Before we start the clock ticking on Taoiseach's Questions, clearly the current way of dealing with these questions is better than how we used to deal with them but it is still not satisfactory. The timing is not working out correctly. With the agreement of the House, we will ask the Dáil reform committee to look at a more efficient way of trying to deal with these questions in the new term. I note that today there are a large number of questions in the third group and it is really impossible to fit the grouping into the time allocated. I ask all the Members to stick to the allocated time and we will try to get through as much of this as we can.
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with European Union, EU, Commission President, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker during his visit to Dublin. [27494/18]
2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with President Juncker; the issues that were discussed; if President Juncker raised the December backstop agreement; and President Juncker's views in relation to the Brexit negotiations. [27687/18]
Mary Lou McDonaldCeist:
3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement with the President of the European Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker. [28955/18]
Richard Boyd BarrettCeist:
4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with European Union Commission President, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker. [29098/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
I was pleased to welcome the Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, to Government Buildings on Thursday, 21 June, where we had a very constructive and friendly meeting. This was President Juncker’s first visit to Dublin in his current role. He was accompanied by Commissioner Hogan and Mr. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
At our meeting, we discussed the state of play in the Brexit negotiations in advance of the June European Council. Mr. Barnier reiterated his assessment that serious divergences remain between the EU and the UK on how to resolve the Irish Border question. As the EU side has made clear, the withdrawal agreement must contain a fully operational backstop so there can be no hard border on this island in the future, whatever circumstances may prevail. For there to be a withdrawal agreement and a period of transition there has to be full agreement on all issues. As we both made clear, there is now an urgent need to intensify efforts if we are to conclude a withdrawal agreement and have it operational by the time the United Kingdom leaves the EU next March.
I, of course, took the opportunity to convey my sincere appreciation to both President Juncker and Mr. Michel Barnier for their unwavering support and solidarity throughout the negotiations, as the President reiterated when he spoke in this Chamber. It is clear that EU partners remain absolutely steadfast in their support around the Irish issues. We also discussed a number of other important EU issues ahead of the June European Council, including migration. While noting Ireland was less directly affected than other member states, I made clear our wish to play our part in developing a comprehensive EU approach, based on ensuring strong external borders; solidarity between member states; and working in partnership with countries of origin, particularly African countries, to underpin political and economic development in those countries, so that people can enjoy better lives and opportunities in their home countries.
Has the Taoiseach spoken to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, since the three-page Chequers statement was published by the UK Government? If so, has Mr. Juncker imparted any view to him on that statement? The Taoiseach said on Monday that the UK must be in the Single Market in full or else stay out of it entirely. The Chequers agreement - if it can be called an agreement - between those members of the British Conservative Party present at Chequers on Friday, which is the document before us, speaks of an agreement that the UK would stay in a goods and agrifood market but not the full Single Market. Is the Taoiseach of the view that there is scope to negotiate that matter, or is his statement of Monday that the UK is either in the Single Market as we know it in its entirety or out of it in its entirety his definitive view? Most of us welcome the fact that there now is at least a grounding document which we can engage with, but I am still of the view I expressed yesterday - and I thank the Taoiseach for his positive consideration of it - that we need a legal text covering the backstop agreement that is acceptable so that when we go into the October discussions we are not bundling everything together.
Has the Taoiseach given further consideration to the notion of seeking to extricate the backstop agreement even if he needs to placate the UK authorities by saying that this is ar eagla na heagla, a complete backstop which probably will not be needed, but we need legal certainty around its terms which are agreeable to the UK?
The pace of developments on Brexit has increased. The Taoiseach said that the UK has to be either in the Single Market fully or outside it. We require further elaboration and clarification in the context of the Chequers statement, which, as I said yesterday, represents a significant change in direction insofar as there is now coherence emanating from the British Government, and a clear move towards a softer Brexit. The type of Brexit now being mooted is still unclear. The exact end state sought by the Government has been entirely unclear over the past year beyond saying it wishes Britain to stay in everything. Britain has said that it is not in favour of a Norway-style agreement but rather is seeking something more than just a free trade agreement. Has the Taoiseach a position on that? Yesterday he made comments about compromises on red line issues. Can he be more specific about what he meant by that? He seems to suggest that on one level the EU should be flexible on the red line issues but at the same time it is not compromising on them.
