Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Questions (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)

Seán Haughey

Question:

8. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council. [33005/21]

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Neale Richmond

Question:

9. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the British-Irish Council meeting of 11 June 2021. [33040/21]

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Alan Kelly

Question:

10. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council. [34644/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council. [34683/21]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

12. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council. [34686/21]

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Bríd Smith

Question:

13. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council. [34688/21]

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Gary Gannon

Question:

14. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council. [35000/21]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take questions Nos. 8 to 14, inclusive, together. I participated in the 35th British-Irish Council summit hosted by the Northern Ireland Executive in Fermanagh on 11 June. The Tánaiste and the Minister for Foreign Affairs also attended. I very much welcomed the opportunity to meet in person with other council members for the first time since November 2019.

The council had a good discussion on the impact of Covid-19 across member administrations and we discussed sustainable approaches to recovery from Covid-19. We also discussed the latest political developments, including the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. Heads of administration also reflected on the future of the British-Irish Council and how to further develop the role of the council in strengthening links and relationships between these islands. I recalled that the institutions established under the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement are interdependent and interlocking and that, since its establishment in 1999, the council has contributed, through consensus-based working, to the promotion of the totality of relationships across these islands. I noted the importance of the British-Irish Council as a structured forum for co-operation and engagement, particularly following the UK's departure from the European Union, and reiterated the Government's commitment to the council as an important forum for strengthening east-west links.

As we know the British-Irish Council, established under the Good Friday Agreement, deals with the totality of relationships on these islands. It is welcome that the council met recently and important that it, along with the North South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, would meet regularly.

I wish to ask the Taoiseach about the state of Anglo-Irish relations. There is no doubt that those relations have been strained due to Brexit and that opportunities for the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister to meet have been reduced because the UK no longer attends European Council meetings. Last year, the Taoiseach stated that he had agreed with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnston, to begin work on a strategic review of the British-Irish relationship. This could involve new structures and a framework for building on east-west engagement and co-operation. He also said that new structures needed to be developed for formal engagement between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, as well as at ministerial and official level, to formulate co-operation across a suite of policy areas. I ask the Taoiseach to provide an update on progress in this regard.

I welcome the allocation of €3 million to progress work on the Narrow Water bridge project, as well as the progress made this week on dealing with legacy issues in Northern Ireland. Hopefully, all parties and victims will engage in that process.

I thank the Taoiseach for his timely and detailed update on the vitally important British-Irish Council meeting. I stress my belief that the meetings of the council need to be regularised, formalised and nailed into the diary years in advance. Going forward, it would be appropriate for the Government to expect the British Prime Minister to attend these meetings rather than sending the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in his stead. While saying that, I am not trying to take away from the position the latter holds.

I welcome the decision taken by a court in Belfast today to throw out the challenge to the Northern Ireland protocol by certain people who claim that it is illegal and unconstitutional. Going forward, all strand three institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, which the Taoiseach referenced in terms of their importance and continuation, should be used to work on a North-South and east-west basis to make the protocol work for everybody on this island. Ultimately, the protocol is not the problem. Brexit is the problem and the protocol provides solutions and opportunities. Indeed, the opportunities that the protocol presents must be realised. As we have seen from trade figures for certain sectors in the last week, there are huge opportunities for businesses North, South, east and west if we approach this in a realistic and generous manner.

As there was not enough time for the Taoiseach to answer my previous question, perhaps he will do so now because Britain is one of several European countries that regularly sells large amounts of arms to Saudi Arabia, which that country then uses to devastating and murderous effect in Yemen. We have a responsibility to say to all of our neighbours in Europe, whether inside or outside the EU, that their continued turning of a blind eye or, even worse, their active military facilitation, with arms and other supports, of the brutal regime in Saudi Arabia that crushes internal dissent and movements for democracy and inflicts humanitarian disasters on places like Yemen is absolutely unacceptable. I ask the Taoiseach to respond.

Has the Taoiseach talked to his colleagues in Britain about the huge problems they faced in getting trained healthcare staff, including in nursing and other areas like psychology? There is an imperative to increase the capacity of our health systems at every level post Covid. In that context, the British learned that they had to make it easier for people to study nursing and midwifery, as well as other allied healthcare professions, by lifting the financial burden off them. In that way, they could increase the numbers in training and boost the capacity of the British healthcare system. Although there are many problems in Britain, should we not learn some lessons from them and do the same here?

As I listened to the Taoiseach's press statement yesterday when he spoke about us being in a race between the vaccine and the variant, I was reminded of something I said in the Dáil on 27 May last:

We are, therefore, in a race against time to complete two doses of vaccines before the Indian variant becomes dominant here. It is a race we are likely to lose unless we take action, and it is very simple. We need to follow the advice that is being given to implement mandatory hotel quarantine at airports and ports for travellers coming from Britain.

It seems that the Government has only woken up and realised that we are in a race when the opponent is already halfway to the finishing line. Two weeks ago, I asked the Taoiseach if he regretted taking the risk of not going for mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers from England, Scotland and Wales and he rejected the idea that there was any risk involved at all. Now, with the Delta variant becoming dominant, we are left with no safe choice other than to say that indoor hospitality and dining cannot reopen on 5 July. Does the Taoiseach regret that decision? Does he regret the decision made by his Government not to act on the clear warnings that were issued, not to try to slow the spread of the Delta variant, the consequence of which is the situation we are in now?

