Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Ceisteanna (11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18)

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has had discussions recently with Prime Minister May regarding Northern Ireland and phase two of the Brexit talks. [1387/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

12. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with Prime Minister Theresa May since the recent cabinet reshuffle in the United Kingdom and the appointment of a new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. [1790/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Gerry Adams

Ceist:

13. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May on 14 December 2017. [1828/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

14. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May since his appointment regarding outstanding issues under the Good Friday Agreement, in particular in relation to inquiries into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and the Kingsmill massacre. [2113/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

15. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May in January 2018 regarding Northern Ireland and Brexit. [3061/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

16. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the UK Prime Minister in December 2017; and if he has had discussions recently with Prime Minister May regarding Northern Ireland and phase two of the Brexit talks. [3379/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

17. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he has had discussions recently with Prime Minister May regarding phase two of the Brexit talks. [3449/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

18. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May since talks to reconvene the Northern Ireland Executive have recommenced. [4322/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 18, inclusive, together.

I last spoke to Prime Minister May on Thursday, 7 December, as I reported to the House on 12 December. I had no scheduled bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister around the European Council meeting on 14 December, although I did see her and we discussed a number of issues, both on a one-to-one basis and as part of group meetings.

In December the European Council formally took the decision that sufficient progress had been made in phase one of the Brexit negotiations, enabling the process to advance to phase two, during which transition arrangements and the framework for the United Kingdom's future relationship with the European Union would be considered. There is still a lot of work to do and close attention will be paid to ensure all of the commitments and principles agreed in the joint EU-UK report on citizens' rights, the financial settlement and the issues specific to Ireland are given full legal effect in the withdrawal agreement. I have been very clear with the UK Government that we expect it to fully honour the commitments entered into in December. This will be a focus in the coming weeks and months. I am pleased that the European Council also agreed to negotiate a transition period and prioritise discussion of it in the first part of phase two.

There is regular ongoing contact between my Department and the British Government at official level on Brexit and the situation in Northern Ireland. Prime Minister May and I exchanged messages on the day of her recent Cabinet reshuffle. There has also been extensive contact between the Tánaiste and the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley. The Tánaiste met the Secretary of State in London soon after her appointment and again in Belfast on Thursday, 18 January, where they discussed the political situation in Northern Ireland. The Tánaiste was in Stormont on Monday and will be engaged in it again later in the week. I am very pleased that political talks to restore the Executive have restarted and I am in regular contact with the Tánaiste on these developments. I spoke to him as recently as yesterday.

As co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, the British and Irish Governments have a responsibility to ensure the effective functioning of its institutions. The two Governments will work in partnership in seeking a return to devolved power-sharing in Northern Ireland, which is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. I believe it remains possible to reach an agreed outcome which will ensure implementation of previous agreements and reflect the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement and power-sharing - partnership, equality and mutual respect. The Government has consistently affirmed its unwavering commitment to the agreement and determination as a co-guarantor to secure the effective operation of all institutions.

In my discussions with Prime Minister May I have stressed the importance of making progress on legacy issues and the overall arrangements for dealing with the past. While the Kingsmill massacre has not arisen specifically in our discussions, I have raised the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings and other legacy cases with the Prime Minister. The Government is strongly committed to and working to achieve the establishment of the legacy institutions provided for in the Stormont House Agreement as soon as possible. The Government will continue to engage with the British Government on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and will pursue all possible avenues that could achieve progress on the issue, consistent with the request made by the Dáil, in the hope it could bring some measure of closure to the bereaved families.

One of the clearest messages of the last month is that nothing has actually been secured for Ireland in the negotiations thus far. When the spin and self-congratulation are put aside, the reality is that the phase one agreement commits the United Kingdom and the European Union to the same positions they offered at the start of the process. The frustration is that, so far, there has not been a single credible proposal from either the Government or the government of the United Kingdom on how the special circumstances associated with the Border will be dealt with. The United Kingdom's position is that there will be a soft border but that the United Kingdom will be outside both the customs union and the Single Market. The Taoiseach's position is that we would like it to stay, but so far there has been no word of any approach that could reconcile these positions, particularly since the two Governments seem to be opposed to a deal specific to Northern Ireland. Will the Taoiseach tell us when specific proposals are likely to be made?

