Mary Lou McDonaldCeist:
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Seanad reform implementation group. [48019/18]
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Seanad reform implementation group. [48019/18]
100. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Taoiseach the status of the work of the implementation group on Seanad Éireann reform; and the further status of the group's considerations on the extension of Seanad Éireann election voting rights to additional third level institutions. [49924/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 100 together, not Questions Nos. 1 to 100, inclusive.
If it were, the groupings would be getting larger by the day.
The Taoiseach is good, but he is not that good.
I established an implementation group on Seanad reform to consider the Manning report and to develop specific proposals to legislate for Seanad reform. The implementation group comprises Members of the Oireachtas with the assistance of outside experts, as appropriate. Since its initial meeting on 9 May, the group has met on 11 occasions and is expected to make a report in the coming weeks.
I thank the Taoiseach for his answer. I understand that the work of the Seanad reform implementation group is due to conclude next week, that it was to sign off on a proposed Bill to give effect to the recommendations of the Manning report and that the legislation was then to be sent to the Taoiseach. What happens next in the process? Will the Taoiseach accept the group's Bill? I am aware that he had reservations about the Manning report. When will a Bill be before the Dáil and when will there be legislative changes? To have or not to have the Seanad and its reform comprise a long-running saga in political life.
There are people out there - in fact, there may be people in here - who do not really believe that this will ever happen. We need to allay those concerns. People voted for the retention of a bicameral system on the understanding that it would be a reformed system. It is only right that we honour that expectation. The last thing we need is anything that contributes to further cynicism towards political life or, more importantly, the institutions of lawmaking and government.
I was recently at an event marking the contribution of Éamon de Valera to Irish parliamentary tradition. In fairness to him, he did a great deal of work in reforming the Seanad and giving it constitutional provision in the 1937 Constitution. More than that, he removed from the then Dáil the right to change the Constitution by itself, which was a remarkable giving up of power for the 1930s or, indeed, any time. That is where we are in this context.
It is time for significant reform of the Seanad. I am glad that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport's personal veto of the nominee for chair of the implementation committee was eventually lifted and the committee was able to get on with its work. In passing, the Taoiseach might comment on why the highly unusual situation of an Independent member of Government personally blocking a parliamentary majority's wishes is one that he continues to tolerate on such matters. It was shocking.
It seems that the committee is doing good work and that it is coming to a conclusion. Given that the Government is considering referendums next year on divorce and other matters, I am curious as to why the Seanad is not featuring in those plans. It seems that an outline is ready and a legislative template is almost ready. My understanding is that the committee has to meet and sign off on it. Maybe the Taoiseach can encourage the Government members of the committee to attend and be constructive as regards the agenda.
Does the Taoiseach agree with me that the timescale exists for producing legislation on the Seanad that could lead to a constitutional amendment? I am sorry, I did not mean a constitutional amendment, but a change in the Seanad's make-up, how it is selected and so on. I do not know whether the Attorney General's office has examined the committee's work. The legislative proposals seem more realistic politically than the Manning report in terms of phasing in changes over the next two Oireachtais. The Taoiseach might comment on this matter. There is room for fundamental change within the next six months.
Has the Government done anything about the issue of the university seats? The referendum on the matter was so long ago that many people do not even know there was one.
The one on opening the university seats franchise to all universities and colleges of higher education in Ireland.
That is right.
In the context of the upcoming general selection, which will be followed by Seanad elections, is there any proposal from the Government to extend the Seanad franchise to graduates of all third level institutions?
As I mentioned, the group has now had 11 meetings and it is meeting under the very able chairmanship of Senator Michael McDowell, a former Attorney General and Tánaiste who is known to many of us in this House very well. It is, of course, an all-party committee. As it has not issued a report yet, I cannot really comment on it. Obviously, once the report is issued, I look forward to reading and examining it. The Leader of the Seanad, Senator Jerry Buttimer, keeps me up to date on occasion as to what is going on in the committee, but I did not realise that it was quite that close to signing off on a report. I have not seen a draft report yet or anything like that if such a report exists.
