Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement with the US congressional delegation that visited Ireland. [21570/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the US Congressional delegation that visited Ireland recently. [21771/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

On 16 April last, I had a meeting at Government Buildings with a delegation from the US House of Representatives, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. On the following evening, I was honoured to host the delegation at a dinner in Dublin Castle, which was attended by guests representing diverse aspects of the US-Ireland bilateral relationship, including from politics, business, culture and civil society. The delegation, which comprised nine members of Congress, also included Congressman Richie Neal, who is co-chair of the Friends of Ireland caucus and chairman of the influential Committee on Ways and Means in the House of Representatives. Our meeting in Government Buildings was an opportunity for a broad-ranging discussion covering Brexit and Northern Ireland, US immigration reform and Ireland-US bilateral relations.

The delegation apprised me of its visit to the UK immediately before it arrived, where it had held a number of meetings to discuss the implications of the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union. The delegation explained that, during its visit to the UK, it repeatedly emphasised its view that Brexit should not impact on the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and that a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland should be avoided in all circumstances. Speaker Pelosi, Congressman Neal and the other members of the delegation were unwavering in their support for peace in Northern Ireland. I welcome the continued, unequivocal support of the US Congress on this matter, which is testament to the deep and historical bonds between our two countries and the strong attachment of US politicians to the Good Friday Agreement, given the enormous contribution that some US politicians made in its creation.

I also thanked the delegation for its continuing backing of Irish immigration priorities, specifically the E3 visa Bill, which has since been reintroduced in the US Congress. We will continue to work hard to secure the passage of the Bill, which would offer new opportunities for Irish citizens to live and work in the US. Speaker Pelosi is also aware that we are keenly interested in resolving the situation for the undocumented Irish community in the US and that we will continue to engage with Congress and the US Administration to seek a satisfactory resolution.

I welcome the ongoing support from Congress and the Irish Americans who make up the Congressional Friends of Ireland caucus for the peace process, the backstop and protections for Ireland in the context of Brexit.

The Taoiseach mentioned the issue of the undocumented Irish. There are 50,000 undocumented Irish citizens in the United States. The Taoiseach has met some of them and has raised this issue on a number of visits to the United States. They live in a state of continuous fear and worry and are concerned about the failure of the US Congress to pass an immigration reform Bill during the previous congressional term. The Taoiseach said he had a discussion with Speaker Pelosi on this issue. What was the outcome of that discussion? What was her view on how this matter would be progressed? Was there any sense of a new Bill coming before Congress? Is there hope that this matter will finally be resolved for the undocumented who need Congress to act to ensure they no longer live in fear?

Did the Taoiseach discuss the issue of climate change, particularly in the context of the forthcoming visit of Donald Trump to this country and the extreme damage Mr. Trump is doing to efforts to address the climate emergency by encouraging denial of the scientific facts, including the reality of climate destruction, and the sabotage of the movement to address climate change? Did he have any discussions on the possible impact this visit will have on legitimising efforts to sabotage climate change and, more generally, on promoting his toxic agenda on a whole range of issues, whether it is supporting Israeli annexation of Palestinian and Syrian territory, the denial of rights to Palestinians or his sale of arms to despotic regimes such as Saudi Arabia? The list goes on. Did the Taoiseach discuss the manner in which Mr. Trump is encouraging very dangerous policies, whether it is from a foreign policy point of view or from a planetary sustainability point of view, and how all of that will be viewed in terms of him coming here and how it will play in the United States? It seems to me that it does nothing but advance and encourage his agenda.

