Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)

This is a perennial issue, but I understand that we are now taking 16 questions in the first tranche, varying from dealing with the undocumented to a meeting with the governor of Texas. In the third tranche we are taking one question. It seems that we have to do things better than to give 15 minutes to 16 questions and then 15 minutes to one question.

Except that one question is mine.

I am happy for the Deputy to ask it.

There are nine questioners. It seems that it is impossible to deal with nine people posing questions in 15 minutes. Would Members be agreeable to allocating two blocks of questions?

The last questions are mine.

We will go with the three minutes.

How much time is the Ceann Comhairle allocating for each block?

There is 15 minutes for each block.

I would be happy to cut my very specific question about correspondence to six or seven minutes-----

It is important.

-----and then give extra time to the other two.

In that case we will give an extra nine minutes to the first 16.

I ask Members to be succinct.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Paul Murphy


1. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to the United States of America and his meeting with President Trump. [12786/18]

Joan Burton


2. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the President of the United States of America. [12788/18]

Joan Burton


3. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Governor of Texas. [12790/18]

Brendan Howlin


4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his St. Patrick's Day visit to the United States of America. [12796/18]

Michael Moynihan


5. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he discussed the undocumented Irish with President Trump; and if there was a process discussed to deal with this ongoing issue. [12798/18]

Michael Moynihan


6. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he discussed free trade with President Trump; and if tariffs were mentioned. [12799/18]

Michael Moynihan


7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he discussed Brexit with President Trump. [12800/18]

Micheál Martin


8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with President Trump and the issues that were discussed. [12802/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett


9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the United States of America and the meetings he had. [12830/18]

Brendan Smith


10. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he discussed with President Trump the appointment by the US administration of a special envoy to Northern Ireland. [12955/18]

Brendan Smith


11. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach the proposals he put forward to President Trump and to other members of the US administration in relation to the need to deal with the difficulties facing the undocumented Irish; and the outcome of such discussions. [13571/18]

Micheál Martin


12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the responses he received when he discussed the undocumented Irish with President Trump and other politicians when he was in the USA for the St. Patrick's week celebrations. [13928/18]

Micheál Martin


13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he had discussions with President Trump on Brexit. [13929/18]

Michael Moynihan


14. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he had discussions with President Trump on Brexit and the possibility of a border with Northern Ireland. [13946/18]

Eamon Ryan


15. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with President Trump. [13951/18]

Mary Lou McDonald


16. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to the United States of America and his meeting with President Donald Trump. [14006/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 16, inclusive, together. The questions take up three pages.

My St. Patrick’s Day programme ran from 11 to 17 March, during which time I visited Texas, Oklahoma, Washington DC and New York. I had courtesy calls with Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, and Oklahoma Governor, Mary Fallin, in both cases discussing the deepening of links between the US and their respective states and Ireland. I visited the Choctaw Nation in Durant, Oklahoma, to thank Chief Gary Batton and the Choctaw people for the humanitarian aid raised by their ancestors back in 1847, at the height of the Great Famine, and to announce a joint scholarship scheme to commemorate this historic act and foster future relations. This scheme will allow Choctaw students to study in Ireland.

I took part in South by South West, a technology and music convention in Austin, Texas, to promote Ireland as a location for innovation and inward investment. During my visit I met with many Irish-owned companies doing business in the United States. One important message I sought to convey during my visit was that the economic relationship between Ireland and the US is very much a two-way, bilateral one, with over 100,000 people employed by Irish-owned companies across 50 states in the United States and a broadly balanced trading relationship worth €2 billion per week.

I spoke at a number of events in Washington DC on matters of foreign policy, on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, on contemporary affairs in Northern Ireland, on Brexit negotiations, and on US-Ireland and US-EU relations. I had a series of political meetings, including with President Trump, Vice President Pence, Speaker Ryan, Senate Majority Leader McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Schumer, and Senator Patrick Leahy, as well as the Friends of Ireland caucus. In all these meetings, I emphasised the importance of the two-way transatlantic relationship between the US and Ireland and between the US and the EU. I suggested that the best way to secure free and fair trade between us was to revisit the question of a comprehensive free trade agreement between the EU and the US.

