1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with US Vice President, Mike Pence; and if the ramifications of a hard Brexit on the island of Ireland were discussed. [37405/19]
1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with US Vice President, Mike Pence; and if the ramifications of a hard Brexit on the island of Ireland were discussed. [37405/19]
2. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if the matter of the undocumented Irish was discussed with US Vice President, Mike Pence, when they met recently. [37412/19]
3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the US Vice President, Mike Pence. [37445/19]
4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his contact and engagements with the US Vice President, Mr. Mike Pence, during his recent visit here. [37286/19]
5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the US Vice President, Mr. Mike Pence. [37384/19]
6. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the US Vice President, Mr. Mike Pence. [38501/19]
7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the US Vice President. [39682/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.
On Tuesday, 3 September, I met the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, at Farmleigh House. He was on an official visit to Ireland, marking the latest in a series of high-level visits this year by the most senior figures in US politics, including President Trump and the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.
Preceding our meeting, I was pleased to host the Vice President, the Second Lady, his mother and sister for lunch.
The Vice President and I, accompanied by officials, then held a bilateral meeting at which we discussed a range of issues of mutual interest, including US-Ireland bilateral relations, economic relations, Brexit and Northern Ireland. We also discussed international trade, including the prospects for an EU-US trade agreement.
Our discussion on economic relations focused on the two-way trading relationship between the US and Ireland. We welcomed the fact that trade between the US and Ireland is valued at in excess of €2 billion per week, with over 100,000 American workers employed by Irish-owned firms right across the United States, and 150,000 workers employed in Ireland by US-owned firms. We also discussed international trade issues and agreed that an EU-US trade agreement would provide a significant boost to the transatlantic economy.
We discussed Northern Ireland and Brexit. I explained Ireland’s position and interests regarding the negotiations, as well as the likely adverse impact on the Irish economy on both sides of the Border which would stem from a disorderly withdrawal by the UK. I recalled the pivotal role that successive US Administrations have played in bringing peace to the North.
The Vice President set out the US Administration’s established position, emphasising that it continues to back and defend the Good Friday Agreement, while at the same time backing the UK Government in its wish to leave the EU. He emphasised that the US Administration fully appreciates the importance of the Good Friday Agreement. He indicated the US will continue to urge the UK to ensure it is respected and taken into account in any agreement on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. This is a welcome and important statement from the US Administration.
We did not discuss immigration issues in great detail on this occasion. The Vice President is already keenly aware of Ireland’s perspective on immigration issues, including our particular concerns about our undocumented citizens. I have had detailed discussions with the Vice President and with the US President, Donald Trump, on this matter previously. They are also both supportive of an E3 visa Bill which will expand eligibility to include Irish citizens. The US Administration has been helpful in garnering support for the Bill in the US Congress.
This visit by the Vice President and his family represented another valuable opportunity to deepen one of Ireland's most important bilateral relationships. It is incumbent on us to ensure we never take the US-Ireland bilateral relationship for granted. We will continue to have a deep and comprehensive bilateral dialogue with the US at both political and official level.
I had the opportunity to again meet with Vice President Pence last week on the margins of the UN General Assembly.
Given the number of questioners, I ask Members to stick to the time allowed.
The US Vice President’s comments concerning Brexit were frankly inappropriate, given that US diplomats would have informed him in advance of the position of the Irish people on this matter. I note a worrying trend with the US Administration’s anti-European Union stance. It is striking how the US Vice President’s support for Brexit is like that of regimes trying to undermine the European Union. On this and many other areas, the current approach of the Washington Administration only serves to prove how much the world loses when the United States turns inwards.
One issue which has caused justified public concern about the visit is that the report that the Government spent an incredible €100,000 at the Trump hotel in Doonbeg during the visit. Will the Taoiseach clarify that? It sounds like an incredible sum of money. If it is the case, it would put us on a depressingly long list of countries which have spent large amounts in facilities owned by the US President. Will the Taoiseach clarify if this amount or anything close to it was spent on this visit? Does he think it is appropriate?
During the US Vice President’s visit, it was announced by the Prime Minister of Israel that he intended to annex large portions of the West Bank if he succeeded forming a new right-wing government in Israel. It was clearly implied in reports that he expects to receive support for this from the Trump Administration.
Thank you, Deputy. I call Deputy Howlin.
