Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

EU Summits

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the EU-League of Arab States summit in Egypt. [9684/19]

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

2. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the February 2019 EU-League of Arab States summit in Egypt. [10274/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the EU-League of Arab States summit in Egypt and meetings he attended there. [10517/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Egypt for the EU-League of Arab States summit; the bilaterals he held with other leaders; and the issues that were discussed. [10588/19]

Joan Burton

Ceist:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent participation in the summit between the European Union and the League of Arab States. [10603/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent attendance at the EU-League of Arab States summit. [10783/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he spoke to the Prime Minister of Hungary, Mr. Viktor Orban, at the recent EU-League of Arab States meeting or since. [10907/19]

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

8. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meetings at the EU-League of Arab States summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. [10952/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.

I attended the summit between the European Union and the League of Arab States on 24 and 25 February in Sharm El-Sheikh. The purpose of the summit was to deepen and extend the partnership between the European Union and Arab countries, enabling us to tackle our many shared challenges more effectively. The summit was the first ever meeting between leaders from the two regions and marked an important milestone in our efforts to deepen the partnership. Stronger EU-Arab co-operation is required if we are to find effective and sustainable solutions to regional challenges such as migration, terrorism and radicalisation. It is also essential in countering the many threats to regional peace and security, including conflicts and humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Sudan.

At the summit EU and Arab leaders agreed a joint political declaration which restated our commitment to resolving regional problems through a robust, rules based multilateral system. The declaration also included important commitments on promoting human rights, countering incitement to hatred, xenophobia and intolerance. It restated our shared position on issues including the Middle East peace process and nuclear non-proliferation.

As well as participating in the summit, I had the opportunity to meet several Arab leaders, with whom I discussed bilateral relations and Ireland’s candidacy for the UN Security Council. I met the Egyptian President, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Mr. Saad El-Din Rafik Al-Hariri, the Deputy Prime Minister of Oman, the Foreign Minister of Jordan and the Emir of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. I also had a brief discussion with the Palestinian President, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas. I also took the opportunity to discuss EU matters, including Brexit, with my colleagues from the EU Council. I met the British Prime Minster, Mrs. Theresa May, and also spoke informally to Presidents Tusk and Juncker, as I did again at the European Council on 21 and 22 March in Brussels. I did not have specific meetings with Mr. Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, on either occasion, but I did have the opportunity to speak to him briefly on the margins of the EU-League of Arab States summit and at the European Council last week, as I did with many other heads of State and Government.

In the dialogue with the League of Arab States was there any discussion on the use of Libya in dealing with the migrant crisis? There have been extraordinary revelations of human rights abuses in Libya. The European Union is funding the development and building of the Libyan coastguard to intercept potential migrants crossing the Mediterranean and repatriate or return them to unspeakable conditions in Libya. Was this matter discussed? Will there be EU oversight of the appalling human rights conditions and abuses in some of the holding centres in Libya?

Was the appalling and ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen discussed? Will there be concerted action on the part of the European Union to deal with the situation where Saudi Arabia, backed by a number of other Sunni Muslim governments, including Iran, is supporting militia in Yemen? The humanitarian cost of the conflict is an unspeakable tragedy. Will the European Union be taking any initiative to deal with it?

The United States recently issued a declaration endorsing the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights in Syria. While I welcome the announcement made by the Tánaiste in that regard, will the Taoiseach clarify whether there will be a joint EU initiative on the matter?

Brexit is dominating discussions here and at EU level, for obvious reasons, but it is important that we do not take our eye off the ball in dealing with a number of other issues. At the European Council summit to be held in Romania in May, a strategic agenda will be prepared for the period 2019 to 2024. What will Ireland's position be in that regard? The pre-Council statements to be made at the time will be very important in order that the Dáil will be fully informed of the situation.

