Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh (Atógáil) - Priority Questions (Resumed)

We will resume on Questions Nos. 38 and 41, which are being taken together.

The Tánaiste will be aware that Border communities are extremely worried about recent statements that he and the Taoiseach made regarding the imposition of customs and Border checks. The Government states that it could not produce a plan months out from Brexit, which is only six weeks away now. People are asking if there is a plan B and, if so, when they will see the shape of it. The Tánaiste has stated that this will happen when there is agreement with the Commission. When will that be? Will it be next week or the week after? Will it be the week Brexit is due to happen? People are extremely worried about the direction in which this is going. We need to reassure them. We also need people to realise that there is a possibility of a no-deal Brexit and that they should be prepared for it. That is key.

I welcome that the Tánaiste recently informed the Cabinet about the no-deal Brexit plans in the various Departments. As I have mentioned to him, both privately and in public, I also believe that there is a role for the Dáil in respect of this matter. We have a part to play. Does the Tánaiste have a view on revisiting the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act 2019? How does the Government propose to keep the Dáil on board in respect of this discussion? We want to be kept updated, not only in private rooms but also in this Chamber. We need to be telling people at home exactly what is coming down the track.

The final supplementary will be from Deputy Lisa Chambers.

I appreciate what the Tánaiste is saying in terms of the timing involved and the political sensitivities relating to discussing potential Border infrastructure. At this point, however, with 44 days - just over six weeks - to go, it is reasonable to start releasing those plans and pushing the Commission to give a verdict on the Government's proposals.

One of the issues referred to either last week or a week and a half ago is that of a grace period. It might alleviate some of the concerns if there was some detail on what kind of a grace period would be involved. In terms of implementation, are we talking days, weeks or months? Discussing details of potential checks either near or away from the Border will not provide any sort of reassurance to people but it would provide a degree of clarity and certainty in what is an uncertain environment. That is what businesses are seeking.

I also do not buy into the idea that if we start discussing our plan B - what we would do in an emergency - this would somehow equate to our putting forward an alternative arrangement. The backstop is not as good as the UK remaining in the European Union. An alternative arrangement is supposed to do exactly what the backstop will do but putting infrastructure or checks in place in particular locations is clearly not the same. Doing the latter would give rise to a much inferior outcome. In the context of equating the two, I just do not see a link. With just over six weeks to go, clarity is needed, even in the context of the grace period. If businesses and farmers knew that they would have two months' or three months' grace, it might remove some of the stress.

I welcome our friends from Colombia. The Minister formally opened the new Colombian embassy in Dublin yesterday and we opened an embassy in Bogota in the past 12 months. The relationship between our two countries is closer than ever before. The Minister is very welcome. I look forward to visiting Colombia, hopefully at some point in the next six to nine months.

Deputy Crowe is correct about the concerns of those in Border communities. I have met many of them. This is a cause of real anxiety. When I say that we will not sign up to a compromise deal that essentially involves acquiescing to introducing infrastructure on or near the Border, I mean it. I say that because of the concerns of the people to whom I refer. We need to be firm, if respectful, and state that we expect the UK to honour the commitments it has given to Ireland and the EU during the negotiations. We must also indicate that we will not allow a situation whereby, in order to solve a difficulty at Westminster, we would create a significant problem for Ireland for the foreseeable future and that the Border would dominate politics here again. We all thought we had left the latter behind two decades ago. In the context of a decision the UK - not Ireland - has made, it is not unreasonable to request that Irish interests in this regard be protected. It is in the context of a no-deal scenario - when we may be forced to make difficult decisions in order to protect both our place in the Single Market and the Good Friday Agreement - we must state that we regard any arrangements put in place as temporary while we continue to negotiate in respect of the same issues on which we are negotiating now. The EU has made it clear, through a European Council decision, that no formal trade negotiations between the EU and UK will be opened until the three issues in the withdrawal agreement - citizens' rights issues, the financial settlement and the Irish Border question - are addressed in full. We will continue our campaign, if necessary through a no-deal, to try to protect this island against the political impact on communities of the reintroduction of Border infrastructure.