I also discussed Ireland’s interests in relation to Brexit negotiations and potential solutions for the undocumented Irish living in the US. President Trump indicated that he was favourably disposed towards the possibility of a bilateral agreement on immigration based on a reciprocal arrangement for US and Irish citizens that could help resolve the difficult situation faced by undocumented Irish citizens in the US. This project is being led by Deputy John Deasy. However, it is also important to recall that finding a solution remains a complicated question that requires support both from the Executive and from Congress. We will continue to work at all levels to secure a positive outcome. The President was not yet in a position to announce the appointment of a US ambassador to Ireland, although I understand this issue is now being given high priority, and nor was there any announcement regarding a US special envoy to Northern Ireland. I had a very cordial discussion with Vice President Pence. The Vice President kindly invited me to return next year and I in return extended an invitation to him to visit Ireland.

In New York, I attended a business lunch hosted by Michael Bloomberg. I visited the site of the new Irish Arts Center in Hell's Kitchen to announce an additional $2.5 million of Government funding for that project. I met with the political leadership of the New York City Council including Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Corey Johnson. I also made a presentation to Denis Mulcahy, founder of Project Children, and announced the expansion of the Washington Ireland programme into New York. Finally, I attended the annual St. Patrick’s Day events in New York, including the Mayor’s breakfast, mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade.

In conclusion, this was an excellent opportunity to promote Ireland’s priorities with the US Administration and with political, business and community leaders, as well as to further develop the strong political, cultural and economic links between Ireland and the US.

I have to insist that people stick to the allocated time.

For almost a year the Taoiseach has been telling us that he was going to speak truth to Donald Trump in the White House. On 21 June 2017, when referring to the visit to the White House the Taoiseach said "I will absolutely include in those meetings", with Donald Trump, "discussions of the issues he mentioned, whether it be climate change, human rights, LGBT rights and the need to respect Muslim people". On 27 June 2017, again in reference to visiting the White House for St. Patrick's Day, the Taoiseach said, "I will not shirk from raising issues such as climate change, LGBT rights and so on with President Trump". Just over a week before he went to the White House, I raised these issues with the Taoiseach and gave him these quotes during Leaders' Questions. He told me that he would raise the issues which I had raised including Trump's racist policies, his anti-LGBT measures, his anti-environmental policies and his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

It was all talk, was it not? The Taoiseach did not raise those issues. The only thing which he did was tell a silly joke about intervening in a planning matter on Trump's behalf. It was absolutely cringeworthy. The Taoiseach achieved the not inconsiderable feat of making Deputy Enda Kenny appear to have been a paragon of progressive thought on his previous trip. How does the Taoiseach explain the contrast between what he said he was going to do in advance of the trip to Washington and all the truths he was going to speak as against the reality of what he did and his craven behaviour there?

Like many people, I was extremely disappointed at the Taoiseach's approach to President Trump. We understand that such visits have to be performed with decorum and that Irish interests are at stake but the Taoiseach indicated, when he was in opposition, when campaigning for the Fine Gael leadership, and subsequently, that he was going to be honest with Donald Trump about our views as a country. I was particularly disappointed that he did not take up with Donald Trump issues such as the views he has often expressed with regard to women, which are really sexist and misogynistic. They seemed to have no part in the discourse. The Taoiseach was trying to pander to President Trump, to use an American phrase for when one covers someone in congratulations and leaves difficult issues, which can be discussed between countries that have strong mutual relations and which deserve to be mentioned, to one side. I do not understand what overcame the Taoiseach. Did he lose his nerve? Did he feel that, strategically, raising Mr. Trump's ire was not worth setting out the Irish position on many issues? The Taoiseach did himself and the country no service in simply pandering to Donald Trump on that day. Yes, it must have been a very exciting day for the Taoiseach, but the Irish people deserved better representation.

I share the general assessment and view expressed by the previous two speakers. I want to ask the Taoiseach a number of specific questions if he has the opportunity to listen. There has been a lack of clarity about the Taoiseach's view of the specific proposal to appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland. Is it something he welcomes? Is it something he has asked for? What is his attitude to it? In terms of the invitation extended to President Trump to visit Ireland, which the Taoiseach reiterated, have there been any discussions about a potential date for such a visit?

I understand that the Taoiseach had a discussion with President Trump on tariffs and that he reported back to the European Council because he was the first EU head of government to meet President Trump after he announced his tariffs on aluminium and steel. When they were announced a temporary exclusion for the EU was included. What is the nature of that exclusion? How long is it? Are conditions attached to it?