The Taoiseach will also have noted that Mr. Michel Barnier has called for the issue of east-west controls under a backstop to be de-dramatised. Many people see this as an admission that the impact of the backstop was over-briefed last December and that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste went overboard promoting it as an historic moment. I note that the Tánaiste seems to have taken a more nuanced approach and used a different tack to the Taoiseach regarding the Chequers statement. Does the Taoiseach accept Michel Barnier's call to de-dramatise the issue of the backstop? What steps will he take to do that?
The east-west border issue is de-dramatised automatically when we recall that the island is, for the purposes of quarantine and animal health and protection, regarded as "fortress Ireland" in any event. I assume that Michel Barnier was referring to that type of thing. None of us wants an east-west border, and certainly not a north-south border, but this is the hand we have been dealt; it is not of our making. Does the Taoiseach share the view of Michel Barnier that the Single Market cannot be cherry-picked? The four freedoms exist and the integrity of the market must be respected in its totality. Is the Taoiseach ad idem with Mr. Barnier on that point? I ask that question in the full knowledge that there is a necessity for a bespoke arrangement for the island of Ireland, and that our European partners are prepared to extend that or to depart marginally from that principle to accommodate Ireland. I assume that we will continue to press for that.
Yesterday I asked the Taoiseach about the backstop, which was politically conceived in December and which found expression in March. I require clarification on one aspect of his response. He said that negotiations were still open. My clear understanding is that the European text, that iteration of the backstop, is not still a matter for negotiations and that it is the European position. Can the Taoiseach please confirm that is the case? Can he also confirm that it is not just the European answer at this juncture, but that it is the backstop, as far as Ireland is concerned, at the moment?
The Taoiseach said that he was not hung up on legal text, and that it is about the outcome rather than the legal text. Of course, the outcome matters, but it is only enforceable on the basis of the legal text that underpins it. This is all about legal text, so I suggest that the Taoiseach should be hung up on it.
The Taoiseach said that he spoke to Jean-Claude Juncker and used the phrase, "strengthening the external borders of the EU", which has been used regularly at recent meetings. I want to interrogate what he is talking about and what it means. I will put it bluntly and dramatically, and also accurately. European leaders, including the Taoiseach, unfortunately, are sleep-walking back into the nightmare years of the 1930s, with the rise of the far-right and dangerous, racist political forces. The Taoiseach was criticised over the weekend for what was described as a legitimising and normalising of the racist policies of the far-right Hungarian leader, Viktor Orbán, by the Helsinki committee on human rights, for his evasive and weak responses, and for legitimising the quite shocking calls by Mr. Orbán to put Hungarians first at the expense of refugees. This sort of policy has led to the deaths of 35,000 people in the Mediterranean Sea and is leading to absolute horrors in places such as Libya, where people are experiencing slave-like conditions. Is the Taoiseach worried about the rise of these far-right forces? Have he and Mr. Juncker begun to question whether giving credence to the far-right argument that asylum seekers are somehow a problem legitimises those forces and encourages them? We should face them down in the strongest terms, and point out that asylum seekers and migrants are not a burden on Europe. In Ireland we now have labour shortages. We cannot build enough houses because we have labour shortages. We should resolutely resist the racist, xenophobic, anti-migrant logic being pursued by Mr. Orbán, who is a colleague of the Taoiseach in the European People's Party, EPP.
From the top, I have not spoken to President Juncker since the Chequers statement was issued. I anticipate that I will speak to him later this month when we have seen the White Paper.
As often said, the Chequers statement is three pages long while the White Paper, which we have yet to see, will be more than 100 pages long. Consequently, I would like to see, read and digest that before speaking to Prime Minister May and President Juncker again. However, I do anticipate that we will speak this month.
In regard to the European Single Market, the position of the European Union and the 27 member states that are remaining, including Ireland, is that the four freedoms are indivisible, that is, the freedom of goods, freedom of services, freedom of labour and freedom of capital. It is not possible to cherry pick and it would not be fair to other countries to allow any country to cherry pick. I imagine if the United Kingdom was allowed to have à la carte membership of the Single European Market, far-right, far-left and populist parties all over the EU would demand the same for those countries, and we would begin to see the breakup of the Single Market and the European Union. That is not in Ireland's interest and therefore, it is not something I can support.
