1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he or his officials have met the Sinn Féin leaders in relation to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the upcoming deadline of 13 January 2020. [50122/19]
Vol. 991 No. 4
1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he or his officials have met the Sinn Féin leaders in relation to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the upcoming deadline of 13 January 2020. [50122/19]
2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he or his officials have met the Northern Ireland political leaders in relation to the Northern Ireland Assembly. [51862/19]
3. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach the outcome of the most recent discussions held with the UK Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland in relation to the need to have the Executive and Assembly restored in Northern Ireland. [52768/19]
4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he or his officials have met with political leaders in Northern Ireland in relation to the Northern Ireland Assembly. [53003/19]
5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the leader of the DUP since 12 December 2019; and if so, the issues discussed. [53346/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
I spoke by telephone to Prime Minister Johnson on Friday, 13 December, the day following the election in the UK. I congratulated the Prime Minister on his election victory and we agreed that there is now a significant opportunity to restore the Good Friday Agreement institutions. We pledged to work with the parties in Northern Ireland to achieve this.
Talks aimed at restoring the Northern Ireland Executive started yesterday in Stormont. The Tánaiste and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will lead the talks with the five main political parties. We believe finding a final agreement on the issues outstanding in these talks can be done in a short period of time. A substantial talks process has already taken place during the period 2017 through 2019.
Notwithstanding this, a successful outcome in the weeks ahead will require political will and leadership by the parties.
The Government will continue to do everything in its power, in accordance with its responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to secure the restoration and effective operation of all of its institutions.
I met Sinn Féin along with the Tánaiste on Tuesday, 26 November in Leinster House. Our discussions focused on the political situation in Northern Ireland and on a timeframe for post-election talks. I emphasised the Government's full commitment to all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.
As I reported to the House on 27 November, I last met the DUP leader, Ms Arlene Foster, at the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies in Enniskillen on Sunday, 10 November, where we both participated in the laying of wreaths at the cenotaph and attended a remembrance service in St. Macartin's Cathedral.
I spoke to the SDLP leader, Mr. Colum Eastwood, by phone on 9 December 2019 and we discussed Brexit, the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive and the influence Irish MPs could have in Westminster. I recently met Ms Claire Hanna, MP, of the SDLP in Government Buildings. In November, I wrote to the new UUP leader, Mr. Steve Aiken, to congratulate him on his appointment as party leader and to seek a meeting in the near future. I have not been in contact with the Alliance Party in recent weeks although I spoke by telephone to Ms Naomi Long, leader of that party, on 8 October. I congratulated Mr. Stephen Farry, MP, on his election a few days ago.
The Tánaiste is in regular contact with all the Northern party leaders and keeps me fully briefed on developments. There are also ongoing contacts at official and advisory levels.
The results of the Westminster election last week have made it very likely that there is a movement towards the restoration of the democratic institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement. Immense damage was done in the past three years since the Assembly and Executive were collapsed due to a controversy over a heating scheme, in which it turns out both sides were implicated. A very good book, Burned, was written on this by Sam McBride. It is worth reading. Northern Ireland was essentially left without a voice at a very critical moment in its history and the history of the island given the threat of Brexit. It was unforgivable and unacceptable that the North was without a Government and Assembly.
In last week's election, the two largest parties lost over 12% of the vote and received a very clear message from the people that they want action on urgent issues such as health and schools and they want politicians to go back to work. From knocking on doors in Derry, that was a very clear message I received. When I was out canvassing with Mr. Colum Eastwood and my party colleagues were canvassing with Ms Claire Hanna, Michael Savage and others, there was a very clear message that the people wanted the politicians to go back to work. Because of this and many other reasons, such as the fact that the largest parties know another Assembly election would weaken their positions, there is every reason to believe there will actually be a deal before 13 January. The challenge is to make sure there is a sustainable deal. The fresh start agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin in 2015 was at the time heralded as a breakthrough and an end to instability but it was nothing of the sort. There was a quick return to the sort of secret behaviour and party-first tactics exposed so damningly during the heating scheme inquiry. The most important way to end the cycle of inaction and breakdown is to end the system whereby everything is controlled in two private offices, with other parties and civil society excluded. Will the Taoiseach give an assurance that all parties will be meaningfully involved in the discussions and that any agreement will not be allowed to become yet another closed one between parties that do not represent nearly half of the electorate? Given the critical importance of significantly improving North–South co-operation in order to make the new special economic status of Northern Ireland work, does the Taoiseach agree it is essential that we table substantive proposals on that?
