Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16)

Joan Burton

Ceist:

1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with British Prime Minister May on 13 February 2018. [8084/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit and meetings that he attended in Stormont on 12 February 2018; the issues that were discussed; and if the Assembly will be reconvened. [8179/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with British Prime Minister May; the discussion they had regarding the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Border issue post-Brexit; and if outstanding issues from previous agreements were discussed. [8180/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Northern Ireland and Belfast on 12 February 2018. [8222/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings in Belfast. [8431/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

6. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings in Northern Ireland with British Prime Minister May and members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. [8450/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the status of the negotiations in Northern Ireland; and if he has spoken to British Prime Minister May since they met in Belfast on 12 February 2018. [8468/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the British Prime Minister on 12 February 2018. [8491/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

9. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to British Prime Minister May since the talks in Northern Ireland broke down; and if he plans to meet with her to discuss the way in which the talks can be reconvened. [8699/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

10. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach when the British-Irish Council is to meet next. [8701/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

11. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the discussions relating to the Northern Ireland talks he held with Prime Minister May on 12 February 2018. [8712/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his telephone conversation with British Prime Minister May on 19 February 2018; the issues that were discussed; and if security issues were discussed post-Brexit following her comments in Germany. [9655/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

13. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his telephone conversation with British Prime Minister May on 19 February 2018. [9661/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

14. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his conversation with Prime Minister May on 19 February 2018. [9665/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

15. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has discussed his preferred length of a transition period post March 2019; and if Prime Minister May confirmed the British Government's preference when they last spoke. [10146/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

16. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings with the smaller parties in Northern Ireland. [10150/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (47 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 16, inclusive, together.

I met British Prime Minister May on Monday, 12 February, in Belfast. We were joined in our meeting by the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, and the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Karen Bradley. In our discussions we assessed the state of play in the negotiations to restore the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. We agreed on the need to continue to encourage the parties to reach an agreement so that functioning institutions can recommence work in the interests of the citizens of Northern Ireland.

We also discussed Brexit and I made clear once again that we have to see the agreement reached in December reflected in the withdrawal agreement. This means dealing with the Border, including spelling out "regulatory alignment" in detail as part of the backstop agreed in paragraph 49 of the December joint report. This is to apply in the event that agreement cannot be reached on an alternative solution, options A and B. This does not preclude exploring the other options proposed by the UK Government in parallel. I made clear that we were open to that work progressing around option A in engagement with the Barnier task force. I have consistently said that the best outcome would be a solution to the Border under the overall EU-UK framework, and we will continue to work on this resolutely. We also discussed the importance of agreement on a transition period to preserve the status quo. The UK Government has indicated a wish for a transition, or implementation phase as it describes it, of approximately two years. The EU 27 proposed a period to the end of 2020, which is a 21 month period, thus aligning it with the EU's multi-annual financial framework.

I spoke again to Prime Minister May yesterday evening. We again discussed Brexit and I reiterated our preference that a solution on the Border be found within the overall future relationship between the EU and the UK. At the same time I pointed out the necessity from the EU side to have the detail of the backstop option spelled out in the draft legal text of the withdrawal agreement. This to apply in the event that a better solution cannot be agreed. We will continue to work with the Barnier task force and the United Kingdom to explore other options on the basis of whatever proposals the UK puts forward.

During my visit to Belfast, I also met representatives of Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party to discuss the negotiations on the restoration of the Executive. I regret the fact that, in the intervening period, the talks process has stalled again. Power-sharing and working together are the only way forward for Northern Ireland. The Government has consistently stated that the restoration of the institutions is essential in the context of full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The Government will continue to work very closely with the British Government and the Northern Ireland parties to achieve this outcome.

The Tánaiste and I met the president and vice president of Sinn Féin on Monday, 19 February, to review recent developments in Northern Ireland and events leading up to the breakdown in talks on Executive formation last week. I spoke to the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, later by phone that same evening. I made it clear that as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, the UK and Irish Governments have a shared obligation to uphold and protect the letter and spirit of that agreement. I emphasised the Government's full commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, our determination to secure the effective operation of all its institutions and our opposition to any reintroduction of direct rule from London. Finally, the next meeting of the British-Irish Council will be held in Guernsey on 21 and 22 June.