There is also an increasingly blurred line between goods and services. A driverless car is a good, in that it is a car, but it only operates based on service provision, which is the guidance that allows that car to move around the place. For a long time, a phone has been both a good and a service. On its own, it is just a piece of metal and plastic. It is the services that make it work. Being able to strictly distinguish goods from services is becoming increasingly complicated.
Not in the context of tariffs.
It is also important to state an obvious fact, which is that the United Kingdom does not want to be in the Single Market. I wish it did, but its Government has said on many occasions that the UK is leaving the Single Market and we need to respect that. What we can do, however, is negotiate access to the Single Market for them, or we can negotiate as the EU with the UK for the United Kingdom to have a degree of access to the Single Market. Perhaps that is Jesuitical but it is an important point-----
It sounds Jesuitical to me.
-----and I think that is where the negotiations can go in the next couple of months. Other people said it was Jesuitical. I think it is very clear.
Access to the Single Market is different to-----
Being in the Single Market, yes.
What is the difference between access on a restricted basis and cherry picking?
It is a trade deal.
That is obviously part of the negotiations that are going to have to pan out. Cherry picking would be having access without giving anything in return. Like I say, I do not wish to engage in a running commentary on the talks and I am not in a position to make any concessions on behalf of the European Union on the floor of the House. Any concessions or modification of the EU's position has to be done by the EU 27 acting together, and I cannot do that unilaterally. However, I stand over what I have said consistently, namely, that if the United Kingdom evolves from its red lines, which subject to the White Paper following through on what was said at Chequers I believe it has, then the European Union can be flexible about its guidelines. However, that change cannot be made by me. It has to be made by the EU 27 working together, and I am absolutely determined that we should continue to be part of team Europe and part of the EU 27. It is a strength in these negotiations that we are negotiating with the UK as Europe and that Ireland has not been isolated from other European countries or caught in the middle. I think that is the way we can get the best deal for Ireland and Northern Ireland. If things did go wrong for some reason and we did end up with a hard Brexit, a no-deal scenario, we would be better off with that being a shared problem for the EU 27 rather than with us going out on our own, having an independent position but at the end of it all looking for support and concessions from the EU, having broken the 27-member state consensus. Consequently, I am never going to do that.
Urban Renewal Schemes
5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his Department’s work in respect of the Dublin inner city forum established on foot of the Dublin inner city task force report. [27495/18]
Mary Lou McDonaldCeist:
6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department on the Dublin inner city forum. [28956/18]
7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will provide an update on his Department's work regarding the north inner city task force. [29292/18]
8. Deputy Noel Rock asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department in respect of the Dublin inner city forum established following the Dublin inner city task force report. [30974/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 8, inclusive, together.
My Department is actively involved with the work of the programme implementation board, headed by its independent chairperson, Mr. Michael Stone. The board and its four subgroups meet every month to oversee progress on the 54 actions set out in the Mulvey report. The chairman of the board reports on a regular basis to an oversight group of senior officials chaired by the Secretary General of my Department. This provides an opportunity to resolve any structural barriers or issues highlighted by the board.
Two months ago I highlighted the wide range of projects and supports that had been put in place as a starting point and emphasised the need to shift the focus to actions for the longer term. Two of the biggest issues are policing and employment.
I can report that since April, 51 new gardaí have been assigned to the area to increase patrols and restore community policing to the area. With patrols targeting drug dealing and anti-social behaviour black spots, this is already making a difference and will improve the sense of community safety and provide a positive platform from which to deliver a strong and visible community policing service. The divisional drugs unit is now restored to full capacity and has undertaken a number of successful operations resulting in seizures and arrests.
A new social employment scheme for the area, funded by the Department of Rural and Community Affairs, has resulted in 30 new jobs in local community projects delivering key social services. These 30 staff members started work in recent weeks in local childcare and youth services, older people services and local environmental services.
On 1 June, 48 local people of all ages and genders sailed into Dublin Port, journeying from Belfast and Liverpool on 16 tall ships, having spent a week sail training. I know that in itself it was a small thing, but it was made possible by community, statutory bodies and business working together. I particularly want to recognise and thank Sail Training Ireland for its assistance. For many of those who took part, this will be a life-changing experience, working and training side by side with people from other nationalities, breaking down barriers and overcoming fears. It opens up a world of possibilities for many and this is what the north-east inner city programme is all about - new opportunities and equality of opportunity.