Did the Taoiseach convey to Mr. Pence Ireland’s opposition to Israeli annexations and our belief that Washington needs to stop enabling Netanyahu taking more extreme positions?
In his reply today and in his commentary in the immediate aftermath of the Pence visit, the Taoiseach used what can only be described as diplomatic camouflage to respond to what were an unhelpful series of comments. The current hostility of the US Administration to the European project and to the European Union itself, along with its support for the hardest of hard-line approaches to the withdrawal agreement, are profoundly unhelpful. They are certainly not in keeping with the traditional view of a series of US Administrations of both Republican and Democratic Party hue. Maybe we need to burst through the diplomatic camouflage and make clear Ireland’s interests in these matters.
We were told by the Garda Commissioner that the cost of the security element of the visit is of the order of €15 million to €18 million. We understand this will not be met by supplementary allocation, as is the norm, but is expected to be met from the current Garda budget. This will put pressure on Garda overtime and activities for the rest of the year. Why is there a move away from the norm of a supplementary allocation for this security requirement of An Garda Síochána which could not be budgeted for when the Estimates were presented earlier in the year?
Last week, Tom Suozzi, a Democratic Representative, and Peter King, a Republican Representative, introduced a resolution to the US Congress which supports the avoidance of a hard border and protection for the Good Friday Agreement in the Brexit process. It insists that any new or amended trade agreements and other bilateral agreements between the governments of the United States and Britain include conditions requiring obligations under the Good Friday Agreement be met.
This is not the first time that US politicians have taken an active and responsible role in protecting the peace and economic stability of our island. Senior Democrats, including House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the head of the House Committee on Ways and Means, Richie Neal, have been unequivocal in their expectations of the British Prime Minister. Representative Neal has bluntly reminded Boris Johnson that Brexit is not about a return to empire and has accused his administration of collective amnesia regarding the success of the Good Friday Agreement. He also acknowledged that not many foreign policy initiatives have worked as well as the agreement.
We welcome the positive role US politicians are playing in seeking to protect the peace and people of this island. Boris Johnson should be taking heed of their words and actions. The ways and means committee is responsible for any future trade deal between Britain and the US. It is clear from this latest revelation that American legislators will not stand for any undermining of the Good Friday Agreement and the rights of citizens.
I am sure the House would like to formally recognise and commend US Congressmen for advancing this latest resolution supporting our country, the Good Friday Agreement and the people of island.
My understanding is that US Vice President Pence thanked the Irish Government for the ongoing use of Shannon Airport by US army facilities in the movement of troops. The US Administration seems increasingly hostile to the European Union and, through Vice President Pence’s comments during his visit, it is clearly siding with a hard Brexit UK Government position. During his address to the UN, the US President, Donald Trump, spoke about those who have a global outlook and those who are nationalist in their outlook, which his Administration is. At what point do we reconsider the use of Shannon Airport?
Will the Taoiseach arrange to send an update to me about what the checking arrangements for those military flights coming into Shannon Airport in terms of what is carried or what they are used for?
When do we end up taking sides against the nationalist approach the US Government is currently taking?
Recently, I was incredibly surprised to meet a group of five gardaí on the main road of the Phoenix Park.
I had forgotten about the Pence visit. It is unfair to the Garda effectively to take a significant number of millions of euro out of its budget and not provide a Supplementary Estimate for the cost of visits, such as those of US Vice President Pence and of President Trump. I also saw in the newspapers recently that €107,000 was charged by the Trump hotel for Garda food, and presumably a cup of tea, in the context of the visit. When communities are being stripped of the presence of community gardaí, how can the Taoiseach justify not reimbursing, through a Supplementary Estimate, the cost of the visits by the US Vice President and by the US President? These are important and are significant. Nobody disagrees with that. They should get an appropriate welcome. Nonetheless, the Taoiseach really got a sucker punch when, in the context of all the work done, in particular by Irish American politicians, to support the island of Ireland in relation to Brexit, the US Vice President put up his hand and said he is backing the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson, the British and Brexit all the way.
The time is up.
Maybe sangfroid is something the Taoiseach possesses but it was a humbling moment, both for him and for the people of Ireland-----
The time is up.
