Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)

As others have said, it is more than two years since the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland. We are all agreed that the Government has a pivotal role to play in facilitating the return of the much needed institutions. Clearly we have some influence over our Government and we have none over the British Government, which has responsibility in that regard. One of the demands on our Government is to build bridges with unionism. It has been a very important component part of the process of peace building over many decades. Successive Governments have gone out of their way to ensure there was an understanding and clear lines of communication with the various strands of unionism. According to a DUP figure, however, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste do not possess rational qualities and there seems to be no capacity for relationship building. Whatever one believes of that, this is an expressed view of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. Last week, a DUP MP commented that they had never known a time when Irish-unionist relations have been so broken. When we think back most of us could envisage a time there was very sundered relations between Irish Governments and unionism. For it be expressed, however, it means we are at fairly difficult impasse. I do not believe it is something we should just ignore. Listening to the tone of the debate in this House during Question Time, there is a movement away from the sense of rapport and rapprochement that has categorised - using the crudest of measures - nationalist and unionist relations over the past two decades. Does the Taoiseach recognise this relationship and does he recognise it as a problem? If so, does he have a particular strategy to address it?

I thank the Deputies for their questions. Deputy Micheál Martin asked about direct rule. The Tánaiste and I have discussed this with our counterparts. We have been very straight in saying that we cannot support a return to direct rule. We have had no indications from the UK Government that this is what it intends to do but we have given our view, straight up, that we could not support this and were it attempted, we would consider it to be contrary to the Good Friday Agreement. Deputy McDonald has met the British Prime Minister on a number of occasions and, as she said, Mrs. May understands this, and I do not believe it is her intention.

We stand ready to assist the DUP and Sinn Féin to come together to form an Executive. It is complicated, which is the reality, by the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit, by the local authority elections on 2 May and the EU Parliament elections on 23 May, and by the added complication of the Conservative Party's confidence and supply agreement with the DUP, making the party dependent on the DUP's votes to continue in government. This is an unprecedented situation but it does not stop us from endeavouring to support the two parties in putting together an Executive and intervening in whatever way we can that would be effective. Deputies will be aware that there have been many interventions already.

The Prime Minister plans to carry out talks with other parties, especially the Labour Party, with a view to coming to an agreement on the joint political declaration. The Prime Minister accepts that the withdrawal agreement is not being reopened. If Mrs. May can come to an agreement on changes to the joint political declaration, a fourth meaningful vote will be put before the House of Commons prior to the European Parliament elections. There is a desire on the part of the British Government not to hold the EU elections, which it believes would be farcical given that the UK is due to leave the EU. If it is not possible to come to an agreement with the Labour Party that gives the government an enduring majority - it is not enough to win the meaningful vote, as the government also has to be able to get a majority for all of the enabling legislation thereafter - there will be a further round of indicative votes in the House of Commons, which the government has agreed to be bound by. There is a fair bit of time throughout May, June and going into the summer recess for all of that to be done in the House of Commons. Having time is different to being able to find a majority, which is obviously a real difficulty for them at the moment.

Deputy Howlin quoted a DUP figure who was not named. I am not sure who it was. I can tell the Deputy that my engagements with the leader of the DUP, Mrs. Arlene Foster, have been regular and while we do not see eye to eye on everything, they have often been very friendly. Most recently they have been in touch with me on the issue of voisinage, asking that we resolve it, which we did. They contacted me thereafter to thank us for having the issue resolved. Even beyond Brexit we co-operate on other issues and will continue to do so.

The Deputy will also be aware that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP attended my party's conference recently. Lines of communication are very much open - politician to politician and adviser to adviser. We do not see eye to eye on fundamental matters and there is no point in pretending otherwise. Apart from keeping lines of communication with the DUP open, part of the strategy is to recognise that there is more to unionism than the DUP. This is why I made a particular effort some time ago, with the support of others, to encourage someone from a unionist background to run for the Seanad, who was subsequently elected.

It is the reason we have had an engagement with the UUP and the reason I have had an ongoing engagement with what is described as civic unionism, which is non-party unionism. It is also the reason I made a point of visiting Schomberg House, the Orange Order headquarters in Belfast, becoming the first Taoiseach to do so. I have met the Orange Order since then in Government Buildings. There are many strands of unionism. I suppose if there is a strategy, it is to recognise that.

Taoiseach's Communications

Joan Burton


14. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent conversations with the Prime Minister of New Zealand; and the issues that were discussed. [15147/19]

Brendan Howlin


15. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent conversations with the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Ms Jacinda Ardern. [16481/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett


16. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent conversations with the Prime Minister of New Zealand. [17790/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 14 to 16, inclusive, together.

