Mary Lou McDonaldCeist:
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the number of staff in his Department who provide supports for Independent Ministers in government. [50348/18]
Vol. 976 No. 2
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the number of staff in his Department who provide supports for Independent Ministers in government. [50348/18]
My Department, as outlined in the strategy statement, provides assistance to the Taoiseach and the Government, including the Independent members of Government, through the Government secretariat, the parliamentary liaison unit, the programme for Government office and the Cabinet committee structure to ensure Government business is managed to the highest standards. The chief strategist for the Independent Alliance and the political co-ordinator for the Independent Ministers in government are also based in my Department.
The Government press secretary acts as a spokesperson for the Taoiseach and the Government and is assisted by the press office in his role of co-ordinating the media relations of all Government Departments. The deputy press secretary, who is also based in my Department, is tasked with co-ordinating communications for all the Independents in government.
The question was about Independent Ministers in government but I notice that Fianna Fáil's negotiators are to report back to their party leader on the state of talks with Fine Gael to renew the confidence and supply arrangement. Will the Taoiseach or even the leader of Fianna Fáil enlighten the rest of us as to the state of play in that regard? What is on offer and what is being demanded? What timeframe will the new confidence and supply arrangement cover? What role, if any, will the Independents who are propping up the Government play? Are they party to these negotiations? What is their role in the process? What asks, if any, have they tabled or are they, like the rest of us, in the dark about all of this? It is now two months or thereabouts since the budget. We are told discussions and negotiations have taken place in that time. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the parties of Government, talked a great deal about stability and certainty, not least because of Brexit, yet we have this most uncertain of situations. Will the Taoiseach enlighten us regarding my questions? I am sure that if he is not able to give full and comprehensive answers, his partner in government, Deputy Micheál Martin, will no doubt oblige.
At least we have a Government.
I remind Deputy McDonald that this jurisdiction has a Government and that this House facilitated its formation unlike Northern Ireland, which has been without a government for two years, a record length of time. The people of Northern Ireland have no voice in any democratic forum because of very wrong decisions that were taken.
The Taoiseach will remember that he repeatedly said that everything needs to be branded as coming from the Government and that the extraordinary amount of attention paid to promoting himself and his colleagues is important because people need to understand that it is the State that is helping them. He then identified the expansion of childcare as a particular priority for Government publicity. In this respect, is the profile the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is giving herself regarding initiatives such as the Government-funded website, affordablechildcare.ie, acceptable? This website is headlined with a photograph of the Minister whose introduction implies that every support for childcare was created in the past 14 months. In addition, there is not the slightest mention of the Government or indeed the Oireachtas, which applied the pressure that delivered much of the new funding. Is this good or acceptable practice? Can the Taoiseach confirm to the House that Independent Ministers are subject to the same standards of oversight and accountability as those who belong to a party?
In the same vein, it has become a regular occurrence that public bodies are being requested to delay announcements and grants until a Minister is available to claim credit. While it has always been the case that a ministerial presence at an announcement can be helpful, it has been suggested to me that there are cases where the efficient running of programmes is being impacted by a loud demand from the centre of Government that nothing happen until the politicians are ready. Can the Taoiseach assure the House that this is not the case?
I am interested in the issue of branding because it seems that anything that is good or perceived to be good is delivered by the Government but I have noticed that all the very strong radio and television advertisements demanding people pay their TV licence or face jail are a matter for the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Is it only good things that result from collective decisions? Who makes the decision about what gets branded? Is it an official, a committee or a working group? Who determines whether initiatives taken by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs are her initiatives or initiatives of the Government?
Regarding supports to Independent Ministers, where stands the former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten? Is he getting supports from Government? Is he part of the support base? If so, what specific supports are assigned to him?
The talks on the review and renewal of the confidence and supply agreement are ongoing between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The House and members of the public will know the outcome I have put forward, which is that we should not have an election until the summer of 2020 and we should agree a date for an election in the summer of 2020. I am very keen to get down to talking about the nitty-gritty and detail of what can be achieved for the public by the Government and Oireachtas between now and then in areas such as the economy, tax, jobs, health, housing, education, infrastructure and climate change - everything that we care about.
