1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the EU Heads of Government meeting in Austria on 19 and 20 September 2018. [38377/18]
Vol. 974 No. 2
1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the EU Heads of Government meeting in Austria on 19 and 20 September 2018. [38377/18]
2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he had bilateral meetings at the informal Heads of Government meeting in Salzburg; and if so, the issues that were discussed and the responses received. [38524/18]
3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the informal summit of EU leaders in Salzburg; the leaders he met with; and the issues discussed. [38627/18]
4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he had a meeting with the Polish Prime Minister, Mr. Morawiecki, when he was in Salzburg; and if so, the issues that were discussed. [38842/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
I attended the Informal meeting of EU Heads of State and Government in Salzburg on 19 and 20 September. The summit, which was chaired by the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, was one of a series of such meetings relating to the future of Europe. On this occasion, our focus was on migration and internal security. We also took the opportunity to discuss progress in the negotiations on Brexit.
On migration, we had a useful exchange on how best to progress the comprehensive approach we agreed at the June European Council. This involves working to secure our external borders, to strengthen co-operation with countries of origin and transit and to deal with the management of migrants in the EU.
On internal security, we discussed the increasing cyberthreats we face, including to the integrity of our electoral systems. No formal conclusions were adopted but the outcome of our discussions fed into the October meeting of the European Council, which took place in Brussels last week.
Our discussions on Brexit, which took place in Article 50 format, provided an opportunity to review progress in the negotiations. We discussed this again at the European Council last week and agreed that, despite the intensified negotiations since Salzburg, the decisive progress we so urgently need has not been achieved.
We reaffirmed our full confidence in Mr. Barnier and urged him to continue his efforts to reach an agreement. On both occasions, I reiterated the need for a legally operable version of the backstop in the withdrawal agreement, and thanked EU partners for their ongoing solidarity on this issue. I had a bilateral meeting with the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, in the margins of the Salzburg summit on Thursday, 20 September, in which we discussed the state of play in the Brexit negotiations, as well as developments in Northern Ireland. I had a further meeting with the Prime Minister in the margins of the European Council last week.
On both occasions, I emphasised my aspiration that the future relationship between the EU and the UK will be as close and comprehensive as possible. I reiterated that the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, with a robust and legally watertight backstop, must be agreed first.
I did not have a formal bilateral meeting with the Polish Prime Minister, Mr. Morawiecki, in Salzburg, although I did of course meet and engage informally with him and with my other EU counterparts in the margins of the summit and again last week in Brussels.
The Taoiseach put it diplomatically but Salzburg was a diplomatic disaster. The expected breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations simply did not happen. There was a heightened expectation in the days running up to the summit that progress would be made.
Since then no further progress has been made on the legal framework being put into place at the October summit. In effect, two critically important moments have come and gone and the available moments to find a settlement agreeable to everybody on what was the watertight agreement of last December are diminishing. I am fearful, and I have been fearful for months, about the narrowing agenda at the end of this. Ultimately, it seems that Britain is trying to shift the balance of risk to Ireland. The risk that there might need to be a backstop invoked is not acceptable to the British and they want us instead to accept the risk that no close relationship will ultimately be negotiated between the EU and the UK that would obviate the need for any hard border. My fear is there will be a point at the end of these negotiations, which at a matter of weeks is not that far away, when the option open to the Taoiseach will be very stark indeed. It will be either to stop the negotiations without a withdrawal agreement or accept there will be no backstop. It is very important that we are crystal clear now on where the Taoiseach stands if that option is reached around the Council table.
Another question has been tabled on Brexit so I want to ask a few questions on other matters that came up at the summit. My party leader has said to the Taoiseach that we strongly object to the attempt to claim that immigration should be placed at the top of the EU agenda as Chancellor Kurz has done. Many countries have sincere issues that must be discussed but we cannot allow Europe's agenda to be set by Governments that are appeasing the far right. In the case of Austria, the Taoiseach will, no doubt, have been informed that Chancellor Kurz has left in place his interior Minister, even after he was caught instructing regional police forces to find and publicise incidents involving immigrants, with a special effort to be made to publicise anything that might involve sexual assaults. This is grotesque and sinister and is straight out of the playbook of a former time. Has the Taoiseach spoken up on the effort to keep immigration at the top of the agenda even though the numbers involved have fallen dramatically in the past three years?