Earlier this month a vision for Europe was outlined by the French President, Mr. Macron, in an opinion piece published in the 28 EU member states. In it he seemed to be suggesting sovereignty should be pooled in new areas and that we should proceed with closer integration. What is Ireland's position on the vision set out by President Macron? While I accept that a more detailed answer is merited than time will permit, I ask the Taoiseach to give some indication of the Government's views.

On migration, the Taoiseach has mentioned that the aim of the summit was to improve the partnership between the European Union and the League of Arab States. Some nation states are struggling to promote democracy and economic development and climate change is a big issue for many of these states. It is right that the European Union support them. It is in its interest to do so from the point of view of dealing with migration, the root causes of which we must address. More than 1.5 million refugees came to the European Union from Syria in 2015 and other humanitarian crises have been unfolding since, as mentioned during the course of this discussion. Does the Taoiseach agree that it is important that Ireland play a role in resolving these issues at a humanitarian level?

This time last year, just prior to Land Day, I warned the Taoiseach that the Israelis were preparing to attack the Great March of Return protests planned in Gaza. I do not think he even responded when I raised the issue. In advance of the protests I said it was likely that hundreds of Palestinians would be killed and that turned out to be the case. It is estimated that more than 200 Palestinians were killed and that a further 18,000 were injured. The conflict continued for months. Land Day is coming up at the end of this week and further protests are planned by the people of Gaza to vindicate their right under international law to return to the homes and villages from which they were expelled in 1948. Israel is already giving signs that it is going to do the same as it did last year. More innocent Palestinian blood will be shed as the Israelis seek to deny the Palestinians their rights under international law. At the same time, the US President, Mr. Donald Trump, in defiance of international law, has legitimised the illegal annexation by Israel of the Golan Heights which is sovereign Syrian territory. Was there a discussion at the EU-Arab League summit on the likelihood of the conflict escalating into violence again because of the justified and legitimate protests by the people of Gaza to vindicate their rights? Was there a discussion on the behaviour of President Trump in legitimising the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and his systematic denial of Palestinian rights? Are the Irish Government and the European Union going to do anything more than they did last year about the likely killing of innocent Palestinians?

As Deputy Haughey said, Brexit is raised in a later question and will also be discussed during statements later. Therefore, I will focus my attention on a number of other matters.

The Syrian conflict has had an impact on the Middle East which will last for many years and has directly led to the largest humanitarian emergency of our time. The Assad regime's brutal suppression of dissent and the added ferocity of attacks since Russia began to take a leading role have resulted in displacement which is causing immense hardship for the people involved and exerting real pressure on neighbouring countries. Was there any discussion on providing assistance for countries such as Jordan and Lebanon that host the largest refugee camps in the world and currently see no prospect of helping people to return home, given the attitude of the Syrian regime to its opponents.

On the issue of the Mediterranean Sea, the Taoiseach will be aware of reports that the number of migrants attempting a crossing on both of the main routes are down on the historic highs, but they are rising again. There are obvious and dramatic failings in the response, particularly in relation to Libya, as Deputy Howlin has alluded to. Did the Taoiseach make any statement about how people are being treated by authorities in some European countries and by European Union funded agencies in North Africa in particular?

The move to a security alone approach, which is being pushed by some Governments under the influence of the hard right, is very dangerous. It remains the case that security and enforcement takes up 70% of all European Union funding relating to migration and immigration. This means organisations that take the lead in supporting integration are left scrambling for funding and are less able to undertake the type of work that would reduce tensions and help migrants and their host countries. The future regulation and funding of this sector is currently being discussed at European Union level. Will the Taoiseach advocate for a greater emphasis on integration work?

