Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Ceisteanna (8, 9, 10)

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with British Prime Minister May regarding the Northern Ireland Assembly negotiations; and the issues that were discussed. [31013/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his telephone conversation with British Prime Minister May on 27 June 2017. [31183/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Gerry Adams

Ceist:

10. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his conversation with the British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, on 27 June 2017. [31191/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (15 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, together.

I spoke by phone with Prime Minister May on 27 June, when we discussed the ongoing talks process in Northern Ireland and our strong commitment to supporting the peace process as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. We agreed to continue to work together to support the parties in reaching agreement to allow the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive and the need to have all the institutions under the agreement up and running to ensure ongoing protection of the peace process. I reiterated the Irish Government's support of the Irish language Act and the need for balance and respect between the parties. I repeated my concern to ensure the UK Government's impartiality in Northern Ireland and noted the Conservative-DUP deal that had been published that day. I added that I hoped the additional funding for Northern Ireland would be beneficial and we briefly discussed the previous week's European Council. The British Prime Minister and I agreed to maintain close contact, including over the coming days, with reference to the Northern Ireland talks.

The news from the talks in Belfast is very bad and it appears there will be at least another two months before the Executive might be re-established and the Assembly might start to work. The only details we have are the usual wholly partisan accounts from both Sinn Féin and the DUP that they have done nothing wrong and the other lot are being inflexible. Although there is an anti-Brexit majority in the Assembly and the DUP has lost the ability to table solo petitions of concern, Northern Ireland continues to be voiceless in Brexit discussions that are fundamental to the future welfare of all parts of this island. It is incredible that at a time of the worst potential threat to our economic model, there is no Executive or Assembly in Northern Ireland.

Neither Government appears to be more than passive bystanders to these negotiations and certainly the active involvement critical to past agreements does not appear to be present.

After two Assembly elections, a collapse of the Executive and an ongoing failure to re-establish the Executive, I believe that represents a crisis. It is a simple fact that the British Prime Minister has so far not attended any all-party discussions. She has been more even-handed than the Taoiseach at least in that she has met all of the parties, and not just the largest two.

This is extremely damaging. I said it to the Taoiseach earlier and I agree with his comments that the Good Friday Agreement has to be restored as the central template through which these issues get resolved. The introduction of Border poll discussions and all of that-----

It is provided for in the Agreement.

-----has destabilised and polarised communities in the North. I refer to the absence of the North-South agenda. There was great momentum in the early days of the Agreement in terms of Waterways Ireland and all of that. I see no interest from the parties in that dimension to the Good Friday Agreement.

I speak the Irish language and I have a great commitment to the language but we need to be careful that we do not exploit the Irish language as a tool in terms of political discussions. That could be damaging to the language. The Church of Ireland has a noble tradition in terms of scholarship around the Irish language. I remember being in negotiations in Hillsborough and going across to a Presbyterian chapel where there was a 16th century bible in Irish in a glass case. There was always a strong, healthy Protestant tradition in terms of the Irish language, so we need to be extremely careful that we do not now create alienation from the language in certain unionist and loyalist communities by having this as the breakpoint on which the Assembly cannot come back. I support an Act, although we have an Act here in the Republic and the first commissioner resigned because of its non-implementation.

There are five minutes left.

We have a lot of work to do in the Republic as well in terms of having an effective implementation of the language Act and lessons can be learned by the North in terms of how one goes about establishing that. However, it is very important that a language is something people gravitate towards or are nurtured in in terms of their appreciation and love of it. Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív has done a good deal of work with the loyalist and unionist community-----

There will be no time for a response.

-----in terms of the language.

We have five minutes left. I respectfully suggest that we take the next questions together and the Taoiseach may have time to answer. Otherwise, there will be no answers.

We are all worried about the imminent breakdown in the current talks in Northern Ireland that seems to put back the prospect, because of the impending marching season, of a reconstitution of the Executive until September at the earliest. That is profoundly worrying.