The recent visit of Speaker Pelosi and the wider congressional delegation was welcome and reinforced the strength of contact between our two parliaments and countries. Many in Congress are just as worried as the majority here about the possibility that we are entering into a period where there will be rising conflict on trade matters. At various times in the past two years, the Trump Administration has initiated moves against trade with the European Union. President Trump backed off from some of these moves and there are negotiations under way which appear to be going nowhere. The expectation is that as he gets closer to his re-election campaign, he will ramp up his rhetoric against trade deals and there will at least be serious turbulence. There also appears to be no possibility of reactivating the ambitious deal which was being discussed by the European Union and the Obama Administration. This is serious for Ireland, given how much we rely on international trade for employment. As we keep seeing from various parties and candidates, anti-trade rhetoric here is strong. Those who use it are almost never challenged to explain to the workers who rely on trade where else their jobs and wages will come from.

Will the Taoiseach indicate what he expects to happen in the next six months in the context of US-EU trade talks, the wider trade environment and the implications for Ireland? Will he raise this matter with President Trump when he arrives in Ireland, in particular his negativity towards the European Union?

In a wider context, are there any efforts under preparation to explain the central role of trade in Ireland's economy and the implications for us of new barriers to trade being created? When will we have a debate on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement and the EU-Singapore Investment Protection Agreement in this House? We provoked a debate on CETA but that was in Private Members' business. I am at a loss as to why we have not had a full blown debate on the matter in the House.

On CETA, the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement and the EU-Singapore Investment Protection Agreement, I will have to check the position with my colleagues. There is no reason we cannot or should not have a debate. It is just that a debate has not yet happened. I will come back to the Deputy on that. It is appropriate that we should have a debate and I am not entirely sure why we have not had one yet. CETA and most of the agreements are already in operation, although some have not been formally ratified yet.

They have to be ratified by Parliament.

That is correct. They have to be ratified. There is one particular issue around disputes that has yet to be resolved but I will check the position and revert to the Deputy.

I look forward to discussing trade policy with President Trump when he visits Ireland next week. I am a big believer in free trade and free enterprise. Free trade makes us better off in the round and has been very good for Ireland given the extent to which our economy and jobs are based on trade with other European Union countries, the United States and the wider world. As I understand it, President Trump's current focus is on China but there is a school of thought that he may move his focus towards the European Union later in the year. That is something that we need to be aware of. We will need to respond, as a Union of 28 members, to any aggressive action that may take place. When I meet President Trump I will once again make the case for free trade. Free trade between the US and EU makes us all better off in the round and creates more jobs in the round.

I will point out to him again that the relationship between the US and Ireland goes both ways. It is often seen as though it is only a one-way street, as it was decades ago, but that is not the case anymore. The US has a large surplus over us in respect of trade of services, while the inverse is true in respect of trade of merchandise. When the two are taken into account, it works out as approximately even, although often the White House takes only merchandise into account, which I think is flawed.

For investment, too, the relationship works both ways. There are now nearly 100,000 Americans in 50 states working in companies that are Irish and Irish owned but that is not always fully appreciated or well known. It was once very much a one-way street but it is now a two-way street. I will use the opportunity of our meeting at Shannon to emphasise that point and our support for free trade between the US and the EU, subject to environmental concerns, health and safety, employment rights and other standards, or what might be called the level playing field. I will also encourage the President to re-enter negotiations on what would be the largest trade deal ever, namely, between the US and the EU.

Climate change was not discussed with the congressional delegation, to my recollection. The focus was very much on Brexit, the Good Friday Agreement, immigration issues and trade. At the time, there was no indication of the visit of President Trump and, therefore, it was not discussed either.

On the issue of undocumented Irish citizens in the United States, we do not have an accurate figure for the number of people. Figures range between 10,000 or 15,000 and 50,000, although nobody knows for sure. I have met undocumented Irish citizens in the US on many occasions, on both official and personal visits, and I feel for them. Many of them are people who have set up businesses in the US, employ others, pay their taxes and obey the law but they are not able to return home for events such as family funerals. They fear that should they ever commit a minor offence, it could lead to their deportation and separation from their family. Most people who assess the situation believe that immigration reform to assist undocumented Irish people in the US can only happen on a comprehensive basis and that it would not be possible to have a pathway to citizenship for Irish people but not for people from Mexico, El Salvador or other parts of the world. I fully understand that view. We are not seeking, and have not sought, a special arrangement for Irish people. It can only be done in the context of wider immigration reform, which is very much what the Democrats in the US Congress have said to us. The E3 visa is separate and it would be for Ireland only. It would be available to Irish people who currently reside in Ireland to give them the opportunity to live and work in the US. Irish people often did that in the past but it is now very difficult. It would be a sort of modern version of the Morrison visa. Perhaps we will call it the Richard Neal visa if we get it over the line.