Though it is not acknowledged often enough, there is another 32-county party in this country. It is called People Before Profit. We have an Assembly Member for West Belfast and a number of councillors in Belfast and Derry. Interestingly, in the recent elections our vote in West Belfast went up by 5%, rising from 10% to 16%. By any standard, this is a significant improvement for a party that organises not on green or orange lines but on the basis of socialist politics and on uniting Catholic and Protestant working-class people in their common interests. One of the key issues that came up when I was canvassing in West Belfast was the health service. Indeed, this issue dominated. It echoes the circumstances down here. Why are nurses in the North and other health workers on strike? It is because people are waiting up to two years for important operations and because they are put on trolleys in accident and emergency wards. Also, actions of the Tories, sanctioned or not challenged by the two major parties in the North, mean health workers in the National Health Service in the North earn less than their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom. Would it not be very reasonable to say the restoration of the Assembly should be conditional on increased investment to address the crisis in the National Health Service and on a clear commitment to pay parity between nurses and other health workers in the North and their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom? Pay parity is a major issue affecting people across sectarian lines in the North.
My party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, has covered very extensively and comprehensively the issues we want to see addressed in the current round of talks. I have just come from a meeting of the foreign affairs committee, which heard a presentation from the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. As we all know, the centre has provided a safe space for people from different traditions to negotiate, have dialogue, talk about moving forward and get away from the era of the Troubles. It is very important that the legacy issues are given very detailed consideration. I hope progress can be achieved in dealing with them. I represent a constituency that unfortunately suffered death and destruction as a result of the Troubles north of the Border predominantly. There was the loss of life in a bombing in Belturbet. The Dublin–Monaghan bombings impacted my constituency also. The families who have been bereaved or lost loved ones and some of the victims who survived say they are all getting older. Some say they lost a sibling, parent, son or daughter but that they are no nearer to getting justice. Many say to me they want to see some justice before they go to their eternal reward. We have to achieve progress in dealing with the legacy issue. It is a very important ingredient in ensuring a peace process that deals with the issues of the past and removes the pain and anxiety to some extent. For those who have lost loved ones, there will never be closure just by getting the truth but it is an important issue to address. It needs to be dealt with comprehensively and not sidelined.
I congratulate everybody who has been elected to the new Westminster Parliament. In particular, I congratulate Mr. Colum Eastwood and Ms Claire Hanna of the SDLP and Mr. Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party. They will now represent three Irish voices in the new House of Commons. More than ever, it will be critical for all-island voices to be available in the very difficult negotiations that will be under way.
I have never agreed with Sinn Féin's abstentionist policy. Over and over, I have heard from many in the North that when it needed voices in the UK Parliament, the abstentionist policy meant a whole stream of Irish opinion was not available to be heard. This left the gate open for extreme groups such as the European Research Group to peddle the kind of vision of Brexit it has been offering. The electorate in Northern Ireland delivered a very loud message to all the parties there. I hope the talks will be successful. Pre-Christmas talks have a history of some success in the North. I hope this will be the case again this time. I believe the issues around language can be addressed in good faith among the parties, in addition to issues concerning the sectarian conflict that have yet to be resolved and the issue of legislation being blocked by any of the parties in Stormont. All of these issues are fixable to the credit and benefit of people in the North but also the whole island of Ireland.
I call Deputy Martin Kenny for a brief question.
It is worthy to congratulate all those elected to parliament. People are pointing out that Sinn Féin did not get as many votes in this election as in previous elections. The reality, however, is that we stood back and did not run in three constituencies, South Belfast, East Belfast and North Down, because we had an agreement with other parties to have, insofar as possible, pro-Remain candidates elected. That had an impact but we are where we are. Sinn Féin still has seven MPs, as we had going into this election. It is still the prominent voice of Irish republicans and nationalists in the North and that should not be forgotten.
