1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met. [51848/18]
Vol. 977 No. 5
1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met. [51848/18]
2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [53033/18]
3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it will next meet. [53036/18]
4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, will next meet. [1550/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
Cabinet committee B last met on 22 October 2018. While the date of the next meeting of the committee has yet to be finalised, it is likely that it will take place in early 2019. Cabinet committee B covers social policy and public services, including education, children, social inclusion, the Irish language, arts and culture, as well as continued improvements and reforms of public services. In addition to meetings of the full Cabinet and Cabinet committees, I often meet Ministers on a bilateral basis to focus on particular issues. I regularly meet the Ministers, Deputies Regina Doherty and Donohoe, to discuss issues relating to social policy and public services. Over recent times, the Government has introduced various reforms through Cabinet committee B which seek to improve the lives and living standards of those who are most in need or those who are often marginalised by our society. These reforms include the affordable childcare scheme, which is a major priority for this year, the publication of the LGBTI+ national youth strategy, the publication of the action plan for online safety and the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Further gender equality actions have also been driven through this Cabinet sub-committee.
I understand that this Cabinet sub-committee is responsible for the arts and culture. Most people will acknowledge that there is a crisis with regard to the wages and working conditions of people across the nation who are working in the arts sector. There is real concern about how our national theatre is operating. As the Taoiseach is well aware, last week over 300 actors, directors, designers, agents and playwrights took a public stand to express real and built-up concern and dissatisfaction about how the national theatre is being run. We saw the reality of life for artists in Ireland, and how poorly they are paid, earlier this week. It was revealed in the review of pay and conditions, which was published by the Theatre Forum, that many of them do not receive the minimum wage. The Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has called for dialogue in respect of the Abbey Theatre dispute. This is an issue that concerns our national theatre. We are all proud of the theatre, which is a unique international institution. It appears to have nothing to say on the commemorations we are facing into this year, including the centenary of the First Dáil and the beginning of the War of Independence. Have these matters been discussed by this Cabinet sub-committee? Does the Taoiseach have a view on these matters? Has the sub-committee made a specific policy directive in relation to the future of the national theatre and the sustainability of working in the arts in Ireland?
I think Deputy Howlin's points are well made. The national theatre's lack of in-house production is a cause of concern for all of us. I look forward to hearing the Taoiseach's response to the Deputy's questions.
We are approaching the fourth anniversary of the marriage equality referendum. The people's decision to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples was momentous and defining. These fundamental rights are still not enjoyed by the LGBTQI community in the North, but that is not what I want to raise with the Taoiseach today. The 2015 referendum recognised the rights of same-sex couples and their children. The Government has been found wanting in its delivery on the rights of these families. LGBT Ireland is holding an event outside Leinster House today to highlight the Government's delay in making progress with long-awaited legislative protections for the families represented by that organisation. The Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 put in place a legal framework to provide for and protect diverse families and parental rights. Parts 2 and 3 of that Act have yet to be commenced. In 2017, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, issued a statement in which he gave a commitment that he would commence Part 2 and 3 of the Act by the end of that year. It is now 2019 and we have not been given a revised date for when legal provisions relating to donor-assisted human reproduction and other important matters will be delivered. Given that the general scheme of the assisted human reproduction Bill 2017 is currently with the Joint Committee on Health, it will be some time before the legislation in question is introduced. Technical amendments need to be made to Part 9 of the 2015 Act to provide for the registration and re-registration of the birth of a donor-conceived child. I thank the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection for agreeing to introduce these amendments through a stand-alone Bill to speed up this process. Sinn Féin will support the speedy passage of that legislation through the Dáil. The continued legal uncertainty for LGBT parents and their children is wrong. The buck stops with the Taoiseach as the Head of Government. What action is being taken to ensure all outstanding legal protections are delivered for same-sex couples and their children?