The Government has shown a good example on the issue. We should not be two-faced about it. There are undocumented people in Ireland, too, and we have introduced a scheme to regularise people who came from overseas on student visas and became undocumented for various reasons thereafter. It was an important step for us to take as a Government because we cannot go to the US and ask that people who went there on J1 visas and remain there many years later be regularised if we do not adopt a similar approach to people who came here on student visas, remained here, are law-abiding, work and pay their taxes. Perhaps we have given the US an example it could follow if it ever gets around to comprehensive immigration reform.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, since Dáil Éireann adjourned for the Easter recess; and if so, if he discussed the Northern Ireland talks, Brexit or other matters. [20558/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when he last spoke to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May. [21569/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

5. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report of the ongoing talks in Northern Ireland; and if he has discussed same with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May. [21769/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent conversations with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, about Northern Ireland. [21772/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, about the talks on Northern Ireland recently. [22680/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 7, inclusive, together.

As the House is aware, last Friday, the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, announced her intention to step down as leader of the Conservative Party on 7 June, although she will remain as Prime Minister until a new Prime Minister is appointed. As I said in my press statement, I got to know Theresa May quite well over the past two years and I wish her the very best for the future, as I did personally in Brussels yesterday. The Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and I are committed to maintaining close contact while she continues to be Prime Minister and there will be ongoing engagement between our respective officials. We will meet again next month in Brussels. I look forward to working closely with her successor, whoever it may be.

I saw the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, most recently at the European Council meeting dinner in Brussels last night. We also met, along with other world leaders, at the Christchurch Call to Action meeting in Paris on 15 May. While we did not have a substantive meeting on these occasions, we had the opportunity to engage and recalled our prior meeting on 24 April when we both attended the funeral of Ms Lyra McKee in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. In coming together with other political and civic leaders, we paid tribute to Lyra McKee and gave expression to the clear will and determination of all the people of these islands to reject violence and to support peace and a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland. We also heard the unmistakable message to all political leaders that people throughout Northern Ireland want to see a new momentum for political progress. At that time, the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and I agreed to initiate a new round of political talks, involving the main political parties in Northern Ireland, together with the UK and Irish Governments, and we issued a joint statement to this effect on 26 April. The aim of these talks is to re-establish to full operation the democratic institutions of the Good Friday Agreement that are not currently working, namely, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council. The other institutions, namely, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, and the British-Irish Council remain in operation.

The talks process started on 7 May in Stormont, led by the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mrs. Karen Bradley. As Taoiseach and Prime Minister, we agreed to review progress in the near future. The talks are now in their fourth week and I welcome the constructive engagement by all parties. The Prime Minister and I also agreed in April that a meeting of the BIIGC would take place in London on 8 May. At this meeting, the BIIGC considered east-west relations, security co-operation and political stability in Northern Ireland. The opportunity was used to sign a memorandum of understanding to underpin the common travel area.

I, too, pay tribute to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, for her contribution to public service. She had a difficult time, having inherited a difficult issue. While she doubtless made mistakes, no one could doubt her commitment to the public well-being, her sense of duty as a Prime Minister and her best endeavours to arrive at a reasonable resolution of the Brexit impasse. Nevertheless, she failed to win the support of her party or the wider British Parliament.