The board is working with Dublin City Council to ensure the look and feel of the area is improved through refurbishment and cleaning works, greening the area and tackling derelict sites.
The Government will continue to support Mr. Michael Stone and the board in the work they are doing, which is seeing good collaboration between State services, community projects and local employers.
I wish to ask some precise questions. I thank the Taoiseach for his comprehensive answer. He says that the implementation board, chaired by Mr. Stone, meets monthly and reports to the senior officials group chaired by his own Secretary General. In regard to capital projects, what are the Taoiseach's priorities now? Very welcome work is now finally being done on O’Devaney Gardens. However, a lot of student accommodation has been built in the area. What is the Taoiseach's view on the optimum balance between student and social and affordable housing and what social and affordable housing plans are afoot?
The Taoiseach mentioned the drugs task force. I believe the deadline for submissions to the ongoing public consultation process on the personal possession of illegal drugs is Friday. There is a lot of online advertising announcing that. What is the Taoiseach's personal position on the possession of drugs for personal use or does he have one?
Finally, the Taoiseach mentioned the issue of community safety and extra gardaí. We were a little bit disquieted when a fully loaded Garda submachine gun was found in the north inner city yesterday. It is not clear how it came to be found or lost but I understand it was handed in to Store Street Garda station. Does the Taoiseach have any information on how that came about?
I wish to start with that issue. It was quite bizarre, and it was lucky happenstance that the person who came across the loaded Garda submachine gun was a responsible citizen who brought it to Store Street Garda station. Does the Taoiseach have any information that would be of some assistance on that, even an initial assessment?
Mr. Michael Stone has done good work, and he should be commended, as indeed should those on the various working groups. Despite that, there is a mountain to climb. Let me demonstrate what I mean by that. The assistant Garda commissioner, Mr. Pat Leahy, revealed that more than 500 death threats have been issued to individuals across Dublin in recent years. Of the most serious of these threats, ten were made against persons in the north inner city, many of them, though not all, related to the ongoing feud. I will tell the Taoiseach that elderly people are frightened in many of our neighbourhoods. Children in the neighbourhoods have been exposed to terrible violence, some of them having witnessed murder in broad daylight.
There is a concern among the schools to support these children through the trauma and impact of all of this. I quoted the assistant commissioner, and I reiterate that it is his view that this feud, as it is called, is not likely to end any time soon. As welcome as the funding has been for the north inner city, it has been piecemeal and, to use the old expression, been like using a Band-Aid where radical surgery is required. At the root of all these issues, however we come at them, is poverty. With regard to the issue of housing, I acknowledge the sod has been turned, at last, on O'Devaney Gardens in the north west of the inner city, which is not covered by this forum or working group. If the Taoiseach wants to make a big difference, big money should be spent on the regeneration of Ballybough House, where people live in cramped, damp conditions in which nobody should be asked to live. They are great families and great children.
The Deputy is over time.
They are such cramped conditions, and the Ceann Comhairle will be shocked that people do not even have the space for a kitchen table. I find this shocking in 2018. If we want to get at this problem and want to change the north inner city then we should acknowledge intergenerational poverty, go after it and solve it. Phase one should be accommodation and housing. There is substandard accommodation and there is an need for big investment in regeneration.
I thank the Taoiseach for his response and for his sustained commitment to the north inner city and the northside of Dublin. I am satisfied to see the Department is continuing the positive work in, and sustained focus on, this vibrant area. It would be remiss of me, however, if I did not call on the Taoiseach to expand this positive engagement of the forum to date to the stakeholders in Ballymun and Finglas on the northside of the city. Recently, the Taoiseach visited Ballymun with me and saw first-hand some of the great work taking place there. Unfortunately, in parts of the Ballymun and parts of Finglas there is a serious issue with crime such as drug dealing, the illegal use of scrambler bikes and antisocial behaviour. People are truly at their wits' end and I ask the Taoiseach to investigate the possibility of setting up a similar task force for Ballymun and Finglas, using the model quite successfully piloted in the north inner city to date, having been requested two years ago by the Taoiseach's predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny, and working with the hard-working community activists, project leaders and groups in these areas. In the two years since the task force was set up we have seen the difference it can make, the change it can bring about and the sustained focus it can place on a community such as the north inner city. The changes have been positive so far and I would like the model to be expanded and brought to other areas.