While I made the main points I wanted to make about the arts sector during Question Time with the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht this morning, I would like to put it to the Taoiseach that we need to urge the Abbey Theatre to engage with those who signed the letter we discussed this morning. It is quite a polarised and complicated debate. All of the different stakeholders need to get together to sort out these issues.
However, at the back of it - this is where the Government comes in - all across the theatre, art and film sectors, which I have been talking about repeatedly for the past year, there is no job security, income security, no rights or entitlements and no jobs. There is just total precarity. The Government needs to address that. In Germany, a person who works in the arts is effectively a public servant and has public service conditions, whereas in Ireland, the land of saints and scholars, we treat artists with contempt. That is the problem and the Taoiseach needs to address it.
Has the Taoiseach's Cabinet committee on social policy and public sector reform addressed the fact that an industrial action by the National Ambulance Service, which will have serious consequences, is due to take place on 22 January? It involves a serious matter regarding trade union recognition whereby the HSE is refusing to engage with the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, which is affiliated to the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, or recognise its right to represent ambulance workers. As a consequence of that, a national ambulance strike will take place on 22 January. The Taoiseach has talked a good deal about urging negotiation in terms of the nurses' dispute. I strongly urge him to contact the HSE and tell it that workers have the right to choose their own trade union and that it should engage urgently with the PNA and NASRA to avert a national ambulance strike on 22 January.
Deputy Micheál Martin wishes to make a brief contribution.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I agree with what Deputies Howlin and Boyd Barrett said. Yesterday, I raised the issue in question in the context of the Abbey, the National Theatre of Ireland. I made the point previously that there has been drift. The initiative of Creative Ireland is more about political patronage than a genuine substantive investment in the arts. A strong tradition was developed over the years of the Arts Council and independent bodies, free from political partisanship or influence, that would decide arts policy. That needs to be restored. There must be a clear national policy direction in terms of what we want from the Abbey Theatre and what we want it to contribute to development of the theatre and the arts in general.
The Taoiseach referred to online abuse. I attended the BT Young Scientists and Technology Exhibition last week. I pay tribute to BT, which is a private company that sponsors and has grown that competition significantly for almost two decades. At the event, I noted the number of projects from young people regarding the impact of technology games such as Fortnite and so on. They are interested in the impact on children's minds, their development, concentration and study and the juxtaposition of the impact of it on reading, etc. This is in contrast to a reluctance on the part of State agencies to do likewise. The ESRI issued an interesting publication this morning on the impact of mobile phones on children under 12 years of age. It is time for detailed assessment of these issues. There can be a good impact and there are many positives emerging from technology. The Taoiseach mentioned online abuse and there are many challenges also that have emerged from technology in that regard. The State has a certain deference to the digital companies and their impact and influence. There is almost a sense of tiptoeing around the significant issues that need to be addressed.
In terms of the Cabinet committee, the Taoiseach might reaffirm a commitment the Government made. During the budget negotiations, we discussed the need to provide 100 additional therapists in order to reduce significantly the waiting times for children on waiting lists for speech and language, occupational therapy, psychology and physiotherapy.
The Taoiseach has five minutes to respond.
In the context of the arts, the House will be aware that the Government gave a commitment to double our spending on arts and culture over a seven-year period. That roughly equates to an increase of 10% or 10.5% every year. We exceeded that in the budget for 2019. There will be a 12% increase in funding for arts, culture and heritage. That is a combination of current and capital funding. That is invested in many ways in the national cultural institutions, in the Arts Council, through Screen Ireland - formerly the Irish Film Board - in Creative Ireland and various other different mechanisms such as the Heritage Council. Part of the programme and part of Project Ireland 2040 provide for a new national theatre to be built and for the Abbey to be demolished. It has already acquired some of the buildings around it, which will allow it to be demolished and rebuilt into a new state-of-the-art national theatre, of which I hope we will be extremely proud. I am sure people have been to the National Gallery since the renovation there. The gallery looks fabulous and what a national cultural institution should look like. I would certainly like to see those Abbey plans advanced very soon in order that we can have a new national theatre. I acknowledge, however, that a theatre is worth nothing without the artists and actors who perform in it. I had the opportunity to meet the chairman of the board of the Abbey Theatre not too long ago. I am confident that the board will want to respond to the concerns of the artistic community. There are differing views, as Deputy Boyd Barrett acknowledged, but I am confident the board will want to respond to those concerns. I expect it will do so. I do not believe it is the role of the Government to interfere in the programmes of individual theatres and I do not believe anybody in the House would want us to do that, but it is appropriate that the board should engage with the concerns.