The Taoiseach will also know that the UK Government has produced an impact assessment, albeit one that the hardliners are now denouncing as a sinister plot because it contains some unpleasant truths regarding the British economy. Months ago, the Taoiseach promised in this Chamber that impact studies for Ireland would be published. Will they be published and where are they now? How is it possible for policy to be developed without in-depth sectoral information on the impact of Brexit and the options for Irish business?

Regarding Northern Ireland, the detachment of both Governments over the past seven years has been a factor in the breakdown of the institutions, the general decline of North-South bodies, the lack of North-South impetus under the Good Friday Agreement and the general decline in the Executive and Assembly. I have stated repeatedly that it is inexcusable that the Executive and institutions have not been restored. I hold both of the main parties responsible for that. My genuine view is that it was a contrived collapsed. Given the threat of Brexit, however, it is essential that the Assembly and Executive be restored so that the anti-Brexit voice in Northern Ireland can have a forum to articulate its concerns and views and the institutions can be used professionally and properly as a conduit for reconciling conflicting positions in the best interests of the economic well-being of all the people on this island.

Negotiations involving the two Governments and the parties in the North have recommenced. Sinn Féin has met representatives of those sectors whose rights are being denied and the current negotiations are trying to vindicate. Sinn Féin is committed to the full restoration of the political institutions. It makes sense that local politicians take the local decisions that affect citizens. To achieve this, however, the issues that led to the collapse of the institutions need to be dealt with effectively. The new round of negotiations continues to be about the implementation of past agreements, specifically on ensuring that citizens in the North can enjoy the same rights that everyone in the Dáil has.

Regarding the statement that the collapse of the Assembly was contrived, it happened because of the controversy surrounding the renewable heat incentive, RHI, scandal. Sinn Féin would not stand for that. On the other hand, Fianna Fáil has been involved in many scandals. Maybe that is why it is taking this stand.

Sinn Féin's negotiating team is working hard to reduce the political tension between unionism and nationalism. If progress is to be made, it must be on the basis of respect and equality. It must be about implementing previous agreements. The DUP knows this, as do both Governments. Will the Taoiseach reaffirm his commitment that, in the event of there being no agreement, he will seek the establishment of the Intergovernmental Conference?

Is the Taoiseach aware of the great concern in the North about the new constituency boundary proposals that have been published by the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland? They mark a significant shift away from the 2016 proposals and are believed by many to have resulted from pressure from the DUP on the British Government. Consequently, there will be four constituencies with no nationalist representation in the future Assembly. This is in stark contrast to the fact that there will be unionist representation in every single constituency. The Taoiseach is aware that gerrymandering was extensively used to minimise nationalist representation and maximise unionist representation. Will the Irish Government undertake a thorough analysis of the boundary proposals and raise this matter with the British Government at the most senior level?

Talks on restoring the Northern Ireland Executive broke down last autumn and have recently resumed. We wish them well. It is my understanding that when the talks ended last October, the parties were close to an agreement and the DUP and Sinn Féin in particular had moved their negotiating positions substantially. There have been calls from the leader of the SDLP for the details of the reported compromise to be put into the public domain and for all the surrounding papers to be made available for public purview so that we can know how close the two parties were to a deal. Will the Irish Government publish the papers and call on the other main actors to do this so that the Irish people, North and South, can see how close a deal was at that time?

During the Taoiseach's discussions with Prime Minister May, did he refer to the polarisation that would ensue from another round of elections or direct rule and what was her specific response?

A point was made about the Brexit talks. The irreconcilable position that was agreed last year, which we welcomed, was almost like what used to happen in the North, in that we would have constructive and deliberate ambiguity so that people could work out the detail subsequently. The problem is that all the utterances since then - I have listened to Mr. David Davis, Mr. Jacob Rees-Mogg and Ms Theresa Villiers - have made it crystal clear from a British Tory perspective that Northern Ireland will remain in the UK customs union and the UK as a whole, including Northern Ireland, will not be a part of any European customs union. How are we to break that deadlock? Are we just to pretend that it is a reconcilable position until it actually becomes manifest when the endgame is reached and the UK leaves the EU in March of next year?