I will try to answer Deputy Crowe's question on what the House can do in respect of Brexit in the context of a later question on the matter.

Brexit Preparations

Lisa Chambers


39. Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of preparations for Brexit; the funding that will be made available in the event of a no-deal Brexit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37474/19]

My question is to ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade for an update on the status of our Brexit preparations and the potential funding that would be made available to the various sectors, particularly those that are most vulnerable, in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

No-deal planning has the highest priority across Government. As stated earlier, we have been actively preparing for Brexit in order to ensure that citizens and businesses are as ready as possible for all scenarios.

Our consistent message has been that a no-deal Brexit will have profound implications for Ireland on many levels. This is why we have published two comprehensive contingency action plans - one in December last and one in July - setting out the impact of a no-deal Brexit and the work being done to mitigate these risks, held over 1,200 stakeholder preparedness events in all key sectors right across the country, enhanced physical capacity at our ports and airports - Dublin Port alone has spent over €30 million to date - provided training and financial supports to increase our customs capacity, recruited additional staff in key areas and included dedicated measures to get Ireland Brexit ready in budgets 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Appropriate funding supports for businesses have been an important pillar of the Government's preparations for Brexit and dedicated measures have been made available in the previous three budgets. Budget 2019 measures included the introduction of a new longer-term loan scheme of up to €300 million to which the Taoiseach referred earlier and the future growth loan scheme to support strategic capital investment for a post-Brexit environment by business at competitive rates for terms of eight to ten years. This is in addition to announcements in previous budgets where over €450 million was allocated in business supports, including budget 2018's €300 million Brexit loan scheme for businesses.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has stated that budget 2020 will be based on the assumption of a no-deal Brexit, that the Government will make provision for timely, targeted, temporary measures for the sectors most exposed and that will involve a considerable amount of money. The Government has been clear that, in its approach to this year's budget, it is important to give certainty to businesses and citizens that the Government is prepared for a no-deal Brexit and stands ready to support the economy in such a scenario.

This approach underlines why it is so important that exposed businesses in particular prepare for no deal. To support businesses in this, we recently launched the Getting Your Business Brexit Ready - Practical Steps campaign which focuses on nine steps every business - large and small - should take now to help prepare for Brexit. At this week's National Ploughing Championships, a dedicated Brexit hub will engage directly with businesses and citizens to ensure that they are taking all the steps they should.

The straight answer to the Deputy's question is that I cannot give her an exact number. In three weeks' time, however, she will certainly get the answer to that when the Minister for Finance outlines his budget.

I have consistently asked about the financial supports that will be made available to the most vulnerable sectors.

I refer to agrifood and agriculture, tourism and haulage. I was particularly concerned last week to read the report published by EY that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, rural communities could see themselves going into recession-type scenarios. Clearly, those communities will need direct supports. I refer also to reports from Fáilte Ireland that we could be facing about 10,000 job losses in the tourism sector. We know the impact on the agrifood sector would be in the region of 12,500 jobs. These jobs are predominantly in rural communities across the country. There is no alternative employment outside of these sectors in many areas. It is really important that there are targeted supports for them. I understand the Minister for Finance will be directing his budget towards Brexit. There are concerns that he has indicated he will need to borrow money in order to fund vulnerable sectors in the event of a no-deal Brexit. I am also concerned to see a report from the Central Bank today that a third of farms in this country could be at risk of no longer existing in the event of a no-deal Brexit. There are particular problems in agriculture that must be addressed. Even though some Brexit supports have been made available, just 11% of the combined €600 million in Brexit loan funds that have been made available has been drawn down or sanctioned. That leaves €533 million in Brexit loan funding that has not been touched. That is a problem.

On the Deputy's last question, in order for funds to be drawn down, people have to apply for the funds. A lot of these funds have been put in place as a contingency measure. Many businesses now know that they exist. They may well decide not to apply for them until they have more certainty about the outcome of Brexit. Many small businesses, as the Deputy knows, are not going to trigger significant extra costs or expenditure unless they know they have to do it. Many larger businesses have already put in place a no-deal Brexit plan and are now proceeding accordingly, particularly in the pharma sector. I have spoken to a number of them. They have spent very considerable sums of money but they can afford to do so. Many smaller businesses cannot. That is why we have introduced what is essentially grant aid to help businesses put a Brexit plan in place. InterTradeIreland and Enterprise Ireland have Brexit supports to help businesses get outside advice if they need to. The Deputy is right that while some money has been sanctioned, many businesses will wait to trigger contingency plans until they have more certainty as to whether we are moving into a transition phase for the next two to four years or are going to be dealing with the disruption of a no-deal Brexit.