Two and a half years after the democratic institutions of Northern Ireland were wrongly collapsed due to a heating scheme, there have finally been some serious talks about how to overcome the blockade created by the two largest parties in the North. It has been reported that next week the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister will carry out some form of stock-taking. Will that happen? Following the conclusion of the opening period of the talks, very little is known in public about what has been discussed, except the red lines that have, at various times, been reiterated. Yet again it appears that some participants believe that a parliament is somewhere to go after one's demands have been met, rather than being a place where one goes to promote one's demands. I will never understand why the entire edifice of the assembly was collapsed over a heating scandal. We in this Parliament do not decide to collapse Dáil Éireann, nor leave and stay outside for two years, because our demands are not met. Parliament is not the property of any political party; it is elected by the people, which should be respected but it has not been in the North.

Equally, it appears that others cannot understand that equality is not an option but an imperative. In the light of the overall budget review that the British Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced, given that the assembly and the Executive have been suspended, Northern Ireland has no one at the table speaking for its concerns. Will the Taoiseach commit to raising with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, a concern that some means must be found to ensure that Northern Ireland's interests are represented in the spending review? Will he press on her the need to reverse the policy of cutbacks, spanning the past eight years, which set a bad foundation on which to build stable institutions and overcome deep problems? There have been several cutbacks in the North and they hurt all communities.

I assume the Taoiseach understands that for a government to function, it needs a programme for government. It is not about making demands outside of institutions in some vacuum. Rather, parties must agree on programmes for government.

We are up for that. As the Taoiseach knows, there was an agreement last year but it was reneged on. We have to move on and get agreement. We accept this and will do our best.

The local and European elections have dominated the news in recent days but something that has received little coverage thus far in the South is the fact that the people of the North have elected two remain MEPs. This sends a very strong message to people in Britain and in the European Union that the DUP does not speak for the people of the North when it comes to Brexit. The electorate has made this fundamentally clear. Theresa May will be gone soon, as people have said, and a new prime minister will be in place in July. Where does the process go from there? People will be concerned there is again the prospect of a hard crash. We are hoping this will not happen. It is something we are all trying to avoid. What is the process now to get us to a point where we can avoid it, given the vacuum in British politics, the turbulence in the Tory party and what has happened in the European elections in Britain and throughout the European Union? Where do we go from here and what is the Irish Government's response to what has happened over recent weeks and months?

Theresa May has played the political price for pandering to extreme forms of right-wing nationalism in her own party and beyond, with the fairly obnoxious politics of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Frankly, it is rather depressing that Farage in particular has done well in these elections. Ultimately, this is the failure of the political centre and Theresa May. It is the consequence of the disastrous failures of Theresa May's policies and the British political centre and of pandering to these obnoxious forces. In this regard, I ask the Taoiseach in all sincerity whether the European People's Party is making the same mistake when it comes to people such as Viktor Orbán. If we do not face down these people and instead pander to them or soft peddle around them we promote and encourage their agenda.

The idea the noxious far right is only a problem across the water in Britain is self-evidently not the case. The noxious, dangerous far right is on the rise in Europe and Europe has to take a good look at itself, and the European People's Party has to take a good look at itself, and ask to what extent are their political failures responsible for creating a ground for these forces to rise and what are they going to do about it.

This brings me briefly to the North. One of the other features of the recent election that I very much welcome, and which has not been fully trumpeted, is a resurgence in the growth of left-wing politics seeking to offer an alternative to green and orange tribal politics. I am delighted that People Before Profit won three seats in Belfast, going from one to three, and two seats in Derry, where we had none. This indicates something else happening in the North, which we should very much welcome. To some extent it is manifest in the growth of other forces that are not associated with the green-orange divide but seek in different ways to offer an alternative to it. It is a reflection of the grassroots movement we saw on issues such as marriage equality, environmental issues and other issues. In this context, I disagree with Deputy Martin because if we do not challenge corruption on something such as renewable heat incentive and state there is a problem with being in government with a Minister who has presided over a rotten corruption scandal involving hundreds of millions of quid-----

One does not collapse a Parliament.