I have some reservations, which I have expressed in the House before. I would like to know what the cost of the election would be. The Constitution requires that Seanad elections be carried out by postal vote and only by postal vote, so a postal vote involving millions of electors, potentially hundreds of thousands of them outside of the State, could be very expensive, but I do not know what that figure is. Perhaps the committee does, and I am sure that will be in the report.
Second, I also have some reservations about retaining the different panels as they currently exist. I understand that to change them would require a change in the Constitution, and that is not being proposed. The last iteration of the Manning report that I saw would require pretty much everyone to register to vote again for the Seanad elections. If we open up the franchise to everyone in the State or every citizen abroad, that would require a registration mechanism by which people would register to vote and would then pick a panel on which they wanted to vote, whether it was the University of Dublin, NUI, cultural and educational, industrial and commercial, administrative or some other panel. I think that could be quite a confusing exercise for people. People, when they register to vote, tend to register to vote where they live for their local constituency. Asking them to choose between a number of different panels when they register to vote could cause some confusion. I also think the panels are out of date. They do not really reflect 21st century society. They derive from a papal encyclical in the 1930s that de Valera was very fond of. It was sort of Catholic corporatism. That is from where those particular panels arise.
However, those are just my reservations. I am not determining this or running it or seeking to-----
Do the Taoiseach's reservations inform the lack of enthusiasm of the Government members of the committee?
I do not know. I think they are general reservations, quite frankly.
Those members do not attend, apparently.
I would like to know what would be the cost of a major postal vote election such as that proposed. I would also like to understand why people think that retaining these panels is the optimal way of electing a second Chamber rather than a national list, regional list or many other different options that could be considered.
In terms of the university seats, that referendum was passed a long time ago. I think it was in the 1970s.
It was in the mists of history.
Successive Governments and Oireachtais have decided not to make any change, but I imagine that will all be rolled into whatever reform Bill emerges out of this particular process.
I do not think it was the successive Oireachtais that were responsible.
My sense of the university seats is that, if they did not already exist, one would never establish them. However, if we look back historically, the contribution of the university Senators has been enormously positive. I would like to see them retained in some way, perhaps with a third constituency for the newer institutions that are not included. We could just merge them all into one, but I would like to see the NUI retained and the University of Dublin retained and maybe have a new constituency for the more recently established institutions like DCU, UL and some of the institutes of technology. Again, though, those are just my thoughts. I look forward to receiving the report.
There are no proposals that I am aware of for a constitutional amendment relating to Seanad reform.
2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War in Paris. [48113/18]
3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with the President of Finland, Mr. Sauli Niinistö, and the Prime Minister of Finland, Mr. Juri Sipilä. [48235/18]
4. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he spoke with President Trump while in Paris on Armistice Day. [48373/18]
5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War in Paris. [50806/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 5, inclusive, together.
I travelled to Helsinki last month where I had bilateral meetings with the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, and the Prime Minister of Finland, Juha Sipilä on 7 November. Finland and Ireland are like-minded on many issues and both bilateral meetings were very warm and constructive.
In my meeting with Prime Minister Sipilä, we discussed a range of issues across the EU agenda, including Brexit, migration and economic issues, such as the multi-annual financial framework and economic and monetary union. We also looked forward to Finland's upcoming Presidency of the Council of Ministers in the second half of 2019. In my meeting with President Niinistö, issues raised included security, defence and external relations, including the EU's relations with Russia, an issue which is of particular concern in Finland.
In both my meetings, we also discussed bilateral relations between Finland and Ireland, which are excellent, and agreed to continue work to further strengthen our strategic relationship. I also took the opportunity to thank both leaders for their solidarity throughout the Brexit negotiations. I also attended a networking event later that day hosted by our ambassador to Finland where I met Irish business, cultural and community representatives.
On 11 November, I travelled to Paris where I represented Ireland at the Armistice Day commemorations. A total of 84 Heads of State and Government gathered at the Arc de Triomphe to remember those who lost their lives or were wounded in the First World War. This was a solemn occasion and served as a stark reminder of the tragedy of war and the need to focus our efforts on working together at European and international level to ensure that history does not repeat itself. President Macron hosted the event and I had the opportunity to speak with him upon arrival and in the margins of the ceremonies.
I also had informal exchanges with other counterparts, including several European and African leaders as well as Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada and the heads of international organisations. I did not have an opportunity to speak extensively with President Trump on this occasion, although we did exchange greetings.