Over the years the amount of attention paid to the St. Patrick's Day visit to the United States keeps increasing without any obvious justification. I hope that the Taoiseach will have learned about appropriate language and about how our Head of Government should act when talking about our own public administration. While I do not agree that the Taoiseach should try to give a lecture to the US Government, it is important and it is the role of the Taoiseach to speak up for our values and to leave no one in any doubt about them. One does not get a sense that transpired on this occasion. On the issue of the undocumented Irish, the reality is that this is in an issue which is now being decided in the context of the overall immigration debate within the United States.

We have been searching for a bilateral deal for well over a decade but to no avail. Did the Taoiseach hear anything at any of his meetings, especially in respect of Congress, which would suggest a way forward or some degree of consensus emerging there?

Regarding Northern Ireland, the appointment of a special envoy is something we probably should have sought a number of years ago, once it became clear there were problems with the workings of the institutions. It is not immediately clear that the current Administration has access to the kind of people who could have an impact on a par with previous envoys. Will the Taoiseach tell us what was discussed on this matter?

It is welcome that the Trump Administration appears to have stepped back from initiating-----

The Deputy's time is up.

-----a trade war with the European Union. Clearly, this is a vital issue for Ireland. What, if anything, did the Taoiseach discuss in the context of this specific matter?

Would the Taoiseach not accept that telling a joke about assisting Donald Trump with a planning matter was at best an embarrassing mistake but at worst conveyed a desire to cuddle up to the US President and make common cause with him rather than criticise him for some of his dangerous and, in many cases, obnoxious policies? I say this in all seriousness, setting aside the debate as to whether the Taoiseach was naive, whether he lost his nerve, etc. There was a more serious side to this, which was a desire to show common cause. We might help a multimillionaire like Trump on a planning matter or perhaps it was just a joke. However, it was not very funny from the point of view of the people who take these things seriously. It was part of a pattern, as the Taoiseach also, incredibly, commended Donald Trump on reducing taxes on corporations and pointed out how similar this was to Irish policy. Does the Taoiseach not recognise that the race to the bottom in respect of corporate tax, whatever about Irish domestic policy, is not a good thing in a world where it is contributing directly to growing inequality in the distribution of wealth?

Did the Taoiseach have a conversation about the Salisbury attack, which had happened prior to his visit, and were there discussions-----

The Deputy's time is up.

-----about possible diplomatic retaliation? Whatever about Putin being an authoritarian, which he certainly is, and a dangerous force, Donald Trump is clearly ratcheting up-----

The Deputy's time is up.

-----the cold war confrontation as well.

The intervention on the planning matter was wrong for so many reasons. First, why did the Taoiseach decide to put this country on the same side as Trump? It was well known at the time that Trump had been in a ten-year war against wind farms. Taking a position on this said a lot about this country and our position. It was such a mistake, to my mind, and the process was all wrong.

Second, what was most mortifying for me was the congratulations the Taoiseach offered to Donald Trump on his tax policy. The Taoiseach said Donald Trump was brought into line with us in this regard. We positioned our economy in line with Donald Trump on the issue of tax. That is so bad for this country, and I cannot understand how the Taoiseach can justify it. The reason for our low tax rates, I understood, was that we are a small, peripheral country. It was an incredible mistake to pass this off to the Americans as our being in line with them and being all in this race to the bottom together. I have one specific question, and perhaps the Ceann Comhairle will be able to assist with the response. If Donald Trump takes up the offer of a visit, who decides whether a foreign president is offered an invitation to speak before this House? This is a common courtesy that has been carried out for most visits.

The House will decide.

The reason I bring the Ceann Comhairle into this is that the Speaker of the House of Commons said that such an invitation was not necessarily a privilege that would be easily handed out. Therefore, my question is, if President Trump does come, how do we decide whether he comes to this House?

I was actually at the Speaker's lunch for the first time when the Taoiseach told his story about his interaction with President Trump. Although the telling of it was gauche and cringy, I am more worried about the fact that it happened than the fact that the Taoiseach said it out loud on that occasion. Correct me if I am wrong, but I am not sure he has actually given an explanation for that turn of events, how it was that a very wealthy business person, in this case Donald Trump, could contact him, a senior Cabinet Minister, when, I understand, he was abroad and how the chain of events then unfolded. I understand that the Taoiseach did not contact the local authority directly but that the contact was mediated through an agency under his Department's control. I understand it was Fáilte Ireland. The Taoiseach needs to take the opportunity to set out that chain of events - a chain of events that is deeply worrying from the substantive point of view not only of planning policy, wind farms and renewable energy, but also just of governance. How is it a good message? I understand the close relations with America and Irish America and the diplomatic realities of that-----

The Deputy's time is up.