-----that they would walk away from supporting a fair resolution of the impasse with the UK on Brexit.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. As I stated in Wexford a few weeks ago, I felt the US Vice President's comments on Brexit, made while in Ireland, were unbalanced. He specifically called on the EU and Ireland to negotiate in good faith with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson. That should have been qualified by recognising that we had negotiated in good faith with the former British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, for two years and came to an agreement. It should have been qualified by a call on the UK Government to also negotiate in good faith with Ireland and the EU. I had the opportunity to speak to him briefly in New York last week and I said that to him. I said that I was disappointed with what he said in Farmleigh and I felt it was unbalanced. He acknowledged what I had to say and assured me that he had taken back to the White House the concerns that I had expressed to him in our meeting in Farmleigh about stability, in particular, in Northern Ireland.
In terms of any spending at the Trump resort in Doolin in County Clare, that would have been incurred by the Garda and to the best of my knowledge would relate to accommodation and subsistence. I do not have any details of that but I am sure that the Garda Síochána would be able to provide that for Deputies on request.
It seems the total security cost for the two high-profile visits this year by President Trump and Vice President Pence would be somewhere in the region of €15 million to €18 million. What was not mentioned by Deputies was that the Garda overtime budget allocated for this year is, in fact, the second highest Garda overtime budget allocated ever.
That was not known when it was allocated.
Within that, it is anticipated that there is one significant high-profile visit every year, whether it be President Trump this year, Pope Francis last year, etc.
Can I ask what the overtime was meant for?
What is different is that there were two high-profile visits this year and that was not anticipated. That has given rise to a request for a Supplementary Estimate, which we are not ruling out at this stage. That is a matter for later in the year.
As Deputy will be aware, we are often criticised by others, such as the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, and often such criticism is echoed in this House, for Supplementary Estimates and for incurring costs during the year but the truth is sometimes that happens. Throughout the course of the year, not only in health but in other areas, costs that were not predicted arise and one must make a decision as to whether one will have a Supplementary Estimate or try to find the money by making savings elsewhere in the budget.
The Government has had a Supplementary Estimate every year.
The Taoiseach is answering.
That is something we now need to work out between now and----
The Government has had a Supplementary Estimate every year.
A year has not passed in Irish financial history that the Government did not have Supplementary Estimates. If one did, I would like to know.
This year the Government seems to be taking a different tack for some reason.
What we are doing this year is we are listening to the advice and criticism of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council and trying to minimise the number of Supplementary Estimates so that if there are Supplementary Estimates this year across different Departments, they will be a fraction of what they were last year. That is us listening to and taking the advice of IFAC, which I think we should.
Or will the Government kick real problems into next year?
The issue of Israel and Palestine was not discussed in our meeting. However, the Government will oppose and object to any attempts by Israel to annex the Jordan Valley or any other part of the West Bank which we would consider to be both wrong and contrary to international law.
On the issue of Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement, picking up on Deputy McDonald's remarks, we have been very much buoyed by the very strong solidarity that we have received from quite a large number of members of the US Congress, Senators and Representatives alike. I refer, of course, to the Speaker, Representative Pelosi, but also people like, Representative Richard Neal, Representative Brendan Boyle and others. We are grateful for that support and hope it will continue. We are keen that it should be done on a bipartisan basis as well as much as is possible.
Can we move on to Question No. 8?
8. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has attended Cabinet committee meetings recently. [37416/19]
9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the number and type of Cabinet committee meetings held since June 2019. [37285/19]
10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he has attended Cabinet committee meetings recently. [38537/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, together.
In June, I chaired a meeting of Cabinet Committee G, justice and equality issues, and in July, I chaired a meeting of Cabinet Committee B, social policy and public services.
On 25 July, the Government decided to reorganise the Cabinet committee structures and established the following committees: economy; social policy and public services; infrastructure; Brexit, foreign and European affairs; environment; and security.
In September, I chaired meetings of the committees on economy; social policy and public services; infrastructure; Brexit, foreign and European affairs; and environment. The security meeting is scheduled.
I would say in passing that the Taoiseach's attitude to Cabinet sub-committees has been poor in terms of efficiency and the structures that he has brought in have been ineffective, particularly in housing and health. In particular, the issue of homelessness continues to get worse. The number, at more than 10,000 people are homeless with 70 new children becoming homeless last month alone, represents a policy that simply has not been working for the past three years. Given the large remit of these Cabinet sub-committees, it does not surprise me. There is no real back-up research under way in terms of initiatives that could change the sad story of homelessness in society which has got worse year after year under the Taoiseach's leadership.