During his visit to Sheriff Street with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, last February, the Taoiseach stated the Departments based in the area needed to do more as members of the local community. He said this should include hiring more local residents. Will the Taoiseach outline what steps he has taken to follow up on this statement? How many local people have been hired as a result of his commitment? When we discussed the task force on the previous occasion, I identified housing as a key issue and I agree with Deputy McDonald. I have been with Mary Fitzpatrick on a tour of the area. The quality of housing is a key issue and there is a big gap in the initiative's focus. The need to have a substantive regeneration project similar to Limerick and other areas is a key ingredient in terms of generational change.
The quality of housing in which people are living is appalling in many instances, and there are also empty flats and complexes that have not been developed. One of the big issues going forward will be the inability of people living in the community to have sustainable housing in terms of owning their own houses and retaining and sustaining a community spirit. The biggest developments are in student accommodation and there is a danger of a change in terms of the living environment for many people. Housing is something that needs to be focused on in this area, and there has been a gap in terms of the assessment of the issue, apart from other positives in terms of Garda activity, which I commend. I pay tribute to the Garda for the work it has been doing in the area.
We have loads of questions but we will not have any time for answers.
I also want to raise the issue of housing conditions in the inner city. Recently I was contacted by residents in the south inner city complaining about the chronic damp conditions in their flat complexes, which they have been suffering for long periods of time. There is absolutely no doubt that in areas of big disadvantage the issue of housing is desperate. It has knock-on effects for children, mothers and everybody that then spill out into the other problems we often associate with extreme disadvantage. The need to address this is of the utmost priority.
My next point links to the questions on the European Union. I was reading a report that all of us should tune into, by a body backed by the European Union, FEANTSA, which monitors homelessness and exclusion from housing across Europe. Its reports are shocking. They show there has been a spectacular rise in homelessness and housing problems everywhere in Europe. I do not know whether this is on the radar of the EU, in terms of the urgency of us looking for flexibility on the fiscal rules to put major investment into the provision of social, affordable and quality housing in the many areas where it is lacking.
I will go to the Taoiseach now because there are only two minutes in which to respond to this group of questions.
I am not a member of the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform, but a bit longer for me to answer the questions and a bit less time for them to be asked might be a solution, but if that is not possible I understand.
We only get a minute and a half.
We get 90 seconds.
They are meant to be questions and not lengthy statements.
I was asked about the priorities in terms of capital projects. The priorities are Fitzgibbon Street Garda station and Rutland Street school. With regard to Fitzgibbon Street Garda station, €3 million has been approved for enabling works and the Garda and the OPW continue to engage closely to finalise the details on the accommodation brief. A design team has been appointed and enabling works are expected to commence in the next couple of weeks. The process of selecting contractors will commence this month. On Rutland Street, following the completion of €200,000 survey work in 2017, a design team was appointed by the city council. That is at feasibility stage and work to explore design options. A process of engagement is under way with existing user groups to scope out space requirement for the new facility.
The city council is also engaging with the community and local councillors on the sale and redevelopment of the convent lands at the former Magdalen laundry on Sean McDermott Street. The proposed plans are for a hotel on the site as well as housing units, which could be designated for older people, and would bring much needed investment, footfall and local employment to the area. The council is also in discussions with groups on ensuring the development accommodates a suitable memorial to the Magdalen women. Ultimately, this will be a decision for the council, which will vote on whether to proceed.
I was asked about housing. I am informed a number of housing bodies, in partnership with the city council, are working to deliver four main regeneration schemes in the north-east inner city area. These are 80 units at a cost of €21 million to refurbish St. Mary's Mansions flat complex by Clúid Housing, and this project is now at demolition phase and will be completed in August next year; 72 units at Croke Villas, with the majority of works expected to be completed by the end of this year; 47 apartments by Circle Voluntary Housing Association, for which planning permission is expected at the end of this year with construction to be completed by the middle of 2021; and 29 older persons unit by Oaklee housing association, where works have already commenced on the site and the expected handover will be at the end of next year.