-----and the Taoiseach was warmly received, but he needs to explain what happened, the chain of events and how in the name of God he thought it appropriate to do what he did, never mind to stand up and say it on Capitol Hill.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. The nature of these meetings is such that they tend to last approximately 35 to 40 minutes. In that period one may want to raise 20 matters and one tries to get through as many as possible. Often one can get through a lot, sometimes not so many. As the meetings to which the Deputies referred were neither recorded nor televised, I appreciate that their knowledge of what was discussed is limited and that they are not fully informed. I am therefore happy to use this opportunity to inform them about some of the things that were discussed in those meetings.

In the meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office, migration was discussed and I did tell him about Ireland's commitment to the European Union and our commitment to free trade and free enterprise and values such as human rights and multilateralism. During my engagement with Vice President Pence and Mrs. Pence we discussed LGBT issues, freedoms and rights, and they very kindly asked about my partner and suggested he would be very welcome in their home should we visit again. I thought that was a very kind gesture. There were no discussions of the attack in Salisbury at either meeting.

Other issues were covered by public speeches, of which Deputies will be aware. In general, when it comes to meeting any prime minister or president, any head of state or government, people endeavour to do three things. The first is to try to form some form of personal relationship on the basis that they will probably speak again, whether in a meeting or over the phone. The second is to find some areas where they have common cause. The third is to find areas where there is difference. That is the way I approach my interactions with almost anyone, not just prime ministers and presidents. First, I try to strike up some form of relationship with a bit of an ice-breaker and we talk to each other. Second, we talk about the areas where we find common cause and on which we are aligned. Then we look at the areas where we disagree. Then one sees if it is possible to convince the other person of one's view or to find some sort of compromise. I appreciate that other people's approach to politics does not involve this and that it is just about shouting at people, throwing mud at them, beating them down and so on. However, I am glad to say that is not my approach to politics.

I would absolutely welcome a special envoy to Northern Ireland. Any US interest in Northern Ireland is welcome. I very much welcome the input from Peter King and Richard Neal, whom I had the chance to get to know for the first time when I was in the United States. The value in having an envoy would be to have someone who could be the eyes and ears for the White House and to a lesser extent Congress in Northern Ireland reporting back to them accurately what is going on rather than just relying on the Irish Government assessment, the British Government assessment or the assessment of the different parties. Having their own eyes and ears on the ground in Northern Ireland would be of real value. However, my priority is that we should have an envoy to Ireland, which would be the appointment of an ambassador. If the White House is looking for people to send to Ireland, I ask that they prioritise the appointment of a permanent ambassador, but both would certainly be welcome.

Tariffs on steel and aluminium were discussed in the meeting with President Trump and in all the meetings with congressional leaders. Congressional leaders tend to be free traders. President Trump is not a free trader. His position is more protectionist, more socialist, in my view-----

-----than that of the leaders in Congress, who are more for free trade and free enterprise. I very much gave my view that I would prefer for us to have a trade deal rather than a trade war and that we should have a free trade agreement, FTA, between the EU and the United States. President Trump did not dismiss this out of hand; he was actually quite open to it. This was one of the takeaways from the meeting that surprised me.

I thought he would be against that but he was not. He had a particular concern about trade deficits with countries such as Germany and China and a particular concern about the fact the EU imposes higher tariffs on cars than the US imposes on the EU. I suggested the best way to resolve these issues is not tit-for-tat tariffs and restrictions but engagement in a free trade agreement. That was not dismissed out of hand and I thought it would have been. The exemption for steel and aluminium is temporary and applies until May. In that period, there will be engagement between the EU and US on some grievances the US has in respect of trade practices. We will see what happens after that. Obviously the EU is looking for a permanent exemption and not one that ends in May.

