with a view to allowing for the final ratification of the withdrawal agreement. This has extended the deadline to 31 January 2020. It could still be possible, however, for the UK to leave the EU before then if the withdrawal agreement has been ratified in advance of that date.

I welcome the draft withdrawal agreement reached between the EU and the British Government. It is a good agreement. It allows the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion with a transition period, which is important for businesses and citizens in the EU and UK. It also creates a unique solution for Northern Ireland, which recognises the unique history and geography of the region. The agreement ensures there will be no hard border between North and South, the all-island economy can continue to develop, and protects the Single Market and our place in it.

I agree that the British general election has effectively suspended engagement on all major issues and we will have to wait until after 12 December at the earliest to know what comes next. There are serious concerns, however, about what is happening during the election and statements being made regarding Northern Ireland. Earlier this week, the Tories briefed the media that, as part of a general initiative in trying to win the votes of former soldiers, the party intends to introduce a statute of limitations concerning illegal acts in which soldiers may have been involved. This would, in effect, be a general amnesty for the security forces.

I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that this unilateral action would be another direct contravention of the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. It would also reinforce the idea that the British Government does not accept that joint decisions are required on issues with major cross-community implications. One of the failings of the peace process has been how different groups campaign for openness and accountability for others, but insist that accountability for their own crimes is a threat to peace. The only entity that has been willing to hold itself to account in a full, open and honest way has been the Irish Government down through the years. The Smithwick Tribunal, which we established the last time we were in government and which was completed under the previous Government, was given the full right to examine any possibility of collusion by An Garda Síochána with paramilitaries. The report was deeply uncomfortable reading, but there was no attempt to hide anything and no attempt to downplay its importance. The democratic parties here have repeatedly shown that we reject the idea that some victims are more important than others.

Does the Taoiseach agree that any attempt by the British Government to deliver what is, in effect, a unilateral amnesty for crimes committed by security forces in the North must be opposed in the strongest possible terms?

What actions has the Taoiseach taken to convey this to London? Given the deep crisis the entire 1998 settlement is now in, what initiatives is he proposing to try to break the spiral of breakdown and division that has taken hold in recent years?

In his conversation on the withdrawal legislation with the UK Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson, did the Taoiseach have an opportunity to discuss the fact that so many women are leaving politics in the UK because of the abuse they are receiving. This includes online abuse and being shouted at and roared at in various venues to the point where many feel unsafe. This follows on from the murder of one of their colleagues by somebody from the far right just a couple of years ago. Northern Ireland's politics are fairly tough. Does the Taoiseach feel the tone being adopted by the Prime Minister, which is indifferent, if not downright abusive, towards women who expressed fears about their safety and the safety of their families in the context of threats they have received, is appropriate? What are its implications for political behaviour in the North?

With regard to Prime Minister Johnson's bizarre series of interviews in the North, he spoke at a business event in which he suggested there would be no additional documentation required for traded goods. He spoke at other events at which he seemed to want to reassure people from the unionist community that there would, in fact, be quite tight restrictions. Have the Taoiseach or his staff had any opportunity to clarify the exact policy of the British Government and Prime Minister?

I agree with Deputy Micheál Martin's comment that, because there is now a full-blown general election campaign in Britain, the UK Prime Minister is focusing exclusively on a domestic audience, but we have to be careful about the implications for us of what he is saying. I want to examine this further so we can be clear in this House about the Taoiseach's understanding of the implications of the withdrawal agreement. When asked on video by a worried exporter in Northern Ireland whether his business would have to complete additional forms when sending goods across the Irish Sea, the British Prime Minister said it would absolutely not be the case. The Prime Minister went on to say that if any such documentation were presented, the exporter should telephone him, whereupon he would advise him to put it in the bin.

My understanding of the withdrawal agreement before the British Parliament is that while there will be seamless exports of goods from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, there will be checks in the other direction because goods coming into Northern Ireland will have unfettered access subsequently to the Single Market. There will be checks on those goods. Even in regard to the internal arrangements in the UK, the Brexit Secretary in giving evidence in the House of Lords said goods going from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK would require what he described as "exit summary documentation". For the sake of clarity, could the Taoiseach set out for the House his understanding of what will be required on the movement of goods to Northern Ireland and out of the North to the rest of the UK?

As the Taoiseach will be aware, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Julian Smith, has again refused to meet Ms Geraldine Finucane this side of a British general election, despite previous commitments to do so. He has said the upcoming general election changes the circumstances. The Taoiseach is well aware that a Supreme Court judgment in February noted there was an unequivocal undertaking that a public inquiry would take place but that the British Government has failed to follow through on that. Despite promises from two previous Secretaries of State to meet the Finucane family, that meeting has yet to take place. Has that aspect come up in the Taoiseach’s recent meetings with Mr. Boris Johnson? If not, will he commit to raising it with him at the earliest opportunity?

I thank the Deputies for their questions. Deputy Micheál Martin is correct to point out that the UK is very much in election mode now. As a result, the normal engagement that occurs between governments is suspended. Having said that, we are staying in touch. I met Secretary of State Smith in Enniskillen last weekend. He is in close contact with the Tánaiste. Secretary of State, Michael Gove, will be in Dublin tomorrow at the British–Irish Council. We have scheduled a bilateral meeting, which will be an opportunity for me to raise with him some of the matters Deputies have discussed here today.

Our view is that there can be no amnesty for crimes committed during the Troubles, no matter who committed them, be they state actors or non-state actors. That is the position of the Government, which we will impress on the British authorities at future meetings. We will oppose any proposals for an amnesty. What I understand is proposed is a change to the Human Rights Act, which is not quite an amnesty. It is a matter about which we have a concern, however. We will certainly discuss it with the British Government.

I have not had any discussions with Prime Minister Johnson about women leaving politics but I share Deputy Burton's concerns about politicians, female and male, being verbally abused or threatened with violence. I do not consider that to be humbug. Sadly, it is a reality of what is happening in Britain and, to a lesser extent, Ireland and around the world. Such behaviour undermines democracy. None of us in politics is perfect but we are generally good people who try to make our communities a better place in the way we believe we can. While we do make mistakes and get it wrong sometimes, almost anyone involved in politics is in politics because he or she wants to make a change for the better. It is not right that politicians should be subject to verbal abuse or threatened with violence in any form, regardless of their party or political perspective.

The stated policy of the British Government is to ratify the new withdrawal agreement and to leave the EU by 30 January 2020, doing so in an orderly fashion, and entering a transition phase or an implementation period. That is obviously dependent on the outcome of the elections in the UK. Then we will move very quickly to the next phase of Brexit, which will be negotiating the UK–EU free trade agreement and the future relationship treaties on security, political co-operation and other matters.

My understanding of the withdrawal agreement is that there will not be any checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain but it may be necessary to fill in some forms online. This, however, would not apply during the transition period or implementation phase and could be superseded by a free trade agreement that makes it unnecessary. It is an hypothetical requirement that may arise under certain circumstances. There will, however, be minimal checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, many of which already exist.

I have not yet had the chance to raise the Finucane case with Prime Minister Johnson. I raised it with the former UK Prime Minister, Mrs. May, previously. I have met John Finucane. I met his mother and the rest of the family. I have been very impressed by the case they make. I will certainly take that case to the British Prime Minister, whoever it is, in a few weeks.