Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Northern Ireland

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

32. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of efforts to restore the institutions in Northern Ireland in view of the fact that the 13 January 2020 deadline is fast approaching; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53620/19]

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

33. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the new proposals he is working on regarding the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly in Northern Ireland; the work he is undertaking to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements are implemented in full by the UK Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53468/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

35. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the actions he has taken to encourage the reconvening of the Northern Ireland Assembly; if he has called for new elections to help restart devolution in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53482/19]

I ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade for an update on efforts to restore the institutions in Northern Ireland, given that the 13 January deadline is fast approaching. I understand he will travel north again this afternoon. I think the House would appreciate an update on the talks which commenced last Monday.

As the Tánaiste knows, the talks aimed at restoring the institutions in the North reconvene in Stormont on Monday. I tabled this question to get an update on these talks and to hear what initiatives, if any, the Tánaiste is working on to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements are implemented in full by the British Government.

Similarly, it would be timely, in the aftermath of the discussion that took place yesterday, for the Tánaiste to brief the House on the actions he has taken to date, the progress, if any, that has been made and where he thinks matters will go.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 32, 33 and 35 together.

It is clear that this is the moment to finally secure an agreement that will restore the Executive, the Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council to operation. The Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, spoke on Friday and agreed that achieving this is the top priority for both Governments. If the Executive is not in place by 13 January, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Julian Smith, has stated there will be an Assembly election. Nobody sees this as a desirable outcome. If, however, an agreement cannot be found by then, the people will deserve their say.

I met the Secretary of State in Belfast on Monday and met him again yesterday. We believe that an agreement can be found and done in a matter of days - if the parties are ready to come together and do it. The talks process initiated by the two Governments last May saw real engagement by all the parties, and good progress was made, including on progressing the implementation of outstanding commitments from previous agreements. We do not believe there is any appetite among the people or parties of Northern Ireland for this process to be extended now. What is needed are direct leader-to-leader discussions, political will and political courage. All the parties have shown in the past that they are capable of showing that leadership in the interests of all the people in Northern Ireland.

The statements the party leaders made last week following the general election results, indicating that they recognise that people in Northern Ireland want to see them operating power-sharing institutions and that they need to reach an agreement to get back to doing so, were very welcome and important. The Secretary of State and I have already met the parties separately this week and we will bring them together this afternoon in a round-table format to seek to confirm there is a shared determination to find agreement in the short window available to us. The two Governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, will continue to do everything we can to support the parties in this.

I hope the Deputies, all of whom are experienced Teachtaí Dála, will understand that it would probably not be helpful for me to go into the details of what is yet to be finalised or the compromises being discussed. It would probably have a negative impact if I were to start talking about that publicly. What I can say is that the bilateral engagements I have had with the parties and the Secretary of State this week have been good. There are a number of outstanding issues requiring compromises and help from the Governments for the parties to find consensus. I believe we can do this and that now is the time for the parties to come together to re-establish an Executive and a functioning Assembly in order to allow Northern Ireland to make decisions for itself again in so many areas and, from our perspective, to allow the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to function again for the betterment of the population of this island, both North and South.

Given the importance of the issue, I allowed the Tánaiste additional time.

It is almost three years since Sinn Féin collapsed the Executive in Northern Ireland, leaving the people of Northern Ireland without a voice in the Brexit negotiations. Since then there has been a political vacuum in Northern Ireland, and the lack of a functioning Executive, coupled with instability created by Brexit, has had a particularly negative impact on the region.

I appreciate what the Tánaiste had to say about the sensitivities of the discussions. I was going to ask him about the stumbling blocks at this point and the areas where compromise may be needed, perhaps in respect of an Irish language Act or legacy issues. It is clear that we need the institutions up and running. There is a crisis in the health services in Northern Ireland.