The 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the First World War was an important moment for remembering a war that still has much to teach us. In the significant amount of scholarship published in recent years, the consensus points to it being a war that was far from inevitable. It followed an extended period of peace and growth in Europe and there was no compelling reason for war, even in terms of the values of the time. Ultimately, what was seen was a lack of strong rules-based organisations that could ensure trust and co-operation between countries. This remains a powerful lesson for today, one that, unfortunately, some parts of the English political class have chosen to ignore. It is an interesting fact of history that those who fought in the two world wars were the biggest enthusiasts for what we now call the European Union. Given the success of the commemorative programme of recent years and the significant level of public engagement, can the Taoiseach assure us that the commemoration's budget will remain intact? Given the central role of our academic historians not only in researching the period but also in opening up scholarship to the public, will the Taoiseach reconsider the recent policy of that has seen a steady downgrading of the role of humanities research in the State's research strategy and, of greater significance, funding for postgraduate doctorates in the humanities? A mechanism is available to facilitate greater scholarship in that area. I established it in the late 1990s.
In respect of the Taoiseach's meetings in Finland, we welcome bilateral meetings with countries such as Finland that have always had very constructive relations with Ireland. The trip had the added benefit for the Taoiseach of combining an official trip to Helsinki with the congress of the European People's Party, EPP, which happened to be held at the same time in the same city.
Following his bilateral meeting with his EPP colleague, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, earlier this year, the Taoiseach told the House that we should be understanding of Prime Minister Orbán's belief that he is protecting Hungary. Does the Taoiseach still believe this? He will have seen yesterday that a highly rated university has been driven out of Hungary because of the Orbán Government's analysis and hysterical campaign against anything funded by George Soros. The undertones of scapegoating, fearmongering and anti-Semitism are obvious. Orbán has also launched a campaign against the few pieces of the free media that are left and all non-governmental organisations, NGOs, that are not supportive of him. He has even enacted legislation to ban state funding of gender studies in universities. Is the Taoiseach aware of any more obvious violations of agreed EU values and rules? Does he believe that enough is being done to face down Orbánism?
The centenary commemorative events provided a moment and opportunity for many families the length and breadth of this land and beyond to remember in a very specific way the members of their family who fell in what was termed the Great War. In the midst of that very necessary remembrance of young lives lost - an entire generation - in the killing fields of Flanders, it is very important that we do not lose sight of the waste and sin of imperial war. Ireland learned that lesson because Irish blood was spilled.
In that spirit and being mindful of the fact that in a post-Brexit scenario, the battle is under way for the future of Europe and what the European project ought to be. There is a very obvious contradiction involving those of a federalist mindset who correctly cite the success of the European project as the world's greatest peace project, yet insist on the need for increased militarisation and, like the Taoiseach's friend, President Macron, the necessity of a European army. The Taoiseach spoke to his counterpart in Finland which, like Ireland, is militarily neutral. I put it to him, as Head of Government, that as this debate about the future of Europe unfolds, all of us who are in favour of military neutrality should protect that status and seek expression of it in the European treaties. Structured co-operation, NATO and all the ambitions of the militarists are codified and found within the treaties. Why do they not also feature our identity, ambition, distinct tradition and belief in the need for the European project to keep faith with the peace mission? Will the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, seek their inclusion within the treaties? That would be a positive and necessary contribution to this debate at this time.
At the armistice event on 11 November, President Emmanuel Macron warned against the dangers of nationalism rising in Europe. In particular, he referred to the dangers of the far right. We need to be very conscious of the dangers posed by the far right and the sort of political forces that gave us the horrors of the first part of the 20th century. When he looks at the uprising and protests taking place in France with the so-called yellow jackets, does the Taoiseach agree that Emmanuel Macron has shown a complete inability to understand the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s by imposing an unjust, regressive austerity flat tax on struggling working people in France and couching it in progressive environmental terms? By imposing it on people suffering from poverty, precarious work and a series of austerity attacks, President Macron is making precisely the same mistake that was made in the aftermath of the First World War with the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed austerity on Germany with disastrous consequences. If we want to avoid the disasters of the 1920s 1930s and 1940s, we must not attack ordinary people with regressive and unjust taxes and austerity measures. In fact, we should stand with the protesting yellow jackets who are saying they are not responsible for the economic mess in France and they have not threatened the environmental future of the planet.