Since the Taoiseach's visit to the United States of America for St. Patrick's Day I think that President Trump has probably made one of the most profound and historic statements of his presidency so far in a very eye-catching period for his presidency when he made his statement on America's future approach to the Golan Heights. I assume that when the Taoiseach was in Egypt for the EU-Arab League summit, relationships between the EU and Israel must have been discussed at length, and also the relationship of the EU and the Palestinian people. I would like to know the Taoiseach's reaction, speaking on behalf of the Irish Government, to the statement by President Trump. It is certainly an extraordinarily historic move by the Americans and is an area into which they have not previously gone. The statement has come days before an Israeli election. Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to discuss this with his EU counterparts? More importantly, what is the Government's view and what is the Taoiseach's view of what President Trump has done?

With regard to the summit at Sharm El-Sheikh, did the Taoiseach have an opportunity to discuss climate change? Each Deputy who has spoken here so far has referred to various dreadful conflicts in different parts of the Mediterranean. Many of these conflicts have come about partly due to the severity of climate change affecting much of Africa, including north Africa. In particular, Mozambique and southern African countries are experiencing the aftermaths of a ferocious storm that has caused massive loss of human life. I do not know at this stage if Irish Aid has formally rendered assistance. I am aware that many of the Irish aid agencies have done so and I commend the Irish aid agencies for the help they are giving to southern Africa in the aftermath of this incredible storm. It has been a bigger storm than any recorded previously in that part of Africa. I relate the two because climate change in terms of wars over resources such as water and carbon resources-----

The Deputy is over her time.

-----is a key part of what drives conflict in all of these regions. I would like to know what the Government plans to propose in this regard.

In the context of Italy's relationship with the Mediterranean Sea, which is long and historic, we now see that populism is very seriously on the march in Italy. I note that one of the Taoiseach's fellow European People's Party, EPP leaders, Mr. Orbán, was at that summit.

The Deputy's time is up.

Will the Taoiseach comment on the politics of populism? I understand that Mr. Orbán's membership of the EPP seems to be suspended but he is perfectly happy with that. He is a member but it is not an active membership currently-----

The time for this particular group of questions has elapsed.

He was suspended.

I know, but they will need him after the election. It is cynical.

The time has elapsed for this group of questions and there are still two questioners offering. Do we want to-----

I propose that we take the two questions.

We may take-----

Given that the previous speaker took up our time, I insist.

Is it agreed to take ten minutes from the remaining sets of questions? Agreed. Deputy Cullinane is next. I ask that Deputies to stick to the allocated time. Everyone is as well able to read the clock as I am.

Recently we have seen two unilateral acts by US President Donald Trump in relation to the Middle East, and particularly Israel and Palestine: the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and more recently the statement on the annexation of the Golan Heights. Both of those acts are unnecessary, dangerous and inflammatory. I acknowledge the response by the Tánaiste but I also want to hear the Taoiseach's response. Is there an agreed EU-wide position on the annexation of the Golan Heights statement and acceptance of that by the US President? We know the position of the Government but will the Taoiseach indicate if there is an agreed EU position on this?

Ireland has a special interest in this because I understand that our troops are still in the Golan. It is a particularly difficult mission in a precarious place. It is frustrating that in the ongoing debates on the issue of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza, and on the wider issues in the region, we are constantly told that we must stick with the current policy and it will work when clearly these sorts of developments show that EU and Irish policies need to change. I put it to the Taoiseach that we cannot just sit by and watch the US Administration making changes such as recognising Jerusalem through moving the US embassy there and supporting the complete annexation of the Golan Heights. At some point the European Union must respond and Ireland should have a strong voice in promoting such an approach.

Can we take five minutes for a response?

I will do my best. With regard to the EU-Arab summit, migration was of course discussed but it was not the focus of the summit. We were very keen that the relationship between the EU and the countries of the Arab League should not all be about migration. A decision was taken to focus on other issues also.

Land aid was not discussed but there was very strong recognition from Arab states of Ireland's work at the UN and elsewhere in our support for Palestinians, of the role we play in south Lebanon and in other places, and of the funding we provide to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA. There is very strong recognition from Arab countries that Ireland has been supportive, among EU countries, of the Palestinian cause.

