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Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 22 November 2017

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Gerry Adams

Ceist:

1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council. [47839/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister Rajoy recently. [48168/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

3. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brokenshire's comments on the possible reintroduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland. [48974/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Gerry Adams

Ceist:

4. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he has had engagement with the Prime Minister of Spain, Mr. Mariano Rajoy, recently. [49003/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the latest British-Irish Council meeting. [49072/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council in Jersey. [49109/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Gerry Adams

Ceist:

7. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his conversation with the British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, on 17 November 2017. [49290/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (12 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.

On Brexit, I said that greater clarity and confidence regarding how a hard border is to be avoided was needed before we could say sufficient progress had been made to allow negotiations to move to phase 2. As I have said before, protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process is a priority, not just for Ireland but also for all remaining 27 member states. Given that the UK Government has said the UK should leave the Single Market and the customs union, the onus is on it to indicate how the commitment to avoiding a hard border is to be realised within the parameters it has set.

I engaged informally with Prime Minister Rajoy at the European Council in October and at the social summit in Gothenburg on 17 November. I have not yet had a formal bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister, but I look forward to having a chance to have more detailed engagement in the near future.

Ongoing political engagement with our EU and international partners remains crucial, especially as negotiations on Brexit proceed. I will, of course, see many of my EU counterparts in the margins of the EU-Africa summit next week.

I attended my first British-Irish Council summit in Jersey on Friday, 10 November. It was hosted by Chief Minister of Jersey, Senator Ian Gorst. The summit provided a useful opportunity for me to engage with the Heads of the devolved Administrations across these islands. The summit focused on key political developments for all member Administrations, including the current political situation in Northern Ireland and the ongoing implications of Brexit.

I expressed my regret that the Northern Ireland Executive was not represented at political level at the summit meeting. I briefed the council on our efforts in supporting and facilitating talks between the parties over many months and reaffirmed our commitment to continuing to work with the British Government and the parties to support the resumption of power-sharing in Northern Ireland as soon as possible.

We discussed the common travel area, border and customs arrangements, and the transition to a post-Brexit environment for all member Administrations. The discussions looked ahead to the next European Council meeting, in December. It will determine whether the Brexit discussions can progress to the next phase.

We touched briefly on the recent press coverage of the Paradise Papers.

There was also a discussion on the creative industries, at which the Irish Government was represented by the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh. The results of a data-sharing and measurement report produced by the British-Irish Council Creative Industries work sector indicates that this is an area that contributes approximately £98.8 billion per year to the economies of the eight Administrations.

On a point of order, the group includes questions on the British-Irish Council meeting, engagement with the British Prime Minister and engagement with the Prime Minister of Spain. It is very difficult to take all those together. I do not know what logic possessed someone to group them.

I agree.

We met yesterday the British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May. We raised with her a range of matters in respect of the current efforts to restore the political institutions. One matter in particular that we raised with her, and that I want to raise with the Taoiseach this afternoon, is the decision the British Government has taken to include a statute of limitations or a proposal for amnesty covering all Troubles-related incidents involving British Crown forces in a new section in its consultation document, to be published shortly, on the Stormont House Agreement Bill.

We have lost count of the number of meetings we have had with British Government officials on matters pertaining to the Stormont House Agreement. At no stage was a statute of limitations or an amnesty mentioned by any of them as a possibility. Can the Taoiseach confirm that the Irish Government was also unaware of the British Government's intention to include this new section on legacy? This unilateral decision by the British Government is, I believe, in breach of the Good Friday Agreement and certainly of the Stormont House Agreement, which specifically dealt with legacy issues. It is worth recording for the House that, on reaching the latter agreement, it was possible for all parties to agree the mechanisms for truth recovery and legacy. That was a very important development. Does the Taoiseach share my view that the British Government's approach is unacceptable? It is evidence of bad faith in the midst of our efforts to restore the institutions.

The Sinn Féin delegation also told Ms May that direct rule is not an option and that she needs to look to the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement for the establishment of the Intergovernmental Conference involving the Irish and British Governments. In this respect, I welcome the Taoiseach's statement yesterday that, in the absence of an agreement on the institutions, he will be seeking a convening of the Intergovernmental Conference in the new year. What was the British Prime Minister's response to this proposal when the Taoiseach spoke to her last week in Gothenburg?

It is difficult to take three separate questions in one follow-up question.