Sinn Féin collapsed a government not a parliament.

Yes, and a parliament.

Gentlemen, please.

With regard to the renewable heat incentive, and following up what has been said, an inquiry is under way and it has not yet reported or made any findings. I do not think we should assume there was corruption, at least until the inquiry reports and states there was. I want to put this on the record. The general approach is to carry out the inquiry before making a judgment and this is the approach we should generally take.

The interparty talks are now under way. They involve all of the major parties and not just the two main parties but, of course, the two main parties are crucial to this given that they represent 50% or more of the electorate. Now that the local and European elections are over there is a small but real window of opportunity to secure an agreement. The Prime Minister, Mrs. May, is very keen in her last months in office to see this happen. I am very keen to work with her and the parties to make it happen. There will be a stocktaking exercise. It was initially intended to happen at the end of May and now it may happen in June but we will do it. Deputy Martin asked about the spending review and I will certainly raise that with the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, when I see her again in the next couple of weeks. I will also have an opportunity to meet the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, tomorrow and I will talk with him about some of these issues. We met briefly at the funeral of Lyra McKee but this will be the first time we will have a substantial meeting and I look forward to hearing his reflections on Brexit and Northern Ireland issues.

When it comes to the possibility of a no deal hard Brexit at the end of October I am still confident it will be avoided. Whether by the ratification of the deal, revocation of Article 50 or a further extension that may be requested by a new Prime Minister or even a new Government I am confident it can and will be avoided but we must be prepared for it. Our preparations, which were complete at the end of March, are still complete but are continuing and will be augmented. We particularly want to send a message to businesses that have not yet engaged in Brexit planning not to assume it will be all right on the night and if they have not yet engaged in Brexit planning to do so please. I emphasise this message. Many businesses have done so but some have not and they need to prepare for this very real possibility.

With regard to the far right and far left, the House will know that for me very often they are two sides of the same coin and agree on many issues. Hostility to the European Union and opposing European integration and treaties is something the far right and far left often coalesce around.

You are the one in the same party as him. We have nothing to do with the far right.

Mr. Farage was mentioned earlier, as were the Brexit party and UKIP. They all want to withdraw their country from the European Union. I understand that People Before Profit in Northern Ireland also supported Brexit.

We have nothing to do with the nationalist far right criticism of Europe.

Perhaps I am wrong about that. People Before Profit in Northern Ireland is a pro-Brexit party-----

It is not pro-Brexit. It is an internationalist party.

-----and aligned with the views of Farage in that regard. I am not clear whether People Before Profit in this jurisdiction wants us to withdraw from the European Union but I know it opposed all European treaties, the Single Market, the euro and European integration more generally. This says to me that, as is so often obvious to me, there is a lot in common between the far left and far right.

European Council Meetings

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

8. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the discussion at the informal EU Council meeting on building a greener, fairer and more inclusive future; and if he contributed to same. [20555/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

9. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if digital taxation was discussed at the informal EU Council meeting. [20557/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the discussions at the informal EU Council meeting in May 2019 on developing the EU economic base, in particular regarding fair and effective taxation, protecting the Single Market, deepening economic and monetary union and ensuring connectivity in addition to developing artificial intelligence; and if he contributed to these discussions. [20559/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he attended bilaterals when he attended the informal EU Council meeting on 9 May 2019; and if so, the issues that were discussed. [20560/19]

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

12. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the informal European Council meeting in Sibiu, Romania; and the decisions taken on the future of Europe. [21513/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

13. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent informal meeting of the European Council. [21571/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

14. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the informal European Council meeting in Sibiu, Romania on 9 May 2019. [21852/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 14, inclusive, together.