Yemen was discussed, climate change was discussed and human rights were certainly raised by me and by others: human rights of women, LGBT citizens, individual liberty, democracy and so on.

The nature of the event was that there was a lot of discussion and views but very little interaction. It was the first time such a summit has been done. There were roughly 50 heads of state and government present and it was one of those events where people were giving their views and statements but not so much interaction - there were no working groups, for example. It was an opportunity to do this. It was the first time it had been done and we will do it again with the EU and the Arab League. It was also a good opportunity for some bilateral meetings, as these events often are.

Ireland does not recognise Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights and it never has. We disagree with the US Administration's decision to do so. I understand that there is no joint EU position on the matter, but that may follow. This would happen at the Foreign Affairs Council or at the European Council. Because it falls under the Common Foreign and Security Policy provisions one would have to have unanimity or near unanimity to do so. One of the flaws in the Common Foreign and Security Policy is that it is not done by qualified majority voting and where there is no unanimity or consensus the European Union cannot take a decision.

Moving to qualified majority voting, however, may mean that on occasion we could end up on the wrong side of a decision, which is something we will have to consider into the future. If we want a strong European Union which can take foreign policy decisions, a consequence is that we may on occasion find ourselves being outvoted on some of those decisions. We cannot keep calling for Europe to act together more on foreign policy issues if we do not enable it to do so.

Deputy Haughey asked a very pertinent question on the Government's view on the future of Europe and the debate in that regard. We must prepare a policy statement on that. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, has led a public consultation on the matter, and post Brexit, or post this phase of it, we should provide that statement and debate it in the Dáil. Our working position is that we support further enlargement, the capital markets union for the deepening of the Single Market, the digital Single Market and banking union, and we want to see the delivery of the social Europe agenda based on the Gothenburg declaration. However, we do not support a European army or, at least, would not participate in one nor do we support tax harmonisation. However, that is far too simplistic and probably deserves a more detailed policy statement once we get through our current difficulties on European policy.

I was asked to comment on populism but I am not sure I can do it in a minute and a half. However, I can say that I do not like it. Populism has three essential elements. These are the idea that there is a division between the elites and the people and that only populists can represent the people; the proposal of easy solutions, which do not work, to complex and difficult problems, and the demonisation of opponents. In Ireland, we see left-wing populism to the fore rather than the right-wing populism one tends to see in other countries. I see the elements of populism mentioned much more frequently on the far left in Ireland. They claim it is the elites versus the people and that only they can represent the people. There is demonisation of opponents and simple solutions that do not work are proposed. That is very much a feature of far-left politics in Ireland whereas we do not really have far-right politics here. I hope we never do.

I was asked about Prime Minister Orbán and Fidesz. Obviously, that is a party matter but Fidesz has now been suspended from the EPP. That may result in expulsion down the line or in them rejoining. It will depend on whether the party satisfies the criteria set down and whether the three wise men who have been appointed to analyse whether it has are satisfied. The EPP is an umbrella group and every group includes parties that need further scrutiny. We have now acted. The Party of European Socialists must now consider the situation in Romania where a government led by social democrats has serious corruption issues which are under examination by the European Commission. The Party of European Socialists must also consider the situation in Britain and the increasingly Eurosceptic-led Labour Party which has serious issues around anti-Semitism to the extent that Jewish Members of Parliament are resigning.

It is extraordinary to link the British Labour Party with Fidesz.

It is always good to clean one's own house as well as someone else's.

It is extraordinary.

The Taoiseach is defending his colleague, Mr. Orbán.

I thank the Taoiseach. We move to the next questions.

I am not condoning anti-Semitism or turning a blind eye to it.

Can we deal with Questions Nos. 9 to 11, inclusive, within seven minutes?

We will have a go.

Have we dealt with Question No. 7?

We have dealt with Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, and are now moving to Questions Nos. 9 to 11, inclusive.

How did Mr. Orbán get in with the Arab League summit?