On the British-Irish Council and the division between Governments on core objectives, the mounting evidence is that we are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis. Over the past week, it has become absolutely clear that there is no effective working relationship between the two Governments. The extent to which they are talking at each other through the media is increasing by the day.

I saw a bit more of that last evening at a function. In addition to a crisis with the Good Friday Agreement, we have the disaster of a chaotic Brexit process. Nearly a year and a half after the Brexit vote, nothing is clear and fears are increasing. On Saturday night Deputy Adams said Brexit was a unique and historic threat to Northern Ireland, yet he and his party still see no reason to allow the Remain majority in the North to have a voice in the debate.

However, there is an even bigger concern, which is that it no longer seems as if the Government and the British Government have any sort of constructive relationship and are failing to engage properly with each other. I would like answers to the specific questions I pose. Legislation currently before the House of Commons has major implications for Ireland. Will the Taoiseach tell us whether he has made any submission to the British Government concerning the operations of the Good Friday Agreement post Brexit? For example, this week amendments concerning European human rights law are being debated, something which is directly relevant to the foundations of the agreement. What has the Taoiseach said to Prime Minister May about that? There has also been an attempt to introduce unilaterally what is being termed a security forces amnesty in other legislation. Has the Taoiseach been consulted on that? If so, what did he say? On the broader issue of the relationship, I get the sense that it is deteriorating week by week and that we are into a megaphone phase of engagement on Brexit, which ultimately and in the long term may not be to the benefit of anybody. We need to reflect on that and the Government needs to reflect on that.

On Catalonia and the question on Mr. Rajoy, the fundamental point is that a de-escalation of that crisis is in everybody's interest. The idea that a partial referendum where 38% of the population voted is the final word or equally that the democratic leaders should be in prison are both unacceptable positions. We need respect for the fact that neither side has clear legitimacy in terms of the wishes of the people. Catalonian republicanism is not a violent republicanism. It has never had to suffer from any type of illegitimate campaign of violence inflicted, for example, on the Irish people by what I would consider a minority at that time. No one needs to waste years persuading people not to kill each other or to stop gangster-style enforcement of loyalty. The Catalonians, irrespective of the sides they take, have been very democratic. There is a need for dialogue and the Taoiseach should emphasise that when he meets the Spanish Prime Minister and urge a legitimate settlement between Catalonia and the rest of Spain through negotiated dialogue.

The Taoiseach is in a very challenging period as we move to decisions potentially being made in respect of Britain's relationship with the EU and almost certain withdrawal in terms of the current Government, but I still hope the British people might ultimately be in a position to rethink that. At the end of the day this will come down to the Taoiseach being on his own in a room with 27 other Heads of Government and he will have choices to make. I think it would be the wish of everybody here in the Dáil to see those choices made as well as possible in the interests of the Irish people, the island as a whole, South as well as North, and also to move the country to a better place. I appreciate that it is a very difficult and in a way a lonely decision-making process that the Taoiseach approaches but he needs to share more with the Dáil about what his key elements are. The Belfast Agreement, as an international agreement, offers a great deal of flexibility. Does the Taoiseach see more opportunity at this point in both the North-South relationship but also in terms of the Intergovernmental Conference process and the east-west relationship. I read the remarks yesterday of the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. To be honest, his whole approach to Britain leaving the EU seems to have more to do with Bertie Wooster, Lord Peter Wimsey, “It’ll Be Alright on the Night”, and we are all good guys and girls and sure the Irish people are lovely.

This is the author of the article about the square banana in his days as a correspondent in Brussels. He may well have been the inventor of it. Will the Taoiseach produce a paper on the options, choices and objectives the Government identifies in addressing the next stage of decision-making which is coming down the road? Has he given any thought to the Intergovernmental Conference? I know he is supportive of the Northern institutions recommencing. I hope Sinn Féin will reconsider its position in order that we can have a Northern Executive. Will the Taoiseach comment on those issues, please?

My colleague, Deputy Burton, has given a fair character assessment of the British Foreign Secretary. My concern is that the general views of the British Government, as presented in terms of the solutions for Ireland when Britain exits the European Union, are completely unformed. That is profoundly worrying. Deputy Martin is correct. The necessity of demanding focus has caused strains between the Irish and British Governments.

The Taoiseach was correct last weekend to be crystal clear on what is acceptable to Ireland. It is time now to require clarity from the British side. Generalisms will not suffice. I offer the Taoiseach the support of my party in pursuing that line of clarity. It is right for this country and it is right to demand that level of clarity. I have no doubt the Irish Government will come under pressure between now and the date of the next European Council meeting from people who are now all aligned with the Irish position in phase 1 but who will anxiously want to get into phase 2. I hope the Taoiseach will steadfastly maintain a position that it is impossible to move on to phase 2 without a definitive, clear, written understanding of how the Border issues on the island of Ireland are to be resolved.