Support for the union has fallen and I do not say that out of a sense of triumph. This is the fifth election in a row where unionists have been a minority in the North. This points us to the kind of future Ireland we are going to have. We need to come back to that question once again and see how we can resolve these issues. The talks in the next week or two aimed at getting the Stormont Assembly back up and running are vital to that process. It is to be remembered that the red lines that people talk about have already been agreed. The St. Andrews Agreement, Stormont House Agreement and Good Friday Agreement will provide the answers to all of this if they are implemented. We are going into these talks primarily to try to hold the DUP, in particular, to task. It must implement the agreements to which it and both Governments have signed up. We understand that this is a difficult place for the DUP and we are prepared to work with it to try to find a solution. At the end of the day, both Governments also have a role to play and I know and expect that both Governments will play that role. However, as we move into the future, we need to look at what this election means. It means that support for the union is on the wane. Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland party and organisation.
I call the Taoiseach to respond.
I point out to my Labour Party colleague, Deputy Burton, that the Dáil was set up as an abstentionist parliament. That is why we are here.
I thank the Deputies again for their contributions. There is a real window of opportunity now to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Executive and the North-South Ministerial Council between now and the deadline of 13 January. There have, however, been windows of opportunity in the past and unfortunately it was not possible to come to an agreement, so it is far from granted at this stage. The alternatives are not palatable. The Irish Government certainly could not support a return to direct rule, nor do I think that new elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly would provide a solution.
Deputy Micheál Martin asked that all five major parties be included meaningfully in the talks and I absolutely agree with that sentiment. Not only the two major parties, but all of the five major parties should be included. The strong performance of the SDLP and Alliance Party is noteworthy. I congratulate all 18 newly elected MPs in the House of Commons and I look forward to meeting and working with them throughout the course of 2020.
I am sure that any agreement that the parties come to, assisted by the two Governments, will want to deal with the burning issues that concern the people of Northern Ireland, whether it is the deepening health crisis, homelessness or the economy. Deputy Brendan Smith's points on legacy issues are also well made. Again, I am sure that the parties will want to do that and the Governments have a particular role to play when it comes to helping to bring a solution or resolution to some of those legacy issues.
As far as the Government is concerned, it will be our role to support the parties in Northern Ireland to come to an agreement, a programme for government, and also to work closely with the British Government to achieve our shared objective, that is, to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland, to restore structured North-South co-operation, as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement, and also to strengthen, rebuild and renew the bilateral relationship between Britain and Ireland as the United Kingdom exits the European Union.
6. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if the policy discussions on drug gangs take place at the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services or the Cabinet committee on security. [50087/19]
7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if the policy discussions on drug gangs take place at the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services or the Cabinet committee on security. [51822/19]
8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee at which policy discussions on drug gangs take place; and when it last met. [52728/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 8, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on security is the most appropriate Cabinet committee to discuss policy related to drug gangs, as it deals with issues related to justice, community safety and policing reform. The Cabinet committee on security last met on 30 October. Separate from that, however, I met Commissioner Harris on 3 December and he updated me on the work of An Garda Síochána in respect of drug gangs.
The Government is committed to ensuring that Ireland is a safe place for all. The continued disruption of the supply of all illicit drugs remains a priority for An Garda Síochána and for the other State agencies tasked with responsibilities in this regard. Garda management keeps the distribution of resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities to ensure that the optimum use is made of resources. Record investment is being made in An Garda Síochána. Some €1.76 billion was allocated to the Garda in 2018, and this will increase to an unprecedented €1.882 billion for 2020. This investment is aiding the sustained growth of the organisation. I understand that these additional resources have enabled An Garda Síochána to staff appropriately specialist bureaus such as the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, GNDOCB. It leads on the strategy for tackling drugs and works with Garda divisional drug units nationwide in demand reduction and supply reduction at local level.