The other issues the Deputy raised are very fair. Undoubtedly, agrifood and farming are vulnerable sectors given the volumes of food and drink we export to the UK and the impact of tariffs on them. Tourism and fishing are also very vulnerable sectors and this will be very much to the fore of the Government's thinking as we put the budget together.

Tourism, agrifood and fisheries essentially are the west of Ireland. That is our most vulnerable region. It cannot take the hit and is going to need direct supports, immediately. It will not be sufficient for supports to be delivered three or six months after the event happens. They need to be ready to go pretty quickly in the event that the worst does happen. On the third of farms that may go under in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the Central Bank, when asked this morning if direct supports should be provided where those farms are viable, answered that they should. To get these businesses and sectors over the initial hump and to try to survive the initial impact of a no-deal Brexit, direct supports will be required immediately. It was disappointing to see that the Government line had shifted slightly. Initially we were led to believe there would be significant funds from the European Union to help Ireland deal with the worst impact of Brexit. It now appears that the State will be picking up most of the tab. Other member states will be affected but we will be the most affected. It is a reasonable request from Ireland as a member of the bloc, the European Union and the wider community to ask for support. That help and support would be forthcoming to other member states where they faced different challenges. We would not see them wanting, either. If we are to be left to our own devices and on our own in this, it is less than desirable. A strong argument should be made for greater supports from the European Union.

The one thing that has been a common thread throughout the Brexit negotiations for the last three years is that Ireland has not been left on its own. We have had extraordinary solidarity from other EU member states and from the EU institutions. That continues, as lately as yesterday, from President Juncker and the Luxembourg Prime Minister. Virtually every EU leader who speaks on Brexit talks about Ireland and the need for solidarity. In a no-deal scenario, I expect there will be solidarity too. We know that in the context of funding, particularly around agriculture, there will be a financial package of support in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Commissioner Hogan has outlined that, although not the detail of it - I accept that. We also know that there is funding available for people who may be losing employment as a result of the shock of a no-deal Brexit. Along with that, we know we are going to have to access a lot of financial resources ourselves. We are designing a budget accordingly. As the Taoiseach said earlier, we would rather be borrowing money to keep people in employment than doing so to pay for social welfare because people have lost their jobs. We want to focus the support schemes on keeping businesses going and keeping people in employment as best we can as we get through the disruption that will undoubtedly happen after a no-deal Brexit.

Middle East Issues

Brendan Howlin


40. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has written to or engaged with the Israeli Government to strongly condemn the recent statement by incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would permanently annex parts of the West Bank territory of Palestine if he is re-elected as Prime Minister in the Israeli legislative election on 17 September 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37563/19]

My question is to ask the Tánaiste if his Government has contacted the Israeli Government to strongly condemn the recent statement by incumbent Prime Minister, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, that he would permanently annex parts of the West Bank territory of Palestine, including much of the Jordan Valley if he is re-elected as Prime Minister of Israel in today's parliamentary election.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is something in which I have big personal interest. Promises made during the election campaign in Israel, including threats to annex lands in the West Bank, are irresponsible and have a damaging impact on the prospects for a peace agreement and an end to the conflict in that region. Unhelpful election rhetoric is not unique to Israel, and Ireland and the EU will ultimately judge the next Israeli Government by its actions. However, such words are not without consequence, since they send dangerous messages and contribute to a climate of fear and insecurity among Palestinians.

Annexation of territory by force is illegal under international law, including the UN Charter. Any unilateral annexation by Israel of occupied territory would have no legitimacy, and would not be recognised or accepted by Ireland or the international community more generally. The position of Ireland and the EU is clear. We will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties involved. It has long been proposed that a future peace agreement may involve some agreed mutual border adjustments, but such changes can only be by mutual agreement.