Given the way Brexit is unfolding in the United Kingdom, it may go on for quite some time and it would be responsible to give Ireland the stability and certainty of having a Government in place until the summer of 2020 so we can get through the entire Brexit period and perhaps most of the transition period. The talks are going on longer than I would like but I respect the fact that Fianna Fáil wants to do a detailed and in-depth review of what is happening in different Departments and I respect its wish that this be done. That is being done. I think eight or nine Departments have been reviewed. While the talks have been ongoing for a long time, they have certainly not gone on as long as the DUP-Sinn Féin on-and-off talks. In fact, I do not think those two parties are talking at the moment. It is always better to talk than not talk when it comes to getting things done for citizens. As Deputy Micheál Martin rightly said, the DUP and Sinn Féin now hold the international record for failing to agree a government and form a coalition.
As a result of that, people in Northern Ireland, Irish and British citizens alike, have been left largely voiceless over Brexit, unlike south of the Border. The number of people on waiting lists for operations and procedures is spiralling. Homelessness in the North is getting worse and people are forced to live on meagre welfare payments and pensions worth half of those in the Republic of Ireland. A large share of the responsibility for that lies with the failure of Sinn Féin to form a government in Northern Ireland.
The Independents in Government are not involved in the confidence and supply talks because it is an agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but I have given the Independents my commitment that Fine Gael will not sign off on a new confidence and supply agreement, or renewal, without them also being happy with it. Ultimately, any new agreement would fall to the Government, not just Fine Gael, to implement and I could not sign up to something which the Independents, in good faith, did not feel they could deliver on. That is where it stands. The Independents are not involved in the negotiations because Fine Gael has already negotiated a programme for Government with the Independent Alliance and the Independents in government and that runs for five years.
Childcare is a particular priority for Government and it is particularly important, and more important, to families, many of which struggle with the cost of childcare. It is an area in which the Government has made much progress in recent years. Everyone is guaranteed two years of free preschool, early childhood care and education, which I know many parents find extremely valuable. The Government has introduced the universal subsidy which gives a subsidy to any child in childcare between the ages of six months and three years. That is not means tested, which is important because hard-working middle income and middle class parents, who pay a lot of income tax, should also benefit from childcare subsidies and that is why we made sure there was no means test for that particular subsidy.
There is also the affordable childcare scheme and there will be further improvements to that scheme in 2019. It will be put on a universal basis, merging the existing schemes into one. There will be an increase in the subsidies paid to low income families because they need it most, but it will also be extended to many more middle income families because they need help too. Middle income families, with combined incomes of about €100,000, will receive childcare subsidies from next year and that is only right and appropriate, given that they are the same parents who pay an awful lot of income tax so they should also get things back from the system.
It is absolutely appropriate that the public are informed about all this and I am glad that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is making sure that the public is informed of what is available to them in childcare supports. I do not regulate or control that in any way.
That is a big problem with the Government.
She is the Minister in her own Department and is doing an exceptional job.
Deputy Howlin complained about the Government claiming credit for anything that is good but not wanting to associate itself with things that are bad. Often, when I am in this House, it feels like the shoe is on the other foot. The Government gets no credit for all the things it is doing and the successes it has achieved, whether that is employment at a ten-year low, a budget that is balanced, or perhaps even in surplus, ahead of schedule this year, rising living standards, falling poverty and so many other things I could list. The Government is solely to blame for everything that is going wrong and nobody else has any responsibility, not the Opposition, local authorities - nobody. I can understand Deputy Howlin's frustration but he can be sure that it works both ways.
The Government does not have any agreement with Deputy Naughten at present. As is the case with all Independents, we do our best to assist them with queries they may raise, particularly about their own constituency.
2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council. [48021/18]
I attended the 31st British-Irish Council, BIC, summit in the Isle of Man on Friday, 9 November, hosted by Chief Minister Howard Quale. I was accompanied by the Minister of State with responsibility for natural resources, community affairs and digital development, Deputy Sean Canney.