Perhaps the Taoiseach will have time to address the issue I raised earlier regarding the Covid passport.

Just over 47 years ago in May 1974, 33 innocent people, including a pregnant woman, were killed in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Those bombings were carried out by the Glenanne gang which included members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, UVF, MI5, the RUC and the Ulster Defence Regiment, UDR. The bombings were the crystallisation of collusion policy but nobody has ever been brought to justice and successive British Governments have refused to release the files they have on the atrocities. Dáil Éireann has, on three occasions, passed unanimous motions calling on the British Government to release all pertinent files and calling on the Irish Government to press the British to comply with this most reasonable request. As recently as a month ago, Ministers reaffirmed the Government's commitment to seeking the truth behind the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Did the Taoiseach raise the Dublin and Monaghan bombings at the recent British-Irish Council meeting? When did the Taoiseach last make a request to the British Prime Minister for the release of documents held by the British Government? It is my firm belief that no conversation should ever take place between any Taoiseach and British Prime Minister where this issue is not raised until such time as the British Government releases its files so that we can provide the truth and justice that the families of the victims of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings deserve.

Deputy Haughey asked about the state of Anglo-Irish relations and the review of the strategic relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom, post Brexit.

Progress is under way in that regard. During our most recent meeting, the British Prime Minister and I agreed to increase the momentum of the engagement between our officials in respect of the bilateral relationship between Britain and Ireland post-pandemic. We are hoping to bring that to a conclusion in the coming weeks. It is an important issue because, as the Deputy said, since Britain left the European Union, the opportunities and forums that were there to nurture the relationship between the UK and Ireland in an EU context are no longer available. Brexit has clearly created challenges in respect of the relationship.

In the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and trade and co-operation agreement, we have sought that the UK would work with the European Union through the mechanisms that are provided for in the withdrawal agreement to resolve any issues emerging on the Northern side in respect of the protocol. That work has been under way but it has been of a stop-start nature. It is important that political will would attach to it. I have met all the principal leaders of the Commission and they are committed to resolving the issues. There is goodwill there. The UK Government needs to engage as well, and I have made this point to the British Prime Minister.

Narrow Water bridge is a significant development and reflects the importance of the shared island fund, which, for the first time in 30 years, gives us ring-fenced capacity to put flesh on the bones of important projects North and South. I met Nichola Mallon MLA, the Minister of Infrastructure of the Northern Ireland Executive earlier this week to discuss the announcement because she has campaigned for a long time on the Narrow Water bridge project. We have allocated an initial €3 million to bring the project to tender stage and we intend to allocate further funding to enable it to happen. Louth County Council will be the lead agency in delivering this and on the Northern side greater active transport initiatives will be put in place in parallel with the project. For both communities North and South, this is a clear manifestation of the capacities we have secured through the shared island fund to make things happen on a North-South basis.

We also need progress on the legacy issues by all parties involved and we must do it on a collective basis. Deputy Richmond made a number of significant points about making the protocol work and that is what we are endeavouring to do in respect of North-South and east-west engagement. The British Irish Council provides a forum for off the record engagements and for the capacity for participants to sound each other out in informal settings. That is valuable and it is important, as Deputy Richmond said, that we would make sure that these meetings will be scheduled in the diary, although Covid has had an impact on that in the recent past. I know it has been a historic issue that the British Prime Minister does not attend but it would be great if he could attend. It was a constructive meeting with all the heads of administration and we shared a lot of good practice around Covid. I also had an opportunity to speak to all the parties from the North on the protocol and the Executive and I found it useful. Again this illustrates that meeting in person is far more effective than meeting online in terms of those informal engagements.

I will talk with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, about his discussions with the Saudi Government. With Ireland as a member of the UN Security Council, the Minister has been extremely busy in endeavouring to deal with a range of international issues, not least the Yemen war, which, as the Deputy said, has had an appalling impact on so many innocent people. I met the UN Secretary General last week and he has been warm in his appreciation of Ireland's role on the UN Security Council on many of these issues, not least the Middle East. We will continue to do that on an international level and the Minister will represent the country in that respect.

On healthcare, the big issue the UK is learning is that since it has restricted European citizens in particular from going into the UK, it has had an impact on its workforce and its capacity to recruit people. We need be conscious of that lesson.

Deputy Paul Murphy said that I rejected advice on the challenges raised by the Delta variant. I never did so. Ireland is the only country in the European Union that has introduced mandatory hotel quarantine. It is clear that more than 50% of cases in Northern Ireland are of the Delta variant and that more than 95% of those in the Britain involve the Delta variant. All of Europe, such as Poland and Portugal, have high rates of the Delta variant. Portugal is introducing restrictions again on hospitality and it has had to reverse because of the Delta variant. The CMO is of the view that we will face a European-wide Delta variant wave. We put India on the list for mandatory hotel quarantine but our levels of transport are low. We have a seamless border on the island and it is not possible to seal it. That is a fact and we have learned that.

On Deputy Carthy's point, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has made it clear that there will not be an issue for Irish citizens on the island, North or South, in accessing the Covid digital certificate. I never lose an opportunity to raise the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and I did so again at the most recent meeting I had with the British Prime Minister when we discussed legacy issues. Successive Irish Governments have consistently sought all of the information in British hands on that terrible atrocity that was committed in 1974.