I wish the Taoiseach well in the negotiations over the next week in respect of Brexit as they are reaching a very serious point. The Taoiseach visited Belfast on Monday, 12 February. I do not know if he is aware that this is the 100th anniversary of women having the vote in Ireland and of Countess Markievicz's election. I was shocked and disappointed in the Taoiseach, as somebody who is very modern and into communication, as we know, as the picture of the Irish delegation was of six men. Perhaps the strategic communications unit was having an off-day. I am sure the men are all estimable but it was odd when compared with the British delegation, which I am happy to report reflected both genders. I do not know if the Taoiseach's normal focus on communication suddenly deserted him and he had a kind of tin ear, for want of a better term, to the fact there were no women in such an extensive delegation.

Did the Taoiseach expect a deal would be struck before he went there? Unless they are negotiators, principals do not go to such events until a deal has been tied down. It felt like two people had showed up to a party where, notwithstanding the fact that the balloons were ready, everything had been called off. Will the Taoiseach explain that to us? The Taoiseach and Tánaiste referred to the possibility of holding an intergovernmental conference as a way of progressing British-Irish issues in a way provided for in the Belfast Agreement. If that is not to happen, why is the Taoiseach holding off on that?

Again, it is difficult to deal with 16 questions as they embrace both Northern Ireland and European matters. It might have been more useful to keep them separate.

We will have statements on Northern Ireland tomorrow, which is a week later than the British House of Commons heard from the British Government about the political crisis in Northern Ireland. This is the best forum for getting details on the matters. It is a pity that the Taoiseach will not be in a position to address the House on this as his predecessors regularly addressed the House concerning talks in the North at critical junctures over the past 30 years.

Everybody understands we have reached a very serious moment and some of the statements over the past week about the continuing commitment to the Good Friday Agreement are welcome, but they bring us in no way closer to an agreement or way forward. As I will indicate at greater length tomorrow, direct rule would be a clear breach of the international agreement that we negotiated and which has been the bedrock of a process that has delivered major progress for this island. The critical question is what can be done to break this logjam. If we reflect on the matters involved, they come nowhere near the seriousness of issues that have been overcome in the past but there is a growing sense of a deeper crisis. The draft agreement leaked to the media appears both reasonable and welcome.

Does the Taoiseach agree the time has come to change the dynamic that has so conspicuously failed in the past seven years to deliver functioning government in Northern Ireland? Is it not time to return to a model of talks used for every substantive breakthrough in the process? All-party talks with the active participation of the Governments are surely now the only serious option available. Instead of allowing further entrenchment of views, why is that not being pushed now? The negotiations currently exclude many people. Over 40% of the electorate has been excluded so far from the talks in the North, with all the other parties not being a participant. There has been a lack of urgency in that regard and I ask that both Governments engage with all parties in this regard.

I tabled a question on the transition matter. My sense is there is a process of kicking the can down the road. We saw phase 1 before Christmas and I would like to think phase 2 might bring about a transition agreement before we get an overall trade agreement, which could be down the road again. The British Labour Party's decision to move closer to a customs union is to be particularly welcomed. Along the lines of a point I have made for quite some time, there is a need for both the Government and Oireachtas to engage very proactively with Westminster and the British Government with a view to applying pressure with respect to advising to stay in the customs union and the Single Market.

The Deputy is way over time.

All those who can influence an outcome in the British Parliament of avoiding an exit from the customs union would be well advised to reflect on it. There is a lot to play for here. We could avoid Britain leaving the customs union with a strong diplomatic and political push.