The very wealthy have done that. This is the irony of what is going on in France. At the same time he imposes these fuel tax increases, President Macron has cut the wealth tax in France. The wealthy are going to see a 6% increase in their income while working people and the poor in France are being hammered under the guise of a so-called environmental tax. President Macron has shown exactly the wrong way to avoid the disasters of the 1920s and 1930s. We should learn the lessons here too.
The European Union was established to end all wars on the Continent of Europe and it has been, with a number of exceptions, remarkably successful. Everybody who identifies with the European Union is very conscious of that. Irish neutrality, as a concept and a policy, owes its origin to the slaughter of Irish men, and it was mostly men, in the First World War, who signed up for a variety of reasons to fight, as some saw it, for the freedom of small nations and ended up being slaughtered on the battlefields over a four-year period.
Does the Taoiseach support the recent statement by the Minister for Education and Skills that will see the restoration of history as a critical subject for young people in schools, particularly at secondary level, as well as at primary school level? Is it important that our young people know about this history and how wars on the European Continent largely came to an end?
In the context of the remembrance of the Great War, as it was called, does the Taoiseach propose to celebrate Irish neutrality? I know, within his own party and the party it is aligned to in Europe, as with all the other groups, there are people who are for neutrality policy and armies which are essentially for domestic defence rather than parts of greater co-operation and structures. Where do the Taoiseach's feelings lie? It is important that, as Taoiseach, he should not be dragged willy-nilly into a European federalist structure which would include the notion of a grand European army.
Does the Taoiseach accept Irish neutrality? Does he believe it should be expanded and developed and that neutrality is an especially appropriate position for Ireland, as a small country, and the other neutral European nations to take? Does he acknowledge that the respect which the Irish Defence Forces and other structures like the Garda command internationally in European peacekeeping is because we are recognised as a former colonial country which is neutral and is therefore particularly suited to helping to keep the peace and enforce peace around the world?
I think we will all agree that the First World War, or the Great War, was a truly terrible war that caused great suffering and the death of tens of millions of both soldiers and civilians. Its impact and the changes that followed therefrom still affect us and echo in the politics of today. Some good lessons were learned from the First World War. There was a move away from monarchy towards republics in large parts of Europe. There were at least attempts at multilateralism. The establishment of the League of Nations after the First World War was a progressive step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it did not succeed as an organisation, or certainly did not succeed in preventing the Second World War, but did form a template for the United Nations which came thereafter.
Another result of the First World War was a growth in the belief that nation states should have self-determination and, after the First World War, there emerged new nation states across Europe, including our own. Movements for disarmament also followed, as well as opposition to secret treaties. Many of the lessons that were learned from the First World War were well learned and I would not like to see them forgotten.
I think Prime Minister Orbán believes what he is saying about the Central European University, CEU, in Hungary, but that is not to say that I agree with him and I do not. I do not agree with him on quite a lot of issues, whether it is migration, academic freedom, press freedom, or the freedom of NGOs to be able to operate freely in a democratic society. The loss of the Central European University would be a loss to Budapest and Hungary. I understand it may be going to Vienna, where it is being welcomed by another of my European People's Party, EPP, colleagues, Chancellor Kurz. The CEU will be Vienna's gain and Budapest's loss.
On EU integration, I have said before on many occasions in this House that Ireland will not be joining NATO or a European army. I believe Irish neutrality is an asset. We are a small country and will never be a military power. Any military contribution we would make to Europe's defence could only ever be very limited. We can be powerful through our peacekeeping, foreign policy, international development aid and commitment to organisations like the United Nations. That Ireland is not a member of a military alliance is an advantage for the reasons Deputy Burton articulated. When it comes to the United Nations, for example, there is recognition that Ireland is a country with which other countries can identify, especially other island nations and nations that were colonised or a part of a larger nation. For example, in peacekeeping operations, the fact that we are not part of a military alliance means we can go places where perhaps other countries do not go, or would not be accepted.