Will the Taoiseach assure us that he stood by Ireland's support for the action being taken against Poland on the rule of law? Will he also tell us whether he formally objected to attacks on a judge of our High Court made by members of the Polish Prime Minister's party?
On Monday, the British Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, made what can only be described as a bizarre statement to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in London. In defending the British Government's stance in the Brexit negotiations she stated that, supposedly, 60% of unionists in the North had voted to leave the European Union. She went on to state that what the EU has put forward in negotiations is not acceptable to some unionists. In doing so, she has admitted what many of us already suspected and knew, which is that her Government is prioritising the views of a section of unionism over the wishes of a majority of citizens in the North. By saying what she said, she has done a disservice to everyone by attempting to make Brexit an orange and green issue, which it is not. The majority of citizens in the North voted against Brexit and the majority of parties and political representatives in the North are opposed to Brexit. Karen Bradley, by virtue of her office, is to be coequal guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, legally and duty-bound to act with strict impartiality, but here she is publicly stating that it is only the views of a section of the population in the North that really count. That is a disgraceful position to articulate. Her comments are unacceptable and they must be challenged. Will the Taoiseach raise this with the British Prime Minister?
I want to know a bit more about the conversation on migration. The issue of Brexit and our concerns are extremely important to us but there is a bigger picture going on in Europe and around the world at present, as Deputy Haughey alluded to. This is the very dangerous rise of the far right, xenophobia and racism that finds its scapegoat in desperate migrants seeking to flee awful situations in the Middle East, north Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. I want to know that the Taoiseach is out there batting against this filthy xenophobic racism and arguing against the Kurzs and Orbáns of this world in trying to scapegoat immigrants, thousands of whom are dying in the Mediterranean. Recently the Moroccan authorities were shooting at them, there are horrendous stories of human rights abuses in Libya and thousands of men, women and children are dying in the Mediterranean because of this filthy xenophobic racism. We need absolutely to take up the cudgels against it and state that immigrants are good. They are not a burden and they enhance the societies to which they come, as did Irish migrants from this country everywhere they went. It is important that the Taoiseach is publicly seen to articulate this message. Is that what the Taoiseach is doing? How are we engaging in this debate on migration given the very dangerous subtext? In fact, it is not even a subtext, it is an explicit fanning of the flames of racism in a worrying echo of the 1930s.
On Salzburg, and picking up on what Deputy Howlin asked, to this day I do not understand why there was an expectation that there was going to be some sort of breakthrough at that summit. I never expected it. It was an informal summit that was not about Brexit. I think what happened is that somebody hyped the British press into believing there would be a major breakthrough and when it did not happen it became a diplomatic disaster. I assure the House that the Irish Government had no role in those events unfolding in the way they did. It is very difficult to answer hypothetical questions about the negotiations. It is a very valid question but there are so many things that could happen between now and then and I would prefer not to wax lyrical on hypothetical scenarios-----
People should know where we stand.
-----particularly because the only way we can make those decisions is at that time, when we have all of the information and the alternatives available. What I can say is that our objectives are as they always have been, which are to ensure that Brexit is orderly, that there is a withdrawal agreement, that there is a transition period during which business and citizens can adapt, that there is agreement on citizens' rights being protected, that the UK pays what it owes to the European Union, that there is a joint political declaration on a future partnership, which is the one we will negotiate during the transition period, and that there is a legally binding backstop as a protocol to the withdrawal agreement that gives us the assurance we need that should something go wrong during the transition period and should we be unable to negotiate or ratify a new relationship between the EU and UK that negates the need for a hard border, we will have a legally operable backstop relating to Ireland and Northern Ireland that will then click in. These have been objectives from day one. No one in any European capital doubts the solidity of our position in this regard.
With regard to immigration, it is important to make a distinction. It is not a black and white distinction but there is a distinction between illegal immigration on the one hand and legal immigration on the other hand. Nobody around the EU Council table objects to freedom of movement other than Britain. Everyone else from every other country has no difficulty with freedom of movement within the European Union by EU citizens. With a few exceptions the vast majority of prime ministers and presidents sitting around the table support legal immigration from outside the European Union, that is people with working visas and work permits arriving as refugees.
Deputy Boyd Barrett asked whether I ever make the case that immigration is a good thing. I make it all the time, in Brussels and in this Chamber, and sometimes I get into trouble for it. I always make the point that I believe immigration enriches our society and strengthens our economy. We only need to see the extent to which our health service relies on migrant people making sure that our public services function. We only need to visit some of the multinational companies that employ so many people in Ireland and bring in so much investment and increasingly pay us a lot of taxes.