The first question was tabled by Deputy Michael Moynihan and Deputy Micheál Martin will speak on his behalf.
I suggest that the whole issue of drug gangs is also appropriate to the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services. Recent reporting about the scale and activities of drug gangs in Dublin, and increasingly throughout the country, has confirmed what I and my party have been saying for several years, namely, that there is a new and sinister level of drug activity taking hold and tackling it must be a core priority for the State at all levels. We believe the most important response to drug use is a return to the proven system of active and targeted community-based interventions. That is why we identify the social policy side of government. For this to work, however, we must also tackle the gangs spreading fear and destruction in their communities and using them as a base to grow their reach into the country.
Perhaps the most sinister part of what these gangs have been doing is recruiting and intimidating children into working for them. They do this because it spreads the legal risk and creates new networks for them. One part of the response to this issue must be to make it clear to the gangs that recruiting children opens them up to more severe punishment and penalties. Deputy John Curran, as the Taoiseach knows, has a Bill that does exactly this. The Bill passed Second Stage with all-party support and we need it now, not next year. The Taoiseach committed two months ago to looking at fast-tracking this Bill into law, but so far we have heard nothing. I ask the Taoiseach again to allow Deputy Curran's Bill to proceed immediately to committee and help ensure that it can become law without delay.
Another new element of the work of the drug gangs, as Interpol has said, is sending people down to provincial towns and cities to sell their product. This has been seen in Britain and America, in particular. The devastating impact of drugs in these communities can be swift and overpowering unless this activity is stopped early. Does the Taoiseach agree that this is an urgent issue, which must become a core priority for the Government?
Some months ago, I had the privilege of bringing to the House a large group of men and women who are involved in the Coolmine therapeutic programmes. We had a conversation about what ages people were when they started to use drugs. These are people who have devoted many years of their lives to trying to quit drugs and become clean. In a great number of cases, their involvement with drugs started when they dropped out of the later stages of primary school. They started using and running drugs from the age of ten, in the case of the youngest man, and aged 12, 13 or 14 in most of the other cases. The damage is done at an early age. Earlier this year, the Blanchardstown local drug and alcohol task force produced a report about the fact that drug gangs are now specifically tackling young children. If young children, as the lowest points in the food chain, are caught, it is difficult enough to prosecute them. It means, in fact, that the godfathers of the drug gangs get away scot free.
At the Cabinet sub-committees on security and social policy, are there any serious discussions about the incredible damage being done to individuals, families and whole communities as a result of the fact that children not involved in drugs have to be kept indoors to play on their Xboxes and are not free to go out because of the risk of their being preyed upon by these drugs godfathers and gangsters? On behalf of these beleaguered communities, will the Taoiseach reinstate community policing to ensure that it will be safe for children to play in their neighbourhoods?
Drugs gangs operate in most of our deprived communities. This is a reflection of how the Government's policy has consistently fallen short. A recent report published by the EU drugs agency and Interpol indicates that the drugs distribution networks in Ireland appear to be structured in three layers. There is a small top layer of serious players who control the upper end of the market. There is a middle layer made up of young people engaged in high-risk, low-reward activities such as transporting drugs and guns, as well as carrying out beatings and intimidation. Then there is a bottom layer comprising young people who are highly disadvantaged and who are involved in assaults and stealing, as well as spreading fear on behalf of the network in small communities mainly in urban areas. Johnny Connolly, an academic from the University of Limerick, published a report last week in which he found these criminal hotspots, particularly the one in the Dublin south central area, are more likely to be linked to small-scale drug crime involving drug addicts and the activities of drugs networks. Much of this needs to be dealt with in a targeted way but that is not happening.
There are situations where people find themselves in the grip of these drug gangs and then become addicts. When they seek help, it is clearly a health issue. They are sent to a health service that is dysfunctional and that does not work, however. This is a significant problem for many urban communities and across Ireland. These people want to get assistance and communities try to bring people forward. I have come across a number of young people who have sought help. When they go to a service, however, they find in a short time that they are back in the rat race again because the services do not work for them. This is the biggest shortfall we have. While this is about criminality, there is also a health aspect and this is not being dealt with.