I was asked about it.

He was at the summit.

Those were the terms of the question.

It was a specific question on Hungary and Mr. Orbán.

I was specifically asked by Deputy Micheál Martin whether I met him at the Arab League summit.

The Taoiseach did not reply.

We did not have a meeting but I did meet him.

Is it agreed to take Questions Nos. 9 to 11, inclusive within seven minutes? Agreed.

Public Consultation Process

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the public consultations under way or planned by his Department for 2019. [10478/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the public consultations under way or planned by his Department in 2019. [11856/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the public consultations under way or planned by him in 2019. [14252/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 11, inclusive, together.

There is only one public consultation currently planned by my Department in 2019 and it relates to the Government's annual national risk assessment. Given that my Department is largely concerned with co-ordination across Departments, it does not generally hold a significant number of public consultations on specific policy issues. However, while no other public consultations are currently planned in 2019, it is, of course, possible that this may change during the course of the year.

It is intended to launch the public consultation planned as part of the annual national risk assessment in quarter 2 to help inform development of the annual national risk assessment report, which is generally published by July. The national risk assessment is an annual exercise which aims to ensure a broad-based and inclusive debate on the strategic risks facing the country. One of the lessons of the recent crisis is that Government did not pay enough attention to dissenting opinions. As such, the national risk assessment provides an opportunity for an open and inclusive conversation on the risks we face. This will be the sixth year the Government has produced the national risk assessment and the process has highlighted important issues since the first report was published in 2014, including one of the earliest official acknowledgments of the risks arising from a potential Brexit.

The development of the 2019 national risk assessment is at an early stage. In addition to interdepartmental and public consultation, my Department plans to hold an open policy seminar in quarter 2. All of these elements will inform the final report, which, as I mentioned, is generally published by July.

We will take 30-second questions before going back to the Taoiseach.

Last year, the Taoiseach organised a public consultation on a new national online strategy. In early March, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment announced that he would belatedly introduce legislation to appoint an online safety commissioner. This is something we support and it will be welcomed by organisations like CyberSafeIreland, the ISPCC and the Ombudsman for Children who have been calling for a commission for some time. Will the Taoiseach update the House on when that will be put in place?

I suggest that the Taoiseach holds a public consultation on the role of local government. There was a very good presentation today by a number of trade unions organising members in local authorities. It pointed out that we are at the absolute bottom of the European league table in terms of services provided by local authorities, the level of funding local government gets, and the extent to which services that should be delivered by local authorities have been centralised or outsourced and privatised with damaging consequences. If we want to reinvigorate local government and local democracy, we should seriously consider a consultation on that.

There are a number of public consultations to discuss, but to keep it to 30 seconds I will ask about only one which is very important due to its imminence. The Taoiseach's Department has carried out a consultation on online political advertising. We are now facing into local and European elections and will probably have a general election in a number of months. It is very important to preserve the integrity of our electoral system. The submissions phase of the consultation closed last October and an open forum was apparently held in December. What were the conclusions and how are we going to ensure there is no external interference with our election process in the next eight weeks as we face into local and European elections?

This Government is overrun with public consultations and, to quote Donald Trump, a lot of it is fake. One thinks of BusConnects in relation to which documents were sent out all over Dublin with complete confusion as to what the proposals were. These consultations are then extended and re-extended and then we wait for some years. Does the Taoiseach's office propose to have a framework of some kind for public consultations whereby people would be genuinely consulted and listened to on a plethora of issues?

Thank you, Deputy.

It is basically a gold mine for PR consultants employed by Government.

Absolutely. For most people, the Government's definition of "public consultation" is a marketing campaign where people are invited to listen to presentations on how great the latest action plan is. Given the scale of increased spending last year on advertising and the promotion of the politically determined priorities of the Government, such as the children's hospital, has any work been done to check public reaction to the spending? Last year, the children's hospital, rural broadband and the full Dublin metro were promoted by the Government based on plans, costs and designs which have subsequently changed radically or been abandoned.