Some months ago, the Taoiseach did an interview with Sean O'Rourke on his radio show during which he criticised the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, for talking in sound bites. He expressed his fears in that interview concerning her rhetoric on a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. I am interested to hear the Taoiseach's views now because I believe we are at a critical phase.

I share Deputy Micheál Martin's view, although the Taoiseach explained it was a time constraint when he was in the North that resulted in him only meeting with the DUP and Sinn Féin. Does he plan to rectify that by meeting the other parties - the SDLP, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, the Green Party and so on soon - so that all parties are respected and embraced, including the UUP, in Northern Ireland?

Some of us found the commentary by Sammy Wilson this morning on national radio jarring. I dealt with Sammy Wilson when he was Minister for Finance bilaterally on the North-South Council. If I was to paraphrase it, his commentary on any exhortation from the Republic for greater LGBT rights in Northern Ireland or marriage equality was that we are to butt out, and certainly the Taoiseach is to butt out. There are profound questions like that on which we have a right to have a view. I would be interested in hearing the Taoiseach's take on his commentary.

I will begin by thanking the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Teachta Coveney, and the team of Government officials who participated in all of the discussions at Stormont Castle. I want to commend also our own negotiating team who have been immersed in this process for weeks and months and who for our part, to reassure the House, have kept channels of communication with every party and with Independents open. That is as it should be. It is a fair ask of the Taoiseach that he would also meet with the other parties, so I support that.

The outcome of all of this is certainly not one we wanted. We are disappointed, but we are not deflected from the task at hand. It boils down to this. The DUP has adopted and seeks to defend an approach that is anti-equality. The issues at stake are issues of long standing. They are not orange or green. They are not Sinn Féin issues; they are civic issues. They are issues around equality before the law, in the case of marriage equality, or a bill of rights, as agreed at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. It is an issue around Acht na Gaeilge, for all Gaeilgeoirí. Their religious denomination does not matter. These are fundamental building blocks of identity, respect for diversity and, as I said earlier, equality before the law. The Taoiseach and the Government in Dublin not only have a right but an absolute responsibility to have a view and to pursue a progressive agenda on all of these matters.

We need to get the institutions back in place. That is still the position. The DUP has its confidence and supply agreement with Theresa May. I believe she has a very serious case to answer in terms of her role and the role of the Tories in subverting the dynamic of the talks. Has the Taoiseach spoken directly with Mrs. May on the implementation of these rights-based matters?

We are out of time, but I call the Taoiseach to respond.

I want to say how much the Government regrets the fact that the parties in Northern Ireland failed to re-establish an Executive. People in Northern Ireland voted for devolved Government. They voted for home rule and because of the parties' inability to come to an agreement, that is not the case and they are being governed again by civil servants and British politicians. As well as that, there is no unique elected voice for Northern Ireland at a critical time in terms of Brexit. It is a shame that an agreement has not been made. Talks are now paused for the marching season and the summer break, but I hope and anticipate that talks can be successful in September when they resume.

The Government has been very engaged. As the Deputies know, I met with the DUP and Sinn Féin. I am currently scheduling meetings with the other parties in the next couple of weeks. I am very keen to do that. They were invited to the official dinner last night but were not able to make it, so we are trying to find another time to have meetings in the next couple of weeks.

I have had four engagements with Theresa May in person and on the phone. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has been in Belfast for most of the past three weeks representing the Government. Both the Prime Minister and I as Taoiseach stand ready to take part in these talks. However, we agreed there was not a particular moment when such intervention would have made a key difference in the past. It has often been possible to bring the parties together with the help of funds from the guarantor Governments. The funds were made available this time by Theresa May through the agreement with the DUP, in addition to funds made available previously. The key problem as to why we do not have an agreement in the North is the inability of Sinn Féin and the DUP to trust each other. That is very unfortunate.

It is not about trust; it is about implementation.

It is at the core of the difficulty we face.