I thank the Deputies for their contributions. I agree with them. This is an urgent issue that relates to social policy and health policy, as well as to security and criminal justice. It is intended to review the implementation of the national drugs strategy at the next Cabinet sub-committee meeting on social policy.
Reference was made to the Building Community Resilience report by Dr. Johnny Connolly. I welcomed the publication of this report. Dr. Connolly was a member of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, CoFPI. His report feeds directly into initiatives already under way across Government as we implement that report. His report explicitly situated its recommendations in the context of the developments within the community safety network that were at the heart of the commission's recommendations. Deputies support the commission's view that community safety, community policing and Garda visibility are of paramount importance. I was pleased Dr. Connolly spoke of the importance of the policing and community safety Bill that is being drafted, as well as of the new Garda operating model that is being phased in. Work on these initiatives is advancing well.
I am particularly concerned about children being lured into criminality at a young age. The Greentown study is contributing to the development of policy and practice in this area. In this regard, I highlight the ongoing work of the innovative the joint agency response to crime, JARC, programme, which aims to develop and strengthen a multi-agency approach to the management of prolific offenders, prioritise such offenders for targeted interventions and tackle their behaviour. In this way, we will reduce crime and victimisation in communities. As Dr. Connolly pointed out in the Building Community Resilience report, an initial report into the effectiveness of this programme has shown it is promising and can be an effective approach for such offenders. It is essential to recognise that only a small proportion, as few as 1%, of residents in the communities in question are involved in criminal activity. As the report rightly points out, we should not unfairly stigmatise those communities as a whole as the majority of people in them are hard-working, law-abiding citizens. Only a small minority are involved in crime or organised crime.
On the actions we are taking to deal with drug gangs across the country, the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, GNDOCB, leads in tackling all forms of drug trafficking and the supply of illicit drugs. The bureau continues to have significant success in tackling these issues. While it was only established in March 2015, it has already seized controlled substances worth almost €167 million, €10 million in cash believed to be the proceeds of crime, 108 firearms and over 3,000 rounds of ammunition. To date in 2019, the GNDOCB has been responsible for the seizure of controlled substances to the value of €20 million, €2.4 million in cash believed to be the proceeds of crime and 17 firearms. A large number of seizures and arrests have been made in recent weeks and months. Some of the recent successes in this area have included the seizure of approximately €100,000 worth of suspected cannabis in Roscommon and the arrest of two people and the seizure of €100,000 worth of cannabis and cocaine and €2,250 cash in Tipperary. There was a seizure by the Garda, as part of an intelligence-led operation, of €400,000 worth of cannabis herb, cocaine and diamorphine in Ballymun and Santry on 16 November. There have been significant seizures in Drogheda. In Ballymascanlon, County Louth, a haulage vehicle in which cannabis herb valued at over €3 million was being transported was seized. There was a seizure in Ballyfermot and Park West of €3.5 million in cocaine and diamorphine.
Regarding Europol’s 2019 drugs market report, the Government’s policy on drug and alcohol misuse is set out in the national drugs strategy. The latter represents a whole-of-Government response to the problem of drug and alcohol use, adopting a balanced health-led approach aiming to reduce demand as well as access to illegal drugs. While we seek to help to treat people who use drugs consistent with that strategy, the Garda will continue to be relentless in pursuing those involved in the sale, distribution and supply of drugs. Targeting the supply of lesser drugs is a priority for An Garda Síochána. As recently as 27 November, the Garda Commissioner, the Minister and the assistant commissioner for special crime operations were briefed on the energetic approach being taken by the Garda. The GNDOCB leads in tackling all forms of drug trafficking. As already stated, the bureau has had significant success since its establishment in 2015.