On the Irish undocumented, Deputy Deasy is leading that project. In the absence of an overall solution and comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, we are seeking a bilateral solution for Ireland. There were previous models in the past, and people will know about the various eponymous visa programmes that existed. There is also Australia, which has an E-3 visa, a certain number of which are given every year. What we are working on is a proposal whereby a certain number of visas would be made available to Irish people who are undocumented in the US, perhaps 2,000 or 3,000 a year for three years or 5,000 for two years, with a total of 10,000 or 15,000. In return for this we would do something similar here, given the large number of US citizens who now live in Ireland and the large number who retire to Ireland. There are certain restrictions on them at present. It is very much something we could do that would be mutual. This was very well received by the President, and he directed his staff to work with my staff to progress it. It would, of course, require congressional approval and that could pose a difficulty given that many members of Congress, even though they are very supportive of doing something for the Irish undocumented-----

They want to be comprehensive.

-----do not want to do so for one nationality. That is the position they take and I can understand that perspective entirely. Obviously, our first commitment must be to our citizens living in the United States and it is.

In relation to the County Clare wind farm, I gave a comprehensive explanation of the timeline at a press conference in New York and also produced the documentary evidence of the email. Deputies may be aware, and this does not seem to have been mentioned, the project was ultimately refused by An Bord Pleanála on environmental grounds. Sometimes even wind farms can be refused on environmental grounds. It is the long-standing practice of Fáilte Ireland to examine planning permissions and to make observations if it is its view that-----

If it gets a phone call.

So why did the Taoiseach contact it?

-----the development could have a negative impact on tourism in the area.

With regard to the Oireachtas, I am pretty sure it is not in my authority to invite somebody to address the Oireachtas. I imagine it involves some sort of communication between the office of the Ceann Comhairle and my office. Ultimately, I would have thought it is the prerogative of the Oireachtas rather than a decision of Government. Having said that, there is a specific provision in the Constitution that states foreign affairs are a matter for the Government. How and ever, there certainly have been presidential visits in the past that did not include a visit to the Oireachtas or a speech to the Oireachtas, so it is not that they have to happen together.

Let us avoid that indignity at least.

European Council Meetings

Joan Burton


17. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the meeting of the EU Council on 22 and 23 March 2018. [12789/18]

Joan Burton


18. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent meeting of the EU Council. [13574/18]

Brendan Howlin


19. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the EU Council meeting on 22 and 23 March 2018. [13846/18]

Michael Moynihan


20. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he held bilateral meetings while attending the March 2018 EU Council meeting; and the issues that were discussed. [14160/18]

Michael Moynihan


21. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if corporation tax was discussed at the March 2018 EU Council meeting. [14161/18]

Eamon Ryan


22. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings at the European Council. [14207/18]

Micheál Martin


23. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the discussions and the contributions on digital tax made by him and other EU leaders at the March 2018 EU Council meeting. [14155/18]

Micheál Martin


24. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he had bilateral meetings at the March 2018 EU Council meeting. [14159/18]

Michael Moynihan


25. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if the regulation of social media sites and the political ramifications that loose regulation is having on elections across the EU and globally were discussed at the March 2018 EU Council meeting, following the revelations regarding companies (details supplied). [14162/18]

Micheál Martin


26. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the UK following the use of a nerve agent against persons (details supplied) in Salisbury was discussed at the March 2018 EU Council meeting. [14154/18]

We now move to Questions Nos. 17 to 26.

Thank you, Ceann Comhairle.

We have not heard the reply. Deputy Burton is very eager.

I would hate to suggest Deputy Burton does not need to hear the reply before she asks her supplementary question.

Deputy Burton has good anticipation powers.

She and the Taoiseach know each other very well.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 to 26, inclusive, together.

I attended the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, 22 and 23 March.

On Thursday, we discussed jobs, growth and competitiveness, touching on the Single Market, digital Single Market, capital markets union, the European semester, economic and monetary union and social issues. Given recent events, the need to ensure protection of personal data in the context of social networks was also discussed.

In a leaders' agenda discussion on taxation and digital taxation, a wide range of different views were expressed, including views on the desirability of interim measures in advance of completion of its work by the OECD. I did not support any interim measure. I emphasised that all companies should pay their fair share of tax and should pay it when it is due and where it is owed, and that our approach should be evidence-based, sustainable and focused on aligning taxing rights with the location of real, substantive value-creating activity. The Council will return to this matter in June and ECOFIN will consider it in the interim.

Partners strongly condemned the attack in Salisbury and offered full solidarity and support to the UK. All 28 member states agreed with the assessment of the UK that the Russian Federation was highly likely to have been involved in the attack and we agreed to recall the EU ambassador from Moscow.