Thank you, Deputy.

If it was important to spend public money to promote the original plans and costs, when will updated costs and plans be advertised?

A Cheann Comhairle, you will forgive me for once again being confused by the inconsistency and division on the Opposition benches, with some Members calling for more public consultations and others saying there are far too many of them. However, it is always good to have diversity on any benches. I do not agree with Deputy Burton's comments-----

It is the two Government parties.

The populists are for public consultation.

It is a Parliament of different parties.

Imagine a difference of opinion in the Parliament.

Let the Taoiseach respond.

I disagree with Deputy Burton's criticism of the National Transport Authority's public consultation on BusConnects and the MetroLink. On MetroLink, the NTA has demonstrated how public consultations can take the views of the public on board-----

Fine Gael certainly rowed back in Rathgar once it heard how the public felt.

The original MetroLink proposal has been changed because of very strong representations on behalf of Na Fianna from not just me but other political leaders. Accommodations have been made with regard to Ballymun Kickhams and changes have been made in respect of Ranelagh. That is an example of public consultation that was genuine. The NTA went to the public with the plan, listened to people and then changed it. I am sure the same will happen with BusConnects. People's views will be listened to and changes will be made. That is how democracy is supposed to work. I am not sure what the alternative is. Is it not to have any public consultations or to have them and then ignore the people? That is certainly not the model of government I would propose.

I agree, but when people make decisions the Taoiseach does not like, he calls it populism.

Regarding public consultation on the role of local government, it is something we can certainly consider. We are proposing a major reform of local government, which is the direct election of executive mayors, and people can vote on it on 24 May.

We must proceed to the next questions.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting in Egypt with Prime Minister May and her comments regarding a deal being done on the EU withdrawal treaty by 29 March 2019. [10589/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May since 26 February 2019 when she announced her intention to allow a meaningful vote in the House of Commons on a revised exit deal and that this was to be followed by a vote on a no-deal scenario on 13 March 2019. [10590/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

14. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when he last spoke to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [10784/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

15. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with Prime Minister May. [13971/19]

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

16. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent discussions with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, regarding Brexit and the recent developments. [13973/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

17. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when he last spoke tothe British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [11857/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

18. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he spoke to Prime Minister May before or since she wrote to the European Council seeking an extension of Article 50. [14016/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 to 18, inclusive, together.

I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister May on the margins of the European Council on 21 March at which we discussed the current state of play with Brexit. The Prime Minister outlined the approach she planned to take at the European Council meeting. Prime Minister May explained that she was seeking an extension of the Article 50 deadline until 30 June, which she hoped would provide sufficient time for her to secure agreement and to complete the legislative arrangements needed to implement it in the UK. I reiterated our wish to see the withdrawal agreement ratified so negotiations on a close, comprehensive and ambitious future relationship between the EU and the UK can start. I also made it clear that we are sympathetic to the case for an extension.

Members will be aware that the European Council, after some discussion, agreed to an extension until 22 May if the withdrawal agreement is approved by the House of Commons this week. Absent that approval, an extension to 12 April was agreed, by which date the UK would be expected to bring forward alternative proposals and give an indication as to whether it intends to take part in the European elections.

I continue to believe that approval of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland, is the best way to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to avoid a hard border on our island. I was pleased to have the continued backing of my fellow European Council members on this objective.

For completeness, I should add that I met the Prime Minister on the margins of the EU-Arab League summit in Egypt on Monday, 25 February.

Before addressing the wider issue, will the Taoiseach say when we will receive the assessment of no-deal preparedness levels and updates on business preparedness, which he promised me three weeks ago?