Deputy Micheál Martin referred to Deputy Curran’s Bill on stopping criminal gangs from grooming children. The Government very much appreciates Deputy Curran's work in this regard. As mentioned by the Minister for Justice and Equality last summer, the Department of Justice and Equality is already working on the matter. Officials are closely monitoring the findings of the University of Limerick's Greentown study. The Department of Justice and Equality provided a preliminary analysis of Deputy Curran’s Bill which highlighted some significant legal, policy and operational difficulties, including the possibility of inadvertently criminalising children. However, the Government sees merits in the proposals it contains. The Minister will engage with Deputy Curran to ensure that these difficulties can be ironed out in order to allow the Bill to progress to Committee Stage. In the meantime, the Department will continue to consider the most appropriate approach to counteract the grooming of children for criminal activity. Any solution will need to be developed with the utmost care and co-operation with the Garda, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Departments of Health and Children and Youth Affairs.
9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his plans for official trips abroad over the next six months. [50155/19]
10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach his plans for official visits abroad over the next six months. [51528/19]
11. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach his plans for official trips abroad over the next six months. [51823/19]
12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the officials who accompanied him during bilateral meetings with other Heads of Government in Zagreb. [50337/19]
13. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent engagements with EU leaders. [51635/19]
14. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the December 2019 European Council meeting. [52729/19]
15. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach his plans for official visits over the next six months. [52802/19]
16. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent engagements with EU leaders. [52849/19]
17. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he met with the Prime Minister of Finland at the December 2019 European Council meeting. [52983/19]
18. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the December 2019 European Council meeting. [52987/19]
19. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he held bilateral meetings while attending the December 2019 European Council meeting; and if so, the issues discussed. [52988/19]
20. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach his plans for official visits abroad over the next six months. [53202/19]
21. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the European Council meeting held in Brussels on 12 and 13 December 2019. [53204/19]
22. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he met the new European Council President while in Brussels; and if so, the issues discussed. [53348/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 22, inclusive, together.
I attended the European Council and euro summit in Brussels on Thursday, 12 December, and Friday, 13 December.
On Thursday, we discussed the idea of a conference on the future of Europe. We asked the incoming Croatian EU Presidency to work towards defining a Council position on the content, scope, composition and functioning of such a conference.
We had a substantial exchange on climate action and endorsed the objective of achieving a climate-neutral EU by 2050. One member state was unable to commit to implement this objective for itself at this stage and agreed to come back to the matter in June 2020.
Following a presentation of a negotiating box with figures by the Prime Minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, we discussed the main features of the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, the EU's budget for the period 2021-2027. We called on the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, to take the negotiations forward with a view to reaching agreement.
On external relations, we discussed EU-Africa relations, Russia and Turkey, as well as expressing solidarity with Albania following a recent earthquake there. We discussed the situation in the World Trade Organization.
At the euro summit, the new European Central Bank President, Christine Lagarde, gave an assessment of the current economic situation in Europe. We took stock of progress made by finance ministers on strengthening economic and monetary union.
Finally, we met in Article 50 format where we invited the Commission to draft a comprehensive mandate for the Council to consider for as close as possible a future relationship between the EU and the UK.
Since the European Council in October, I have met several of my colleagues. I met Charles Michel, the new President of the Council when he visited Dublin on 17 November in advance of formally taking up office.
I met the Prime Minister of Croatia, Mr. Plenkovi, in Zagreb on 21 November, ahead of the Croatian Presidency of the EU. We discussed the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, Brexit and bilateral relations. I was accompanied at that meeting by Ireland's ambassador to Croatia and by a small delegation of officials and advisers from my Department.
In the margins of last week's European Council, I launched a new climate action forum with the Prime Minister of Denmark, Mr. Frederiksen, and the Prime Minister of Sweden, Mr. Löfven, which will serve as a useful mechanism for our three countries to exchange best practice between us.
I also engaged informally with other counterparts, as I always do, to promote Irish interests, including with the Prime Minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, whom I congratulated on her recent election.
Tomorrow, I will have the opportunity to brief the House on the European Council in more detail.
On future travel engagements, I plan to attend the European Council meeting in Brussels on 26 and 27 March 2020. I expect to attend the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January, where the theme for the meeting is "Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World". I also expect to travel to the United States in March for the annual St. Patrick's Day programme of events in Washington DC and Boston.
Other visits are being given consideration, but at present none is confirmed.