The UK general election results were particularly interesting in that business and farming interests made their voices known. The moderate centre came to the fore, and it would be remiss of me not to congratulate Mr. Colum Eastwood and Ms Claire Hanna of the SDLP and Dr. Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party on their election to Westminster.

I wish the Tánaiste well in his endeavours. I appreciate the constraints he is under. He certainly has the support of this side of the House to get the institutions up and running. Does he envisage the talks adjourning today or resuming after Christmas?

I believe that all of us welcome the fact that these talks have recommenced. As the Tánaiste said, this is the moment. For almost three years, Sinn Féin has worked to achieve an agreement to deliver solutions and end the current impasse. That should not be lost on anyone in this House. These solutions would have ensured that every citizen was treated with dignity, parity of esteem and respect. A lot of progress has been made in this time and a deal was reached in February. It was agreed by all parties and both Governments. Sadly, at that time the DUP leadership could not get it over the line and then collapsed the agreement. We understand people's frustrations at the failure of previous efforts to restore the Assembly, but we need an inclusive Executive that brings together parties that are truly committed to delivering good and inclusive government and change for all. Sinn Féin has entered these negotiations in a spirit of optimism and determination to restore the political institutions. However, political leaders need to demonstrate the political will to restore Stormont on a sustainable and credible basis that guarantees rights and equality for all. I believe we can do that. However, after a decade of austerity, underinvestment and stifled economic growth in public services and communities in the North, there also need to be adequate financial commitments from the British Government in order that progress can be made on tackling these issues. Has the Tánaiste raised these issues with the British Government?

Those of us who have been on the edges of discussions such as this understand perfectly that the Tánaiste cannot be completely upfront and frank with us as to what has happened to date. I think all of us wish him well in his endeavours because this really is important. We will not get back the past 1,000-plus days. It is most regrettable that we have had a shocking void in representational politics in Northern Ireland at this critical time for the island of Ireland during the critical phases of the discussions on Brexit. It is all the more urgent that we have a solution to these matters now and I hope the Tánaiste's endeavours will be successful in that regard.

I would not be as sanguine as the Tánaiste in respect of the option of an election. Of the 90 MLAs who were elected, several have already opted out of politics. There has been somewhat of a transformation in mood. The most recent Westminster elections have indicated that, and I am delighted to see the return to Westminster of two SDLP MPs and one from the Alliance Party. A fresh mandate might not be a terrible thing, but it would be preferable if we could have institutions up and working right now. We cannot get back the past 1,000 days, but all of the political parties in Northern Ireland have got a clear message from the electorate while knocking on doors that people expect the institutions to be functioning again, particularly in the teeth of a health crisis and a nurses' strike.

The Deputy will have a further minute.

I hope that the Acting Chairman will give me the time to contribute again. I should have three minutes to respond to three Deputies.

Yes, I will allow that if the Tánaiste wants to address Deputy's questions individually.

I thank the Acting Chairman.

Regarding Deputy Haughey's question, three years without a functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland has taken its toll. There has been an absence of the capacity to make political decisions, which has had a knock-on consequence in multiple areas. That absence of a united voice in Northern Ireland during the Brexit negotiations has also been damaging. It has been polarising, particularly in view of the fact that parties have taken very different approaches to the issues. The matters that require sensible middle-ground solutions will not be a surprise to people. For example, language and culture issues are linked to identity, value and a sense of being, who people are in Northern Ireland and where they have come from. These issues have always been a difficult part of politics in Northern Ireland. Legacy issues are difficult. I do not believe that we will be able to solve them during these negotiations, but a marker has been put down that this is a painful and difficult process that Northern Ireland needs to go through. However, it is a necessary process for trying to bring communities together from a reconciliatory perspective.