Yesterday, the Taoiseach continued his strategy of aggressive partisanship relating to Brexit, which drove much of his behaviour in trying to bring down his Government last year and was a defining feature of the Fine Gael event last weekend. He has aggressively attacked anybody who has challenged him to be open with the Irish public about what is being planned. Trading on the understandable focus on the national interest by the media and others, the Taoiseach has been desperate to try to paint others as up to no good. Now he has gone even further and said that it is a conspiracy theory to suggest that anything has been discussed about what would happen at the Border if there was a no-deal scenario. Anybody who raises what was discussed is engaging in conspiracy theories, yet the Taoiseach has been forced to admit on the record of the House that talks with the Commission have been happening at official level. He went on to say yesterday that there are no papers or documents and there is nothing to share. For months he has said there are no talks and that it will only be necessary to have talks if there is no deal, but now he admits there are talks and expects us to believe that these talks are taking place without anybody saying or sharing anything.

Businesses throughout the country are desperate to know what scenarios to plan for, and the Irish people have a right to know what is being discussed. Every country in Europe, except Ireland, has informed its people what will happen if there is no deal. Will the Taoiseach confirm what he said yesterday, that while talks are being held with the Commission, these talks are without papers or documents and nothing has been discussed that needs to be shared? What instruction, if any, has been given to officials for these discussions?

We will see a version of Westminster roulette this evening-----

"It's a Knockout".

-----and we do not know how it will conclude or whether through a series of indicative votes we will get any clarity to replace the chaos we have seen over recent years. There is a withdrawal agreement in place and there is still a possibility that Theresa May will put it to the House of Commons at some stage and get it passed, but it is also possible that she will not. If she does not and through a series of indicative votes there is some proposition relating to a softer Brexit, a customs arrangement, a Norway plus arrangement or the like, how much clarity on that will be necessary, from the Taoiseach's understanding of the European Union's perspective, to enable a long extension to occur? What we must avoid is a further nine months, year or two years of more uncertainty, more game playing and more unreasonable and unworkable solutions being put on the table by politicians in Britain. We must get to a point where businesses, farmers and citizens on the island of Ireland and across the European Union have some certainty about what is going to happen.

The Taoiseach said that his comments in the past regarding a no-deal scenario and what would happen at the Border have been taken out of context by politicians in Westminster. Perhaps he will take this opportunity to make it clear that if there is a hard crash, it will be a disaster for the Border and for Ireland and that while some solution will have to be put in place through a negotiation between the British Government and the European Union, it would fall far short of the protections the backstop currently provides.

Obviously we hope that a deal might be done to resolve this matter, but we do not know if it will be done. Did the Taoiseach have any discussions with Theresa May about her view of what Britain intends to do in the event of no deal? The Taoiseach has said he is not making preparations. I welcome that because he should not. I am not so sure about the EU's intentions in that regard if there is no deal given its desire to protect the Single Market. Did he have discussions with Theresa May on what Britain is planning for the Border if there is no deal?

The other matter I wish to raise has particular pertinence given the possibility that Jacob Rees-Mogg and his gang might throw the DUP under the bus, as it were, and that their solidarity with the DUP might disappear for their own parochial English reasons. Is it not time, as Professor Colin Harvey and others are saying today, to point out that the single lesson from this debacle is that it does not make sense to have administrative, political or economic divergence between two parts of this island and that it is time to open a discussion on a united Ireland in a serious way?

Do not upset Deputy Micheál Martin.

Even Jacob Rees-Mogg and his gang are willing to jettison the North for their own parochial purposes.