As the first question was in the name of Deputy Howlin, I call Deputy Burton.
Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to consider the proposed new European green deal by the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen? Is he in a position to enlighten Members as to the likely implications for Ireland of this deal?
The Taoiseach referred to the WTO. As we know, there is an ongoing dispute in the WTO with the United States of America relating to appointments within the WTO. Does he anticipate that this will create difficulties with the Brexit negotiations? If, unfortunately, there were to be any kind of hard Brexit, there could be a reversion to WTO rules. At the moment, given the state of the WTO rules, I do not see how that organisation would be in a position to manage that appropriately, particularly with the very serious interests affecting the island of Ireland that would be at stake. Have the Taoiseach and his fellow European Heads of State and Government had any opportunity to discuss the notion of a border down the Irish Sea or will that be a matter solely between the UK and the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, assuming that the talks are successful and the Assembly recommences?
As the Taoiseach mentioned, there was talk in Europe of radical action on climate. However, the signs are that it is just talk. The green new deal is good on aspiration but very short on detail. In any event it was not possible to get everybody to sign up to it because Poland has opted out. When I say it is good on aspiration, carbon neutrality by 2050 is not a bad aspiration, but if we were very serious about things, we would be aiming for carbon neutrality by 2030 and taking much more radical measures than are being proposed and we would be considerably more specific in those measures. Of course, the COP talks did not really achieve much at all.
Looking behind the rhetoric in Europe, the picture is not so good at all. The Mercosur deal exposes any commitment on the part of Europe to addressing the climate emergency, because at the same time as talking about an environmentally sustainable economic model, Europe is trying to negotiate a deal with the Bolsonaro regime to import large amounts of cheap beef from Latin America based on the cutting down of rainforests, the lungs of the earth. Similarly, in this country the Government talks about climate action but presses ahead with a liquefied natural gas terminal, fails in its targets on afforestation and refuses to ban the extraction of fossil fuels. Is it a case of lots of rhetoric but not so much action?
In recent weeks I have been asking and raising with the Taoiseach the increasingly extreme stance of the Prime Minister of Israel, Mr. Netanyahu, and whether Ireland will advocate for any action against the threat of annexation of land on the West Bank. I think we can all agree that the Tánaiste's claim that his relationship with the US and with Mr. Netanyahu might lead to some form of breakthrough in the Middle East peace process has not turned out to be the case. More than a year ago the Tánaiste made forceful representations to me that we were on the cusp of a big breakthrough and that Ireland was playing a key role between the US and Israel. At the time I thought it was wildly optimistic and somewhat naïve, but nonetheless it was trying to get the Dáil to pull back from the motion on the trading issue with the settlements and Europe.
In response there have been general statements but no commitment to take any action or advocate any action. The Government has consistently refused to support the Dáil majority view of the need to act directly to stop illegal settlements from having access to selling their goods here and in other countries. The justification for this is the claim that it would infringe on European Union competence. This can be disputed, and we and others have received legal opinion using examples from the past. However, if what the Government says is true, then the obvious step to take is to seek European Union support for the policy.
So far there is zero evidence of the Taoiseach or Tánaiste advocating for a strengthened economic boycott of illegal settlements or taking any meaningful steps to oppose threatened annexations. The Government could show its good faith on this by writing to the Council and Commission Presidents, asking for a proposal to take stronger steps to block the illegal settlements from trading with the European Union. Will the Government take such action or is the Taoiseach saying he is happy that enough has been done on this issue to date?
Regarding the Taoiseach's discussions in Europe on future funding, every individual and business, particularly businesses in the Border region is conscious of the impact of Brexit. Even if there is a deal or process that works out before the end of 2020, which everyone doubts very much, contingency plans will need to be put in place. It would be quite unfair to require the Irish Exchequer to fund that entirely. We are in this position as a result of Britain taking a unilateral decision to leave the European Union. It would be appropriate for the European Union to come to our assistance in respect of that. I am not just talking about moral assistance and support, but financial assistance to help the businesses that will undoubtedly be dramatically exposed.