I will have to double check, but I think our neutrality and non-alignment is already expressed in the treaties. I think it is in the Lisbon protocols.
I see a former Minister for Foreign Affairs nodding, so I think it is already expressed in the treaties.
It is in the protocols.
I support Ireland's participation in permanent structured co-operation, PESCO. That was endorsed by a very large majority in this House. That means Ireland participating in greater co-operation around security and defence with our European partners where we believe it makes sense to do so. For example, that could be in areas such as peacekeeping. Ireland participates in an EU mission in Mali which is an important contribution to trying to stabilise that part of the world. The Irish Naval Service has participated in operations in the Mediterranean, particularly around the management of the migration issue on the central Mediterranean route. We also need to co-operate on issues such as international terrorism, cybersecurity and other security threats that, quite frankly, no small country, or even big country, would be able to deal with on their own. That is why it makes sense for us to co-operate in a structured way on security issues and we intend to do that.
As Deputies are aware, the yellow jacket protests in France were spurred by opposition to increased taxes on fuel. Increasing taxes on fuel have benefits for the environment, pollution and health. For example, we know that diesel causes damage to people's health because of the emissions of sulphur oxide, SOx, and nitrogen oxide, NOx particles. If a tax causes people to buy or use less of something, in the same way as we tax cigarettes, for example, that can have environmental and health benefits and reduce pollution.
The reaction in France is a lesson to us when we consider how to increase carbon tax over the next couple of years. We have seen the French experience with increases in fuel taxes. We have seen what happened in Australia, where public opposition to increased taxes on petrol, diesel and other fuels brought down a government and prime ministers. We can see a model that may work being pursued in Canada, which is to bring in a carbon tax and price, but to rebate that to people in the form of tax credits or carbon dividends.
Essentially, the money that accrues from the introduction of a carbon tax is given back to people in another way. That allows people to understand that a carbon tax is an attempt to change behaviour, rather than an attempt to take money out of their pockets.
6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in Brexit preparedness. [47123/18]
7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in preparing for Brexit. [48234/18]
8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he and his officials are planning for the worst-case scenario in the event of the draft withdrawal treaty being rejected by the UK Parliament. [48377/18]
9. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if the Government is intensifying its preparations for a no-deal Brexit. [49443/18]
10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in preparing for Brexit. [50807/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 10, inclusive, together.
While the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, led by the Tánaiste, has overall responsibility for Brexit, it is clear that Brexit will have implications for each Department and agency. Staff across several divisions of my Department contribute to the work on Brexit. The international, EU and Northern Ireland division of the Department covers work on all international, EU, British-Irish and Northern Ireland affairs, including Brexit matters. The economic division of the Department advises me on economic policy aimed at promoting sustainable economic growth, with a particular focus on jobs and competitiveness, including the possible economic impacts of Brexit. To augment this work, the Department of the Taoiseach recently established a unit to work on Brexit preparedness and contingency planning and to assist a Secretaries General group that is overseeing ongoing work on national Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The staff in this unit focus on cross-Government co-ordination, planning and programme management and work closely with their colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
I welcome the endorsement by the European Council of the agreement on the withdrawal of the UK from the EU and the approval of the political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship. The finalised agreement provides a basis by which we can avoid a hard Brexit, which would see the UK crash out of the EU with all the severe consequences that would imply. Rejection pushes us all towards a no-deal Brexit, from which nobody would benefit. Preparation and planning is ongoing across all Departments to deal with and plan for a range of Brexit scenarios, including a no-deal scenario. As the Tánaiste has previously stated, in a disorderly scenario the implementation of all planned arrangements would not be possible by 29 March 2019. Therefore, we are also focusing on possible temporary solutions which could be rapidly implemented until more long-term arrangements could be put in place. The whole-of-Government response is led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and underpinned by a comprehensive set of Government structures, which ensure all Departments and their agencies are engaging in detailed preparedness and contingency planning, including through the development of sectoral action plans.