I put it to the Taoiseach that it is likewise in the health area. The Taoiseach spoke about Supplementary Estimates. It has been my view, and it is the view of Mr. Tony O'Brien, the former CEO of the HSE, that the health Estimate has become a dark art and somewhat farcical, and no one seems to get any picture of the needs of the health service until after both the budget and the Estimates process. The Government keeps it closely guarded, gets technocratic and says that it is between the HSE and the Department of Health and then on to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. That is not acceptable. The idea that the Government will off-load the full amount of the overspend in health this year into next year for the first time means there will be significant problems for health in 2020. That is not sustainable. It is not acceptable because the system will not cope.
We already have serious situations in the health service. September was the worse month this year for overcrowding when over 10,000 patients went without a bed. Ten thousands people over the age of 70 are waiting over 24 hours in emergency departments.
I thank the Deputy.
That is not to talk about the home help situation where there are significant delays in terms of home care packages and home helps, with consequential delayed discharges of patients from the acute hospitals where we cannot get locations, etc.-----
There is a real crisis. The Cabinet sub-committees seem ineffective in dealing with the issues of health and housing.
In 2015, we in Sinn Féin published a fully costed ten-year plan to increase the capacity of the health service to achieve equality of access and to ensure it is funded on a fair and sustainable basis. That was followed by the all-party Oireachtas committee's plan, Sláintecare, which similarly provided for the development of a single-tier universal public health service over ten years. Despite the critical need for the solutions outlined by my party and indeed all parties and groupings in this House, including the Taoiseach's, the Government has failed to implement year one of Sláintecare.
There is no sense of urgency from the Government on delivering Sláintecare and it does not appear that the Cabinet committee is pushing its delivery either. Perhaps the Taoiseach can outline for us what proposals or actions the committee has advanced to progress this vital reform in our health service. How quickly, for example, is the roll-out of GP care without charge going to happen? As the Taoiseach knows, because he had a copy of our budget 2020 document yesterday, we have proposed that everyone have access to GP care, not just those with an income so low that they qualify for a medical card or GP visit card, as is the case. The roll-out of free GP care should be advanced next year with two visits covered. That is the average number of visits that people who do not have a medical card make. There is no reason the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform could not follow our lead and introduce two free GP visits for everyone in next week's budget. He should also provide for medical cards for all cancer patients and make sure that older people are no longer forced to reapply for their cards so frequently. We need to see the Cabinet health committee taking a much more proactive role in transforming our health service, as was agreed by all of us through Sláintecare.
As Hurricane Lorenzo careers towards this country, we have further evidence of the greater frequency of extreme weather events and of what the scientists tell us are the results of climate change. The Taoiseach says he wants to do something about that. However, this week - I want to ask if this was discussed at the environment committee - the Government is going to put forward a liquid natural gas terminal, which will cost hundreds of millions, to be built on the Shannon Estuary as a project of common interest on a list for the European Union to import fracked gas, potentially locking this country in to the use of fossil fuels and dirty, dangerous fracked gas from the United States for decades to come. That is being done without the approval having been discussed at the joint committee or here in this House. It is absolutely outrageous. As we speak, there are people here from Pennsylvania and other parts of the United States who have come to give testament to the extraordinary pollution, damage and adverse health effects that have been inflicted on the people of Pennsylvania and elsewhere from this fracked gas. Mark Ruffalo, the actor, has been tweeting all week appealing to the Government not to approve this terminal because of the damage to human health and the environment fracking is doing in the United States. We banned fracking in this country because we did not want those effects in our countryside. Do we think simultaneously that it is okay to inflict them on the people of the United States for a so-called transitional fuel which in actuality is every bit as dangerous for global warming as carbon dioxide when we take into account methane leakage?
Deputy Boyd Barrett is absolutely right. We need a full debate on expenditure of any moneys that would facilitate the long-term importing into the State of gas that is produced by fracking. There are real concerns about that.