I agree that the statement made yesterday by Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party, is a potential game changer. Mathematics in the British House of Commons mean amendments tabled to the Trade Bill, if supported by those who said they will support them - indeed some Tory backbenchers have tabled amendments - together with the Labour Party and others could potentially ensure the negotiating position of the United Kingdom is to have a customs union as the outcome. That would be a huge relief to the people North and South on the island of Ireland. Ultimately, it would be to the benefit of the British people themselves. Has the Taoiseach anything to say on that?

My colleague asked, in respect of the visit the Taoiseach made with the British Prime Minister to Belfast on 12 February, whether he was assured in advance of it that a settlement had been arrived at. Who instigated that visit? Was it the Taoiseach and his office who suggested it to the British Prime Minister or was it the British Prime Minister who suggested to the Taoiseach?

Is he seeking an intergovernmental conference? Both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, previously called for it. As far back as December it was suggested one would be convened during the course of 2018. Where stands that call now? It was understood that if a settlement was not brokered by the parties in Northern Ireland, that would be the next step. Is that step being taken?

I refer to comments made by the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Boris Johnson, comparing the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic to the border between Camden and Westminster and that it would cause no more disruption than a congestion charge monitoring device does in London. Has the Taoiseach anything to say about that?

When Mr. Johnson once again confirms what a complete buffoon he is, I wonder whether-----

I am not sure that is in order.

It is an accurate description nonetheless.

Truth is normally a defence.

Indeed. I was curious why, in response to the much more sane and sensible comments of Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, often accused of being a radical firebrand of the left, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, was less than enthusiastic about those comments but suggested words to the effect that the Labour Party in Britain had its own problems. It seemed to be an implied dig at Mr. Corbyn's left wing policies when in fact he is leading the fight against the buffoonery of Mr. Johnson and indeed the anti-immigrant sentiment the most right wing element of the Tory Brexiteers are promoting.

When we talk of the political logjam in the North itself, much of the commentary on the political paralysis of the institutions does not actually delve deep into the issues at stake. It might be helpful in beginning to unlock the situation up there to talk about the actual issues at stake. Why is the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, resisting any kind of agreement to restore the institutions? It is because it does not want marriage equality or an Irish language Act, both things which people down here should support because they are about equality. The DUP also does not want things like the extension of the 1967 abortion legislation.

If we get repeal, and this is a question to Sinn Féin as well, which is rightly promoting Irish language rights and marriage equality as part of the discussion, although the DUP are resisting these things, should we not also be talking about a new civil rights movement to campaign for equality on those issues and on the issue of abortion rights? We may have a situation in a few months' time where we have won the right to abortion for Irish women down here but when one crosses the Border into the North that right will still be denied to women in the North and nobody is talking about it.

We have a little problem here in that we have consumed all the time for this group of questions. With agreement of the House, perhaps we could take ten minutes from the third group of questions on the visit of President Mattarella. Would that be in order?

Would that be my question?

They are all the Deputy's questions. It is up to the Deputies. Can we take ten minutes? Agreed. I call Deputy Ryan.

It is taking time because we are dealing with two hugely significant issues in respect of Brexit and the formation of a Northern administration. They are connected in the sense both issues affect how people position themselves. We have agreed with the broad approach of the Government insisting on no hard border and trying to minimise damage in east-west relationships. I refer also to the related issue of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and not having direct rule.

There are a number of ways in which I think we need to change. To pick up what Deputy Martin said, it is important the Taoiseach starts talking to all the political players in the North. We need to protect the Good Friday Agreement but not freeze it in aspic as if it has served all the purposes we want. I was interested to read Mr. Mark Durkan yesterday make the point that the way the First Minister and deputy First Minister are appointed is sectarian in nature. My colleague, Mr. Steven Agnew, MLA, has been very consistent in calling for a wider constitutional review of how the Good Friday Agreement and institutions are working. It is a real pity the Government has not brought other parties into this whole process, including our own which has representation here, in the North, in Holyrood and in Westminster. We bring a broad non-sectarian view.

People Before Profit.

People Before Profit may have that same all-Ireland approach and indeed connect with the Socialist Party in the United Kingdom.

It was going well until then.