Companies such as Google, Facebook, Intel and IBM greatly rely on a diverse international workforce. I am convinced that immigration is a good thing culturally, economically and socially and I make that point here and in Brussels. However, that is not the same as saying there should be uncontrolled immigration. Immigration must be controlled. It cannot be the case that everyone who wishes to live in Ireland or Europe can do so. We must, therefore, have controls. We must have the freedom of movement within the European Union which we desire, as well as mechanisms to facilitate immigration from outside the EU. However, I do not agree with the position held by Deputy Boyd Barrett and his party, namely, that we should have uncontrolled immigration and no borders and that anyone who wishes to come and live here should be allowed to do so. That is not a good policy for our country or more generally.
On our approach, we recognise that this is a matter of major concern to other European countries. It is not top of the political agenda here for the people or the Government but it is in countries such as Italy, Germany, Austria and some other countries in central Europe and we must be aware of that. When we want our issues put at the top of the agenda, that is respected, so we must respect the issues which other countries want to put on the agenda. Our approach generally has been to support a three-pronged approach to strengthen our borders. The Irish Naval Service is participating in that through Operation Sophia, rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean, training the Libyan coastguard and disrupting the activities of human traffickers and smugglers. We are part of the principle of strengthening the frontiers of the EU. The second principle is greater co-operation with countries of origin and countries of transit, ensuring that countries offer more economic opportunities, democracy and political freedoms to the people who live in those countries in order that fewer of them choose to risk their lives by travelling to Europe in the way that many have. We demonstrated that commitment in budget 2019 with the very considerable increase in our commitment to international development assistance, far more than was called for by other parties who spend a significant amount of time speaking about these issues. The third prong is solidarity. Our efforts in that regard are evidenced by the fact that we respond favourably to requests from Malta, Italy and other countries for Ireland to take people from the boats, which we do.
5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D (infrastructure) last met. [38376/18]
6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D (infrastructure) last met; and when it will next meet. [39448/18]
7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the frequency with which Cabinet committee D (infrastructure) met in 2017 and to date in 2018. [41072/18]
8. Deputy Peter Burke asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D (infrastructure) last met. [41817/18]
9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D (infrastructure) last met. [43454/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 9, inclusive, together.
Following its establishment in July last year, Cabinet committee D met twice in 2017, on 2 September and 23 November. The committee last met on 1 February to help us finalise Project Ireland 2040 and its next meeting is scheduled for 15 November. It works to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery and development of policy in infrastructure investment, housing, and climate action. There is significant work under way in each of these areas across Departments and Government agencies, including through regular discussion of these matters at meetings of the Cabinet.
In particular, Project Ireland 2040, comprising the national planning framework and the national development plan, is now being implemented, providing €116 billion of investment in our public infrastructure. The Land Development Agency, another cornerstone initiative of Project Ireland 2040, has also been established and is working to ensure the optimum management of State land through development and regeneration, with an immediate focus on delivering homes, including social and affordable housing and cost rental.
We are seeing an increase in the number of new and refurbished houses available year on year. New housing output is projected to be up to 20,000 new houses and apartments this year, not including student accommodation or vacant properties brought back into use. However, we are aware of the huge challenge we are facing in meeting demand in the housing market. We will need to deliver approximately 35,000 units a year before supply meets demand. We are continuing to focus on increasing housing supply, tackling homelessness and increasing the availability of affordable and social housing. In addition to the work under way through Project Ireland 2040 and Rebuilding Ireland, budget 2019 provides for an increase of 25% in the housing budget for next year, to €2.3 billion.
Climate action is also at the heart of Project Ireland 2040, which provides for investment of €22 billion by the Government and semi-State bodies to ensure a step change in climate action performance. In that context, I and my ministerial colleagues met the Climate Change Advisory Council on 28 September to discuss its policy priorities. In budget 2019 allowances were introduced to help lower carbon emissions through a commitment under the rural development plan for agri-environmental allocations amounting to over €200 million, over €100 million for improvements in grant and premium rates for planting forests, a new accelerated capital allowances scheme for gas-propelled vehicles and refuelling equipment, the green public transport fund to improve the uptake of low-carbon energy-efficient technologies within the public transport sector and over €164 million to achieve Ireland’s energy efficiency and renewable energy objectives. The Government will continue to deliver Project Ireland 2040 and related housing and climate action commitments in the period ahead.