What was secured back in December is there in black and white for anyone to see and anyone to read. It is there in the joint report, which was agreed between the European Union and the United Kingdom. It contains specific "commitments" - that is the term used - from the UK Government in respect of the avoidance of a hard border. It is now our objective to ensure that those commitments are written into the withdrawal agreement, which is currently under negotiation, so that they become legally binding. That is what we are working on at the moment.

There is a political border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, they are different jurisdictions and different currencies are used, but when it comes to avoiding a hard border, which in my mind is any new barrier to the free movement of people or any new barrier to free trade, that can be done in one of two ways. One is under the auspices or umbrella of a new UK-EU relationship, which could include a customs union partnership between the European Union and the United Kingdom. I use the term "customs union partnership" because that is the term used in the UK Government's own documents. Neither Jacob Rees-Mogg nor Theresa Villiers are members of the British Government, although they are, of course, MPs and free to give their opinions on these issues.

If that cannot be achieved through a customs union partnership or through the new UK-EU agreement, there is an option to have a unique solution for Northern Ireland. That is certainly not something that our Government is opposed to. In fact, that is what paragraph No. 49 talks about in the December joint report. However, it is our preference that we deal with this issue as part of the new UK-EU relationship because I do not want to see any new barrier between Britain and Ireland anymore than I want to see any barrier between Newry and Dundalk. I do not want to see those barriers between Dublin and Holyhead either. If we are interested in Irish industry and Irish jobs, in particular tourism and agriculture, we should be trying to achieve an outcome that allows us to continue to have free movement and free trade between Britain and Ireland, not just between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Anyone who is involved in exporting, tourism or agriculture or whose job is dependent on any of those things will understand why we are pursuing that as a strategy. A unique solution for Northern Ireland is very much secondary to the solution to that which we hope to achieve.

There are talks ongoing in Belfast at the moment. They are at a sensitive stage. I want them to succeed. I think this is the last chance for them to succeed. I am very concerned that, if they do not succeed on this occasion, we will not see the restoration of the institutions for many years. That is why I do not want to say too much - I would not wish to upset anyone or give anyone any reason to get upset.

Perhaps I will not say as much as I would like to say on this occasion. If the talks fail, I can confirm that the Government will seek the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in full in the absence of those institutions.

Several Brexit impact analyses have already been published. Building Stronger Business: Responding to Brexit by Competing, Innovating and Trading was published by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. There is an ESRI paper on Ireland's international trade and transport connections. The UK EU Exit: Trade Exposures of Sectors in the Irish Economy in a European Context is a document from the Department of Finance. Ireland and the Negotiations on the UK Withdrawal from the European Union: The Government's Approach is a whole-of-government document. An all-island civic dialogue compendium and report of the second plenary has been published.

Bord Bia has also produced an industry findings report on the impact on that sector. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport produced Transport Trends, an overview of the transport sector dealing with the impact on transport connections. InterTradeIreland has produced a document on the potential impact of WTO tariffs on cross-Border trade should there be a hard Brexit. There is also the Brexit Maritime Transport Workshop Report from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Tourism Ireland produced a sectoral analysis on the potential impacts of Brexit on tourism to the island of Ireland in 2017 and beyond. The Department of Finance published the UK EU exit and exposure analysis of sectors in the Irish economy, focusing in particular on the potential impact on the financial services sector. It also produced a document, Brexit Trade Exposures of Sectors of the Irish Economy in a European Context.

The ESRI produced a product and sectoral level impact assessment of hard Brexit across the EU. In partnership with the Department of Finance, it produced a document entitled Modelling the Medium to Long Term Potential Macroeconomic Impact of Brexit in Ireland, which deals with how it might affect our debt and public finances. There is also Getting Ireland Brexit Ready from the Department of Finance and the Irish Government's contingency summary. There have been a number of impact analyses produced already by Government bodies and there will be more in the future. Unfortunately, they are largely speculative because we do not yet know what Brexit will look like.