Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Questions (2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Brendan Howlin


2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the 33rd British-Irish Council. [48539/19]

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Mary Lou McDonald


3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his hosting of the recent British-Irish Council summit. [47640/19]

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Micheál Martin


4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if corporation tax was discussed at the British-Irish Council when it met in Farmleigh recently; and if comments were made about corporation tax in Northern Ireland. [48831/19]

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Joan Burton


5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his hosting of the recent British-Irish Council summit. [48844/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his hosting of the recent British-Irish Council summit. [50113/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 6, inclusive, together.

I was pleased to welcome the administration heads from Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey and the British Government to Dublin for the 33rd British-Irish Council on 15 November. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the inaugural meeting of the British-Irish Council, BIC, and it was agreed that the council continues to be a valued institution of the Good Friday Agreement. It offers opportunities to engage on matters of mutual interest across our respective competencies.

The council discussed the political situation in Northern Ireland and regretted that Northern Ireland will not be represented politically at this important forum until the Executive is restored. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was present, as were civil servants from Northern Ireland.

The summit heard from health ministers from each administration who met that morning to discuss health and social initiatives to combat substance misuse, in particular the enhanced, innovative addiction treatment and rehabilitation services that will be central to tackling problematic drug and alcohol use in Dublin's north-east inner-city. The Ministers explored the links between health and social initiatives and community policing, and their long-term social and economic benefits to communities. In advance of the summit meeting on Thursday evening, health ministers from the travelling delegations visited the Dublin north-east inner-city inclusion health hub, a project that focuses on the transformation of the delivery of health services for drug users in the city.

The issue of corporation tax was not discussed, but the BIC summit provided an opportunity for ministers to update the council on their actions regarding Brexit and to discuss the latest domestic political developments across their jurisdictions, along with topics of mutual interest such as the economy, trade and ongoing relations with the European Union. I had a bilateral meeting with First Minister Sturgeon, during which we discussed Brexit, political developments and the ongoing review of bilateral relations between Ireland and Scotland.

The Taoiseach chaired the 33rd British-Irish Council last month, and we are celebrating - or noting - the 20th anniversary of the inaugural meeting of council. We are in a period of immense change one way or the other, as we are all aware, with regard to the future relationships between the UK, Ireland and the EU. There are questions over the constitutional futures of both islands. It is necessary that we have a forum to continue to forge the east-west relationship. No matter what the changes will be, it is essential to maintain strong links between both islands during this period.

For the past two meetings of the BIC, however, the UK Prime Minister in office, Theresa May, and more recently, Boris Johnson, have failed to attend the summit and have had deputies attend on their behalf. This is regrettable, particularly given the Taoiseach's own dedicated attendance.

Yet again there has been no elected representation for the people of Northern Ireland because of the ongoing paralysis at Stormont. I welcome the hints at the moment that there could be another set of Christmas discussions. Christmas discussions at Stormont have provided positive outcomes on previous occasions, albeit for limited periods of times. I welcome any move by the two parties in Stormont perhaps to begin serious conversations when the British general election is over.

It is 20 years since the first meeting of the council. Does the Taoiseach feel it is now appropriate to review the role? If the British-Irish Council is to have a serious future, does the Taoiseach have any confidence that the next Prime Minister of the UK after the current election will attend the 34th summit in Scotland next year? We would all look forward to it also if the Northern Ireland parties, especially the DUP and Sinn Féin, could indicate that they might foresee their presence in Scotland next year. Will the Taoiseach outline his own view of the future role of the BIC, particularly in the context of Brexit, and will he commit to stressing this view and pressing the importance of the British-Irish Council to the next UK Prime Minister after the election on 12 December? I am conscious that polls appear to indicate the current incumbent has quite a good chance of remaining in office. Does the Taoiseach feel that any engagement will be likely from him with regard to the council?

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the inaugural meeting of the British-Irish Council. Ministers with responsibility for health policy visited the north-east inner-city health hub, which I welcome. It is very important that these types of visits go ahead and that legislators can see what is being done on our behalf in these centres.

The Taoiseach also had a bilateral discussion with Nicola Sturgeon, which I welcome. Will the Taoiseach indicate if the issue of Scotland's independence and a potential second referendum came up during those discussions? The Taoiseach is aware that for some time we have pressed him and his Government to engage in the conversation on a united Ireland and for a Border poll at some time in the State.

The difference between the Scottish and Irish situations is that Scottish leaders are actively engaged and participating in the debate on Scottish independence and a potential referendum. That is not the case in this State, be it on the part of Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. We would like to see that change. The elements that we have sought - a White Paper on Irish unity and an Oireachtas committee to consider the practical steps to arrive at a final destination - are important and necessary in that regard.

As part of that fringe meeting, did the Taoiseach hold a discussion with First Minister Sturgeon on the potential for a second referendum on Scottish independence?

During yesterday's Question Time, I asked the Taoiseach about the future arrangements for a more systematic engagement between members of the Irish and British Governments following Brexit. I pointed out the familiarity that had built up over nearly 50 years of common membership of the EU and how essential that was to good relationships between the two Governments and peoples. The Taoiseach's reply was a very general one that did not go beyond what had been said for well over a year, that is, some form of altered British-Irish Council was being considered. I would have thought that, at this stage, this matter should have gone beyond generalities. The number of areas where regular contacts are required to maintain the broad features of, for example, the common travel area is wide and cannot be addressed by having a few more set-piece summits. Is it the Taoiseach's intention to consult on this matter or publish anything? Has he discussed a process with the British to start getting something more specific? We have mentioned the Nordic Council as a potential model for future British-Irish structures post Brexit.

