Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Questions (32, 33, 35)

Seán Haughey

Question:

32. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of efforts to restore the institutions in Northern Ireland in view of the fact that the 13 January 2020 deadline is fast approaching; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53620/19]

View answer

Seán Crowe

Question:

33. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the new proposals he is working on regarding the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly in Northern Ireland; the work he is undertaking to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements are implemented in full by the UK Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53468/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

35. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the actions he has taken to encourage the reconvening of the Northern Ireland Assembly; if he has called for new elections to help restart devolution in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53482/19]

View answer

Oral answers (23 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

I ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade for an update on efforts to restore the institutions in Northern Ireland, given that the 13 January deadline is fast approaching. I understand he will travel north again this afternoon. I think the House would appreciate an update on the talks which commenced last Monday.

As the Tánaiste knows, the talks aimed at restoring the institutions in the North reconvene in Stormont on Monday. I tabled this question to get an update on these talks and to hear what initiatives, if any, the Tánaiste is working on to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements are implemented in full by the British Government.

Similarly, it would be timely, in the aftermath of the discussion that took place yesterday, for the Tánaiste to brief the House on the actions he has taken to date, the progress, if any, that has been made and where he thinks matters will go.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 32, 33 and 35 together.

It is clear that this is the moment to finally secure an agreement that will restore the Executive, the Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council to operation. The Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, spoke on Friday and agreed that achieving this is the top priority for both Governments. If the Executive is not in place by 13 January, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Julian Smith, has stated there will be an Assembly election. Nobody sees this as a desirable outcome. If, however, an agreement cannot be found by then, the people will deserve their say.

I met the Secretary of State in Belfast on Monday and met him again yesterday. We believe that an agreement can be found and done in a matter of days - if the parties are ready to come together and do it. The talks process initiated by the two Governments last May saw real engagement by all the parties, and good progress was made, including on progressing the implementation of outstanding commitments from previous agreements. We do not believe there is any appetite among the people or parties of Northern Ireland for this process to be extended now. What is needed are direct leader-to-leader discussions, political will and political courage. All the parties have shown in the past that they are capable of showing that leadership in the interests of all the people in Northern Ireland.

The statements the party leaders made last week following the general election results, indicating that they recognise that people in Northern Ireland want to see them operating power-sharing institutions and that they need to reach an agreement to get back to doing so, were very welcome and important. The Secretary of State and I have already met the parties separately this week and we will bring them together this afternoon in a round-table format to seek to confirm there is a shared determination to find agreement in the short window available to us. The two Governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, will continue to do everything we can to support the parties in this.

I hope the Deputies, all of whom are experienced Teachtaí Dála, will understand that it would probably not be helpful for me to go into the details of what is yet to be finalised or the compromises being discussed. It would probably have a negative impact if I were to start talking about that publicly. What I can say is that the bilateral engagements I have had with the parties and the Secretary of State this week have been good. There are a number of outstanding issues requiring compromises and help from the Governments for the parties to find consensus. I believe we can do this and that now is the time for the parties to come together to re-establish an Executive and a functioning Assembly in order to allow Northern Ireland to make decisions for itself again in so many areas and, from our perspective, to allow the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to function again for the betterment of the population of this island, both North and South.

Given the importance of the issue, I allowed the Tánaiste additional time.

It is almost three years since Sinn Féin collapsed the Executive in Northern Ireland, leaving the people of Northern Ireland without a voice in the Brexit negotiations. Since then there has been a political vacuum in Northern Ireland, and the lack of a functioning Executive, coupled with instability created by Brexit, has had a particularly negative impact on the region.

I appreciate what the Tánaiste had to say about the sensitivities of the discussions. I was going to ask him about the stumbling blocks at this point and the areas where compromise may be needed, perhaps in respect of an Irish language Act or legacy issues. It is clear that we need the institutions up and running. There is a crisis in the health services in Northern Ireland.

The UK general election results were particularly interesting in that business and farming interests made their voices known. The moderate centre came to the fore, and it would be remiss of me not to congratulate Mr. Colum Eastwood and Ms Claire Hanna of the SDLP and Dr. Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party on their election to Westminster.

I wish the Tánaiste well in his endeavours. I appreciate the constraints he is under. He certainly has the support of this side of the House to get the institutions up and running. Does he envisage the talks adjourning today or resuming after Christmas?