I was asked about student accommodation. Student accommodation is popping up all over the city, not just in the north-east inner city but also around the Tenters, Portobello and those parts of the city. On balance it is needed and on balance it is welcome, but I understand local residents have concerns. I remember when Trinity Hall was being extended in Dartry there were concerns from residents about too many students in the area, traffic, antisocial behaviour and various other issues. Ultimately it worked out well and no one in Dartry would like to see Trinity Hall removed. Those concerns can be overcome.
European Council Meetings
9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the European Union leaders he spoke with prior to the June 2018 EU Council meeting. [27688/18]
10. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the European Union leaders he spoke with prior to the June 2018 EU Council meeting. [28848/18]
11. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the European Council on 28 and 29 June 2018. [29282/18]
12. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement with the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk. [29283/18]
Mary Lou McDonaldCeist:
13. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the European Union member state Heads of State or Government he spoke with prior to the June 2018 European Council meeting. [29285/18]
14. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the European Union Council; and the meetings he held and the issues raised. [29291/18]
15. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his telephone conversation with the President of the EU Council, Mr. Donald Tusk. [29293/18]
16. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the responses at the June 2018 EU Council meeting regarding the backstop; and if a transition agreement is in place. [29350/18]
17. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his contributions at the June 2018 EU Council regarding the European Union banking union reforms; and the conclusions that were made. [29351/18]
18. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach if defence was discussed at the June 2018 EU Council meeting; and if he contributed to same. [29356/18]
19. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if the eurozone debt crisis and cross-contagion were discussed at the June 2018 EU Council meeting. [29357/18]
Richard Boyd BarrettCeist:
20. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the most recent European Council meeting. [29396/18]
21. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings at the June 2018 European Council summit in Brussels. [29413/18]
22. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he made a contribution to the debate at the EU Council meeting on migration. [30533/18]
23. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the bilateral meetings he attended while at the EU Council meeting. [30536/18]
24. Deputy Peter Burke asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent June 2018 EU Council meeting. [30960/18]
25. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent EU Council and the meetings he attended. [30968/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 25, inclusive, together.
I have an ongoing programme of strategic engagement with my EU counterparts, including by means of formal bilateral meetings as well as informal discussions in the margins of EU summits. I report to the House regularly on these engagements. Recent formal bilateral meetings included those with the Belgian Prime Minister, Mr. Charles Michel, in Dublin on 24 May; the Spanish Prime Minister, Mr. Pedro Sánchez, in Madrid on 14 June; and Austrian Chancellor Kurz in Dublin last Sunday. I also met the President of the European Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, and the chief EU Brexit negotiator, Mr. Michel Barnier, in Dublin on 21 June. I had a bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May on the margins of the European Council on 28 June, where we discussed the Brexit negotiations and the position in Northern Ireland. I also spoke with her by phone last Saturday.
I had a telephone conversation with the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk, ahead of the European Council, when we discussed the agenda for the meeting. I outlined our intention to continue to play a constructive role in EU discussions on migration. On Brexit, President Tusk expressed his disappointment at the lack of progress in the negotiations and reiterated his strong support for ensuring that the commitments agreed in December, including around the backstop, are translated into legal text in the withdrawal agreement.
As I reported to the House in detail on 4 July, I attended the European Council in Brussels on Thursday, 28 June, and Friday, 29 June. I also met informally with a number of my other EU counterparts, including the new Italian Prime Minister, Mr. Giuseppe Conte, and the Spanish and Portuguese Prime Ministers. On 28 June, the European Council met in regular format to discuss migration, security and defence, relations with Russia, the multi-annual financial framework and a number of economic issues including the country-specific recommendations on trade, taxation, digital and innovation. On Friday morning, we met in Article 50 format to discuss the Brexit negotiations and later on Friday, we held euro summit in inclusive format to exchange views on how we can deepen and improve economic and monetary union.
Although Brexit is the priority for the Government, migration is of enormous concern to many partners and was an important focus of our discussions. This has been a divisive issue and our discussions were difficult and lengthy. We managed to come to a common European position. We reached agreement on a number of new steps, including the need to increase funding for the Africa Trust Fund, to which Ireland has trebled its contribution. There is also an increase in funding for the facility for refugees in Turkey, to establish dedicated funding for migration through the EU budget, to explore the concept of regional disembarkation platforms and the voluntary establishment of control centres within EU member states. This reinforces the importance of what I have described as our three-pronged approach of securing our external borders, strengthening co-operation with countries of transit and origin and sharing the burden and creating solidarity among member states where a balance of solidarity and responsibility is needed.