The discussion at the summit covered political developments for administrations since the last summit in June, including on the implications of Brexit, particularly for relationships across the islands and all seven jurisdictions. The council also discussed the current political situation in Northern Ireland and I restated my regret that Northern Ireland was not represented at the meeting. In fact, everyone expressed their regret that the deputy First Minister and First Minister of Northern Ireland were not present because they do not exist. That was the strong view around the table.
The council also endorsed plans for a future programme of work for the council’s digital inclusion work sector. The Minister of State, Deputy Canney, took part in a thematic discussion on the subject of digital inclusion. Topics covered included digital rights, digital skills and literacy and partnership working between the BIC administrations.
Cabinet Office Minister, Mr. David Lidington, MP, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Karen Bradley, MP, attended the summit meeting for the UK Government, along with the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the Chief Ministers of Guernsey and Jersey. I took the opportunity to have bilateral discussions with First Minister Carwyn Jones and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. In both meetings we exchanged views on issues of mutual interest and continued co-operation with discussions focusing mainly on Brexit and its impacts on business and citizens and on developments in Westminster and Brussels. I wished First Minister Jones well in his future because it was the occasion of his last BIC summit because he will step down as leader of the Welsh Labour Party and First Minister on 11 December.
I also held brief discussions with David Lidington on Brexit and on the absence of an agreement between the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive. I underlined the importance of the restoration of the institutions in the context of the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and undertook to continue to work with the British Government to assist the Northern parties to achieve this outcome.
The Taoiseach referred to full restoration of the institutions in line with the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. That may rhetorically be the Taoiseach's position, but it is not his position politically. Week on week, he amplifies that reality when he takes to his feet in this House. I am not going to waste the time that I have on tit-for-tat politics.
Brexit has thrown up a whole myriad of legislative and logistical issues, one of which is future EU representation in the European Parliament for citizens in the North, whom the Taoiseach cares deeply about. Sinn Féin and others have pressed to ensure citizens in the North are afforded a means of maintaining representation in the parliament, whether through the allocation of seats to the North, the two additional seats that were afforded to this State, or indeed by extension of the franchise. I see a report in The Irish Times yesterday which states that an internal Government note has been prepared on this matter and it would appear that these suggestions have been dismissed. If that is true, I think it is regrettable. In fact, it does not chime at all with the Taoiseach's pledge that no one in the North would ever again be left behind. Is there such a note? Does it dismiss these propositions? Has it been accepted by Government and will the Taoiseach publish it?
The BIC meeting last month was, unfortunately, a reminder of just how bad things are in the operations of the agreed structures of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Yet again there was no democratic voice for Northern Ireland at the meeting because of the continued suspension of the Assembly and Executive. We were then told that Sinn Féin's concerns about the operation of a heating scheme mean that the people of Northern Ireland have no voice at these or any other discussions about the future of relations on these islands.
When a scandal happens, it should never bring down the edifice of Government or Parliament. It is incomprehensible when looked at it in that context. A scandal should be dealt with, rather than bringing down the whole operation.
More importantly, there is no evidence from the communiqué or any of the press conferences that there were substantive discussions about the need for much more active and constructive relations. I take on board what the Taoiseach has just said, but Fianna Fáil proposed over two years ago after the result of the Brexit referendum that there is a need to replace the current constant east-west contact which happens between the UK and Irish Governments in European Union forums with something which stops the inevitable drift which will happen if we rely on current approaches. The common travel area and mutual recognition of rights and other areas cannot function without constant interactions between the two Governments.
I do not think the British-Irish Council, as it currently works, is the answer. Something far more dynamic and focused on urgent issues is required. At the time, I proposed something like the Nordic Council, which is very interesting. It has a permanent secretariat. It includes countries in the region that are members of the European Union and countries that are not. There is no doubt that there will be an issue with British-Irish relations after Brexit. We have developed familiar and frequent contacts in the past 40 years in going to various meetings in Brussels. In an informal way, that has been of significant assistance to relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom which I do not think we should understate. Given the urgency of this issue, we need to work substantively on the idea of what will replace the frequency, level and quality of contacts we have enjoyed with British Ministers and officials in the context of the European Union. With what will we replace it? Is the existing British-Irish Council the correct forum? Is it substantive enough to meet the requirements I have mentioned? I got an indication from the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach that they were coming around to this view. I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach's perspective.