I believe that all of us welcome the fact that these talks have recommenced. As the Tánaiste said, this is the moment. For almost three years, Sinn Féin has worked to achieve an agreement to deliver solutions and end the current impasse. That should not be lost on anyone in this House. These solutions would have ensured that every citizen was treated with dignity, parity of esteem and respect. A lot of progress has been made in this time and a deal was reached in February. It was agreed by all parties and both Governments. Sadly, at that time the DUP leadership could not get it over the line and then collapsed the agreement. We understand people's frustrations at the failure of previous efforts to restore the Assembly, but we need an inclusive Executive that brings together parties that are truly committed to delivering good and inclusive government and change for all. Sinn Féin has entered these negotiations in a spirit of optimism and determination to restore the political institutions. However, political leaders need to demonstrate the political will to restore Stormont on a sustainable and credible basis that guarantees rights and equality for all. I believe we can do that. However, after a decade of austerity, underinvestment and stifled economic growth in public services and communities in the North, there also need to be adequate financial commitments from the British Government in order that progress can be made on tackling these issues. Has the Tánaiste raised these issues with the British Government?

Those of us who have been on the edges of discussions such as this understand perfectly that the Tánaiste cannot be completely upfront and frank with us as to what has happened to date. I think all of us wish him well in his endeavours because this really is important. We will not get back the past 1,000-plus days. It is most regrettable that we have had a shocking void in representational politics in Northern Ireland at this critical time for the island of Ireland during the critical phases of the discussions on Brexit. It is all the more urgent that we have a solution to these matters now and I hope the Tánaiste's endeavours will be successful in that regard.

I would not be as sanguine as the Tánaiste in respect of the option of an election. Of the 90 MLAs who were elected, several have already opted out of politics. There has been somewhat of a transformation in mood. The most recent Westminster elections have indicated that, and I am delighted to see the return to Westminster of two SDLP MPs and one from the Alliance Party. A fresh mandate might not be a terrible thing, but it would be preferable if we could have institutions up and working right now. We cannot get back the past 1,000 days, but all of the political parties in Northern Ireland have got a clear message from the electorate while knocking on doors that people expect the institutions to be functioning again, particularly in the teeth of a health crisis and a nurses' strike.

The Deputy will have a further minute.

I hope that the Acting Chairman will give me the time to contribute again. I should have three minutes to respond to three Deputies.

Yes, I will allow that if the Tánaiste wants to address Deputy's questions individually.

I thank the Acting Chairman.

Regarding Deputy Haughey's question, three years without a functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland has taken its toll. There has been an absence of the capacity to make political decisions, which has had a knock-on consequence in multiple areas. That absence of a united voice in Northern Ireland during the Brexit negotiations has also been damaging. It has been polarising, particularly in view of the fact that parties have taken very different approaches to the issues. The matters that require sensible middle-ground solutions will not be a surprise to people. For example, language and culture issues are linked to identity, value and a sense of being, who people are in Northern Ireland and where they have come from. These issues have always been a difficult part of politics in Northern Ireland. Legacy issues are difficult. I do not believe that we will be able to solve them during these negotiations, but a marker has been put down that this is a painful and difficult process that Northern Ireland needs to go through. However, it is a necessary process for trying to bring communities together from a reconciliatory perspective.

Regarding sustainability, there is a need to change the way in which the Executive and assembly function. The smaller parties are really strong on this issue. They are not going to go back into an Executive and be part of a devolved Government in Northern Ireland if they do not feel that their input is valued and their mandate is respected. That is an important part of what the Irish and British Governments are trying to do. To be fair to the two larger parties, I believe they recognise that. They want a fully inclusive Executive and for it to be different this time. In the context of the Executive's functioning, transparency and accountability, if things are done that should not be done, it should be ensured that there is a consequence and a sanction for same and that we have systems that function, can be relied upon and are not controlled by any one, two or more parties. These are the kinds of discussion that we are having now and have been having throughout the summer. Nothing is being rushed - we have been discussing these matters for many months. What we are trying to do now is close this out and not have an endless continuation of that discussion through the Christmas period.

The talks will not be adjourned today. There is work to do in the coming days. I, for one, am committed to working right the way to and including Christmas Eve if necessary to try to get the right result. If it is not possible to do that before Christmas, we will take it up again early in the new year in order to ensure that we give the best possible chance of getting a successful conclusion to this process and avoiding what would be an election too many for Northern Ireland. It is true that parties like the SDLP and the Alliance Party have nothing to fear from an election. If anything, they have momentum after the general election. However, they recognise that people in Northern Ireland do not want one. They have had two general elections and a European election. We need a period of stable government where parties are working together and giving leadership to bring communities together in Northern Ireland on some difficult issues. That is what the parties want. It is certainly what the people of Northern Ireland to whom I have spoken from all backgrounds want. There was a strong message from the general election to all parties - get back to work in Stormont, start making decisions for the good of Northern Ireland again and start working together. That message has been heard loud and clear.

May I answer the question on the financial commitments?

Yes, but the Tánaiste will also have a further minute.

Any part of the deal will involve financial commitments from the British and Irish Governments. The British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have spoken about the two Governments working together on a number of projects that would benefit communities on both sides of the Border. I, for one, am committed to that principle. In terms of strand one issues, Northern Ireland will primarily look for financial support in a series of areas from the British Government. That is a matter for the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I believe I have answered the questions.