On the incomes of artists and people involved in creative industries, it is like many businesses or industries, there are many forms of self-employment or many professions. Some people do very well and do very well financially while others are not so successful and do not do so well financially. We have done two things to help. First, we have amended the social welfare code. I did this approximately two years ago in order to allow people who are part-time artists and who are not making an adequate income or earning sufficient revenues from their art to qualify for jobseeker's payments and social protection without the requirement that they be seeking full-time employment. I am not sure how many people have availed of that but it is in place as an option and helps to set a minimum floor of income for the artists in question. We also changed the Competition Act to allow freelance artists to engage in collective bargaining in certain circumstances in a way that we do not allow the vast majority of self-employed people or professionals to do.
Regarding Deputy McDonald's question on health legislation, it is always the case that Departments, the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and Government have to prioritise legislation in the same way as the Oireachtas and the Seanad. It is not possible to do all legislation at the same time, either in government or in the Oireachtas, which, of course, the Government does not control. The priority for the last six months of 2018 was the abortion legislation, and that was passed. The House and the public wanted us to prioritise that legislation. In addition, the governance legislation to re-establish the HSE board is currently going through the Houses. The priority for quarters 1 and 2 of this year is health legislation relating to Brexit. People understand why that has to be prioritised. Brexit is scheduled to happen at the end of quarter 1 so that legislation has to be prioritised, as does the legislation to establish the CervicalCheck tribunal. They are the health legislative priorities for the first half of this year. However, work will continue on the assisted human reproduction Bill. I anticipate it will be published sometime this year and hopefully enacted. It is very complicated legislation. I recall reading all about it when I was Minister for Health. It will require much debate and some difficult decisions to be made because currently the whole area of assisted human reproduction in Ireland is not illegal but it is also not legislated for. There are many questions that will require decisions on our part as to what will and will not be legal, including what forms of surrogacy will be allowed and whether we will continue to allow the practice of anonymous donation of sperms and eggs. I can understand why people would want that to continue but if we are pursuing a child-centred policy, where children have the right to know who their parents are and that speaks to our history, perhaps that is something we should not allow. Therefore, there are many difficult judgment calls and decisions to be made. I imagine that will be teased out by some very reflective sessions by the health committee.
We need to move on.
5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the foreign visits he has undertaken or will undertake in the period from December 2018 to February 2019. [52850/18]
6. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the meetings he has planned with Heads of Government and Heads of State over the next six months. [52851/18]
7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Mali; the persons he met in the Defence Forces; the other meetings that he attended; and the issues that were discussed. [1214/19]
8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his planned visits abroad in the next six months. [1291/19]
9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Mali and Ethiopia. [1383/19]
10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Mali and the discussions he had with the Defence Forces. [1430/19]
11. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Ethiopia and the meetings he attended. [1431/19]
12. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Mali and Ethiopia and the UNHCR refugee camp for Eritrean refugees. [1548/19]
13. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the meetings he has planned with Heads of State over the next six months. [1551/19]
14. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Africa. [1702/19]
15. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the foreign visits he plans to undertake to the end of June 2019. [1705/19]
16. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Mali and Ethiopia. [1707/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 16, inclusive, together because almost all of them relate exclusively to my recent visit to Africa.
There are two groupings here.
One relates to the Africa visit and the other to the Taoiseach's proposed visits for the next six months. They are quite different.
Which are we taking?
Questions Nos. 5 to 16.