I spoke by telephone with the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, on 27 March. The Prime Minister contacted me to discuss what actions might be taken to counter the proliferation of violent and extremist online content following the horrific terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on 15 March. I took the opportunity to pass on to the Prime Minister and the people of New Zealand the condolences of the Irish Government, this House and our people on the tragic loss of 50 innocent lives and the injuries to so many others.

The Prime Minister and I discussed initiatives being put in place here in Ireland and across the EU to tackle violent and illegal online content. It is the view of the Government that we can no longer rely on self-regulation alone by digital platform providers to ensure that users are kept safe online. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, recently concluded a public consultation on the online safety Bill which will establish a national regulatory authority to oversee the course of actions that online platforms have in place to protect their users. It will implement provisions of the revised EU audio-visual media services directive requiring video sharing platforms to protect users from content containing hate speech and other illegal content. The Bill also draws on work done by the Law Reform Commission on the establishment of an online digital safety commission, which, in turn, is inspired by existing legislation in New Zealand.

Ireland is also involved in detailed discussions at EU level on the proposed new EU regulation on preventing the dissemination of terrorism content online. This proposal obliges service providers to remove offending content within a short timeframe and provides for fines of up to 4% of annual global turnover in the event of systematic failure to remove content. This proposal is still under discussion and is unlikely to be concluded before the European elections. However, once enacted, Ireland will establish a competent authority to ensure that companies comply with this regulation.

I agreed with Prime Minister Ardern that our officials would compare approaches to these challenges and that we will stay in touch on the matter. We considered the possibility of a high-level meeting involving her and other EU Prime Ministers in Europe in the foreseeable future.

I thank the Taoiseach for the reply. Prime Minister Ardern's approach in the aftermath of the horrific shooting and murders in Christchurch set an example globally of statesmanship of which everybody involved in politics, women and men, can be proud.

Following on from the Taoiseach's comments regarding the introduction of further gun control in New Zealand, will he consider the introduction of similar legislation here? This morning, there was another gun attack in the Sheephill area of Corduff. There was also a gun attack early last night in Finglas. One of these gun attacks took place in the constituency which the Taoiseach and I represent and the other was in an adjacent constituency. There are armed patrols patrolling the city centre in Dublin. The Taoiseach referred in his reply to advances New Zealand is making in this area. Its response to the murders was to tighten gun control significantly. In the aftermath of the Christchurch murders, did the Taoiseach take the opportunity to review security and gun control here, which, because of the cocaine and other drugs trade, is pretty much out of control? Children in our primary schools are worried about walking to and from school because they might get caught up in gunmen shooting at each other. As I said, early this morning in a nice estate like Sheephill, there was a gun attack which we are given to understand is related to feuding among rival drugs gangs and drugs operators.

The Taoiseach's engagement with Prime Minister Ardern probably took place in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. Will he take a leaf out of New Zealand's book and try to remove guns from Irish society so that our society will not be worn down, exploited and, possibly, destroyed by the drugs trade in terms of the gun violence that it is bringing to the streets of all our major cities and, particularly, the areas he and I represent? Will he establish a special task force to address this issue because it needs to be done?

As there are less than seven minutes remaining for these questions, I ask Members to be brief in order that the Taoiseach will have an opportunity to reply.

It is one month since the horrific mosque shootings in New Zealand that shocked all of us from a variety of perspectives. If one had to pick a country where one would expect this type of right wing extremism to happen, New Zealand would be the last country to come to mind. This proves that there is nowhere on the planet immune from the perils of such an attack. We in Ireland cannot be complacent. It has been said in the past that not only could an attack occur on our own soil in the Republic, but the Republic could be used as a base for an attack on a neighbouring jurisdiction.

The Garda have noted an increase in online activity aimed at an Irish audience of those of the extreme right - the fascist right. Has the Taoiseach considered this as a major threat? I know that the Government periodically carries out an assessment of threats. Can the Taoiseach give an assurance to the House that An Garda Síochána has the capacity to monitor adequately this insidious, terribly damaging online activity?

I join all those who praised Prime Minister Ardern for her great leadership in the aftermath of the Christchurch atrocity. She made a very powerful statement to the people of New Zealand and to the world about the need for unity against hate and for all of us to stand with minorities who are under attack. The recent spurt of Islamophobic campaigns by politicians in many countries is something we need to fight against not only here but internationally as well. Our media should understand that there are many people out there who have no problem picking on minorities if they think it might get them attention. They are happy to play on the margins and the proportional representation system here is such that media coverage can deliver a real electoral advantage and bonus to people engaged in such activity. The media need to remember too that they have the freedom to cover anything but they need to avoid falling again and again for giving significant exposure to people exploiting division for political purposes. In this context, the Taoiseach may be aware that the European Commission carried out research in every European Union country on attitudes to immigrants in general, which found that there are many places where people have limited or no experience of Muslims but have been persuaded by demagogues to fear them. Thankfully, Ireland is one of the best countries when it comes to open attitudes to different faiths and cultures, which we must actively protect. More should be done to promote integration. We have not as yet achieved full integration in society of minorities and different faiths and cultures. Local authorities are perfectly placed to promote programmes locally and some have been doing an excellent job in this regard.