At several recent meetings, including one last week, the Government discussed Brexit preparedness and contingency planning and agreed a range of important actions for the necessary checks and controls for trade on an east-west basis. For example, the Government sanctioned the recruitment of additional staff for customs and sanitary and phytosanitary controls, as well as information and communications technology and infrastructure actions at our ports and airports. In a no-deal scenario, various actions could be employed, including accelerated recruitment and rapid redeployment of staff. Many issues will need to be dealt with on an EU-wide basis. The contingency action plan that was published by the European Commission recently covered eight particular areas. The specific impact of Brexit on Ireland and Irish businesses was flagged in the Commission's communications. Businesses and other affected sectors need to respond and prepare. Assistance is available from the Government to help them. The Getting Ireland Brexit Ready public information campaign was launched in September and several very successful outreach events have been held under this banner.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. The ongoing chaos in Westminster is a reminder to us all that the default position under UK law is that Britain will leave the EU in 115 days' time. The withdrawal agreement may somehow be passed, there may be an extension of the Article 50 process or there may even be a new referendum, but the default position is that unless a majority can be constructed for an alternative, Brexit will happen on 29 March 2019. The cost of this to Ireland would be a minimum of €5 billion. According to an analysis by Copenhagen Economics, this could rise to €10 billion in the event of a collapse in sterling caused by the UK crashing out of the EU. In light of the scale of this issue, is it really a mark of successful preparations that basic information seminars are still being conducted less than four months before the most critical deadline? Would it be possible for the Taoiseach to put aside for a moment his spin about the number of people looking for information or about the potential funding? He needs to look at the bigger picture. According to data produced by the Government, most of the firms that are threatened by Brexit will not be ready for Brexit in March. They have few contingencies in place for disrupted supply lines, are badly exposed on sterling and have little of the required expertise available to them. If the majority of critical firms are not ready, or are exposed to threats without a means of tackling them, how can the Taoiseach say he is happy with the pace of preparations? If he disagrees with this interpretation, will he indicate what percentage of firms would need to have Brexit plans and contingencies in place and to have implemented them for him to be happy that Ireland is ready for Brexit? I am not asking him how many helpline calls we should log but what percentage of firms he believes should be ready on 29 March 2019.
In some respects, this issue of preparedness is a difficult one. I do not believe this State should concede that we will countenance for a second a scenario in which there is any hardening of the Border on our island. I do not think we should concede our ambitions in respect of North-South trade, the maintenance of the status quo and the protection of our agreements. We have agreed that all of these things are priorities for us. I do not think we should concede on the issue of east-west trading. I am very conscious that a debate is under way in Westminster. It is now a matter for the MPs who have been elected by their respective constituencies to have their debate, however chaotic and shambolic it may appear to our eyes. A degree of breathing room is necessary to allow that debate to happen. In my view, Brexit will happen. I have never believed we should be in the business of trying to wish it away. Of course there has to be an intense engagement with every sector, in business and beyond, on what might happen in a post-Brexit scenario. This is a long-term issue. The challenge for us is not simply to ensure in the immediacy of the fact that there are supply chains or that commerce takes place in the here and now. This is for keeps. It marks a profound shift in the political landscape. As the dust settles, there is a need for us to have a wide-ranging and deep conversation about what our island will look like in a post-Brexit world.
There is massive uncertainty about what will happen in Britain in the coming weeks. The hope that certain issues could be avoided on the basis of an agreement that resolves things to everyone's mutual satisfaction is looking a hell of a lot more shaky. That brings the possibility of a hard Brexit into view. What scenarios are being envisaged in the contingency planning mentioned by the Taoiseach? I reiterate my concern that in the event of a hard Brexit, we will come under pressure from the EU to erect a border between the North and the South of this country. While the Taoiseach has said he would not countenance that, we have heard slightly ambiguous statements from the Tánaiste, who has said it might be difficult to avoid. People need to know what the position is. I certainly believe that under no circumstances should we countenance that, regardless of who we come under pressure from. We should say we are not doing it and it will not happen. We should make clear that we will not participate in any attempt to impose a border between North and South for any reason and under any circumstances. I ask the Taoiseach to provide some clarity in that regard. Is this something that is envisaged under the Government's contingency scenario planning?