The Deputy is correct. I will raise that with my office when I get back. There are 12 questions here which could be broken into two groups, one about Africa, which is in the past, and the other about future meetings.
There are maybe four different questions so we should be able to get through them if we are concise.
I take the Deputy's point. I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 16, inclusive, together. I travelled to Mali and Ethiopia from 6 to 11 January to see at first hand the work being done by our Defence Forces, by Irish Aid and by our diplomatic and other representatives. My visit also allowed me to get the perspective of African leaders on Ireland's contribution to the deepening partnership between Africa and Europe, which focuses on sustainable development, peace and security, trade, economic growth and job creation. In Mali, I met the President and discussed the peace and security challenges facing his country as the Government seeks to regain control of Mali and how UN and EU missions can help. He thanked me strongly for Ireland's contribution to the EU training mission, EUTM. I met the mission commander of the EU training mission, Brigadier General Mirow. I was accompanied by the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces and the Secretary General of the Department of Defence. I also visited the EUTM training camp in Koulikoro, where Irish troops are training the Malian armed forces.
In Ethiopia, I had meetings with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, President Sahle-Work Zewde and the African Union acting chair, Commissioner Elfadil. The Prime Minister and I discussed his programme of reform, including improving the conditions for foreign direct investment and economic growth in his country, where Irish experience and expertise may be useful. My discussions with the President focused on the need to drive economic development in the country, including through the advancement of education, especially education of girls. In my meeting with Commissioner Elfadil of the African Union, we discussed how the European Union and Africa can work together on combatting our shared challenges. In Addis Ababa, I met Irish NGOs working in Ethiopia, including GOAL, Concern, Trócaire, Self-Help and Vita. I attended a community reception at the Irish embassy, where I launched the Ethio-Irish Alumni Association.
I visited a number of heritage sites, including the UNESCO world heritage site in Lalibela, where I launched a new partnership initiative on cultural heritage and rural job creation. I also announced the "greening" of the iconic Church of St. George for the first time on St. Patrick’s Day. I visited Irish Aid funded projects in Tigray, where Irish funding is dramatically improving the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. I visited a UNHCR camp close to the Eritrean border which is home to 18,000 refugees. One in seven refugees in the camp are unaccompanied minors and I saw the work being done to ensure that children in these camps can continue their education.
With regard to my travel intentions for the coming six months, later in January, I expect to travel to Davos for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. I also plan to attend scheduled meetings of the European Council on 21 and 22 March and 20 and 21 June, as well as an informal meeting in Sibiu, Romania on 9 May. Other EU engagements may also arise, and I will give full consideration to attendance in due course. I look forward to travelling to the United States in March for the annual St. Patrick's Day celebrations. The details of this visit are still under consideration and I will provide further information in due course. Other international visits and engagements with political leaders are also being given consideration but at present none are confirmed.
I warmly welcome the Taoiseach's visit to Africa. It is an important statement of Ireland's support for the development agenda and it is in keeping with our strong record of non-partisan, non-aligned development and promotion, which I welcome. The Taoiseach will recall that I raised on many occasions the need for what is called a new Marshall plan or development plan for Africa and also for our own neighbourhood in the Middle East. We will be faced with growing pressure because of climate change and population increase, with stress on migration to the European Continent, radicalisation in those countries which might in future present security threats, and also the contamination of European politics.
We see more and more fundamentalist parties across the Continent with a narrow nationalist, xenophobic agenda, gaining traction and gaining ground. The main way to tackle this is to have a new Marshall Plan so that we can devote significant resources as a Continent to developing the economies of countries that need not only mitigation of climate change impact but real development. Ireland could be a leader in that regard. I welcome the Taoiseach's comment on that. That should be one of the cornerstone propositions that Ireland makes as part of its Security Council bid. I also welcome the Taoiseach's general view of increasing Ireland's footprint. I ask him to spell out in clear detail how broadening Ireland's international footprint might be achieved and how he would envisage that both in formal representations and in bilateral visits so that we could provide other nations with a stronger vision and understanding of Ireland, of our history, our record and our future.