Regarding sustainability, there is a need to change the way in which the Executive and assembly function. The smaller parties are really strong on this issue. They are not going to go back into an Executive and be part of a devolved Government in Northern Ireland if they do not feel that their input is valued and their mandate is respected. That is an important part of what the Irish and British Governments are trying to do. To be fair to the two larger parties, I believe they recognise that. They want a fully inclusive Executive and for it to be different this time. In the context of the Executive's functioning, transparency and accountability, if things are done that should not be done, it should be ensured that there is a consequence and a sanction for same and that we have systems that function, can be relied upon and are not controlled by any one, two or more parties. These are the kinds of discussion that we are having now and have been having throughout the summer. Nothing is being rushed - we have been discussing these matters for many months. What we are trying to do now is close this out and not have an endless continuation of that discussion through the Christmas period.

The talks will not be adjourned today. There is work to do in the coming days. I, for one, am committed to working right the way to and including Christmas Eve if necessary to try to get the right result. If it is not possible to do that before Christmas, we will take it up again early in the new year in order to ensure that we give the best possible chance of getting a successful conclusion to this process and avoiding what would be an election too many for Northern Ireland. It is true that parties like the SDLP and the Alliance Party have nothing to fear from an election. If anything, they have momentum after the general election. However, they recognise that people in Northern Ireland do not want one. They have had two general elections and a European election. We need a period of stable government where parties are working together and giving leadership to bring communities together in Northern Ireland on some difficult issues. That is what the parties want. It is certainly what the people of Northern Ireland to whom I have spoken from all backgrounds want. There was a strong message from the general election to all parties - get back to work in Stormont, start making decisions for the good of Northern Ireland again and start working together. That message has been heard loud and clear.

May I answer the question on the financial commitments?

Yes, but the Tánaiste will also have a further minute.

Any part of the deal will involve financial commitments from the British and Irish Governments. The British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have spoken about the two Governments working together on a number of projects that would benefit communities on both sides of the Border. I, for one, am committed to that principle. In terms of strand one issues, Northern Ireland will primarily look for financial support in a series of areas from the British Government. That is a matter for the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I believe I have answered the questions.

The Tánaiste will have a further opportunity to respond. I ask the Deputies to keep their questions brief and the Tánaiste to keep his answer brief because we have gone over time.

I will raise a linked issue. In November, the Independent Reporting Commission published its second report on progress towards ending continuing paramilitary activity. According to it, "paramilitarism remains a stark reality in Northern Ireland" and continues to be a serious obstacle to peace and reconciliation. The commission also noted the political vacuum in Northern Ireland and the continuing uncertainty regarding Brexit alongside the increasing number of deaths, attacks and other disturbing events linked to paramilitary organisations in the past year. The task of ending paramilitarism has become "immeasurably more difficult". The report underscores the real need to have functioning institutions in Northern Ireland and to revitalise the peace process. As the Tánaiste stated, it is almost three years since the assembly collapsed. Division and discord have been allowed to fester in the absence of political leadership in Northern Ireland.

Who does the Tánaiste envisage being in the Executive once this process is over? Will all parties be involved at the end of these discussions?

It was a positive sign that party leaders came together yesterday to sign a letter to the Secretary of State, Mr. Julian Smith, regarding pay parity for health workers. I do not know whether the Tánaiste would agree, but the optics of Mr. Smith's refusal to meet the five party leaders on this issue was regrettable.

We all want to see an Executive that is transparent, accountable and inclusive. Last week's Westminster election returned an historic majority of Irish nationalist MPs. Does the Tánaiste agree with the Taoiseach that these results show a shift in the political tectonic plates? Will the Irish Government work with all parties here on a plan for uniting Ireland?

I thank the Deputy, who came in way under time.

I am interested in the Tánaiste's comment on a different form of administration than that which went before. I am not sure how more forthcoming he can be about how that is shaping up and what he envisages. We obviously cling strongly to the Good Friday Agreement because that is the underpinning of the progress we have made in the past 30 years. Any review of the Good Friday Agreement that might be necessary is something that people are reluctant to consider. I recall the lines from the old poem:

And always keep a-hold of Nurse

For fear of finding something worse.