On Friday, we discussed trade, including President Trump's decision to exempt the EU from tariffs on steel and aluminium, at least for now. I briefed colleagues on my meeting with President Trump on 12 March and his particular approach to trade.

On Brexit and Article 50, the European Council considered progress in the negotiations with the UK on the draft withdrawal agreement. Good progress has been achieved in some parts, including on citizens' rights, the financial settlement and transition period. Importantly, the UK explicitly confirmed that the backstop option, as agreed in the joint report in December, will form part of the legal text and it is now engaging on the detail of that text.

The European Council agreed guidelines for negotiating the framework for the future relationship between the UK and the EU. These reflect our ambition for a close partnership, while ensuring a level playing field, fair competition and the integrity of the Single Market. They also leave open the possibility of the European Union revisiting its position and guidelines should the United Kingdom evolve its approach beyond the currently expressed red lines. The European Council will review all the withdrawal issues at our meeting in June, with a view to finalising work on the withdrawal agreement in October. It is important to emphasise that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

In euro summit format, we also discussed economic and monetary union. I stressed the need, in particular, to focus on areas of practical value, including completion of the banking union and having a deposit guarantee system for Europe.

In the margins of the meeting, I met the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, who again expressed support for our position on Brexit and we discussed our common positions on tax and trade.

I also had a short meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, during which I conveyed my solidarity with her on the attack that occurred in Salisbury. On Brexit, I welcomed her Government's commitment to ensuring a backstop forms part of the withdrawal agreement and looked forward to progress on this and on the other options before the European Council in June. I will be making a full statement to the House on this later in the afternoon.

Will the Taoiseach level with the Dáil as to what work is under way at present on the possibility of a hard border? I know it is something nobody wants, including the Taoiseach, but on the other hand we now have fairly continuous statements, ranging from the somewhat authoritative to the very authoritative, from figures such as the Secretary of State, Mr. Davis, on a technological type of border in particular. I imagine the Taoiseach must have officials examining what form these particular possibilities might take. I also noticed that yesterday, he made a hopeful reference that perhaps subsequent to the UK leaving there could be an agreement which would mirror the exact arrangements of now. That is what I understood the Taoiseach to say yesterday. This has been frequently described as magical thinking, namely, that everything can change but at the same time everything can stay the same. It would be interesting if the Taoiseach could advise us as to why he expects this because short of a British general election or a second Brexit referendum, there does not really seem to be a capacity to deliver, post the UK leaving, a mirror arrangement to what exists now.

In respect of the appalling attack in Salisbury in the UK, we are aware of the common statement made by the European Council and the decision to recall to Brussels the EU ambassador, a decision I welcomed and supported last Friday.

Was other co-ordinated action by EU member states discussed or agreed at the Council and what was the Taoiseach's input to those discussions?

In regard to other matters discussed, for example, the legal form of the backstop agreement - the so-called option C of last December - what is the attitude of other member states to the Commission's legal version which has been rejected out of hand by the United Kingdom? Where does this formal legal version now stand or has it been set aside to be renegotiated with the UK? On Turkey, I know that leaders condemned Turkey's action in areas close to Cyprus but of greater concern is the actions Turkey has taken against Kurds in the Afrin region. Was this matter discussed at the European Council?

The Taoiseach and I previously discussed this matter briefly and we will have statements on it later today, at which time we get into the specifics.

Yesterday, I asked the Taoiseach if he agreed with the following statement that was made by the Tánaiste, "If we don't have it done by June, then I think obviously, we have to raise some serious questions as to whether it is possible to finalise a withdrawal treaty at all." As the Taoiseach neglected to respond yesterday, I would like to give him another opportunity to do so. Is our objective an agreed backstop by text by June or is the Taoiseach unconcerned if it slips to October? His commentary on Thursday last directly implied that October is no problem in spite of lots of evidence to the contrary.

On co-ordinated action against Russia, did every country accept the irrefutable evidence that there is a pattern of Russian aggression in Europe? Does the Taoiseach accept that we should all be concerned about Russia's direct and ongoing support of extremism and anti-European Union sentiment in a range of countries? It is striking how the far right and far left have been united in defending Russia on this occasion and in every other example of Putin's aggression, such as the evasion and partition of Ukraine. Given that our security organisations have expressed concern about Russia's need for an outsized embassy here and the evidence of online interference in most recent elections in Europe, I seek the Taoiseach's support in urgently progressing Deputy Lawless's Bill on related matters.