I wish to ask the Taoiseach a second question. It is an odd amalgam of questions. On the British-Irish Council meeting, the Taoiseach indicated that he discussed the Paradise Papers. The Isle of Man and Jersey in particular facilitate tax avoidance. Will the Taoiseach expand on the nature of those discussions? Some of the British dependencies have very peculiar legal structures. The Isle of Man, for example, is not part of the United Kingdom. Are the islands subject to the OECD base erosion and profit shifting, BEPS, process? Will they automatically share tax information, as 102 countries intend to do by next year with the revenue authorities of other countries? If they do not, could we have a process that would require them to do that?

On the issue of the Brexit negotiations I wish to add the voice of our party to what I hear is a fairly unanimous agreement on the approach in terms of the need to use the end of the first phase of negotiations to try to get as much clarity as possible on how we maintain a completely frictionless border. Our party supports the Taoiseach in the approach he is taking with the British Government despite the kickback he is getting from that side.

I would like to know the detail of what exactly we are looking for in terms of written commitment. What exactly is the Taoiseach seeking that would allow him to agree to move on to phase 2? I do not know if he can articulate that here. If not, he should be open to the possibility of using side meetings, as we did in the past, on the Brexit process in order that we maintain a well-informed, collective and committed agreement to the approach that is being taken. That would help us in Europe because we can keep our European colleagues briefed and supportive of the approach that is being taken. In the case of my party I refer to the European Green Party. That will not be easy.

I was slightly confused by what was said last week because in the previous week the Taoiseach said he was confident the talks would move on to the second phase. How can we be so confident of that if, as it seems, we are so uncertain about the British position with regard to the Border?

How does the Taoiseach explain the difference that has occurred in the past two weeks in terms of the sense of what is possible?

The time has been 15 minutes. I presume we will make it up as we go along. We may have to forfeit some minutes elsewhere. Taoiseach, you have numerous questions to answer.

A question was asked about legacy issues. There are no amnesties from prosecution provided for in the Good Friday Agreement or any subsequent agreements, including the Stormont House Agreement. The Government has been clear that it would not look favourably on any proposal to introduce such a measure for State or non-State actors. Our position is and will remain that the rule of law, including the requirement under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights for effective investigations of unlawful killings, must be upheld by all responsible authorities.

The Government will continue to engage with the British Government and the political parties to seek an urgent move forward on legacy issues by establishing the Stormont House framework in a manner that will meet the legitimate needs and expectations of all victims and survivors as well as contribute to the broader societal reconciliation as an integral part of the peace process. The legacy process should not be about seeking to find an artificial balance or equivalence in investigations but rather about ensuring that we have a comprehensive approach.

I was asked about the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. As I informed the House yesterday, in my meeting with the UK Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and her team on Friday morning in Gothenburg, I indicated that we would seek a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in the new year should the DUP and Sinn Féin be unable to form an Executive before then. We did not agree a date for the meeting but it is fair to say that our request is in the context of an international agreement - the Good Friday Agreement or Belfast Agreement. I can see no reason it would be refused. It is simply going to be a case of setting a date.

The view the Government is taking, which I imagine everyone in the House will support, is that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference deals with matters that are not devolved. If nothing is devolved, then the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, by definition, deals with all matters. That is the approach we are taking. Naturally, both governments would prefer if it was possible for the DUP and Sinn Féin to form an Executive. However, if that is not the case, then the governments will meet to implement the Good Friday Agreement in the absence of the political parties in Northern Ireland.

Reference was made to the relationship between the British and Irish Governments. Personal relations are very good. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, has had any number of meetings with other Ministers, including the UK Foreign Secretary, Mr. Johnson, recently. It was a long meeting. I have met and spoken to the UK Prime Minister, Mrs. May, probably on more occasions than I can count in what has only been a six-month period in office. At official level there is deep engagement all the time. Often this goes on behind the scenes with those involved trying to understand each other's positions. The difficulty is not so much one of relations or relationships but rather the enormous policy gap that now exists between a United Kingdom Government that wants to leave the European Union - it seems to be pursuing a hard Brexit policy by leaving the Single Market and customs union - and an Irish Government that accepts the decision the UK people have made but wants to protect our national interests, not only those relating to trade between Britain and Ireland but our national interests in respect of Northern Ireland as well.