In Article 50 format, Mr. Barnier outlined his assessment of the Brexit negotiations to date. We noted our disappointment at the lack of progress and agreed that if there is no agreement on the backstop and the other outstanding elements, including the European Court of Justice and Gibraltar, it will not be possible to finalise the withdrawal agreement as a whole, including the transition arrangements. I have always said that I hope the future relationship between the EU and the UK will be as close and comprehensive as possible, and that it will remove any need for a hard border. This does not remove the need for a legally robust backstop to apply unless and until better arrangements enter into force. I am grateful that EU partners have given us ongoing support and solidarity on this issue of national interest. Ireland’s concerns are at the very heart of the negotiations. The collective view of the EU side remains very firmly that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
The support of other EU members for Ireland is something built on a lengthy tradition of diplomatic engagement at many levels, a point which the Taoiseach's predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny, made in the year after the Brexit referendum. It has been demonstrated in support for Ireland in negotiating guidelines. Any engagement with partners is particularly welcome but we need to understand the strategy and what is specifically being promoted. I suggest that in the coming weeks and months, the primary focus will remain the trilateral discussion between London, Dublin and Brussels. We are clearly represented by Mr. Barnier in the negotiations but the role of commentators on the sidelines is not an option for us.
Will the Taoiseach outline what arrangements he will make to avoid a relapse into the dysfunction evident earlier this year, which saw the Taoiseach go seven weeks without speaking with the British Prime Minister, an unprecedented gap in recent times? Did the Taoiseach meet or have discussions with Mr. Viktor Orbán about the migration issue? I have seen commentary to the effect that the Taoiseach finds it acceptable that Hungary does not want other people entering its jurisdiction and that it should just be for Hungarians. If every country in Europe adopted that philosophy, there would be one hell of a migration crisis. There is also the matter of Mr. Orbán's approach to media and European democratic norms, which leaves much to be desired. I am surprised at the degree to which he is being accommodated and facilitated, both by the European People's Party - of which Fine Gael is a member - and the broader European Union. No more than Britain's membership of the Single Market, this applies to core values of the European Union, which are steadily being eroded by certain political elements.
I strongly agree with the points made by Deputy Micheál Martin and there is an allegation that the European People's Party is giving legitimacy to views being expressed by members which would not be countenanced even a few years ago. I will focus on one question. In response to the migration crisis, Irish naval vessels have been deployed in the Mediterranean, originally simply on search and rescue missions. Later they have become part of Operation Sophia. The Taoiseach is aware there has been very serious and significant criticism of Operation Sophia by Médecins sans Frontières, which has indicated that migrants are being returned to Libya, where in almost every case they are being tortured, raped and abused. The Irish Naval Service has indicated that in every case it has landed people in Italy. Has the Taoiseach had discussions with the Italian authorities and is it his understanding that they will continue to allow persons rescued by the Irish Naval Service to be landed on Italian soil?
Will the Taoiseach set out the structure of negotiations from here in respect of Brexit? If we are not on the last lap, it is certainly a crucial phase. Could I have some clarity as to whether this remains a bilateral negotiation, which is the correct approach, or whether the Taoiseach will take the advice of his partner in government, Deputy Micheál Martin, and adopt a trilateral approach? It would be extremely dangerous and the British have very clearly sought to peel off Dublin in order to sow some sort of dissent.
The Deputy is misinterpreting me. It is the process we have had for a year.
We are talking about what happens now. It would of course be welcome for the British to see the light of reality and soften their position, as the Taoiseach termed it. I put it to the Taoiseach that there is no room for him to soften our position or the approach that this would be a common and shared European position. Will the Taoiseach speak about the intergovernmental conference that is upcoming and whether Brexit will feature on the agenda?
I will begin with the following quotes: "A nation which expects its biological survival from immigrants will not survive" and "Europe's migrants are Muslim invaders, not refugees". Are these two quotes from Mein Kampf? Not at all, they are from the mouth of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who attended this Council meeting. I wish to ask the Taoiseach about some comments that he made about Mr. Orbán and his views when he attended the Council. The Taoiseach was asked if he would describe Mr. Orbán's comments as racist or xenophobic.