It is not surprising that Brexit was the main topic of conversation and the main focus of the discussion. Since June 2016, the British Parliament has been deadlocked on the question of Brexit. After two and a half years of wrangling, we still have no solution that we believe will command a majority at Westminster. Despite the wishes of most Members of this House, there is a growing likelihood that the deal negotiated will not command a majority in the House of Commons next week. There is certainly no majority for a no-deal scenario. The only thing on which the British Parliament seems to agree is the need for more information before MPs make up their minds. Obviously, it is an internal matter for the British Parliament, but there is a real risk that it will be unable to agree on anything before March 2019. That could mean a disorderly exit by the United Kingdom from the European Union, perhaps by accident more than by design. Having discussed these matters at some length, we all agree that that would be disastrous for Ireland. I agree that we cannot interfere in any way in the British decision-making process. It would probably be counterproductive to do so, but if it becomes apparent that more time is needed to enable a rational decision to be arrived at, what will the Taoiseach's attitude be? The Advocate General of the European Court of Justice decided yesterday that the United Kingdom could, of its own volition, withdraw the Article 50 application. We are less clear, however, on the postponement of the Article 50 process. If the view of the House of Commons is that more time is needed, will the Government support a postponement of the Article 50 process? What, in the Taoiseach's view, would be the attitude of the other 26 member states to such a proposal?
One of the more frustrating aspects of the endless finger-pointing that has been a feature of the Brexit debate is that issues which have a real day-to-day impact on people in the North, particularly those who are vulnerable and less well off, are being completely forgotten. The UK Welfare Reform Act 2012 was one of the most obnoxious pieces of legislation to come from Westminster. It was passed at Stormont with the support of Sinn Féin and the DUP. The impact of this really horrific piece of austerity is being felt by some of the most vulnerable people in the North. This austerity legislation affects all of Britain. The personal independence payment, PIP, assessment is truly obnoxious. When people need to renew their payments, they have to fill in forms that ask them questions like "are you incontinent?" and "can you wash youself?" Those who are embarrassed by such questions and would rather not answer them can have their payments cut off. I do not know whether other Deputies have seen the Ken Loach film "I, Daniel Blake". This is the incarnation of the stuff passed at Stormont, but it is now being implemented. Somebody with stage 4 cancer recently had their PIP payment cut off. Someone else who was shot in the head at the age of 15 years and has been suffering from depression ever since has been denied their payment. A similar point can be made about universal credit, another so-called welfare reform. Incredibly, one receives welfare payments for up to two children only. If someone has more than two, he or she cannot receive a welfare payment for the third or fourth child unless he or she has been a product of rape. The stuff being imposed in the North is absolutely incredible. Are these matters discussed at the British-Irish Council? They are having a real impact on some of the most vulnerable people in the North in the most obnoxious way.
I presume we have all been following developments in the House of Commons in recent days. I refer, for example, to the publication of the legal advice earlier today. There is a sense of bewilderment. It seems that the backstop is the focus of all of their attention. It seems that in many ways it is being used as a proxy for the real internal war between those who want a hard Brexit and those who want a soft Brexit. In that regard, it is interesting to note that the Taoiseach would have had an opportunity to engage in informal discussions at the British-Irish Council with the leader of the Welsh Labour Party. I presume he could easily have used that opportunity to articulate the concerns of his party. The same point can be made in the case of Mr. Lidington. Did they raise fundamental concerns about the backstop? If so, what did they say? What is the argument we have to counter or challenge? It is clear from our perspective that the backstop embodies the protections delivered by the Good Friday Agreement. I am interested in knowing whether this matter was raised by representatives of the Labour Party or the Conservatives at the British-Irish Council and, if so, what is their real concern?