We had the news today of the written judgment of the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice. Does the Taoiseach feel it is potentially very beneficial to Ireland and people in the UK who may want a soft Brexit or a rethink in the form of a second referendum? They are matters for the UK Government but they have an enormous influence on us. I want to know what is the Taoiseach's view. I have always thought that in the Brexit process, one of the things that should be explored is an extension of the Article 50 process. Until the Advocate General's viewpoint, which we expect will be endorsed by the European Court of Justice, was announced this morning, the feeling was it might be difficult to do because it would require all 27 countries to allow for it. It now seems to be potentially off the table. Does the Taoiseach welcome it? Does he feel it gives more flexibility to the Irish position?
In terms of preparing for Brexit, people all around the country, particularly farmers, are scared about the loose references to the World Trade Organization, WTO, rules in the event of a hard Brexit. As such, have we taken on experts in trade negotiations who are experienced on both the legal front and in the technicalities of trade negotiations? We have not negotiated a trade agreement since we joined the EU and neither has the UK. We need such expertise in the EU in the case of such an outcome. Is the Taoiseach preparing for it?
On the various information seminars, we will keep doing them all the way through to Brexit and perhaps beyond. The suggestion I thought I heard from Deputy Martin was that the seminars should be all done and dusted by now. It is not the case at all. It has to be a continual process of informing business as the situation unfolds.
In terms of percentages, all firms that need to be prepared should be prepared by 29 March but we need to acknowledge that all firms are different. Some do not trade with the UK at all or do not trade much with it and some can shift operations. We have to acknowledge that different companies need to be prepared to different extents and some do not need to be prepared at all if they are not trading with the United Kingdom.
In terms of scenarios, we developed quite some time ago what we call the central case scenario. It turned out to be something very close to what we now have with the withdrawal agreement. The central case scenario says there will be a transition period of two years or more and when it is over there will be customs and regulatory checks east-west but not North-South. That is the central case scenario we have prepared for. We also prepared for a no deal scenario. While the central case scenario and no deal scenario sound like two scenarios, the response is a graduation of one from the other. That is how we have done the various scenario planning. We have not made any contingency or scenario planning for a hard Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland or any associated physical infrastructure.
In terms of trade agreements, as we will stay members of the European Union, trade will continue to be a sole EU competence and therefore will only be negotiated by the European Commission. We will not be negotiating our own trade agreements because we will be staying in the European Union. We have people who are experts in trade already. They are not negotiators because they will not be involved in any negotiations but they are experts in the rules and laws of trade. They are in the Department and they come in very useful when it comes to examining, for example, the impact of EU trade deals on Ireland, whether they are CETA, EU-Japan, Mercosur or EU-Mexico deals, because we need to have people who understand the WTO, how trade works and international trade law to make sure our interests are protected when we plug into discussions around what those trade deals might look like.
As was acknowledged, the report of the Advocate General is not an ECJ decision. It is the opinion of the Advocate General which the ECJ usually, but not always, concurs with. It says the Article 50 procedure could be withdrawn by the UK. It could unilaterally decide to stay. It would not have to renegotiate re-entry terms. It is up to the UK. It is a sovereign decision for it to make. It has decided not to make that decision. It has decided to respect the result of the referendum that occurred in the United Kingdom which was to leave. It is still the case that an extension of Article 50 would require a unanimous vote of member states. The difference is between the UK choosing to cancel Article 50, which it can do unilaterally, and seeking an extension which would require a vote of member states. The report suggests if the UK was to withdraw from Article 50, it would have to be done in good faith; it could not be done on a tactical basis. It could not invoke Article 50, withdraw it, revoke it again and then withdraw it on a tactical basis.
On the roles of other parties, we have often spoken about the role of Sinn Féin and the fact it has seven MPs who could vote in the House of Commons if they chose to do so. It is also the case that Fianna Fáil has a sister party in the Liberal Democrats. The Labour Party has a sister party in the British Labour Party. I encourage leaders to engage with their counterparts in the UK because there are a number of votes coming up. It is not simply just a vote on whether the House of Commons accepts the withdrawal agreement or not. There will be other votes. Some votes are being put down, particularly on the backstop. I would not like to see a vote in the House of Commons specifically repudiating the backstop. We know there cannot be a withdrawal agreement without the backstop. It is important that the sister parties, whether the Liberal Democrats or the British Labour Party, understand that.
What about the Tories? They are Fine Gael's counterparts.
They will be voting for the deal or at least we expect the majority of them will.