That is all we have got.

Yes, but if we are to have a permanent and sustainable future, we might need a mechanism - maybe it is too early even to be thinking out loud about it - to review the Good Friday Agreement without undermining or weakening it in any way in the interim. Can the Tánaiste see a different type of administration taking shape within the confines of the agreement as is?

Paramilitaries are unfortunately still a part of Northern Ireland. They are a very small minority within communities and we need to be very careful not to label certain communities and areas as supportive of, or dominated by, paramilitarism. The report the Deputy refers to is absolutely right. Whatever about the challenges for devolved government in Northern Ireland, where parties are working together to deal with a legacy issue that needs a comprehensive response to do away with the criminality, intimidation and bullying of communities that paramilitary structures thrive on, to try to facilitate that without devolved government is very difficult. In many cases, that puts the PSNI in an impossible and sometimes dangerous position. I pay tribute to the PSNI and encourage nationalists and unionists to apply to be part of the future of policing in Northern Ireland. It is really important that we have that balance. What is needed here for policing and communities is to see political leaders working together to stamp out the impact of paramilitary activity within communities. I hope that a new Executive will be deeply committed to that and to working with the PSNI to do it, as well as working with community leaders which is as important as policing to bring about that change.

I need to be careful not to comment too much on the health workers and the industrial action threatened for today because the Irish Government does not have a role in policy and decision making in certain areas in Northern Ireland. However, it is very clear, and I spoke to the Secretary of State about this, that what is needed to address healthcare concerns and pressures in Northern Ireland is a health minister in Stormont who can negotiate with Westminster to get the funding needed and can change policy in areas where that is needed. There is a real health crisis in Northern Ireland. We need a department of health, led by a minister, to be able to make the necessary changes and financial decisions around that.

In respect of a different form of Executive the important point is that we try to remain true to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement which does recognise that Northern Ireland would evolve over time. What we are trying to design is not some fundamental change in direction but recognising flaws in the way in which the institutions functioned before that perhaps contributed to their collapse and trying to ensure that is less likely to happen again in the future. Ultimately, what will maintain a sustainable Executive in the future will be trust and relationships between political parties and their leaders.

Sometimes there is party politics in the way we debate in this Chamber but all of the parties are working hard to restore an Executive. That includes Sinn Féin, the DUP and the smaller parties - the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the UUP. There is no one party, or group of parties, that is trying to deliberately frustrate the process. There is a real open mind to trying to get a sensible foundation based on compromise and accommodation of other people's views that I believe this time can ensure we are not at another false dawn for a return to devolved government and that we can achieve the restoration of a Stormont Executive and a functioning Assembly in the short term.

Given the importance that everybody attaches to the restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland, I have been more than generous and did not want to interrupt anybody. We have given almost 25 minutes to the debate. That was important but I ask for everybody's co-operation as we move forward with other questions.

EU Development

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

34. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the way in which Ireland plans to play a constructive role in the EU and ensure its objectives are met now that a new European Commission is in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53621/19]

Will the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade outline how Ireland plans to play a constructive role in the EU and ensure its objectives are met now that a new Commission is in place? Will he also outline the agenda of the Irish Government for the next five years?

With the UK now due to leave the EU next month and the new institutions in place, the EU is entering a new phase that will have significant implications for Ireland.

In relation to Brexit, the Government has been clear throughout that Ireland's place is firmly at the heart of Europe. We are determined to play our part in shaping the post-Brexit EU. The Taoiseach, I, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy McEntee, and other Ministers will continue to engage with our counterparts across member states and in the institutions in the period ahead.

The European Council adopted a new EU strategic agenda last June to guide the work of the Union over the next five years. Its priorities, namely, prosperity, security, climate change, and upholding EU values, are ones which very much accord with our own values, as set out in last year's national statement on Europe. We want to see the EU leading on climate change, defending fundamental rights and freedoms, and building a fair and social Europe.