As a way of breaking the logjam everybody should be brought in rather than sticking to the current players as the Taoiseach has done. I refer also to how the current players are dealt with. The criticism that the Taoiseach has alienated or, in a sense, lost contact with the DUP is not just an academic issue. If some sort of proper relationship had been maintained, the Taoiseach would have been aware Ms Foster was not going to get support from within her party to get the deal she clearly got over the line. What is the Taoiseach going to do to try to restore some of those political connections and understandings, so we do not make the same mistake again where everyone marches up the hill and then marches down again with no deal in sight? What is the Taoiseach going to do to try to restore relations with those parties? That is what we need to do to make the whole arrangement work.

The questions will need to be more concise if we are going to have time for an answer. I call Deputy McDonald.

Although the issues at stake have been quite vexed around the language Act, marriage equality, legacy issues and legacy inquest funding, I want to state that we did in fact find an accommodation. It is my belief the Taoiseach travelled to Belfast on 12 February in good faith. It is also my understanding that visit was initiated by the British side. It is my clear understanding that at that point all of us understood we had a draft agreement, one that I would describe it as "an honourable accommodation". It was open to critique as these things are but an accommodation none the less. I reject this notion that somehow there was an intractable process with immovable parties and that resolution was not possible. In fact, we demonstrated quite the contrary that we could arrive at the accommodation. It is a matter of very deep regret that the DUP could not deliver on that agreement.

However, the net issue now is what happens next. I strongly believe that the intergovernmental conference must be convened next. Then we require a concrete plan of action within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement to give answers on Acht na Gaeilge and marriage equality and a quick answer on the British honouring a commitment to release legacy funding as identified by the Lord Chief Justice. Answers to these questions are the route to getting back on a path to restore the institutions. I understand the frustration of the Green Party, the SDLP, People Before Profit and other parties. For our part, we have made efforts to keep people informed. I know it was frustrating and I shared many of those frustrations, but we should be clear about this. If the DUP refuses to move, then it refuses to move and, to be frank, I do not think it will make a great difference what process is entered into because this has always been a matter of political will.

Finally, I was alarmed, having met Mrs. Theresa May last week, that it is clear the British have no concrete plan for how to move matters forward. It appears that they are simply playing for time. That is potentially a very dangerous strategy to adopt. Matters are polarised in the North and we do not want to see that deepen further. I again urge the Taoiseach to insist on convening the intergovernmental conference. I do not know if we will have time to return to the Brexit issues, a Cheann Comhairle.

Obviously the talks in Northern Ireland between Sinn Féin and the DUP are deadlocked. In those circumstances it would appear that the DUP wants direct rule whereas the Irish Government and Sinn Féin are talking about the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference reconvening. It is a serious situation and we need fresh thinking. We must break this impasse in some way. Would a third party intermediary be helpful, such as a US envoy as is being speculated in the media? Perhaps the Taoiseach would respond to that. We are approaching the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It cannot be allowed to collapse. It is a comprehensive document and many of its aspects have not been implemented yet.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply on the British-Irish Council. It is due to meet again on 21 and 22 June. That is very important to bring about collaboration in the areas of transport, environment and energy. It will become increasingly important in the context of the UK leaving the European Union. The Government must be fully committed to it. With regard to Brexit and the draft legal text which is due to be published tomorrow, all eyes in the Republic will be on the backstop arrangement whereby there will be no hard border on this island. I listened to the Taoiseach speaking on this earlier this afternoon, but we need to know where we go from here. Presumably the draft to be published tomorrow has to be agreed by the European Council and, more particularly, the UK Government. Can the Taoiseach outline the roadmap following the publication of the draft text tomorrow? Does he envisage much trouble with the UK agreeing to the draft legal text, particularly having regard to the role of the DUP in UK politics at this time?

I will reply to as many questions as I can. First, I thank Deputy Burton for her good wishes as we enter the next and very intensive phase of Brexit negotiations in phase two. Regarding the delegation at Stormont, the Irish delegation included Sarah McGrath, the director of Northern Ireland political affairs, but she was not in the particular photograph in which the Deputy took such a deep interest. Ordinarily, Helen Blake or-----

Does the Taoiseach want to doctor it to put her into it?