I also warmly welcome the visit to Mali and Ethiopia. As a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have been to Ethiopia and witnessed at first hand the very impactful work of Irish Aid across Africa, especially relating to educational attainment and health. There are some good health projects in Ethiopia funded by Irish Aid. There are projects relating to agricultural practices and such too. The Taoiseach met with the Defence Forces, which are playing an essential part in training the Malian army to deal with its challenges. It highlights and illustrates the contribution that the Irish Army and Defence Forces generally make to the international reputation of Ireland. In some respects, that is not reflected, in my view, here at home in Government policy, attitude and demeanour to the Defence Forces.
The figures from last November show that the Defence Forces are down to 9,022 personnel. They have an approved establishment strength of 9,500 but they have not reached that for seven years. There is a significant retention crisis in our Defence Forces. I recently met with the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO. The Defence Forces are losing expertise across the board, such as in communications, sometimes to other Government agencies and Departments that can pay much more for the same people. The Army bomb disposal unit was significantly undermined last year or the year before by people leaving. I know this was not the Taoiseach's intention but the Army is not about photo opportunities. Considering the great work it does, we need to analyse seriously how the crisis in retention and low morale in the Defence Forces are being dealt with by official Government policy. The ongoing loss of expertise and experience is a big worry. I think the Taoiseach accepts there are issues in the Defence Forces. Will he indicate when he expects the awaited report on the Defence Forces from the Public Service Pay Commission?
Did the Taoiseach discuss what is going on in Sudan in any of his meetings? A popular revolution is happening against the al-Bashir Government in Sudan, triggered by a brutal, murderous response by the al-Bashir regime to protests over bread price increases. There have been mass arrests of students, schools and universities have been closed down, and 24 people have been killed, yet the protests continue which shows how serious they are. There has been vast mobilisation of the poor and working people. I am interested to know the Taoiseach's thoughts. The al-Bashir regime is in receipt of EU money. It is part of the set-up where Europe pays to keep people out of Europe. Is that why it is so silent on a popular revolution being brutally attacked by the Sudanese Government?
I have absolutely no doubt about the bravery, commitment and determination of the Irish Defence Forces, those involved in the training mission in Mali and the rangers who might be deployed there. However, I have very serious questions as to whether the Government should be sending them there. This is a counter-terrorism operation. It is not peacekeeping. It is a dangerous mission in a very messy conflict in which there are no real good guys. The Malian Government has even itself acknowledged that it has killed innocent civilians in its counter-terrorism operations; there are ethnic complexities involved; and the French have a colonial history and an agenda there. Our deployment there potentially causes very serious reputational damage to Ireland's high standing as a neutral country that does not back or side with imperial powers, big powers, in very messy situations. Perhaps the Taoiseach could comment on that as well.
Of course, the reason there is such a recruitment and retention crisis in the Defence Forces is, frankly, because people cannot live on the poverty wages they are being paid. Not just members of the Defence Forces, but more directly their families have, as we all now know, long protested and campaigned on this issue. It is a disgrace to us as an Oireachtas if we praise the blue helmets and our peacekeepers and bask in their reflected glory and then, when they return home, pay them poverty wages. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
The Tánaiste has been in the Middle East a number of times since becoming Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I was in Palestine in the West Bank just before Christmas. I made extensive visits; met a wide range of groups and individuals; met each of the political parties or factions on the Palestinian side; saw at first hand the outrage and the breach of international law that the illegal settlements represent; spoke to families, children and young people who had first-hand daily experience of the harassment and brutalisation at the hands of the Israeli defence forces; reflected that Oslo, it now seems, might be dead; despaired at the fact that the international community sits on its hands and allows the Israeli state to act with absolute impunity; reflected on the fact that there is actually an answer to all this, that there is, if the international community were so minded, still one last chance to deliver a two-state solution; and then wondered - and I ask the Taoiseach the question today - will he visit Palestine? It would be extremely important if he did so. Furthermore, can we and can the Government move to recognition of the state of Palestine, as mandated by this Oireachtas? When the occupied territories Bill comes before us in the Dáil, will the Taoiseach please change position and do the right thing, in accordance with the spirit and the letter of international law, and support that legislation?