I would like to make a brief point about North-South relations in the context of what has been said about PIP assessments. I have seen the Ken Loach film mentioned. I admire Ken Loach and have seen his films during the years. The situation depicted in the film in question would never arise in Ireland. Deputies will recall that the main character had worked all of his life. He became a widower when his wife died following a terminal illness. As every Deputy in the House knows, under our system, he would entirely qualify on a paid basis for a full widower's pension, which, of course, is much more substantial in the Republic than in the North or the rest of the United Kingdom. I am concerned that people might become frightened as they listen to the examples being given. There should be no suggestion the people who work in our social protection system handle their clients in the same way as has happened in the United Kingdom. It should be mentioned that much of this activity in the United Kingdom is outsourced, whereas very little of it is outsourced here. In fairness, Ken Loach's system is striking in what it teaches us about the United Kingdom. I assure Deputy Boyd Barrett, in case he is advising people, that the system in Ireland is totally different.
I was talking about the North.
It was clear that the Deputy was talking about the North.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. Deputy McDonald asked about representation for Northern Ireland in the European Parliament after Brexit. The sad reality is that after Brexit, Northern Ireland will no longer be part of the European Union. We hope it is the case that if the withdrawal agreement is ratified, important elements of EU law and regulations will continue to apply in Northern Ireland, but that will not change the fact that the United Kingdom as a whole will leave the European Union. Northern Ireland, against the will of the majority in it, is being taken out of the European Union and will leave with the rest of the United Kingdom. No non-EU country or territory has representation in the European Parliament.
Provision is made for accession countries to have observers but it is not the case that any non-EU country or non-EU territory is represented in the European Parliament. An issue could arise whereby, similar to accession countries, Northern Ireland could have observers in the European Parliament, perhaps contributing to the debate, particularly when it comes to rules and regulations that may apply to Northern Ireland. One of the difficulties I have is it is not something we can impose on Northern Ireland from here. It has to be something that a Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly seeks. We do our best on all occasions to preserve the rights of EU citizens who will be living in Northern Ireland after Brexit and to maximise the freedoms and benefits they will continue to receive. We are slightly weakened by the fact it is the Government in Dublin asking for those things and not a Northern Ireland Assembly or Executive. In many cases, Northern Ireland elected representatives are saying they do not want them. It has definitely weakened our position.
It is important to make a distinction between citizens' rights and rights that are linked to residency. We have ensured Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland will continue to be EU citizens and have all the rights that come with EU citizenship. That is the right to travel freely, work, study and access education in any part of the European Union. An Irish citizen who lives in Northern Ireland, for example, Belfast or Derry, will be able to work in Berlin, study in Athens and travel freely to Spain. A British citizen living in Belfast might not be able to do those things. He or she might need a work visa or work permit or some other sort of permission to do those things. Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, by virtue of being EU citizens, will continue to have all the rights that are attached to citizenship.
However, there are some rights that are linked to residency in the same way an Irish citizen living in Canada does not have the same rights as an Irish citizen living in Ireland. Rights that are linked to residency will be more difficult to secure but we want to secure them. We have had some positive discussions on this. The rights we are seeking to secure are the ability of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland to continue to participate in programmes such as Erasmus and to continue to benefit from the European health insurance card. We are getting a good hearing on those things in the European Union. We would have a much better chance of achieving them if there was a deputy First Minister and First Minister from Northern Ireland also looking for them. It would put us in a much stronger position.
3. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the outcome of the special European Council meeting held in Brussels in November 2018 to consider the Brexit issue. [50056/18]
4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the EU summit held on 25 November 2018. [50349/18]
5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May since the EU summit on 25 November 2018 and to the other heads of state. [50351/18]
6. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker since he met Prime Minister May on 21 November 2018; and the issues that were discussed. [50479/18]
7. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on meetings he had at the special meeting in Brussels on 25 November 2018. [50480/18]
8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent special meeting of the European Council. [50556/18]
I propose to take Questions No. 3 to 8, inclusive, together.
I attended the special meeting of the European Council in Brussels on 25 November. At our meeting, we endorsed the withdrawal agreement and approved the political declaration. This was a positive step, representing the culmination of more than 20 months of difficult negotiations.
The withdrawal agreement sets out the terms for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. It ensures the withdrawal will happen in an orderly manner, avoiding the United Kingdom crashing out, with all the severe consequences that would imply. It provides for a period of transition, during which detailed negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the UK can take place. It provides for the rights of UK nationals currently resident in other EU member states and EU citizens resident in the UK. It also provides for the orderly winding down of current arrangements across a broad spectrum of EU co-operation and it sets out the financial settlement and governance structures for the withdrawal.