The new Commission, led by Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, is equally committed to implementing the strategic agenda and it very much informs the guidelines which have been set out for the incoming Commission's work. Last week, we saw the unveiling of the Commission's proposals on the European green deal which aims to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050. This is a goal which Ireland very much supports and we will work closely with our partners to help achieve it.

Ireland will engage actively and constructively in the ongoing discussions on the many critical challenges confronting the EU, including agreeing the next EU budget for the period 2021-27, and ensuring that the rule of law and fundamental values are upheld by all EU members.

We will continue to prioritise building new alliances with like-minded member states. The steps we have taken in recent years to reinforce our embassies in EU member states, as part of the Global Ireland initiative, will help facilitate this. We will also develop strong relations with the new leaders of the European institutions. The President of the European Council, Mr. Charles Michel, visited Dublin last month for consultations with the Taoiseach and we hope Commission President, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, will also visit in early 2020.  

The new European Commission is in place and has set out its priorities for 2019-24 which include a European green deal, a Europe fit for the digital age, promoting our European way of life, a stronger Europe in the world and a new push for European democracy. Fianna Fáil wishes the new Commission well and hopes, among other things, that the next five years will see advances in equality, strengthening of the rule of law and democracy, the promotion of sustainable economic growth, delivery of commitments given on climate change, ensuring Europe has a sufficient budget, an orderly Brexit and agreement reached on the future trading relationship between the EU and the UK.

The next five years will be critical for Europe and my party has consistently called for Ireland to ensure its voice is heard in debates on the future of Europe and on EU reform. We believe Ireland should be a leader in this regard and make meaningful contributions to such debates. The citizens of Europe are calling for reform of the European Union and that debate is overdue. Can the Minister assure me that Ireland will be to the forefront and proactive in bringing about reform measures which the citizens of Europe are calling for?

We have already begun that process. We have done a huge amount in consulting Irish citizens on the kind of future for Europe that they want and envisage. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, has done a brilliant job in leading a consultation process in different parts of the country, inviting submissions. I was involved in that process as well and I expect the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, was too. We got thousands of submissions and public debate on the kind of Europe that we want to be part of in the future. Many of the issues the Deputy referred to, and that we see the EU now trying to lead on, are consistent with that.

I refer to respecting human rights, respecting minorities, having a social as well as an economic Europe, making sure that Europe can impact on other parts of the world in terms of the value system that we advocate for and the kind of democracy that Europe is based on, supporting peace but at the same time responding to new threats and dangers in areas such as radicalisation, and trying to find ways of dealing with significant challenges that the EU is struggling with, for example, migration, in a way that is humane and consistent with international standards and law. These are issues that Ireland is comfortable discussing and debating and on which we want to try to lead by example.

It is worth noting that the President of the European Commission is a woman, the first woman to be appointed to this position, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen. Also, 12 of the 27 Commissioners are women. That must be a good thing. It must be good for the European Union and, indeed, for the future of Europe, and it is worth pointing that out.

On one of the objectives of Ireland in the context of the EU, I would suggest, as I am sure the Tánaiste will agree, that Ireland should be also at the forefront of defending European values and ideals. Europe is facing threats, both inside and outside the Union, and it is essential that these issues are faced head on. The assault on democracy, the rule of law and academic and judicial freedoms in EU states such as Poland and Hungary must be confronted, and my party certainly supports linking EU funding to ensuring that these principles are adhered to. As I say, the future of Europe is under threat from illiberal regimes, and that is something that all of us must be conscious of and deal with appropriately.

In some ways it is stating the obvious, but it needs to be said and factored into the way in which we approach our EU membership in the future, that the EU without the United Kingdom will be a very different EU for Ireland. We are losing a strong partner that has advocated on most briefs for the same things that we have been advocating for. We are losing a powerful partner in many of those arguments. Therefore, Ireland has been embarking for quite some time, because of Brexit, on building new alliances, turning friendships into political partnerships on important briefs in terms of the kind of approach we want to the Single Market, globalisation, climate change, the rule of law, etc. The loss of the UK will not simply be a financial or security one for the European Union. It is something much more fundamental than that, particularly from an Irish perspective, and we need to act to build alliances that can help to compensate for that. That has taken up a big part of my time over the past two years.