The issue of defective schools was raised on Leaders' Questions and I ask the Taoiseach to reflect on it. It is extremely worrying that this involves major contracts and that up to 40 schools could be affected and we do not know whether the same designs and construction techniques were used in other public works. We must reflect on how public works and public building contracts are awarded. After such issues are exposed, people often approach Members to say that the companies involved had a bad reputation. If asked, the contracting authorities would state that they cannot exclude such companies from tendering. We must look at building quality, the track record of such companies and the way they treat and treated subcontractors. Such considerations are taken into account to some degree but insufficiently so. In the light of the various issues that have arisen in public works contracts in recent times, is the Government giving consideration to ensuring that tenderers are robust and capable of delivering in addition to simply considering value for money?
There were no tenderers for certain recent public contracts from local authorities, which is of interest and concern. We need to have a deeper and more profound debate on how we will deliver the very extensive public works that are envisaged in the capital programme over the next decade.
It is nearly two weeks since the Taoiseach announced that delivering full national access to broadband would be his personal crusade. How many meetings, presentations and reviews has he had on the issue since that announcement? I acknowledge that he had a lot of other business to deal with last week, but he elevated the issue to being a crusade and was, therefore, clearly operating to a high level of urgency. He will certainly have time to discuss when the process of awarding the contract might progress and what are the likely costs. Does he remain confident of delivering it quickly and on budget? How quickly will the process review be completed? Such reviews are traditionally very quick as they do not involve the legal dimensions required in inquiries.
On Western Building Systems, I raised this issue in the House in September 2017 and specifically asked, in light of fire defects in schools, the likelihood of such defects being more widespread, as well as raising the fact that a college of further education built by Western Building Systems in Whitehall has been sitting empty for the past five or six years, which was not mentioned in the recent public discussion of the issue. This is incredible. I raised all of these issues last September. We were told that a review would be carried out by January of this year. I stated that Western Building Systems should be excluded from getting public contracts. It has taken until now for us to get to that discussion because nothing was done and we were ignored and told these are the rules and that is the way it is. It is a disaster. It would be helpful if people on the Government side of the House listened to us sometimes.
I wish to ask about Dún Laoghaire Harbour, which is of national, cultural and economic importance as well as vital for transport and many other matters.
I am very glad to see that after years of campaigning by the local community, including myself, the harbour company is to be dissolved and transferred to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. However, we now discover, as I said to the Taoiseach when he was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, that there were massive governance and financial problems in the harbour company. I told him about massive salaries, bonuses being handed out and crazy money being spent on consultants and projects. Now we discover that after all the delay on the part of the Taoiseach and successive Ministers for Transport, Tourism and Sport, although we get the victory of the harbour being handed over, there is a major financial mess involving debts and maintenance work that was not done. Meanwhile, the individual who was chief executive officer, CEO, during the years when the Taoiseach was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is suing the company of which he was CEO for a performance-related bonus of €410,000. Last year, the harbour company did not even put in the accounts for 2017. It is an absolute mess and the Government allowed it to happen. Will the Taoiseach intervene and help Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to sort out the financial mess that successive Ministers, including the Taoiseach, created in Dún Laoghaire harbour?
Yesterday, the EPA produced its urban wastewater treatment report for 2017. The report found that wastewater treatment is completely insufficient in many areas and highlighted the fact that despite some improvements, 38 towns and villages across the State still discharge raw sewage into the environment. The report also stated that wastewater treatment in 28 of the State's 179 large towns fails to meet standards set to prevent pollution and protect public health. This list includes Passage West, Monkstown and Carrigaline in my own constituency. As a result of the failure to treat wastewater adequately, the European Commission is taking the State to the European Court of Justice. Because of decades of underinvestment in vital infrastructure and specifically because of cuts made in 2013, 2014 and 2015, the State could be liable for huge fines as a result of that process. This is quite shocking. When the EPA appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning Local Government last May, it outlined serious problems with our wastewater infrastructure. It told the committee that only €620 million would be made available between 2017 and 2021 to fix problems. However, what is actually required is closer to €1 billion. Given that Irish Water has received additional funding for this work and some works are being carried out, which I acknowledge, although I would ask that Irish Water improve its communications with local communities, can the Taoiseach give an assurance that this work will be expedited and that Irish Water will ensure that no area experiences untreated wastewater discharge by 2021?