The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is an integral and fully legally operational part of the withdrawal agreement, fully protects the Good Friday Agreement and peace. It translates the commitment to avoiding a hard border into a legal guarantee.
As I have said many times, I hope the backstop will never be needed but it is vital the withdrawal agreement contains this essential insurance policy, which is a fallback option should other options fail. The protocol also contains provisions on other important areas for Ireland, including the maintenance of the common travel area and all the rights, freedoms and benefits for citizens that flow from it, North-South co-operation, and the single electricity market on the island of Ireland.
The backstop also ensures there will be no diminution of rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement and it confirms the people in the North will continue to enjoy rights as EU citizens, as I explained earlier. Importantly for Northern Ireland and the Border counties, it confirms PEACE and INTERREG funding will continue.
I had no formal bilateral meetings in Brussels on 25 November but engaged en marge with many of my EU counterparts, including Chancellor Merkel, President Tusk, President Juncker and Prime Minister May. I also spoke to President Juncker by phone on Friday, 23 November, two days before the summit. I thanked him for the continued solidarity and work of the Commission and I assented to the course of action he proposed.
There is no Brexit outcome that will be good for Ireland or the EU. I welcome the withdrawal agreement ratified in Brussels. It represents the best way forward from the point of view of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and for protecting the Good Friday Agreement. I also welcome the unfailing support for the Irish position shown by the other 26 EU member states. A vote will take place in the House of Commons on 11 December. I am conscious we should not say anything on this side of the water to interfere in that process. I guess the Taoiseach does not want to say anything about the legal advice to the UK Government on the Brexit deal, which was just published.
We are in for a period of uncertainty. It is clear there is no plan B under consideration, so uncertainty prevails. It would seem we are in for a rocky road ahead or we certainly could be. Are we prepared for Brexit? Are we prepared for all eventualities and scenarios? Are we upgrading our ports and airports? Are we providing sufficient supports to businesses and SMEs to be Brexit ready? We now have the withdrawal agreement. The future relationship will have to be negotiated. Is Ireland actively engaged in preparing for these new negotiations on the future relationship? What work has been done in that regard in the context of working with the European Commission?
Yesterday in the discussions in the British Parliament, Mrs. May stated the backstop would have to be short term. She stated the EU would not allow it to remain for long because the EU would not want the UK to have access to EU markets for an indeterminate period of time. The explanation by Mrs May, notwithstanding the enormous support we have received from other EU member countries, has to be of concern to us in the context that if the backstop was to disappear, as people such as those in the DUP would like, it would leave the North and South very exposed if there were no alternative arrangements. In that context, has the Taoiseach had any opportunities to discuss what might happen? The opinion of the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice is possibly very helpful to us. It seems to me Mrs. May is now being boxed into a corner where she is offering a fairly quick withdrawal from the backstop and is not clear about the alternatives. The implications for the North and the South are pretty worrying.
It is impossible to work out what will happen with regard to Brexit following the vote next week in the House of Commons. I was in Westminster last week talking to my colleague, Caroline Lucas, from the Green Party, who is involved in the People's Vote campaign. We support it while being respectful from a distance. I do not believe there can or should be any reopening of the deal that is on offer.
There is one variation I want to put to the Taoiseach as a possible addition to what is available or as a possibility the Taoiseach might consider. It is related to the Advocate General's advice that it is possible to stall Article 50. One alternative, if it becomes useful to use it, is to offer a backstop guarantee for the UK.
It could work in the following way. At the end of a transition period, should the UK decide at any stage to rejoin the European Union, we could commit to or try to get agreement among the European Union Council to that outcome without the usual strictures around having to join the currency or changing the voting system or any other such measures. We could give the UK a backstop guarantee such that if, at the end of the transition period, it is not working out, then the UK can rejoin easily, quickly and at no cost. That might give the UK some space or help the political situation. Lord knows how that will evolve in the coming weeks, but that may help as one of the options. Would the Taoiseach consider that? Would he share the idea with his European Union colleagues and consider putting forward the idea, if needs be, in the coming weeks?