-----the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, would attend as well, particularly when EU affairs are being discussed. EU affairs were being discussed but due to the short notice for that meeting they had other business to which they had to attend. As regards the photograph, this might be a revelation for Deputy Burton but perhaps I do not spend as much time concerning myself with photographs as she imagines or would like to believe I do.

Perhaps a few Fine Gael candidates could be put in them. Sinn Féin was good at that at one time.

As I have explained on many occasions, the SCU runs public information campaigns and trains civil servants. It does not travel with me-----

It slipped up.

-----to Belfast, Europe or elsewhere. That is not its remit. It does not seem to matter how many times I explain the remit of the unit. People still wish to imagine that it is doing everything from taking photographs to running my Twitter account-----

It is doing nothing and is very expensive.

For €5 million.

-----which it obviously does not.

With regard to my presence at Stormont, I was there because the Prime Minister was there. She was keen to visit Belfast. She visited Shorts and then joined the talks. There is a protocol for these matters. I had other plans for the day. As Members know, the First Minister of Wales was in town and I was due to meet him and do some other things. The protocol is that when the British Government is represented by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the talks we are represented by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, but when the Prime Minister is present the Taoiseach should be too and vice versa. That is how it works.

Was there any engagement beforehand?

As Deputy McDonald correctly said, it was initiated by the British side and once it decided that the Prime Minister was going to attend we thought it appropriate that I should attend as well. It was understood at that point that the two major parties had reached an accommodation, even though everything may not have been signed off at that stage.

Did the Taoiseach have an engagement with the British Prime Minister before the decision to go to the North? Did anybody discuss the advisability of it?

I met her there at the event. It would not be the norm for me to have an engagement with another Head of Government about whether I am going to meet him or her the next day. That is not the way it works.

It does work that way.

That is done at official level-----

No, not in the North.

-----and, of course, there was engagement at official level.

The current position with the talks is that both Governments have asked the parties to pause for reflection. We think that is advisable at this stage. As I mentioned earlier, the Brexit negotiations are going to enter a very intense phase over the next couple of weeks. It starts with the publication of the withdrawal agreement tomorrow followed by the speech of the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, on Friday. There will be a further visit of Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, to Ireland and the European Council meeting will be held towards the end of March. It will be a very intense couple of weeks with regard to Brexit so perhaps it is a good time for the parties in the North to pause for reflection.

No date has been set at this stage for the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, but it will meet at an appropriate time on the agreement of the two Governments. In the meantime, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is in regular contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I am in regular contact with the Prime Minister, Mrs. May. We have spoken on the telephone or met in person at least three times in the past week and a half, and I am sure we will again. Of course, we talk to the five major parties in Northern Ireland and while we are open to having conversations with the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth parties one has to draw the line at a certain point. We engage with all five major parties and, indeed, the leader of the SDLP will be in Dublin this week when I will meet him again.

It is worth putting on the record the general level of engagement the Government has with Northern Ireland affairs. Deputy Eamon Ryan expressed the view that through engagement one can develop understanding and, therefore, agreement. It is not that simple when positions are fixed and sometimes no matter what level of engagement there is positions remain fixed. Since I have become Taoiseach I have visited Northern Ireland five times, which is roughly every six weeks. Another visit is planned. I have had three rounds of meetings with the parties. As a Minister I was involved in a number of cross-Border projects which I will not outline now - I can do that at another time - and attended 20 North-South Ministerial Council meetings, including many with Arlene Foster as my counterpart for three and a half years. The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, has visited twice this year so far and in the last year the Minister of State at my Department, Deputy McHugh, has visited six times. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, is due in Belfast on 19 April, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, were there this month and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will be there next month.