Deputy Howlin makes a very valid point in respect of tendering and the possibility of barring companies from tendering for past bad behaviour or bad practice, be it poor or shoddy building-----
I made that point to the Taoiseach in December 2017.
I will answer if the Deputy will let me. The point was made regarding barring companies from tendering for such things as shoddy building in the past or failing to pay subcontractors. It is under examination but I understand that under EU public procurement directives, the bar for excluding somebody from tendering is actually very high and requires a burden of proof rather than a degree of suspicion. That is the law as it stands under an EU public procurement directive but perhaps it needs to be changed.
Another thing we should bear in mind is the issue of rapid build. I often hear people call for rapid build housing and I certainly do not rule it out as part of the solution but Ardgillan was a rapid build school. It was built in 24 or 25 weeks. We need to bear that in mind. Things that are done quickly are not always done well.
I am not sure how many meetings I have had with regard to broadband. I have had a couple anyway but I do not think crusades require many meetings. I am not sure the crusaders spent much time around the conference table. Peter Smith, who is the independent procurement and process adviser, is doing his work. The terms of reference were agreed by Government last week and published. We will anticipate that he will have completed that part of his work in three weeks. Deputy Haughey is right to point out that because of the nature of what he is doing, it can be done quite quickly. Deputy Bruton is the new Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I have asked him to take a few weeks to examine the national broadband plan and see how we can bring it to fruition. We commit to bringing it to fruition and extending high-speed broadband to the 540,000 premises in Ireland that will not get it by commercial means.
I am pleased that Dún Laoghaire Harbour has at long last been transferred to the local authority
So am I.
It is happening as a consequence of legislation I introduced as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport providing for the transfer of smaller ports and harbours to local authorities and the new ports policy, which I launched as Minister. Yes, there are financial implications regardless of whichever port or harbour is transferred to a local authority. These implications mainly relate to works that may need to be done in the future. However, it is also an asset. When a company or a piece of infrastructure is transferred to a local authority, we should not just look at the liabilities and costs. We should also weigh up the assets. It is a considerable asset as well and has assets.
Deputy Boyd Barrett is correct that the former CEO is suing the company for not paying him a bonus. I presume Deputy Boyd Barrett agrees that the company was right not to pay the bonus.
That is now a matter for the courts.
The EPA issues a report on urban wastewater every year. The latest report is based on an assessment of effluent monitoring results from over 1,000 wastewater treatment plants reported to the EPA by Irish Water and on enforcement carried out during 2017. Of these, the number of priority urban areas where wastewater treatment needs to improve is down from 148 to 132 so we are making progress. Of the 44 towns and villages where raw sewage was being discharged in 2016, six are now connected to treatment plants and the remainder will be connected by 2021. Out of the 179 large urban areas in Ireland, 28 failed to comply with the EU's legally binding standards for the treatment of urban wastewater. From 2016 to 2024, capital upgrades and operational improvement works will have been undertaken and completed at all of these urban wastewater treatment plants to ensure that treatment levels and capacity comply with requirements of the urban wastewater treatment directive. Improvements were completed to protect the two bathing waters that were in poor quality.
Water was not handled well by local authorities when it was under their control. It is certainly the case that investment was cut back during the period of austerity because there was no money to invest. It is also certainly the case that Irish Water is working. Establishing a single national utility was the right decision and it is making real progress since its establishment. I hope those who opposed the establishment of Irish Water will reflect on the error of their position.
In the course of that question-and-answer session, reference was made to litigation and court proceedings between an individual and Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company. It would not be in order for anyone in this House to comment on a matter before the courts.
10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with the British Prime Minister in Salzburg with regard to Brexit. [42205/18]
11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Prime Minister May in Salzburg; the specific issues with regard to Brexit in addition to those relating to Northern Ireland that were discussed; the responses that were made; and if other issues were discussed. [38841/18]
12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May since the Conservative Party conference with regard to the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit and other issues. [41070/18]
13. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [42045/18]
14. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his contact with Prime Minister May. [43837/18]
15. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his bilateral meeting on 17 October 2018 with Prime Minister May and the progress that was made on the backstop, particularly in the context of the commitments given on the backstop in December 2017 and March 2018. [43887/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 15, inclusive, together.