I want to ask the Taoiseach about the whole Cabinet sub-committee structure. Certainly from my experience in government, it was one of the most useful things we could do. We cannot debate in detail with the senior civil servants present at a full Cabinet meeting but at the sub-committees we can invigilate questions, drill down, demand answers, bring in all the relevant people and get papers presented in advance. I do not get a sense that is actually happening but I may be wrong. The Taoiseach might dispel that idea if I am wrong. I am very concerned about an area I was responsible for, namely, public sector reform. It was a mistake not to have a stand-alone Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform because there is just too much to do for a Minister who is jointly responsible for finance and public expenditure and reform. I always believed the reform side would fall by the wayside. Reform is not simply a subject to be focused on in times of crisis; it is ongoing. I repeatedly said that and I think the Taoiseach believes it too. There are big issues in terms of Garda reform that need clear public debate, encouragement and explanation so that people can be brought with us. The issue of morale in the Defence Forces has not been addressed. In terms of the health Estimate - I think I have a fairly good insight into the way health Estimates are constructed - there is a unique dichotomy between a Department of Health which actually organises the budget, makes the bid and argues the case and a HSE which expends and seems to be outside the control of anybody in terms of how it spends money that is argued for by our Department of Health.
The little-known Department of Rural and Community Development is presided over by, it seems at times, a rather unhappy Minister, Deputy Ring. He is happy to be a Minister but deeply unhappy to have no capital funds. I want to give the Taoiseach an example from the constituency that he and I share of something that is being experienced all over the country. In Huntstown and Hartstown in Dublin 15, two community centres have recently been the subject - properly and at their request - of examinations in respect of issues like safety and fire safety. As a result, it has been suggested that significant sums are required for these vital local centres to continue to provide preschool, after-school, Irish dancing, sport and a range of other activities that are vital to every community large and small around the country. These communities do not have the capacity to raise more than €250,000 to refit these community centres to meet, correctly, fire standards. This kind of thing and other issues such as rural roads are small beer in terms of what Taoisigh are involved in. Unless people around the Cabinet table discuss and share the experiences of people who are suffering the loss of services or threatened with losing services, how does it come to the Taoiseach's attention that a simple little community centre in Huntstown and another one in Hartstown desperately need funding? Nobody in government will take responsibility because there is no venue where the matter can be reasonably discussed and proper provision made for what ordinary people and their children do.
To pick up on the Deputy's last question, the Department of Rural and Community Development actually has a very substantial capital budget. I think barely a week or a fortnight goes by that the Minister, Deputy Ring, does not announce capital grants all over the country.
He has a slush fund.
That is a slush fund.
There is, for example, a €1 billion rural development fund and he also has other capital schemes, like the town and village scheme, CLÁR and LEADER. He has made an allocation to Hartstown community centre to assist with the fire safety works. He would be happy to consider a request from Huntstown community centre for the same.
I have a letter on my table this morning telling me this will be brought to the Taoiseach's attention.
On the rural roads, the budget for roads has increased considerably in recent years. I do not have the exact figures in front of me but it is a very considerable increase in funding for local and regional roads. I think this falls under the remit of the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, rather than that of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross. The Government has restored the local improvement scheme to provide funding for roads that have not been taken in charge but are in rural areas. That had been scrapped by the previous Government.
The Taoiseach's drivers must be driving on pothole-free roads.
On the issue of Cabinet committees in general, I believe the Cabinet committee structure is working well. It has been amended slightly in recent months but, for the record, we had five Cabinet sub-committee meetings last month alone. These meetings are attended by officials, advisers and Ministers. They can work well provided there is a tight enough agenda and they are properly prepared for.
The senior officials group which sits behind each of those Cabinet sub-committees does that. For example, the Cabinet sub-committee on the environment met this week, and that was a very good opportunity to review the progress being made on the implementation of the climate action plan and also some other issues around the just transition in particular.
I know from Deputy Martin's contributions in the Chamber that he is very keen on having extra reports and extra committees, and setting up new Government Departments and agencies. While that is not wrong in itself, I suspect it might actually be concealing a lack of real policies from the Fianna Fáil Party. For example, the Fianna Fáil Party policy on education is to set up a new Department of higher education. While that is fine, it cannot set up a new Department with a senior Minister unless it is willing to get rid of an existing Department. We have yet to hear from Fianna Fáil whether it intends to get rid of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or the Department of Rural and Community Development. The same goes for the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It is possible to have two separate Departments with two senior Ministers but it is not a serious suggestion if one is not willing to say which of the existing Departments one would downgrade.
We have already published our position on that.
I thank the Taoiseach. We move to Question No. 11.
I will look up which Department the Labour Party wishes to abolish or downgrade.
The Taoiseach should concentrate on his own policy.
Even more recently, the response by Fianna Fáil to the appalling attack on Kevin Lunney was to set up a new agency. I do not think that is much of a policy, quite frankly.