I acknowledge that all Deputies welcomed my visit to Africa. It was a real privilege to have the opportunity to visit Africa and represent the country there. It was the first official visit by a Taoiseach, I believe, in more than ten years and reflects our increasing and deepening engagement with Africa, through the European Union and the UN; bilaterally; through our Defence Forces, which is the security aspect of it; through international development - the budget for international development will increase by over €100 million this year; and through our membership of the African Development Bank and the fact that we have recently become an observer of la Francophonie. We are also upgrading diplomatic missions in Africa. The Liberia office has been upgraded to an embassy, and we are examining whether we should open a new mission in Francophone West Africa. I very much agree with Deputy Howlin's assessment about having a Marshall plan for Africa. Whether or not we choose to call it that is a different matter, but the concept is the correct one, that is, the approach taken by America to rebuilding western Europe and its economies and ensuring there were democratic institutions that worked and ensuring there was security. Thinking about many of the major problems we now face in Europe, whether human trafficking and illegal migration, terrorism, drug trafficking or climate change, all of them have origins or sources in other parts of the world, including parts of Africa. If the West and western countries spent as much on international development and genuine security operations in Africa as they do on military operations in places such as Syria, we would not have half the problems that are causing populists to be on the rise in Europe.
The budget for this year provides for an increase of just over €50 million for the Defence Forces. I assure Deputy Micheál Martin that this is not for photo ops. The extra €50 million for the Defence Forces this year is for aircraft, vessels, equipment, improvements to barracks, increases in pay and pensions. Joining the Defence Forces is a very good career option. One can join at 18 or 19 years of age, within two or two and a half years become a three-star private, and be paid €35,000 a year at a time when many of one's peers would be on Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants or still in college. One can also get new skills, represent one's country and travel the world. It is a career option that young people might consider, particularly if they do not want to go to college or down the apprenticeship route.
I acknowledge, however, that pay is an issue and we need to do something about it. The first thing, of course, is the public sector pay deal. This will provide for further pay increases this year and a special increase for new entrants in March, provided we can finalise agreement with ICTU on that. This would be very significant for the Defence Forces because so many have been recruited since 2012. Then there is the work of the Public Service Pay Commission. We expect the commission to report in March or April. It is looking particularly at the issue of specialists, the fact that pilots, air traffic controllers, engineers and many others now have such good opportunities in the private sector that we are losing them from the Defence Forces. We are also now allowing people to return to the Defence Forces, and it is really good to see people who have left coming back. They were not able to do so before now. The pay commission will also look at some allowances that are specific to the Defence Forces, reflecting the very specific type of work they do. I look forward to that report being received in March or April.
17. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent telephone conversation with Prime Minister May. [53007/18]
18. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent conversation with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [53034/18]
19. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on discussions he had recently with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [53143/18]
20. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May about Brexit and Northern Ireland since Dáil Éireann adjourned for the Christmas recess. [1215/19]
21. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent conversations with Prime Minister May. [1385/19]
22. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May since Christmas 2018; and if so, the issues that were discussed. [1427/19]
23. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, since the vote on the withdrawal treaty took place. [1713/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 to 23, inclusive, together.
Prime Minister May and I are in regular contact, both directly and through our offices. Our last contact was just before I went to Africa.
Our most recent meeting was in Brussels on the morning of the European Council meeting of 13 December. We discussed the state of play with Brexit and in particular what she hoped to achieve at that Council meeting. We also discussed the political situation in the UK following her decision on the previous Tuesday to defer the meaningful vote in the House of Commons, and the vote by her party MPs in respect of her leadership of the Conservative Party on Wednesday, 12 December.