What initiatives are planned to actively monitor and combat the hateful ideology behind the Christchurch attack?

The horrific attacks in Christchurch one month ago left all of us numb. As has been said, Christchurch, New Zealand is the last place one would imagine this might happen. There is a central lesson in that, namely, that no part of our globe is immune from this toxic cancer of hatred. There is no doubt that we have much to do in our own society to ensure cohesion.

Deputy Burton referred to the constituency which she and the Taoiseach represent.

I am mindful of the fact that there is great diversity in many of the sprawling new suburbs in the Taoiseach's constituency. When I visit those large suburbs, I look around and ask what service provision and integration are like in them. I should also state that we have great diversity in my constituency, and I ask the same questions in our inner city. If we are honest, we have to state that public policy in this area has been lacklustre. We have been lacking in the power of our intent to ensure new citizens and newcomers to our country are fully integrated.

Not surprisingly, I share the concern that has been expressed about guns on the streets. Neighbourhoods I represent have endured a so-called feud which has involved young children witnessing and being hurt as a result of horrific acts of violence. I suggest that the answer is somewhere in the realm of good community policing and resourcing. The Taoiseach might advise us of his plans in that regard.

I very much agree with the Deputies who have praised the response of Prime Minister Ardern to last month's events in Christchurch. I believe she responded with great dignity and leadership. She became a unifying force for New Zealand. In our conversations, she often speaks about how we need to tackle both the root causes and the enablers of terrorism and extremism. That is the correct approach. Quite frankly, I do not think she could have handled it better. I am absolutely sure she would have preferred not to have had to handle it at all.

Gun control in New Zealand was very weak, relative to Ireland, prior to last month's appalling tragedy in Christchurch. The authorities in New Zealand responded to what happened by taking the opportunity to tighten their gun laws, which are still somewhat looser than the gun laws in this jurisdiction. We already have stringent controls on the issuing of firearms certificates by An Garda Síochána and the conditions under which firearms can be held. There are penalties in place for firearms offences under the Firearms Acts. Every application for a firearms certificate is considered on its individual merits. An application cannot be granted by a Garda superintendent unless certain conditions set out in law are met. The Firearms Acts provide that a person applying for a firearms certificate "can be permitted" to possess a firearm "without danger to the public safety" and must have "a good reason for requiring the firearm".

Certain firearms, such as semi-automatic centrefire rifles and large-calibre handguns, are considered restricted under Irish law and attract additional conditions over and above the standard requirements that must be met. Such requirements include a requirement for the applicant to have "demonstrated that the firearm is the only type of weapon that is appropriate for the purpose for which it is required". Decisions on restricted firearms are made by a Garda chief superintendent. The Firearms Acts also provide for the revocation of a firearms certificate if the conditions which applied to the granting of the firearms certificate in the first instance are no longer met.

Mandatory minimum sentences were introduced in 2006 for certain firearms offences on foot of concerns about the effects that such offences were having on society in general. Legislation was introduced in 2008 to arrest the growth in large-calibre handguns. As a result, such firearms are no longer licensable unless a firearms certificate was held at the time the legislation was commenced. While there are approximately 200,000 firearms certificates in the State, the vast majority of them relate to shotguns that are held by farmers for the purposes of vermin control.

A substantial review of firearms licensing, including consultation with the public, stakeholders and the relevant Oireachtas committee, has been undertaken in recent years. A number of actions have been identified as a result of this review. The Department of Justice and Equality is actively progressing some of these actions, including a ban on new licences for semi-automatic centrefire rifles and the establishment of a firearms assessment and appeals authority. Almost all gun crimes in Ireland are committed using guns that are held illegally and are not licensed. I think it is fair to say that our gun laws are successful in that regard. The issue of illegally held firearms is a separate matter that requires separate action.

Cabinet subcommittee F, which deals with national security and comprises Ministers, officials, representatives of Defence Forces intelligence and Garda intelligence and personnel from the National Cyber Security Centre, has met in the past two weeks. We used that opportunity to review the threat level. We recognised that if a lone-wolf white supremacist from Australia could go to New Zealand and do what he did, a lone-wolf white supremacist here in Ireland, or from Britain, could do something similar here. No country is immune to terrorism. We considered what could be done to prevent it and how we would respond to it. For the first time, there have been joint exercises involving the Garda, the Defence Forces and the blue-light services. We have advertised for the position of head of the new national security co-ordination centre, which will be set up under the auspices of the Department of the Taoiseach. We will have that structure established this year.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.