The Taoiseach should not be flippant about that. It is a serious issue.
It is a serious issue and it requires a better response. What it requires is the response we are getting from Government, which is more gardaí and an armed support unit in the Border region, and much more co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána. The solution is not setting up another agency, it really is not.
The Taoiseach is wrong.
In regard to the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services, the last meeting of that committee was held only last month and it reviewed progress being made in regard to the implementation of Sláintecare. That goes to the Cabinet committee first and then the quarterly report goes to Cabinet. That indicates the good progress that is being made and it will be published quite soon.
In terms of Government policy on extending free GP care, as has been indicated already, we intend to extend it to all seven and eight year olds next year, around July, and to all nine and ten year olds the year after, adding two years in a stepwise fashion. I think it is important to do it gradually because we do not want to overwhelm GP surgeries with extra attendees. We know from the extension to the under sixes that there was a very considerable increase in attendances when it was made free, so we need to do it bit by bit.
Extending it to seven and eight year olds is, of course, in addition to groups that have already been brought in, such as the over 70s and the under sixes in coalition with Labour Party, and in coalition with the Independents, to carers, in regard to the higher income limits for the GP visit card and to all children in receipt of disability care allowance.
We must move on to the next question.
Can I have an answer on LNG?
I want to make the point to Members, with all due respect-----
With all due respect to everyone, this is meant to be questions to the Taoiseach. If Members avail of the opportunity to make long speeches, the time is not left for the Taoiseach to reply. I am entirely in your hands. Can we now-----
The Taoiseach asked questions of the Opposition.
They never get answered.
As far as I can observe, we have a minute and a half of commentary rather than a minute and a half of questions. Can we go on to Question No. 11, please?
Can I have a brief answer to my question?
No, you cannot. We are moving to Question No. 11.
I will tell you what we will do. Will we forget about Question No. 11 and keep going on this?
I just want a brief answer.
We are out of time. Does the Taoiseach want to say something briefly?
The question the Deputy asked was whether the LNG terminal was discussed at the Cabinet committee. It was not. My understanding is that the LNG terminal could be used to receive fracked gas, but not necessarily or exclusively. It could receive any liquefied natural gas so it could be used to receive gas transported by sea that is not fracked.
That is not acceptable.
11. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has met or spoken to the leader of the UK Labour Party recently. [37417/19]
12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he has met or spoken to the leader of the UK Labour Party. [38538/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 12 together.
As I reported to the House on 19 June, I met with the leader of the British Labour Party, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, MP, in Government Buildings on Thursday, 30 May 2019. Mr. Corbyn was accompanied by Tony Lloyd, MP, shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and several advisers. We discussed Northern Ireland, Brexit and the current political situation in Westminster. Discussions on Northern Ireland focused principally on the need to restore a power-sharing Executive and the importance of ongoing engagement with all political parties in the North. Mr. Corbyn and I also considered Brexit, with both of us sharing serious concerns about no deal and its inherent dangers, including the possibility that the UK may end up in a no-deal situation by default unless alternatives are pursued. We also discussed the importance of avoiding any return to a hard border on the island of Ireland. We agreed to stay in touch with regard to both Northern Ireland and Brexit.
Did the Taoiseach ask the leader of the Labour Party why he did not support the withdrawal agreement and why he did not facilitate the passage of that through Westminster? While I accept his good faith in terms of the Good Friday Agreement, it has to be said that his position on Brexit has not been constructive and has not really contributed to a resolution of the issue.
The reports last evening in regard to Boris Johnson's proposals confirm that, again, there is a lack of understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland. I think his attendance, with his party members shouting "No surrender", at a fringe event last evening was not good in terms of the future of this island and the relationships and sets of relationships in Northern Ireland or on the island itself.
It is being reported that an aide to Mr. Johnson came to Dublin in the last 48 hours to brief the Taoiseach and the Government. I would appreciate if the Taoiseach would confirm whether there was a verbal briefing from an aide to Prime Minister Johnson on the proposals that have been leaked and that he is about to announce today, on the basis that what has been leaked - separate customs, VAT zones, a time limit on regulatory alignment and, essentially, the UK having a veto on everything - does not represent a serious proposal. The Taoiseach might indicate if it is true that, in the last 48 hours, he was briefed on this proposal.