Honesty is an important prerequisite to serious debate. Deputy Martin said that those who are critical of the decision to expel are defending Russia, in response to which I noted the Taoiseach was nodding.

I did not say that.

The Deputy did say it. As recently as last week, Deputy Gino Kenny and I condemned the behaviour of Russia on the floor of the Dáil. We asked the Government to bring in the Russian ambassador to answer questions about what Russia is doing in Syria. Lest anybody is in any doubt, Putin is an authoritarian war monger but this does not, however, mean that Russia is guilty, without evidence, of what happened in Salisbury, nor does it mean that, therefore, President Trump and the European Union are without sin in an escalating cold war. Do we think President Trump, in his expulsion of Russian diplomats, is any less of a dodgy authoritarian or at least in the same league as Putin in his attitude to geopolitical affairs?

Are the Russians trying to hack? Definitely. We are all aware of the scandal that unfolded recently in regard to Facebook, an American company which gave information to Cambridge Analytica, which is being used to subvert democratic elections. The Russians and the Americans are dodgy and there are spies in the Russian embassy, the American embassy and the Israeli embassy. Let us be even handed in all of this. What is required is a bit of consistency. I ask the Taoiseach for consistency in dealing with these matters.

The net point is that whatever views are taken of Russia, America or any other administration or regime, at the core of this matter is this country and its policy and tradition of military neutrality and an independent foreign policy.

Was the issue of Catalonia discussed? The Taoiseach will be aware that Charles Puigdemont was detained in Germany on Sunday. All of this is playing out before the international community and European Union. This is extraordinary. The lengths to which not only the Spanish state but the European system has been deployed to subvert, quell and crush the desire in Catalonia for independence, democratically expressed at polling stations, is astonishing. One can argue constitutionally the legality or the status of that particular process, which may be fine, but what is beyond doubt is that real, legitimate political aspirations are now meeting the heavy hand of the law. Was this issued and what did the Taoiseach say on the matter?

On a hard border, it is fair to say that all of us in this House want to avoid it and I think we can and will avoid it. The terms of the transition are now agreed. Even though nothing is finally agreed until everything is agreed, at least the terms of it are agreed and are now highlighted in green, which means we have until 2021 to prepare for any permanent changes that may occur. In terms of what is happening now, a series of meetings are taking place in Brussels, with the UK on one side and Ireland and the task force on the other side. We are engaging on the text of option C and any alternatives that the UK may put forward. Other member states are 100% supportive of the text produced by the protocol. We are open to amendments as long as the outcome remains the same. This is the approach we are taking. We are not making any specific preparations for a hard border. We are doing everything we can to avoid it, first, by having a backstop in place and, second, by trying to negotiate a new close partnership between the EU and the UK that would allow us to not ever have to activate the backstop. They are the objectives we are working to.

On Salisbury, the Council agreed two things. It agreed the text that we agreed with the UK's assessment that it was highly likely that the Russian federation was involved in this response and also that the EU ambassador would be recalled from Moscow. There were many other suggested actions but that is what was agreed. It was also agreed that member states that were willing and able would expel diplomats in a co-ordinated way on Monday afternoon and 14 EU states did so. We decided to wait until after the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday and so we were the 15th or 16th state to do so.

On Turkey, there was no discussion on the Kurdish region. There was a discussion on Cyprus and its territorial waters and the two Greek soldiers who were not being detained in Turkey.

On the Tánaiste's comments, I would first need to see the question he was asked. I am always loath to comment on the comments of others without first seeing the question asked and the full answer given. I am pretty sure I agree with what he said, which is that we expect and want to have the terms of the backstop agreed by June and we are pushing very hard to have that done.

I gave the Taoiseach an exact quote of what the Tánaiste said.

It is still the case that nothing is agree until everything is agreed.

Departmental Correspondence

Richard Boyd Barrett


27. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the system used by his Department for dealing with correspondence. [12831/18]

My Department receives significant volumes of correspondence. All correspondence received is acknowledged and most correspondence receives a further substantive reply. Depending on the nature of a particular item of correspondence, it may be brought to my attention or to the attention of staff within my Department.

Oftentimes, correspondence which is initially received by my Department necessitates collaboration with another Department.