I attended an informal meeting of EU Heads of State and Government in Sibiu, or Hermannstadt, in Romania on 9 May. I will answer questions on yesterday's meeting separately. President Tusk convened the meeting on 9 May, with a view to an initial informal discussion of our strategic priorities for the years ahead. Our first session focussed on the EU's place in the world, while our second session was focused on internal challenges. Obviously the two are closely linked. Our discussions were based on four broad themes. These were protecting citizens and freedoms, developing our economic base, jobs and living standards, building a greener, fairer and more inclusive future, and promoting Europe's interests and values in the world. We adopted the Sibiu declaration, setting out ten basic commitments to guide us in our discussions on our new strategic agenda for the period from 2019 to 2024. The European Council is expected to discuss further and adopt this agenda at our meeting in June. My remarks at the summit were based on our national statement on the European Union, which was published on 17 April and discussed in the Dáil the following day.

This outlines our priorities, which include achieving a prosperous and competitive Union that is equipped for the future, including the completion of the Single Market in all its aspects; preparing for the social and economic challenges of the digital transformation; sustainability and leadership in climate action, including through a well designed and adequately funded Common Agricultural Policy, CAP; maintaining peace and security; and achieving a more effective partnership with Africa. I stressed that working to ensure a close, comprehensive and ambitious future partnership with the UK must be a priority for the Union. While I had no formal bilateral meetings in Sibiu, I engaged with most of my EU counterparts in the margins of the meeting, using the opportunity, as I always do, to promote Ireland's interests and to explain our case. I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands the previous day, 8 May, where we discussed current EU issues and the excellent bilateral relations that exist between Ireland and the Netherlands.

Nobody really knows what will happen in London in the coming months. It seems reasonable to assume that the risk of failing to agree a full withdrawal treaty with the new Tory leader is very high. I think the Taoiseach will agree that anybody who has dealt with Boris Johnson knows that his understanding of and engagement with Irish matters is superficial at best. None of the other candidates appears to understand what is required to protect the progress seen on this island in recent decades. Obviously, it is right that we have to be ready for a no-deal scenario in October. The issue is whether we will be ready this time. Previous to 31 March, the original Brexit date, the Government constantly said it was stepping up and intensifying no-deal preparations. However, when 31 March arrived it was clear we were nowhere near ready. We had new custom booths in our ports but we did not have the staff to man them and 50% of companies who trade with the United Kingdom had not completed even the most basic registration in order to be able to continue that trade.

This week, it has emerged that the Department of Finance is only now finishing work on the fiscal implications of a no-deal Brexit. The Taoiseach will remember that in March he said that the fiscal impact of a no-deal Brexit was not large enough to require it being announced then. In contrast, yesterday, The Irish Times was briefed by Government that a serious adjustment may be required and that this will be outlined in the delayed economic statement next week. No one has been briefed on this matter, even where the Government has an obligation to provide such briefings. Has the Taoiseach received any report on why Ireland was not Brexit ready on 31 March? What extra steps does he propose to take to ensure that we are ready on 31 October?

It is interesting to note that in the recent elections to the European Parliament there was no surge to the far right, as expected, and that support for liberals and greens increased. It is good that a new diverse centre is taking shape in the European Union.

On the European Council meeting in Sibiu, obviously a number of issues were discussed, including, as mentioned by the Taoiseach, the future of Europe and the rule of law supervision. As regards climate change, I raise with the Taoiseach an issue I raised with him recently. On the initiative by nine member states to make climate change central to the EU five-year strategic agenda, which will be agreed in June, I understand that Ireland did not sign the letter from the nine member states. In this regard, the Taoiseach is quoted as saying that the targets were too onerous. The targets are to be met by 2030, as proposed in the letter from the nine European Union member states. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment will bring forward his plan shortly, following on from the all-party report of the Joint Committee on Climate Action. Will the Taoiseach clarify the remarks he made outside of the meeting in Sibiu to the effect that the targets were too onerous and for that reason Ireland could not be part of the initiative? Will he also update the House on the meeting which took place last night in regard to the appointment of the President of the European Commission, including whether it will be decided upon by the European Parliament or the European Council? Obviously, the European Parliament will have a veto but there is a lot of wheeling and dealing taking place. I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach's take on the discussions on that issue last night.