Question No. 35 answered with Questions No. 32.

Brexit Negotiations

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

36. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views as to the required next steps in the Brexit negotiations; the way in which he plans to ensure the unique interests of Ireland are kept to the fore going forward; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53622/19]

I ask the Tánaiste his view on what he believes will be the next steps in the Brexit negotiations and how the Government plans to ensure that Ireland's unique interests are kept to the fore going forward. I think the House would also welcome an update on the Brexit situation at this crucial time.

Following the UK general election, we welcome the British Government's intention to ratify the withdrawal agreement as soon as possible. This is a key step to enable an orderly withdrawal and to move on to the future EU-UK relationship discussions. The European Council discussed the future relationship on 13 December, and adopted conclusions on preparations for negotiations. The Deputy can be assured that we have been preparing for those negotiations for quite some time.

Once the UK has left the EU, the European Commission will present a draft negotiating mandate on the future relationship for the Council to consider. The Commission has established a task force for relations with the UK, led by Mr. Michel Barnier, to co-ordinate work on Brexit. Having Mr. Barnier leading these efforts is something that Ireland is very strongly supportive of. Meetings of the European Council, the General Affairs Council and the Committee of the Permanent Representatives of the Governments of the Member States to the European Union, COREPER, assisted by a dedicated working party, will ensure that the negotiations are conducted in line with European Council guidelines.

Ireland wants to see the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK while also ensuring level playing field provisions to facilitate fair competition. We will be engaged in all stages of the negotiations to ensure that Ireland's priorities and interests are appropriately reflected in the EU’s position.

The negotiations will be challenging, as is the timeline. The transition period, which lasts until the end of 2020 may be extended once, by mutual agreement, for up to two years. A decision on extension is needed by 1 July 2020, and I note that the UK may not wish to extend. In any event, I would stress that the EU will work hard to secure a successful outcome to the negotiations whatever the timeframe. Our focus will be on content. I do not believe the EU will be rushed by any new legislation in Westminster, one way or the other. The EU will focus on content and getting the right deal as opposed to timelines.

Substantial work will also be required during the transition period to finalise a range of issues arising relating to the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the implementation of the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland. Preparedness work for all possible Brexit outcomes will continue to be important in the phase ahead.

Protecting Ireland's interests will require a continued whole-of-government effort underpinned by the same cohesive approach that has characterised our Brexit strategy from the start. We will continue to build on our strong relations with the task force, Commission and member states and engage with Oireachtas Members and stakeholders across the island. I hope that regardless of what happens next year in terms of a general election here, we will maintain a cohesive approach in this House to get the best possible deal from an Irish perspective through the next round of negotiation.

The UK elections have provided clarity on Brexit and we can assume that the British Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, will secure the passage of the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons by 31 January. While this is, of course, preferable to a no-deal Brexit, the deal reached in October represents a hard Brexit and will negatively impact on the Irish economy. Following the ratification of the withdrawal agreement, the UK will enter a transition period which is due to expire at the end of 2020. That leaves a few short months to negotiate a future trading relationship which, I think we can all agree, is a challenging timeframe.

Furthermore, arrangements in Northern Ireland also have to be worked out, in detail and in practice. The revised Irish protocol ensures that there will be no hard border on the island. Northern Ireland will be de facto in the EU Single Market for goods and agrifood and complying with the EU's customs code. This is a complex and complicated situation. It will require new infrastructure and systems and it will involve increased volumes of paperwork, checks and increased cost for businesses. It is envisaged that a specialised sub-committee that forms part of the overall joint committee created to manage the new relationship between Britain and Europe will put the protocol on Ireland into effect. Will the Tánaiste give us any detail at this stage on the specialised sub-committee - who will be on it, how it will work and when will it be up and running?