My most recent bilateral meetings with Prime Minister May were on the margins of the European Council in Brussels on Wednesday last and at the informal summit in Salzburg on 20 September. We were in contact by phone in the interim. At our meeting in Salzburg, I reiterated my hope that the future relationship between the EU and the UK will be as close, deep, comprehensive and ambitious as possible but that it is essential that the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, is agreed first. I stressed that there is not much time left if we are to conclude a withdrawal agreement and have it operational by the time the UK leaves the EU in March. At that time, the Prime Minister said that the UK would be bringing forward proposals for a backstop or at least alternative text for it.
I also raised the current political situation in Northern Ireland and emphasised the need to get the devolved institutions up and running again. When we met last week in Brussels, we once again discussed Brexit. I told Prime Minister May that it was disappointing that the recent round of intensive negotiations - mainly at official level - had not yet resolved the issue of the Border satisfactorily.
While I recognise the political challenges faced by Prime Minister May at home, I was reassured that she did not in any way seek to row back from the commitments the UK made in writing back in March and again in June. These concerned the backstop, which must be legally operative and apply unless and until there is a new agreement between the EU and the UK that would supersede it.
It is important to say again that this was agreed in principle and in writing in a document jointly published by the task force and the UK in June.
Following the European Council meeting, I expect negotiations between the UK and the EU task force will resume and intensify over the coming weeks. Time is now running out and the risk of a no-deal outcome, which would be bad for everyone, increases with every day that passes.
I welcome the robust and solid support for Ireland once again by all of our EU partners and EU institutions last week and I expect that all sides will now use their best efforts to reach a deal that is acceptable.
The Taoiseach indicated to the House that he met the British Prime Minister in Salzburg and Brussels. Throughout this period, it seems clear that Ms May is seeking to transfer the risks associated with Brexit to Ireland and has contorted the position we thought was fixed and clear last December. She is doing complex manoeuvres that seem designed to disguise the fact that she is walking away, or distancing herself a little, from the December agreement. The Taoiseach says she is not seeking to row back but all her comments, including the comment she made to the British House of Commons and elsewhere, are evidence that she is now unwilling or unable to deliver on that commitment.
Prime Minister May is talking about the extension of the period of transition as an alternative to the backstop. It is not an alternative, as the Taoiseach has made clear, and that needs to be made clear in this House. Has the Taoiseach discussed this directly with the British Prime Minister in one-to-one discussions? Does she understand that, as a country, we want the closest possible relationship between the UK and the EU, but we are part of the EU team? Regardless of the outcome of those discussions, which will take some years to complete, there must be a legal backstop to ensure the integrity of the island of Ireland and no hard Border here regardless of what may ensue from any discussions. Does she fundamentally accept that point?
Brexit is clearly the number one issue and I endorse Deputy Howlin's comments. Does Prime Minister May understand the Taoiseach's and the country's seriousness about this issue, and, more important, does she understand the seriousness of the backstop for this island? Does the Taoiseach get a sense from her that she is trying for time, political time or otherwise, to try and achieve a deal with her backbenchers?
The Taoiseach referred to robust and solid support from our EU partners, which is welcome. What are his comments on Chancellor Merkel's unofficial briefings to newspapers such as The Financial Times after the summit in which she seemed to unofficially indicate that support might not be as robust or solid? I acknowledge she officially clarified that afterwards, but straws in the wind like that are not helpful. In fairness to Mr. Barnier, he has been squarely behind this country but that kind of leaking is unhelpful to the Irish cause.
The Taoiseach referred to the drift in Northern Ireland, which is the other big issue. That is affecting people's daily lives. Expenditure decisions about key issues such as housing, education and health are being taken by unelected officials with no consequences for wrong decisions. Has the Taoiseach any plans to take an initiative to try to address that drift?
The Taoiseach needs to make it clear to Theresa May, as I have said on a number of occasions, that under no circumstances will any Irish Government in any way facilitate or support the erection of a border on this island. The Taoiseach, and others, assume that Europe can be trusted absolutely. It needs to be made absolutely clear that preventing a North-South border is more important than Europe's concern with protecting the so-called market. The problem is Europe is obsessed with protecting this market. Britain is obsessed with a jingoistic, nationalistic notion of its own importance and sovereignty. We know what the DUP are into; we know the problem with it. We know the political problems and madness inside the Tory Party. We need to be aware that there are people in Europe who would consider sacrificing the Border issue to protect the Single Market. They need to be told that preventing conflict and the installation of a North-South border, which is divisive and has had disastrous consequences historically, is what is acceptable to us. They need to be told it will not happen and we will veto any attempt to impose it.