I welcome that the discussions with Mr. Tusk and the informal EU Council meeting centred on making Europe greener, fairer and more inclusive for people in future. This is linked with the points made by Deputy Boyd Barrett earlier in regard to the failure of Europe to grasp the fact that neoliberal policies have had a real impact on the lives of people across the European Union and have led to the rise of the far right. Thankfully, that has not happened to the extent that people across the European Union thought it would in the most recent European elections. However, it remains a real danger and a matter we should be concerned about. We need to ensure that green issues are considered and that greater social supports are put in place, but we also need to be mindful of public services and public transport and the role the European Union plays in that regard. This is very much linked to whether this State is Brexit ready. The Taoiseach is right that we need to avoid a hard crash at all costs - I am hopeful that we can to do so - but if, through no fault of our own, we end up in a hard crash, we are in for a very bumpy ride economically. There will be economic turbulence and businesses will need to be supported. We will have to protect our economy and that can only happen through investment in public services, infrastructure and public transport.

There is no point in pretending that we can become more environmentally friendly and reduce our carbon footprint if we do not invest in public transport. In rural Ireland, public transport has been cut. Bus routes have been cut. There are other examples of where we are going backwards rather than doing what is right. The Taoiseach said the discussion was about building a greener, fairer and more inclusive future. What substance will come out of that discussion in terms of environmental issues and making Europe fairer? If we do not make Europe fair and we do not value and invest in public services and so on that impact on people's lives and the environment, these words will be hollow and what we will see, in my view, is a continued rise of the far right.

In the cut and thrust of politics we can have debates but for the Taoiseach to say that the far right is in any way allied to the far left is completely wrong. There is a fascist undertone to the far right that is about racism and divide and conquer. Whatever the Taoiseach's views of the far left in this Chamber and outside of it, they are completely different. I do not include myself in the category of people at whom the Taoiseach was directing his earlier comments. It is disingenuous and wrong of the Taoiseach to make comments like that. It plays into the hands of those people who want to exploit other people's fears on issues like immigration.

I thank Deputy Cullinane for his remarks on the Taoiseach's comments, which were dangerous and dishonest. On climate, is the Taoiseach, in talking the talk on climate change with his European counterparts while at the same time sabotaging efforts to do what is the central demand of the climate movement, namely, to keep fossil fuels in the ground, not guilty of gross climate hypocrisy? Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the central demand of Greta Thunberg, the school students who protested and will protest again, Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth, the Green Party and Sinn Féin. The majority of Members of this House support a Bill to keep fossil fuels in the ground and have democratically voted for that legislation on two occasions. Despite the clear desire to keep fossil fuels in the ground and for emergency measures on climate action, in the last 24 hours there has been another attempt to sabotage a Bill to keep fossil fuels in the ground, with licences having been issued to two of the largest multinational fossil fuel corporations in the world to drill for more fossil fuels. This is shocking hypocrisy. The Minister's justification for this is that it will not make any difference to our targets, as if the destruction of the global climate has frontiers which stop at our borders.

The point about climate destruction and climate change is that neither knows any borders. Does the Taoiseach accept what the intergovernmental panel and all the scientists have stated, namely, that to prevent reaching a 2°C increase in temperatures globally, 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground and that looking for new fossil fuel reserves and facilitating such activity flies directly in the face of what the global climate movement is seeking?

I had the opportunity to meet Boris Johnson once. We both spoke to the crowd in Trafalgar Square on St. Patrick's Day in 2012 or 2013. He seemed to have a good understanding of St. Patrick's Day but we did not have a chance to engage much on Irish affairs. That was the only time I met him but the Tánaiste has met him on a number of occasions. As I have stated on many occasions, Brexit has not affected budget 2019 and nor will it. There was no need for a mini-budget in the past year, notwithstanding the risks and uncertainty that have arisen as a result Brexit. What we will be doing in the context of the summer economic statement - we will be happy to arrange a briefing for Opposition parties on this - is recognising that there are two potential scenarios. The budget will be introduced in October. We do not know where matters will stand at that point. We could be facing a hard Brexit within weeks, a further extension, no Brexit at all or a deal. We think it is prudent to set out two different scenarios in the summer economic statement in respect of growth, employment, revenue and the deficit. The budgetary decisions will have to be framed by that. If we are going to have less growth, fewer jobs and lower revenues-----

The Taoiseach did not say that a month ago.