We will soon reach the third anniversary of the collapse of the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland because of a controversy surrounding a heating scheme. It is a great pity that the Dublin media has paid so little attention to the details of the inquiry into that heating scheme, given that it has confirmed to everyone the core dysfunction that was operating in the DUP-Sinn Féin controlled Executive. One element of this was the secret structures whereby Sinn Féin ministers were controlled by non-elected people. The even more pervasive point was how each party was allowed to promote its own interests and other parties were systematically excluded.

Should the two parties find a way to work together again, and I hope they do, what cannot be allowed to happen is the continued marginalisation of other parties and groups. An essential part of ensuring that is to restore a civic forum. This is not an option - it is a requirement of the agreement. Another essential move must be an end to the practice whereby the leaders of the two larger parties in the Executive and their advisers get to control even basic information and the flow of same, denying others the right to debate issues before everything is agreed between the two larger parties. Will the Taoiseach assure us that the Government is seeking the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, not just those parts of it on which the two larger parties are focused?

I note that health ministers met as part of the British-Irish Council. I would be interested to know whether they were aware of the alarming similarities in the crises in the health services in the North, South and Britain. Today, health workers in the North are on strike. On 18 December, nurses will come out on strike. They are on work to rule today. Other health workers are already on strike because of a shocking inequality between health workers in the NHS in the North and those in Britain. Health workers in the North get paid less - they have caps on their pay - than their equivalents in Britain. This shocking inequality was initially supported by DUP health ministers in the Assembly and maintained by Ms Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Féin when she was health minister in 2017. Just as People Before Profit said to nurses when they went out on strike for decent pay and conditions in the South, we fully support health workers in the North fighting for pay parity. What is at stake is the quality of health services in the North, which are suffering exactly the same problems as ours are, namely, massively high waiting lists, huge overcrowding and terrible conditions for health workers. As a result, they cannot recruit enough health workers and others are leaving to work for agencies or leaving the country altogether. That sounds familiar, does it not? In the worst way, there are similarities between the North, South and Britain in terms of the mistreatment of and underinvestment in our health services. We should all support the nurses and other health workers in the North who are taking industrial action to remedy that inequality.

When it comes to the British-Irish Council it has not been the norm for the UK Prime Minister to attend since its inception. I think that Mr. David Cameron may have attended one of the meetings, perhaps in London, or a few during his term of office, but it has been the norm since its inception to send a different senior Cabinet minister to attend the British-Irish Council to represent the UK Government.

In terms of the future role, I believe that both the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council can have an enhanced future role after Brexit, with the British-Irish Council perhaps taking responsibility for monitoring issues around the common travel area, maybe even security co-operation as well as co-operation among the regions, and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council, which really operates on an ad hoc basis, becoming more permanent and more structured with regular meetings, perhaps one summit once a year involving the two Heads of Government, with bilateral meetings involving ministers and their teams. When the UK leaves the European Union, we will still have a lot to talk about and we will not have the opportunity to meet four or five times a year in Brussels as we do now.

I know Deputy Micheál Martin mentioned the Nordic Council as a potential model. I think that is something that we need to examine. The intention now is to take it up with the Prime Minister after the British elections, which will happen next week.

Regarding the Scottish independence referendum, First Minister Sturgeon took the opportunity to brief me on her thoughts and plans about it. She informed me that it was her intention, and the intention of the Scottish Government, to have a second referendum in Scotland on independence in the next number of years. Of course, the Scottish Government will need the consent of the UK Government to do that. That may depend on the outcome of the elections next week as well.

On the general situation in Northern Ireland, it is very dynamic at the moment. There are a lot of moving parts. One is the outcome of the Westminster elections next week, which will impact on who will be the Prime Minister and in the Cabinet and whether the next Government has a majority or not. Also, there is still uncertainty about Brexit and whether the withdrawal agreement can be ratified. There is a potential in the next couple of weeks for us to get some certainty, both on the composition of the UK Government and also on the UK's intentions with regard to Brexit. I think that creates the opportunity for talks to resume in Northern Ireland around re-establishing the institutions and getting them functioning again and also around the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the problems that were being experienced in the health service in Northern Ireland. I make a point of at least looking at the front pages of all the Northern Ireland newspapers every day. He is absolutely right. There are major problems in the health service in Northern Ireland that are not dissimilar to the ones faced here, in Britain or, indeed, in very many jurisdictions around the western world. The front page of the Belfast Telegraph for the past three or four days has been leading with health stories around the strikes, problems with cancer tests, problems with waiting lists and access. It is sadly a feature of the vast majority of public health services in the western world to different extents. The extents do vary, but the problems are very similar - waiting times, overcrowding in emergency departments and difficulty recruiting and retaining staff. I know that the German health minister is currently seeking 50,000 more nurses. The UK's NHS talks about, I think, 100,000 vacancies. Even the whole issue of overspending - health trusts and so on not being able to stick to budgets - is very similar, albeit to different extents and different levels of severity in different jurisdictions.

We should say one thing about our health service that often gets missed. The focus is always on overcrowding and trolleys, and I understand why that is the case, but we do not focus on - this is unfair on our health service and our health service staff - patient outcomes enough.

For example, somebody who gets cancer in Ireland has a better chance of survival than somebody who gets cancer and is treated by the NHS in Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland. We are seeing real improvements in patient outcomes with regard to stroke, heart attack and life expectancy. All of these patient outcomes and indicators in our health service are going in the right direction. This does not happen by accident. It happens because of investment, good strategies, good policies and the phenomenal work of the staff in the health service. This should be recognised more.

Fianna Fáil-led Government cancer and heart strategies.

We will pat you on the back.