First, I will challenge a couple of points the Deputy made. What is being delivered is not a hard Brexit. We do not know yet whether it will be a hard or soft Brexit. That will be determined by the future relationship discussions. What we have delivered to date is a withdrawal agreement that protects core Irish interests in key areas - the peace process and preventing physical border infrastructure. Whatever happens in the future relationship now, we have that deal done, and if there is a future threat of no agreement on a future trade deal and because of an absence of an agreement, World Trade Organization rules applying to trade, we will still have the Northern Ireland issues resolved.

I am confident that a sensible trade deal can be done that allows for tariff-free and quota-free trade between the EU and the UK, but for that to happen the UK must give reassurance to the EU that there is a fair and level playing field for that trade in terms of equivalence of standards across so many areas, including workers' rights, environmental rights, consumer protections and animal welfare.

That is what the free trade agreement negotiations over the next year or so will be about.

I am confident that we can get a good deal. Whether it will be possible to get it done in 11 months is a different question. I do not think we should be distracted by the UK legislating domestically and tying its hands with its own legislation. The EU will approach the negotiations in the way that it would be expected to, which is to focus on content and getting this right. This will determine the relationship between the UK and the EU for decades to come. It will not be rushed. At the same time, however, everybody wants to move on and get this done in a timely manner to end the uncertainty that continues to revolve around Brexit.

The Irish protocol relating to the withdrawal agreement is most welcome. What kind of trade agreement are the Tánaiste and the EU hoping to achieve? There have been references in the media to the bare bones of a trade deal that could be agreed by the end of next year. Are we hoping for something more comprehensive than a bare-bones trade agreement, with some general issues also covered? The question of the UK legislating so that an extension will not be sought in the summer is probably more related to internal politics within the Conservative Party. I accept what the Tánaiste has to say in that regard, namely, that we must proceed without that threat hanging over the EU. What kind of trade agreement is he hoping to achieve for Ireland, as a member state of the EU? I presume the specialised sub-committee will be up and running in the coming weeks.

The legislation that is passed in the UK is a matter for the British Government and Prime Minister. He now has a strong majority and can legislate for what he sees appropriate. Since he has a strong majority, he can also amend that legislation in the future if he wants to. UK and British legislation is a matter for Britain. The EU will not be bound by British law and will negotiate on the basis of content and trying to get the best possible deal for the EU, while also respecting the British mandate in those negotiations. There has been a lot of talk about legislating in a way that prevents the British Government from seeking a further extension beyond next year. That is a political decision for the British Prime Minister. Whether legislation is in place is largely incidental in my view because his decision can be facilitated by changing such legislation in the future if he wants to do so because he has a majority.

That is a British political debate. Our issue relates to how the EU approaches this. The approach will be based on trying to get the closest possible trading relationship between the UK and the EU. The latter is in the interests of both parties, and certainly of Ireland. We have a €70 billion trading relationship between the UK and Ireland which we of course want to protect.

I will conclude on this point. People should not forget that the next negotiation is not just about a trading relationship, it will also involve bilateral negotiations on fishing, data, aviation, security and a range of other matters. All of this needs to be done in a very tight timeframe if there is not to be an extension. People should not view this challenge purely through the prism of a free trade agreement.

I ask all Members to extend a bit of Christmas spirit to the Chair and the staff. As I said earlier, I granted leeway because these questions are so important but when I am in the Chair, I always strive to have as many questions answered as possible. I really feel annoyed when we come up to 12 noon and people have been sitting here who do not get their questions answered. Everybody sees the clocks on the walls flashing, which indicates to Members that they have about ten seconds left. I am not going to close anybody down if they are ten seconds over. Please try to co-operate so that we can get through as many questions as possible.