I am due to meet a group of civic nationalists from the North, the people who wrote the letter to The Irish News, who will visit me in Government Buildings tonight. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, has spent 34 days in Northern Ireland since becoming Tánaiste, including 16 days this year alone. There have been five phases of negotiations. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, spent 12 days in negotiations. Some 30 days have been spent at the talks by officials.

Officials estimate that 80 days were spent at the Stormont talks, further to engagements with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan. It is an enormous level of engagement. Engaging people, getting to know them, understanding how they think and why they think the way they do does not necessarily result in an agreement where positions are hardened and hard fixed.

It is not working.

It will work yet.

I noted the speech made yesterday by Mr. Jeremy Corbyn on the customs union and his proposal that the United Kingdom negotiate a new customs union arrangement with the European Union. He put a caveat on it by saying the United Kingdom would still wish to have certain state aids. That would be a problem if, say, a pet food factory in Wales, receiving state aid, wanted to export to Ireland and compete with a pet food factory here which would not be allowed to receive state aid. These are the issues which can be discussed and it is good to see the British Labour Party moving in that direction. Ultimately, however, Theresa May is the British Prime Minister and head of the Government. It is important when I want to know what the British Government thinks, that I listen to the British Prime Minister, not the leaders of the Opposition. People will understand this as a statement of the obvious. She will make a speech on Friday and I hope we will see some policy moves in it and some further detail of how the British see their position. It is impossible for me to be sure of it.

As the Taoiseach prepares for the next set questions, it occurs to me that the grouping of 16 parliamentary questions, together with seven or eight questioners, makes it impossible to comply with the Standing Orders provision under which there are 15 minutes for each block of questions. We are definitely going to have to drop a block of questions today because of the taking of that large grouping.

There should have been two blocks to deal with that number of parliamentary questions.

It was the case, however, that the questions were almost the same. That is why they were grouped together.

Brexit issues and the talks on Northern Ireland are entirely different.

It is interesting that the Deputy should say that because Parliamentary Question No. 3, in his name, asks about both Northern Ireland and Brexit. Perhaps he might not put Brexit and Northern Ireland in the same question in the future.

Commissions of Investigation

Ceisteanna (17, 18)

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

17. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the status of the commission of investigation into Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC; and the projected costs in that regard. [8221/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

18. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the status of the commission of investigation into IBRC. [9667/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 and 18 together.

Following consultations with the Opposition parties by the then Minister for Finance, the commission of investigation into IBRC was established in June 2015. Mr. Justice Brian Cregan, a judge of the High Court, is the commission's sole member.

In November 2015 the commission made determinations that banker-client confidentiality and legal professional privilege applied to certain documents supplied to it. The commission also requested a number of changes to its terms of reference.

The then Taoiseach invited views from the Opposition parties on the issues arising. Following consultations with them, the Commission of Investigation (Irish Bank Resolution Corporation) Act 2016 was passed by the Oireachtas in July 2016. The Act is bespoke legislation giving a new legal basis to the commission's investigations.

Following consultations with the Opposition parties, the commission's terms of reference were also amended by the Oireachtas and now provide that the commission will, in its first module, investigate the Siteserv transaction which has been identified in Dáil Éireann as a matter of significant public concern.

The commission is entirely independent in its work. I have no information on the status of its investigation, other than on administrative matters, for which I am responsible as the specified Minister under the Act.

Last December, following a request from the commission and after consultation with the Opposition parties, I extended the timeframe for the final report on the first module of its investigation to the end of December 2018.

As of the end of January 2018, the commission had spent just over €3 million. This figure includes salaries for the commission's staff, legal fees for counsel engaged by the commission and the commission's administration requirements. However, it does not include the significant third party legal fees and costs incurred that will arise for payment in due course. In its fourth interim report which I published and laid before the Oireachtas in December 2017 the commission did not make any estimate of the likely cost of the first module of its investigation. However, during consultations with the Opposition parties last November my Department provided a tentative estimated final cost for the commission of between €20 million and €25 million, based on the current rate of expenditure, the extended timeframe for its work, the risk of further delays, as well as the significant third party legal and other costs that may arise.