In many cases this can take the form of a request for its observations on a draft reply or, in some instances, my Department provides information to another Department to facilitate it in formulating an appropriate response within a reasonable timeframe.

A full record of the journey that a particular item of correspondence travels is maintained and all responses are stored in an electronic system, which includes detailed search capabilities for retrieval of correspondence at a later point.

To achieve this, my Department uses a system known as eCorrespondence, an application offered under the "build to share" work programme of the public service ICT strategy.

My Department worked closely with the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, OGCIO, as part of a project team to agree a common set of user requirements upon which the eCorrespondence system was designed.

The objective of the project team was to provide a solution which encompassed the required functionalities associated with the receipt, acknowledgement, reply and tracking of all correspondence and to provide this in such a way that it could become a common solution across all Departments over time.

The eCorrespondence system has been operational in my Department since June 2017 and replaced a number of disparate systems which had been deployed prior to that date.

One learns something new every day.

The Taoiseach said a substantive response is usually given to any correspondence his Department receives within an appropriate time. I have a specific question about a piece of correspondence dealing with a serious matter. It relates to a whistleblower whose story and the issue he brought to public attention featured in a "Prime Time Investigates" programme in 2015. It involved a company called Eurosurgical which was subsequently wound up with big tax liabilities. The company was exposed as having given gifts to procurement managers in 13 different hospitals to manipulate the tendering process and to get contracts to sell surgical equipment to those hospitals. It was very serious stuff. It was exposed and brought to public attention by a whistleblower who formerly worked for that company.

That whistleblower has requested some assistance from the Minister for Health. A journalist who helped break the story wrote to the Taoiseach on 31 October last to point out that the whistleblower has been blackballed ever since then. He cannot get a job anywhere in the private health sector because he blew the whistle. The whistleblower legislation does not apply retrospectively and it was passed after he had blown the whistle and done the State a service on a very serious matter. The State has offered the guy nothing and he cannot get a job. A letter was sent to the Taoiseach's Department and to the Minister for Health asking that they give this whistleblower some support and assistance. He has even spoken about going into the witness protection programme because of a fear of intimidation and retaliation. I ask the Taoiseach to look into this correspondence and to have the decency to respond in a serious manner to a whistleblower who has done the State a service.

Central to the handling of correspondence is that emails should be preserved and should use official addresses. Has the Taoiseach used a private email for public business? If he has, what security measures has he taken and does he preserve and make emails available to the freedom of information officer in his Department? Can he give us a 100% assurance that his private emails have been made available if required for freedom of information purposes?

The Office of the Government Chief Information Officer is a relatively new but important office in the State administration. It is important that it is resourced. It is hard to get people of the calibre we need in the public service who are competent in this field. I ask the Taoiseach to reflect on the needs of that office and to ensure it is properly resourced and staffed.

On the last matter, I certainly will reflect on it. I am aware of the office and I know it has to prove much new software and ICT programmes for the Government, but I am not as knowledgeable as I ought to be. I will certainly accept Deputy Howlin's suggestion in that regard. He was involved in much of that work when he was Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

As regards the correspondence mentioned by Deputy Boyd Barrett, I will look it up as it has not crossed my desk. I remember the case he mentioned because I was Minister for Health when that story broke. I will take a look at the correspondence, although I am not sure there is anything we can do to assist somebody to get employment.

The Taoiseach could give him a reference.

I never give a reference to somebody I do not know. It is my general practice not to give references to people I do not know and that is not always well received in my constituency clinic.

With regard to email, I have a number of email accounts. I have had an Oireachtas email account for ten or 11 years, which is used mainly for constituency correspondence. I have a Department email account which changes as I move from Department to Department. I also have a personal email account. It is my practice to use them for their intended purpose - my personal email for personal use, my Department email for departmental use and the Oireachtas email for Oireachtas use. Needless to say, however, on occasion I have to use the personal email, such as when the system is down or when I do not have my work telephone with me and only have a personal telephone. In some cases, and I believe the Deputy is referring one such case, people who I have known since before I became Taoiseach email me on a business matter to my personal email account. I follow my Department's email policy, which I signed off on last October. Where a personal email is used I make sure it is forwarded to somebody who has a Department of the Taoiseach address, which is how it appears for freedom of information, or I forward it myself or produce a hard copy. That is how to ensure it is public record and can be released under freedom of information. That is in line with the email policy which I signed last October.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.