For some time now, the Taoiseach has been exhorting us all to be very careful in what we say and the language we use about the ongoing discussions in the British Parliament, yet today he gratuitously had a go at the British Labour Party, the votes of which will be pivotal in deciding the outcome. I put it down to a lack of experience, but it was very unhelpful. The British Labour Party has announced that in the indicative votes it will be whipping its Members to support the holding of a second referendum. That is in Ireland's interests in that it could help to reverse the situation. For Prime Minister May's deal to be passed, it will need a substantial number of Labour Party Member votes. The Taoiseach's reference to anti-Semitism and so on runs counter to the sensitivities he implores everybody else to have regard to in the ongoing discussions happening in the United Kingdom. It seems that there are parallel processes. For instance, there is the preferendum in the multi-choice ballot Members will have. This morning I asked a question of the Tánaiste who indicated to me that, as far as he was aware, the Theresa May deal was not one of the options being put; therefore, there will be a twin-track approach, whereby the Prime Minister will try to build support for her deal separate from it. As I said, if there is not to be a second referendum, in my judgment, it would be a better outcome for us. The most recent opinion poll yesterday showed that 54% of people in the United Kingdom - it is not a huge majority, but it is still a majority - would like to remain part of the European Union. We need to be careful to ensure we will not allow a situation to occur such that there will be a fall-out in a disorderly way. The Tánaiste also promised this morning to brief privately the parties represented in this House on preparations. Will that happen?

I do not want to dwell on the particular issue of the British Labour Party, but a lot of people, particularly Jewish people, have real and genuine concerns about anti-Semitism in that party.

The British Labour Party has taken strong action against it.

I do not think those concerns should be dismissed. They were sufficient to cause Jewish MPs to resign from that party, or at least it was among the reasons people like Luciana Berger and others gave. There are sufficient concerns for the Board of Guardians and the Council of Guardians that represent Jewish people in Britain. Deputy Howlin is right that the support of Labour Party MPs, or at least their goodwill, may well be needed in the votes that will take place in the House of Commons. The goodwill of Fidesz MEPs may also be needed in the votes that will take place in the European Parliament or at the European Council which, of course, have to be unanimous when it comes to a Brexit date extension. I am aware of this, but I do not think it is a good enough reason to turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism or issues surrounding the rule of law.

To link Fidesz with the British Labour Party is shocking.

It may not be of the same scale, but it is still a double standard that is being practised.

There is no comparison.

It is due to the Taoiseach's own naivety, but he is doing harm.

To respond to Deputy Micheál Martin's questions, he sought a particular date and information on the level of preparedness, as he also did yesterday. I asked my officials to check it out and we will provide the data for him, if they are available. I do not know if they are, but if they are, we will provide them for him. In fairness, I cannot do so if they do not.

With the greatest of respect to the Deputy, I do not think he can accuse people of partisanship when he engages in it regularly. Whatever standard one seeks is the standard one should set. There are plenty of examples of partisanship on the part of Fianna Fáil and Deputy Micheál Martin as leader. I do not need to provide examples because he will be able to find them without much research.

The conspiracy theory seems to be that we have a secret plan for a hard border between the North and the South that we are not sharing with people. It is not true. We have no secret plan.

No one said that.

That is what I am surmising.

It is what the Taoiseach is surmising.

It is, but it is what-----

I quoted directly from what the Taoiseach said yesterday.

The sooner we have the election the better.

On the talks and discussions with the European Commission on no-deal planning or what we would do to avoid a hard border and protect the Single Market and the customs union in the event that there is no deal, as I said at the weekend, they have been rough and preliminary. They are really only going to start when we end up in a no-deal scenario. There are no documents that I have seen. The discussions happen at official level and I am not a party to them. I have given no specific instructions to officials.

The Government has given no instructions to officials as it discusses what will happen at the Border when there is no deal.

As I explained before, the conspiracy theory is-----

On what basis-----

On what basis are the discussions taking place then?

The conspiracy theory is that there are certain discussions ongoing-----

I am not talking about conspiracy theories. It is long-standing practice for the Government to instruct officials when it is in discussions on an issue.

We have run out of time.

No instructions have been given because the discussions which the Deputies believe are happening are not happening.

The Taoiseach said they were; I did not. It is not that I believe they are happening. The Taoiseach has said they are.

Perhaps there might be an opportunity to discuss the matter further during the statements post the European Council meeting.

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