With regard to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarks last week about the Jordan Valley, I would not usually comment on what is said in the course of an election campaign. However, due to the gravity of the issue, I felt it was important to make my views known. I also directed my officials to speak to the Israeli ambassador and to request that he convey Ireland’s position directly to his authorities. In fact, we called him into the Department and our Secretary General spoke directly to him. The EU position has also been reaffirmed publicly following Prime Minister Netanyahu's comments. As set out in numerous Foreign Affairs Council conclusions, the EU will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties. The settlement policy, including in east Jerusalem, is illegal under international law. Its continuation undermines the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace.

I thank the Tánaiste for his response. The people of Israel are voting in a general election today following the collapse of the coalition supporting the Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu. Recent years have seen a worsening of the situation in Israel and in Palestine.

Arabs make up 20% of Israel's population but, with the support of right-wing and religious parties, Prime Minister Netanyahu passed the nationality Act, which prioritises Jewish citizens over Arabs and others living in Israel. The Arabic language was downgraded from an official language of Israel to one merely having status.

Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that, if re-elected, Israel would annex the Jordan Valley, which is effectively one third of the West Bank. Just yesterday, he claimed that he could annex more of the West Bank with support from the United States. This is appalling and a dramatic worsening of the situation. We may say that these things happen during a general election but they are appallingly worrying. Prime Minister Netanyahu does not just make idle threats; it is my information that the day after he made the initial statement, teams were sent in to demolish Palestinian olive groves and some people's homes. I am also informed that businesses were demolished.

I welcome the fact that the Tánaiste has acted. Will he set out to the House exactly what message he gave to the Israeli ambassador and what response the ambassador gave in justification for this threat, which the Tánaiste acknowledged is contrary to international law?

I may be wrong but I think I was one of the first foreign Ministers to respond directly, using the most effective medium available, namely, social media, to get the message out quickly. Others have also commented, although not enough people commented directly on the threat. The EU issued an appropriate collective statement of concern. I asked the Secretary General of my Department to invite in the Israeli ambassador, who is someone for whom I have a lot of time as he is a good person, in order to express our concern at the statement. I said we would regard it as an illegal act if the next Israeli Government were to proceed along the lines the Prime Minister has suggested. It is something that Ireland and the vast majority of the international community would condemn outright and would simply not accept. I look forward to being in New York next week to reinforce some of those messages. I will be at the UN General Assembly week where there will be many world leaders and I will meet many counterparts, including a number of EU and Arab counterparts, to discuss the Middle East peace process.

Let us wait and see how the situation unfolds in the aftermath of the elections, but it is regrettable that a Prime Minister has chosen to raise the tension on such a sensitive issue in an effort to get votes. I suspect that the response and reaction among Palestinian communities are of real fear and uncertainty. My position is very clear; Ireland wants to be a friend of the Palestinians and also wants to be a friend of Israel. We want a peace agreement that can work, but we will not support illegal annexation under any circumstances.

The Tánaiste has clearly set out his and the Government's position on this matter, and it is one which would be shared across this House. Has the Tánaiste had discussions with any of his EU colleagues on the matter? In the event of Prime Minister Netanyahu winning the election and carrying out this threat, does he expect a co-ordinated response from the European Union?

I am flying to New York on Sunday. I might be wrong but I think there is a dinner on Sunday evening specifically for EU foreign ministers to discuss the Middle East peace process. That is not unusual, as we had something similar last year during the week of the UN General Assembly. There will be a real opportunity to discuss these issues directly. As Deputy Howlin might know, Ireland has tried to give leadership within the EU to build consensus around supporting new peace initiatives. We want to be able to support a new US peace initiative for the Middle East, but it must be based on a two-state solution that is fair to both sides. I also hope to have meetings with the US side in that regard in New York. What was Deputy Howlin's second question?

I asked if there would be a co-ordinated response from the European Union.

It is too early to say but I think the EU would respond very negatively if there were attempts by Israel to effectively annex up to 30% of the West Bank. I think the EU would respond in an extraordinarily negative way to that development.