The Tánaiste will have a further opportunity to respond. I ask the Deputies to keep their questions brief and the Tánaiste to keep his answer brief because we have gone over time.

I will raise a linked issue. In November, the Independent Reporting Commission published its second report on progress towards ending continuing paramilitary activity. According to it, "paramilitarism remains a stark reality in Northern Ireland" and continues to be a serious obstacle to peace and reconciliation. The commission also noted the political vacuum in Northern Ireland and the continuing uncertainty regarding Brexit alongside the increasing number of deaths, attacks and other disturbing events linked to paramilitary organisations in the past year. The task of ending paramilitarism has become "immeasurably more difficult". The report underscores the real need to have functioning institutions in Northern Ireland and to revitalise the peace process. As the Tánaiste stated, it is almost three years since the assembly collapsed. Division and discord have been allowed to fester in the absence of political leadership in Northern Ireland.

Who does the Tánaiste envisage being in the Executive once this process is over? Will all parties be involved at the end of these discussions?

It was a positive sign that party leaders came together yesterday to sign a letter to the Secretary of State, Mr. Julian Smith, regarding pay parity for health workers. I do not know whether the Tánaiste would agree, but the optics of Mr. Smith's refusal to meet the five party leaders on this issue was regrettable.

We all want to see an Executive that is transparent, accountable and inclusive. Last week's Westminster election returned an historic majority of Irish nationalist MPs. Does the Tánaiste agree with the Taoiseach that these results show a shift in the political tectonic plates? Will the Irish Government work with all parties here on a plan for uniting Ireland?

I thank the Deputy, who came in way under time.

I am interested in the Tánaiste's comment on a different form of administration than that which went before. I am not sure how more forthcoming he can be about how that is shaping up and what he envisages. We obviously cling strongly to the Good Friday Agreement because that is the underpinning of the progress we have made in the past 30 years. Any review of the Good Friday Agreement that might be necessary is something that people are reluctant to consider. I recall the lines from the old poem:

And always keep a-hold of Nurse

For fear of finding something worse.

That is all we have got.

Yes, but if we are to have a permanent and sustainable future, we might need a mechanism - maybe it is too early even to be thinking out loud about it - to review the Good Friday Agreement without undermining or weakening it in any way in the interim. Can the Tánaiste see a different type of administration taking shape within the confines of the agreement as is?

Paramilitaries are unfortunately still a part of Northern Ireland. They are a very small minority within communities and we need to be very careful not to label certain communities and areas as supportive of, or dominated by, paramilitarism. The report the Deputy refers to is absolutely right. Whatever about the challenges for devolved government in Northern Ireland, where parties are working together to deal with a legacy issue that needs a comprehensive response to do away with the criminality, intimidation and bullying of communities that paramilitary structures thrive on, to try to facilitate that without devolved government is very difficult. In many cases, that puts the PSNI in an impossible and sometimes dangerous position. I pay tribute to the PSNI and encourage nationalists and unionists to apply to be part of the future of policing in Northern Ireland. It is really important that we have that balance. What is needed here for policing and communities is to see political leaders working together to stamp out the impact of paramilitary activity within communities. I hope that a new Executive will be deeply committed to that and to working with the PSNI to do it, as well as working with community leaders which is as important as policing to bring about that change.

I need to be careful not to comment too much on the health workers and the industrial action threatened for today because the Irish Government does not have a role in policy and decision making in certain areas in Northern Ireland. However, it is very clear, and I spoke to the Secretary of State about this, that what is needed to address healthcare concerns and pressures in Northern Ireland is a health minister in Stormont who can negotiate with Westminster to get the funding needed and can change policy in areas where that is needed. There is a real health crisis in Northern Ireland. We need a department of health, led by a minister, to be able to make the necessary changes and financial decisions around that.

In respect of a different form of Executive the important point is that we try to remain true to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement which does recognise that Northern Ireland would evolve over time. What we are trying to design is not some fundamental change in direction but recognising flaws in the way in which the institutions functioned before that perhaps contributed to their collapse and trying to ensure that is less likely to happen again in the future. Ultimately, what will maintain a sustainable Executive in the future will be trust and relationships between political parties and their leaders.

Sometimes there is party politics in the way we debate in this Chamber but all of the parties are working hard to restore an Executive. That includes Sinn Féin, the DUP and the smaller parties - the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the UUP. There is no one party, or group of parties, that is trying to deliberately frustrate the process. There is a real open mind to trying to get a sensible foundation based on compromise and accommodation of other people's views that I believe this time can ensure we are not at another false dawn for a return to devolved government and that we can achieve the restoration of a Stormont Executive and a functioning Assembly in the short term.

Given the importance that everybody attaches to the restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland, I have been more than generous and did not want to interrupt anybody. We have given almost 25 minutes to the debate. That was important but I ask for everybody's co-operation as we move forward with other questions.