The Taoiseach was quoted as saying that he was not sure he would go as far as using those terms. The Taoiseach seemed to provide a rational justification for Mr. Orbán's anti-migrant views when he said:
Viktor's view is that he wants Hungary to stay Hungarian ... Hungary doesn't need migrants ... Western European countries and northern European countries need migration. We see it differently in western Europe.
The Taoiseach was perhaps pointing to labour shortages as the issue rather than the racist and xenophobic views of Mr. Orbán. Was the Taoiseach quoted correctly? If so, does he stand over those comments?
I will ask again. I have asked already about Orbán as well and about the rise of racist and far-right forces, of which he is one of the most prominent. In the same comments with regard to Orbán's racist agenda, the Taoiseach said we have to respect that other countries come from a different perspective. Does the Taoiseach regret that? The Helsinki committee said this was very disappointing, in that he was legitimising and normalising this racist far-right narrative.
We should not respect the terrifying echoes of the politics of the far right from the 1930s that we are getting from Orbán and other forces like him. We need to resolutely oppose this, not respect it, because it is very dangerous. Should the EU not also do some soul-searching about how its policies have contributed to the conditions that can give rise to the far right, especially in the areas I have mentioned, including housing?
Thank you, Deputy. If you want an answer we need to give some time to the Taoiseach.
The report I mentioned shows it is really diabolical and worsening throughout the European Union.
Now, Taoiseach, unfortunately we have only two minutes remaining.
The negotiations will be bilateral, not trilateral. They will be negotiations between the EU on the one side and the UK on the other. I have explained why that should be the case. I agree with Deputy McDonald's analysis as to why that should continue to be the case.
There will not be any softening of our position on our core objectives. They include the common travel area, no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and minimising the disruption to free trade between Britain and Ireland.
I did not have a bilateral meeting with Mr. Orbán at the European Council. However, he was at the European Council, obviously, because he is the democratically elected Prime Minister of Hungary.
Did the Taoiseach meet him?
The European political parties, as we all know, are wide churches and umbrella organisations. I know the Czech Government, which I think is in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party, ALDE - the liberal group of which Fianna Fáil is part - has almost identical views to Viktor Orbán on migration. Deputy Micheál Martin may wish to check that out and see how similar the views of the three or four relevant countries are in that regard. The social democratic grouping includes a large number of former communists who are recent converts to democracy, human rights and freedom. They come from a tradition that is not too far from putting people in gulags.
They would not have been let in if they still espoused those views.
Sinn Féin is in the European United Left–Nordic Green Left, which is a group that is highly Eurosceptic and euro-cynical. I know Sinn Féin denies that it is a Eurosceptic party but it continues to be in a group of people who want to break up the European Union in many cases. I am not altogether sure who the European bedfellows of Solidarity–People Before Profit are.
They do not give an inch to racism – not one of them.
If there are any, I shudder to think of some of the more extreme opinions they may have.
Anyway, I do not agree with Viktor Orbán on these points. I do not agree with him on migration, civil rights or academic freedom. On the one occasion we had a bilateral meeting in Budapest – the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee, was there – we had a very robust discussion on those matters. It is an active debate within the European People's Party group as to whether that party should stay in the EPP. There is a view from some that keeping the party in moderates it. This has allowed the Central European University to stay in Budapest, for example. Quite a number of others take a different view that Fidesz no longer has a place in the EPP.
Reference was made to reflecting and understanding people's views. I am not so much interested in the views of politicians but I am interested in the views of people who vote for politicians. I often wonder why Hungarian people or people in eastern European countries vote for the politicians they do. I often wonder why people vote for Trump, why people voted for Brexit and why people voted for populist parties of the left, like Syriza, in Greece, or populist parties of the right throughout western Europe. Genuine people, real people, have real concerns. People have concerns about globalisation and migration. They have concerns about inequality of economic opportunity. I believe it is wrong for us to dismiss people's concerns. Dismissing concerns or treating people who vote in a certain way with disrespect – we have seen that from people so many times - is the wrong approach.
Thank you, Taoiseach. We are out of time.
When we do not agree with people we should, at least in our own heads, try to understand why they have the views they have. That is the best way we can change them. If we want to change the views of others, we need to try to understand what they think and then convince them otherwise. We should not swat them away and dismiss them in an elitist fashion. If we do, what happens is that they vote in the way they do.
That is why I mentioned housing.