-----we will not be able to have the same budget as we would otherwise. I am of the view that this is the right thing to do. It is transparent.

The Taoiseach pretended otherwise for the past couple of months.

The Deputy is not being fair. What I stated previously was that the 2019 budget would stand. He asked me on many occasions whether this would be the case. A mini-budget was not introduced and nor was there a need for one. What we are doing for next year is slightly different because we recognise that a different scenario will apply.

I did not suggest that the far right and far left are the same. I stated that, on some issues, they represent two sides of the same coin. I gave an example of that, which is opposition to the European Union, European integration and support for Brexit. I acknowledge that there is a big problem here and, in the context of racism, that there is a real dark element on the far. There is also an issue with anti-Semitism on the far left and, in my view, that is also a form of racism.

It is not. Plenty of examples can be offered.

It is nonsense; it is outrageous.

I am not saying that Deputy Boyd Barrett is anti-Semitic.

There are plenty of examples of people on the far left who are anti-Semitic.

Is Orbán staying in?

Is Orbán anti-Semitic?

Is the Taoiseach going to bring him back in?

As I explained earlier, the climate change letter was signed by nine out of 28 countries. It calls for carbon neutrality by 2050 and we support that. However, it also calls for much more onerous targets for greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 which we do not believe are achievable. We believe that we can achieve what we have committed to do by 2030 but we do not want to commit to targets which are more onerous, to which most other countries do not want to commit and which we do not think are achievable. This Government believes in and is taking climate action. We want serious climate action that works but also sensible climate action. It should be climate action that reduces greenhouse gas emissions but not climate action that makes us poorer, costs jobs or threatens our security. There are two examples of sensible climate action taken by this Government in the past week. Irish Rail began commissioning 600 new hybrid-battery locomotives-----

That should have happened years ago.

-----that it can use on our train lines as part of electrification and extending the DART to Drogheda, Maynooth and Hazelhatch. That is sensible climate action being taken by Irish Rail, a Government-owned company. Yesterday, I signed a joint letter with President Macron, the purpose of which is to seek EU funding for a Celtic interconnector in order that we can link the electricity grids of Ireland and France, so when the wind is blowing in Ireland and not France, we can send our electricity there and vice versa. Those are two examples of sensible climate action taken by this Government just this week that will make a difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

On oil and gas exploration, the Government is adopting a sensible climate action approach. Approximately 30% of our electricity is produced using renewables. We believe that we can get to 70% by the end of the next decade. However, that still means that we will need to use gas. Gas powers many of our homes and businesses. We will still need gas to power some of our electricity plants for the foreseeable future, well into the third decade of the century, possibly even the fourth. It is a transition fuel which is much cleaner than other fuels and which we will need to use for foreseeable future, certainly the next couple of decades. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledges that it is a transition fuel, as do most climate scientists. If we know and accept that we have to use natural gas for the foreseeable future, certainly until 2045 or 2050 when we reach carbon neutrality, the question is whether we use our own natural gas or import it from Russia, Saudi Arabia or Qatar or whether we import shale gas from North America. If we have to use it for the foreseeable future, it makes more sense to use our own gas. It makes sense in the context of cost, energy security and, because of the reduced risk as a result of transporting less gas, environmentally. That is the approach that the Government is taking. We can agree to a moratorium on exploration but it must kick in at a time that makes sense, not immediately.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 1.55 p.m. and resumed at 2.55 p.m.