We always explain in meetings that for many people in the European Union these talks might be about the financial settlement or economics, but for us it is about far more than that. Back 100 years ago our island was partitioned. We have spent the past 20 years trying to remove borders and bring people together in Northern Ireland as well as bringing Northern Ireland closer to Ireland while respecting the constitutional settlement. This is potentially a really major step backwards of historical significance. For us, this is about far more than trade, the economy and money. It is about far greater, deeper, bigger and historical issues. I think that is understood but I am surprised it was not understood from the outset by more people.

I agree absolutely with Deputy Martin that we need de-escalation of tensions in Catalonia. There should be no violence either from people calling for independence or from state actors. I agree with Deputy Martin's sentiment that a referendum in which only 38% of the electorate voted for independence should not be the final say on the matter. We need dialogue. I understand that elections are now planned. I hope those elections proceed as normal.

I wish to pick up on the questions from Deputies Burton and Howlin. We have a paper. It was published some months ago under the former Prime Minister, Deputy Kenny. We do not need to update it greatly because things have not moved on all that much from what was set out in that paper in terms of options, our priorities and the potential consequences.

We have also set out clearly our objectives, including the objective to retain the common travel area and all the associated rights, in particular rights of British and Irish citizens to live, work, study as well as access welfare, housing and education in both countries as though we were citizens of both. We want the Good Friday Agreement to be honoured and implemented. A mapping exercise has been done on all the different areas of North-South co-operation. We want funding to be retained for PEACE and INTERREG programmes. We are seeking a transition period in order that business, individuals and families can adapt to any permanent changes that may arise. We want a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom in order that our farmers, businesses and exporters can continue to trade as they do now. We also want the commitments that we have been given on the Border from the UK Government to the effect that there will not be a hard border, that there will not be any physical infrastructure on the Border and that any border will be frictionless and seamless, to be written down in such a way that we know the parameters for the phase 2 discussion. The way I have explained it in media interviews with the British press and, more important, in my conversations with the British Prime Minister and her team is that we accept that the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. That is a decision of the British people. However, the British Government has made a further decision to take the Single Market and the customs union off the table before we enter phase 2 talks on the new relationship. The British Government has taken a political decision to narrow the parameters for the talks on trade and the new relationship. We want the parameters narrowed as well. What we want is to have the parameters narrowed in such a way that assures us that we will not have a return to the borders of the past, to use that particular language. Again, that is set out in the European Commission task force paper in respect of how we believe that can be achieved. The text is in the final paragraph. We think it can be best achieved if the United Kingdom, either on behalf of all of the UK or on behalf of Northern Ireland, commits to regulatory equivalence, that is to say, that we will operate the same rules and regulations. Without doing that, it is almost impossible to avoid some form of hard border.

That is our position. It is the position not only of the Irish Government but of the EU 27. We are awaiting a response from the UK side, including an alternative proposal that we deem satisfactory. We have not received that yet.

I wish to pick up on the comments of Deputies Eamon Ryan and Howlin. I very much appreciate their words of support for the position the Government is taking. We could be into a difficult few weeks and months ahead. This is potentially a historic decision for us. I appreciate the fact that the Deputies are supporting the Government decision to hold firm on this. We have the absolute support of the other European Union member states that are remaining. We have not come under any pressure as yet to soften our position. However, I am not so naive as to think that that may not occur. We will avoid at any cost being isolated. However, even if we are isolated, we have to hold to this position, in my view.

I was asked about a meeting of the party leaders. I think that would be welcome as we reach decision points. Certainly, between now and the European Council on 14-15 December, that would be a very useful idea all around.

However, I want to be at a decision point, not just at a point of ten different hypothetical scenarios, which is a little bit where we are now. I chose ten as a random figure by the way so there is no need to raise a query or ask a question as to what the ten scenarios are.

On the OECD and the base erosion and profit shifting, BEPS, process, I do not know if the Crown dependencies are part of the OECD or BEPS process. I learned all about the Crown dependencies when I was in Jersey. They are not in the United Kingdom or the European Union but they voluntarily adopt all EU acquis and law. As a result, they have access to the Single Market. It is an interesting model.

For the information of the House, we have expended almost 28 minutes on this group of questions. As there are another two groups of questions, I respectfully suggest that, with 18 minutes remaining, we discuss the next group and allow the third group to roll on to next week.

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