Last week, the British Prime Minister turned down a request for a meeting with the four main parties that represent the pro-remain majority in the North - the SDLP, Alliance Party, Green Party and Sinn Féin. The four parties are due to meet the Taoiseach in the coming weeks and have met Mr. Michel Barnier together, yet Theresa May has refused a request for a joint meeting. This is another example of the contempt being shown by her Government for the majority of citizens in the North. To preserve her toxic alliance with the DUP, she is trampling over the rights of citizens by acquiescing to the DUP's refusal to share power on the basis of equality. By refusing to meet political representatives of the four parties, she is ignoring the democratic will of citizens in the North who voted to reject Brexit.
The British Government is incapable of acting responsibly or with any semblance of impartiality while it remains wedded to the DUP. It is an appalling failure of Theresa May's responsibilities as a co-equal guarantor of the peace process and the political process. The onus is on the Taoiseach and his Government and the EU 27 to defend the North's interests during this critical stage of Brexit negotiations.
I am not sure the Taoiseach answered the first question I asked. Does he intend to raise with Theresa May the comments made by Ms Karen Bradley which also clearly favoured a section of unionism over the political views and political representation of the rest of the North?
If it is the case that Prime Minister May has refused to meet the four parties, I am disappointed to hear it. Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance Party and Green Party combined represent the majority of people in the Northern Ireland Assembly, or close to it. That meeting should happen. I will have that meeting, having also met the leader of the DUP recently.
I did not hear Secretary of State Bradley's comments in full or in context and I always like to hear things in full and in context before commenting on them. It is a statement of fact that the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and neither the Northern Ireland Assembly nor the Northern Ireland Executive has given consent for Brexit. We all know that and I make sure that every Prime Minister and President in Europe knows that as well and they do. It is essential that the secretary of state is impartial in dealing with the various parties in Northern Ireland and that is what the Good Friday Agreement requires of the sovereign UK Government.
Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to an obsession about protecting the integrity of the Single Market. It is important not to forget that is our Single Market too and we benefit from it enormously. Huge numbers of jobs in Ireland exist because we are part of a European Single Market. I would not like a situation where Britain is given unfettered access to this market, including Ireland, if it is going to reduce labour, environmental and health standards or use state aids and competition manipulations to undercut Ireland's businesses and take our jobs. That is what protecting the integrity of the Single Market is about. It is not an obsession; it is about protecting jobs, workers' rights, health and safety and the environment, and ensuring fair competition and no state aid. That is something Deputy Boyd Barrett would be in favour of, if not obsessed about.
Deputy Howlin asked a number of questions about the pace of negotiations.
In March and in June, we agreed that there would have to be a legally operative backstop as part of the withdrawal agreement in the form of a protocol and that that would have to apply unless and until a new agreement supersedes it. We need to bear in mind that this is language the UK Government signed up to. It is in the letter the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, sent to President Tusk. It is in the joint document produced by the UK and the EU back in June. This is, therefore, something that the UK has signed up to in principle and in writing. It is not just a matter of substance at this stage; it is also a matter of trust.
Ireland has no difficulty in hearing proposals for a transition extension. However, it is strange that I heard some suggestion from, I believe, the UK Secretary of State, Mr. Rabb, that we could have an extension of the transition period instead of a legally binding backstop. An extension of the transition period would be a concession to the UK because it would be asking for it, asking for more time to prepare to put Brexit into real effect. It would be asking for more time to negotiate a new relationship. It would be asking for more time to get that new relationship treaty ratified. This would be a concession to the UK. We certainly would not be exchanging anything in return for it. I thought that was a somewhat unusual trade-off to propose.
There is much excellent reporting on Brexit in the media. The long reports by RTÉ's Tony Connelly are really good and are a very good briefing for anyone who is following this topic. An awful lot of nonsense is also being written and I will not waste any time commenting on all the individual speculative stories that appear in the media on Brexit, particularly in the UK press.
Undoubtedly the prospects of an agreement are adversely affected by the current political situation in the UK. The UK is a very divided country. It is still roughly divided 50:50 between people who want to leave and people who want to remain. Even several years later, those who want to leave still do not know what leave means, which makes coming to an agreement very difficult. However, we are working towards that and I am confident we will do it.