I wish to place on the record my agreement with Deputy Boyd Barrett in respect of the changes to the personal independence payment and universal credit. The moves have been seriously damaging to working and vulnerable people. I remind the Deputy that, believe it or not, this scenario would have been far worse but for mitigation that was secured. That is not to defend those responsible but it is a function of ongoing British jurisdiction and the fact that the Tories are in government.
I do not believe we should make the mistake of going down the line of imagining, as Deputy Burton has, that the backstop disappears. The backstop will not be disappearing. It is clear to me from the legal advice that has been provided that the backstop stays in place unless and until, which is the wording. We should not get into a false discussion or give succour to those who would wish to ditch the backstop. If there is no backstop, there is no withdrawal agreement – sin é. That has been enunciated clearly and that line has been held.
The only circumstances in which we do not have a backstop are, of course, in the event of a crash. Whereas there is no majority for that, we cannot discount that it may happen. I am making the point to the Taoiseach more for him to have it in his line of thought rather than anything else. In addition to preparation for Brexit and the immediacy of that, we need to be mindful that, in the event of a crash, no hardening of the Border would be tolerable. We cannot philosophically sit back and simply absorb the damage that would arise. In such circumstances we would have to look to the scenario of removing the Border, that is to say, a border poll, a referendum, and putting the constitutional question. It is important the Government has this in its line of sight as well.
I will respond briefly to the point made by Deputy McDonald. I am glad she accepts that these are obnoxious so-called reforms. They are vile intrusions and cuts on particularly vulnerable people. To my mind they have to be resisted full stop. Mitigation is not enough. This is appalling. These are private companies - those involved not even medical practitioners - telling people whether they are entitled to disability support. It is disgusting. There is a lesson for us. We must not go down that road.
That is right.
I accept that, as Deputy Burton said, it has not happened here yet, but we must not allow it to happen. Sinn Féin should not have passed that Bill. This is the point about whether Stormont is in place. We have to resist these measures regardless of who is in government and regardless of the Administration that is in place because these measures are vile and obnoxious. This is not welfare reform. Rather, it is an assault on the most vulnerable people in society.
I wish to make one brief point about issues that get obscured by all of this. I asked about this matter yesterday. I believe the yellow jackets protest to be an absolutely justified protest against fuel hikes in France. To what extent is the Taoiseach discussing this question with his European colleagues? We need urgent radical action on climate change but we must also ensure that action does not hit at vulnerable low-income people and rather is directed at the big polluters, including the fossil fuel industry and so on. It goes against what we are trying to do to allow public transport fares in this country to increase at a time when we need to get people out of their cars and into public transport.
There is not much to be achieved by trying to discern any final outcome from the chaos in Westminster at the moment. There are many different groups and constantly shifting coalitions. For example, the vote yesterday on the Dominic Grieve amendment was interesting. It saw European-positive Tory MPs, who will mostly support the deal, vote with the UK Opposition while the deal's most bitter opponents actually supported the Government. The week's events raise serious issues. We have also seen the Keir Starmer parliamentary manoeuvres in forcing the publication of the advice of the UK Attorney General. In many ways this illustrates the strength of the British Parliament, its parliamentary tradition and its power vis-à-vis the UK Executive. It is something we might look at here.
I put it to the Taoiseach that the advice of the British Attorney General is now published. I gather we are waiting for the European legal advice and it is due in the coming period. Should our own Attorney General's advice not be published given the unique circumstances governing this issue? It is a serious issue for all concerned. The Taoiseach indicated to me that the EU legal service will make a statement at some stage about the legal implications of the withdrawal treaty. It might be useful if we had our own advice.
I accept that, as the British Attorney General pointed out, there is a political dimension and a legal dimension. He made the point that the backstop can never be permanent while at the same time saying that the UK could be trapped because of EU law and so on. He then made the strong point that, politically, there will be a desire to have an agreement and suggested that we should look at the positive side of that. Nonetheless, it would be helpful if we were to reflect on what is happening in Westminster in terms of the power of parliament there and compare it with what is happening in this Parliament in terms of access to important advice.
The Taoiseach has 29 seconds to respond.