In Spain, nine Catalan politicians have been imprisoned because of the holding of an independence referendum. What is likely to happen with that? It is clear that the political way forward is through dialogue and engagement, in which EU leaders should be playing a constructive role. Does the Taoiseach accept that withholding voting rights from citizens on self-determination and the subsequent imprisonment of political leaders in this manner is totally unacceptable and flies in the face of the democratic principles of the European Union? A similar situation could soon arise very close to us in Scotland with the Parliament in Westminster refusing to allow a referendum on Scottish independence in any circumstances. If the Scottish people decided to organise it themselves, a similar scenario could unfold in our close Celtic neighbour. It would be essential that we would be prepared to stand up to that.
Will the Taoiseach and his Government make a clear statement of condemnation about the systematic human rights abuses in Bahrain? More than 5,000 people are currently imprisoned on political charges, with many of them subjected to torture, including sexual abuse. I will give a few examples. Nabeel Rajab was incarcerated for posting so-called false tweets criticising Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and the torture in Bahrain's Jau Prison.
Hajer Mansoor Hassan was, incredibly, imprisoned based on the human rights activities of her son-in-law. She has been spat on, verbally abused and subject to psychological torture as part of her arrest. Part of the "Bahrain Thirteen", who are human rights activists, includes a doctor who suffers from paralysis and was forced to stand on one leg while he signed his supposed confession. There is a consistent pattern of mass trials, where the very idea of justice is a joke. More than 500 people have been convicted in a process of five mass trials in the past two years. There is no freedom of expression and one can be convicted of promoting terrorism simply for liking a tweet that is critical of the Government or the ruling family. Will the Irish Government speak out clearly against this in the context of the trade mission attended by the Minister in November? It was a major trade mission to the Middle East that included Bahrain. When asked by Deputy Crowe if concerns had been raised about human rights, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, said that it was not possible to raise our concerns about the human rights situation directly on that occasion. This begs a very serious question as to whether human rights are being put into second place behind trade and profits.
I am very supportive of the European green deal. I am encouraged that President von der Leyen and the new Commission have decided to take a lead on this. When Ms von der Leyen was nominated by the European Council for Commission president she said she would do so and the President has already shown her sincerity in that regard. The objective is to transform Europe into the first climate neutral continent by 2050. The approach, and the way the President and the Commission have framed it, is a very good one. It is less in the vein of a climate apocalypse and more in terms of the opportunities that can be gained for the European Union in being leaders in climate action, be it creating new jobs and businesses, green growth, new technology, innovation and - in particular - new wealth. It is just an initial document and it now needs to be built upon and funded. I believe the European Investment Bank, EIB, has a role in this regard and it may be able to lend up to €1 trillion towards climate action projects in the decades ahead. The projects must be commercially viable so the money can be returned to the EIB.
The Mercosur political agreement has an environmental clause that requires Latin-American countries to honour their commitments on climate change. If they do not the deal is off. This is significant because previous trade deals have not included environmental clauses of that nature. It may become a model for the future.
On Israel and Palestine, I am strongly supportive of Palestinian statehood and we are strong advocates of the welfare of Palestinians. We do this in international forums, be they the UN, the EU or in bilateral meetings. We will continue to do so. This is well recognised by the Palestinian Authority and by other Arab countries. With products that are made in the settlements, Ireland intervened to support the labelling case, which now ensures that products made in the settlements are labelled as thus. This allows people and businesses to boycott them. In our view, an outright ban on imports would be contrary to European law because trade is a sole competency of the European Union.
We absolutely condemn any human rights abuses, in Bahrain or in any other country.
With regard to the WTO, international trade requires agreed rules for countries to trade with each other under a common set of principles. The WTO is at the core of that system. For it to function properly it must have a mechanism to resolve disputes. It is, therefore, very regrettable that the United States of America has decided to block the appointment of new judges to the appellate body. Without them it cannot function. At last week's European Council we expressed support for the European Commission's efforts to set up an alternative arbitration panel, interim arrangements, with third countries other than the US, while actively pursuing a permanent solution. Essentially, it is a work-around, except for disputes that involve the US. We are committed to finding an agreed solution to end the impasse.