In the run-up to that meeting of the European Council we also had a detailed telephone conversation on Sunday, 9 December. At that time the vote in Westminster was still scheduled for Tuesday, 11 December. In each of our discussions I restated the Government's position that while the backstop is an essential part of the withdrawal agreement, we share the objective of securing a very close future relationship between the UK and the EU in order that the backstop would not need to enter into force or, if it did, that this would be for a short time only.
Brexit is a priority issue for Government, and my Cabinet colleagues and I will continue to take every opportunity to engage with EU partners and the UK to put across our views and advance Ireland's priorities.
Could we perhaps take just a minute for each question? Then we will be able to get a response from the Taoiseach.
Déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall. I will do my best.
Go raibh maith agat.
May I ask a very direct question then, since the Ceann Comhairle wants us to be very direct and very succinct? When has the Taoiseach scheduled his next conversation with Prime Minister May? Does he propose to telephone her today? Presumably, he will allow the no confidence motion to be determined. The expectation is that she and her Government will survive that.
The scale of the defeat of the negotiated plan was such in the House of Commons that it is the very clear view of virtually everybody who has spoken that the plan is no longer viable in terms of its potential to be approved in any slightly modified way by the House of Commons. Does the Taoiseach know what Theresa May's plan B is, which she is now required to present to the House of Commons next Monday? Does the Taoiseach have a plan B or is the view simply that what is negotiated is negotiated and if it is not that it is no deal?
I thank the Taoiseach for the account of his conversation. When does he propose to speak to Mrs. May? We can speculate and no doubt people will on what form the management of this parliamentary crisis will be across the water and that is all fair enough. The question for us is where Ireland is positioned. Will the Taoiseach make absolutely clear and plain to Mrs. May that the needs and interests of Ireland have not changed, that the backstop remains the absolute bottom line? Will he also talk to her about the contingency, of which he has not spoken, in the event of a crash and a no-deal and no-backstop scenario on that issue, that she has raised in the House of Commons, that is the prospect of putting the constitutional question and a referendum on unity?
Will the Taoiseach be more specific about when exactly his last contact was with the British Prime Minister? I think he said it was before his visit to Mali. Was that a telephone call or what was the nature of that contact and the deliberation? The Tánaiste yesterday seemed to confirm what the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, said, that there would be checks in the context of a no-deal Brexit but he does not want to talk about it because once we start delving into what he said all of a sudden we will be the Government that reintroduced a physical border on the island of Ireland. We need clarity on that and I did not quite get it this morning from the Taoiseach. What was the Tánaiste saying? Was he saying that in the event of no deal there is no backstop? Therefore, what are the implications and has the Taoiseach discussed with the President of the Commission Mr. Juncker or with Michel Barnier how we prevent a border emerging? Have the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister discussed the idea of an extension of Article 50?
I have been saying for some time that my concern is that if there is no deal Europe will insist, in order to protect the Single Market, that there should effectively be a border with customs checks and so on, North and South, and the conversation between the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and the Tánaiste rings alarm bells in that regard. We hope there will be some sort of deal even if it is not this deal - I think at one point the Taoiseach referred to the "no-deal deal" that could be done between Ireland and the UK in that event. If all that fails, will there be pressure from Europe on us to impose a border?
Europe says it will stand with us on all these issues. Will it stand with us to the extent that it will make funds available to protect certain sectors of the Irish economy, workers, small farmers and so on from the impact if there is a crash-out Brexit with all the potential consequences of that?
I do not remember the exact date of my last contact with Theresa May but it was by telephone about ten days ago. I think it was the day I was in Munich or the day after that when I was in Paris. We had pencilled in a call for the week gone by but given all the events in Westminster that did not happen. I do not anticipate I will speak to her today. The motion of no confidence is happening and I understand there may even be a series of rolling motions of no confidence. This, I understand, is the idea of the leader of the Labour Party in the UK, to put down several motions of no confidence but I am sure we will speak soon and we may have the opportunity to meet in Davos next week if she is able to make it. I appreciate things are very fluid in Westminster at the moment. There is ongoing contact between our Sherpas and our chiefs of staff.