I am not sure if the UK Parliament is an example we want to follow given the chaos we are seeing in Westminster.
That is politics. It is not the UK Parliament.
The agreement we have took 18 months to negotiate. It is 500 pages long and 28 Governments agreed to it. The suggestion that somehow, if it is defeated, we would find ourselves negotiating with a parliament really is quite unworkable. The idea of a parliamentary delegation entering the tunnel to reopen the talk is not feasible.
I did not say that. Stop the ráiméis.
I appreciate Deputy Martin did not say that but that is how some people could interpret one of the motions passed yesterday. When it comes to legal advice from the Attorney General, it is my strong view that legal advice should be privileged. It is the case with the legal advice provided to many people that it should be privileged to those who receive it.
Deputy Haughey also asked about the legal advice of the UK Attorney General. I am not in a position to comment on it because I have been here for two hours and the advice was only published in the past two hours. I hope to get a chance to read it tonight sometime. In any event, I doubt it will be fundamentally different from what the UK Attorney General outlined in the House of Commons the other day. We did something similar with the eighth amendment. We are willing to produce summaries of the Attorney General's legal advice. That is what the UK Attorney General did and the summary came across as sound to me. It will be interesting to see if there is any significant or meaningful difference between what he released and what comes out today. We will see that when we see it.
Deputy Haughey also asked if we are actively preparing for the future relationship talks. The answer is "Yes". In fact, we used the opportunity of the summit in Brussels to undertake a round of the 27 Prime Ministers and Presidents to express our priorities, particular interests and concerns for the future relationship. As Deputies can imagine, these are all the ideas we would expect. People want there to be free and frictionless trade with the UK in the future relationship, but people also want to ensure that is linked to a level playing field on environmental standards, labour rights, workers’ rights and so on. There is particular concern around fisheries. Many coastal states, including Ireland, are concerned about the impact on our fisheries industry. As someone who hails from a seafaring background and family, I know Deputy Haughey will have a particular interest in that too.
I am a landlubber.
He will also have an interest in guarding the interests of our fishermen, who take many of their most valuable catches, including mackerel, shrimp and prawns, from UK waters.
That work is under way.
Many people also expressed the view that, given that the Barnier task force model had worked very well as the agent in negotiating for the 28 member states, we should have a similar model for the future relationship and treaty talks. It may not be headed by Michel Barnier, but the model of a task force to represent the 28 member states and the institutions of the European Union might work better than the alternative where the Commission, the Council and different European governments try to carry out different bits of the negotiations. The task force model seems to have been very successful.
Deputy Eamon Ryan asked about the views of the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones. We discussed the backstop, on which they gave their views. It is important to bear in mind where they are both coming from. They both voted to remain and would like the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. However, they both know that that is probably impractical at this stage. They both have a particular perspective of the backstop, one that we do not often hear here, but it is heard in the United Kingdom. They have a concern that the backstop actually confers an economic advantage on Northern Ireland businesses and exporters that will place them at an advantage over those in Scotland and Wales and raises the possibility that trade might be diverted from the Dublin to Holyhead route to the Larne to Stranraer route. That is one of the reasons Northern Ireland businesses came out in favour of the backstop. They see that what we have negotiated could be of economic benefit to Northern Ireland in terms of jobs, the economy and living standards. It is always interesting to get the perspectives of others.
Deputy Eamon Ryan also asked about the possibility of inserting a rejoining provision, which would allow the United Kingdom to rejoin the European Union on the same terms. While that would have been worthy of consideration at the time, the United Kingdom did not want such a provision because, as far as it was concerned, it was negotiating a withdrawal treaty; it was leaving and not coming back. It did not want to entertain discussion of a rejoining provision, but there were mixed views on the idea at EU level. If the United Kingdom was ever to decide to rejoin, I would celebrate and welcome it back in the way one would welcome home an old friend. However, some other EU countries believe the United Kingdom already receives special treatment, including a rebate other countries do not receive, an opt-out from the euro, among other opt-outs in the area of home and justice affairs. Many countries take the view that if the United Kingdom decides to stay, it should decide to do so fully this time and not be allowed to opt out of various aspects.