When we look at the mob scenes at the DUP meeting and Boris Johnson being part of that mob last night, and we consider that Johnson is clearly willing risk everything in this country, economically and politically, I think people should be a little less keen to join in the sort of Johnson-type attacks on Jeremy Corbyn. There are a few things we know about Jeremy Corbyn. First, he is very committed to peace on this island and to Ireland in general, and he takes these issues very seriously. Unlike Johnson, he does not want a race to the bottom, not just for the North but he does not want a race to the bottom for Britain in the context of exit. He has said that he wants to remain in the customs union, so many of the problems Johnson's version of exit would cause would not even be at stake if we had a Corbyn government.
Is it not the fact, whatever the Taoiseach might think about him ideologically and all the rest of it, that in the context where a general election is now looming and, indeed, may be the only way we can actually stop a hard Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn is the best of all options available in terms of the outcome of the British general election?
I ask that we take a 30-second question from each of the remaining speakers, which will give us a chance to get a response from the Taoiseach. I call Deputy McDonald.
Certainly. I want to place on record, lest there be any misunderstanding, that Boris Johnson's behaviour is not driven by ignorance. It is not that, as Deputy Martin suggests, he does not understand. Boris Johnson understands full well the consequences of his recklessness. It is not ignorance of Ireland; it is more belligerence towards Ireland, North and South, that is at play, and I want to place that on the record as we await whatever proposals he may publish this afternoon.
I too met with Jeremy Corbyn when he was here in May and, of course, I met him last weekend at the British Labour Party conference. I also met Tom Watson, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and Tony Lloyd, who was actually on his way to the United States to meet congressional friends of Ireland. The British Labour Party position is that whatever emerges in negotiations should be put to the people by way of a referendum, with the option to remain.
That is a good position for Ireland because although this House have voted for the backstop, and the Labour Party strongly supports it, it will always be second best to the United Kingdom not exiting the European Union. We should not yield that position. If there is a general election in Britain, that possibility might re-emerge. I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's view on this matter.
The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government recently gave an interview to Village magazine in which he expressed his admiration for Boris Johnson. The Taoiseach could say, and I would expect him to suggest, that for people on the left in Ireland, Jeremy Corbyn is a problem. For people on the right such as those in Fine Gael, a party which has shown admiration for him, Boris Johnson is a nightmare because he is recklessly destructive of the interests of the island of Ireland, North and South. The Taoiseach should therefore not go point-scoring on this. Jeremy Corbyn and, in particular, Keir Starmer have put forward very well-thought-out proposals as to how Brexit-----
I thank the Deputy. Her time is up. May we hear the Taoiseach's response, please?
-----can be handled in a way that would not be destructive of Ireland, North and South.
Deputy Micheál Martin asked me whether I asked Jeremy Corbyn why he did not support the withdrawal agreement. I did do so, and he essentially explained that the Labour Party wanted a different and closer relationship with the EU than that envisaged in the withdrawal agreement and the joint political declaration. Specifically, the Labour Party wants the UK to be part of some kind of customs union with the European Union and to have a say in that and wants a close relationship with the Single Market. Again, however, this is very much a cherry-picking kind of relationship. As Taoiseach and Head of Government, I will work with whoever is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Britain is on its third Prime Minister since the last general election here. We worked with David Cameron, we worked with Theresa May and we have worked with Boris Johnson. If Jeremy Corbyn or anyone else were to become Prime Minister, we would work with him or her too. That is our duty and obligation and it is exactly what we will do.
I can confirm that two of Prime Minister Johnson's aides visited Dublin and came yesterday morning to Government Buildings, where they gave my officials and advisers a verbal briefing on the UK Government's proposals. No documents were exchanged, however, and we will have to see what those proposals are later today. I intend to speak to Prime Minister Johnson this evening by telephone. I do not want to comment on any proposals being produced today until I have had a chance to see them and study them.
The Taoiseach knows what they are, though.
What we are hearing is certainly not encouraging and, in my view, would not be the basis for an agreement, sadly. We want there to be a deal and an agreement and we will work until the last moment to secure an agreement, but not at any cost. We are ready for no-deal if that is what the British decide. However, I ask everybody in the British Government and the British political establishment to listen to all the people of Northern Ireland and not any one party. The people of Northern Ireland voted by a clear majority against Brexit, the majority of Members of the Stormont Assembly support the backstop, and the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland do not want customs posts between the North and the South.