We have not had a detailed discussion on Article 50. In at least one meeting or telephone call I raised the prospect of Article 50 being extended, saying that was an option, which is just a statement of fact, but it was not something that she really wanted to pursue at that point. It was our shared objective to focus on securing the ratification of the withdrawal agreement.
Deputy McDonald asked many hypothetical questions. I do not have a problem with that. Asking hypothetical questions is reasonable but it is not always possible to give answers to hypothetical questions without guessing and I have found that guessing and speculating out loud is not a good idea when it comes to Brexit. There is one hypothetical question I might ask Deputy McDonald to consider: I know it is the Sinn Féin policy that if there is a hard Brexit, no deal, the only way to avoid a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is to have a border poll and bring about territorial unity. The question arises that if that border poll were defeated would Sinn Féin then seek that Ireland leave the European Union and align itself with the UK in terms of customs and the Single Market. These things have to be thought through because that is certainly something I would never support. We will stay at the heart of the European Union. I wonder if Sinn Féin might go back to being Eurosceptic in that situation. I would be interested to know how the Deputy would propose to avoid a hard border after the border poll was defeated.
I read the transcript of what the Tánaiste said yesterday. My reading of it is that he was specifically referring to checks on goods travelling between Britain and Ireland and we all know that those checks will occur at ports and airports. That is the most sensible thing to do.
He was not talking about that. He was talking about-----
No he was not.
That was my reading of it.
That is twice the Taoiseach has misled us. That is not what he said.
No journalist who was there said that.
No one is saying that. He was talking about the consequence of a no-deal Brexit.
I shall read it again but that was my reading of it. In a no-deal scenario obviously we have a big problem. As I have said before, it is not enough for people to say that a hard border can be avoided simply by saying that nobody wants one-----
What is the Taoiseach's plan B?
Is the Tánaiste correct in saying what he said?
-----and simply by saying that it can be achieved merely through political will and good intentions.
We know that.
To maintain the absence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland we have to have an agreement on customs and regulation. We have to be in the same customs territory or customs union, whatever one wants to call it, and we have to have alignment on regulations.
In a no-deal scenario where do we go?
That is precisely why we have negotiated the withdrawal agreement.
It has been rejected. What is next from the Irish Government's perspective?
What was the Tánaiste getting at? Was he saying that in a no-deal scenario there would be checks?
The Deputy would have to ask the Tánaiste but that is what he told me he was getting at.
He is the Taoiseach's Tánaiste. I am asking the Taoiseach.
That is why we negotiated the withdrawal agreement and the backstop. I do not see much room for negotiation beyond that. What has to happen now-----
Then what if there is no deal, how do we prevent the border?
I will tell the Deputies then what. What happens now is exactly what Prime Minister May said would happen. She will now engage with senior politicians in Westminster to see if they can come up with a set of proposals that would allow us to ratify the withdrawal agreement. That is where the issue lies. We have to hear from the UK what its proposals are to resolve this problem and avoid no deal. We can then consider its proposals but any proposal it makes has to be acceptable to the European Union and to Ireland. There are many ways we can protect sectors of our economy that may be exposed. We already have approval for rescue and restructure, for example.
If in the event of no deal, particular businesses fall into huge difficulty as a consequence and where jobs and viability are threatened, we can use public money to help save those businesses if saving them is a possibility. We have approved that already. It is a rescue and restructure system. We can also bring in special supports for the food industry and the agrifood industry. When Russia closed its market to agricultural imports from the Baltic states the EU was able to go in with special assistance and special aid. They are the kinds of things we can do to protect industry and jobs and to protect the agrifood sector in particular if we need to do so. The priority for the next few weeks is securing a deal so we do not get into that kind of situation.