I understand the commission is completely independent in its work, which is right and proper. I do not think, however, it is unacceptable that the House, through the Government, should ask for an indicative timeframe for completion of its work. That would be a reasonable expectation, whether it is long or short. When the Opposition was last briefed by the Government, there was an indication that there had been a request for a new fees regime to be agreed with barristers working for the commission. Has a revised fees regime been agreed to? Will the Taoiseach indicate what the revised fees are? Presumably, they have been accepted by the legal team. Does the Taoiseach have any indication from the commission when the first module determined by the Oireachtas in the revised Act, the Siteserv module, will be completed? The final report was due by the end of December 2017. Do we have any indication when the first module, at least, is due? If the Taoiseach does not know the answer, would it be in order for him to ask the Attorney General to seek an indicative timeframe to ensure he can inform the House accordingly?

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Taoiseach as an gceist seo a fhreagairt.

As others said, the work of the commission of investigation has been painfully slow. The commission was originally intended to submit a final report no later than 31 December 2015. That date was revised to the end of April 2016, then to the end of June 2016 and then to the end of October 2016. We know that the commission's work during this period highlighted the need for the passage of bespoke legislation and an amendment to its terms of reference. That was done. At that point, we were told that its final report on the first module of its work would be completed by the end of 2017. That did not happen and the Government has extended the timeframe until the end of 2018. It is only fair and reasonable in the circumstances that we be given information and a time horizon for the completion of this work. Will the Taoiseach assure the House that the commission will complete its work by the end of 2018?

IBRC sold loans to vulture funds. After much campaigning by mortgage holders, this was the impetus which forced the Government to produce legislation to regulate the middlemen in the deals at the time. The issue has come to the fore again in recent weeks as a result of Permanent TSB and Ulster Bank flagging a massive sale of loans. AIB is also likely to look to make more sales. This all points to the banks consciously using vulture funds as a get-out clause and the Government refusing to shout “Stop”. I have raised before with the Taoiseach the need to regulate the vulture funds. I am not suggesting this is the silver bullet which would sort everything out. Actually, a ban on the sale of domestic mortgages to vulture funds would be in order. However, in the here and now, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, must tell the banks, as their main shareholder, that he will refuse to permit any sale to a vulture fund. Is the Taoiseach prepared to make that call?

There is genuine concern about the length of time the investigation into IBRC's sale of Siteserv is taking. It has been ongoing and there were consultations prior to Christmas on the matter. The fourth interim report received was essentially a statement of process, with no clarity, even on when it would finish its first module. I thought the figure for the estimated cost of completion was lower than €25 million, but I will take the Taoiseach's word for it. However, €25 million is a significant sum. Does the Taoiseach have any sense from the commission, from an administrative perspective, when it will complete its work? Have there been legal attempts to undermine the investigation or legal challenges to it? If so, will he elaborate on them?

We want a factual account of what transpired. Did the taxpayer get value for money in the sale of State-owned assets? Were procedures followed? Were alternatives meaningfully considered? Was the full value received by the State? Given what happened before Christmas and our discussions, and in light of the subsequent engagement between the Department of the Taoiseach and the chairman of the commission, surely there must be some clarity as to the capacity of the chair to complete this investigation before the end of the year.

Has the Taoiseach a revised estimate of the final cost of the tribunal, which seems to be becoming expensive in the way that tribunals do in Ireland? Has the Taoiseach a revised completion date? At this stage and without an interim report, it is difficult to know how the tribunal could finish its work by the end of this year. Has the Taoiseach revised the timeline for the report?

According to reports in the public domain, the lawyers involved in the tribunal are seeking a renegotiation of their fees in terms of daily rates and so on. I do not know whether it is a matter for the Taoiseach or the Minister for Justice and Equality to decide if the fees will be reviewed. Is the Government examining this proposal? Has it accepted or rejected the demand for additional fees?

If work has been done at the tribunal regarding some of the issues that have affected people with mortgage difficulties, does the Taoiseach believe that, in the public interest, there should be an assessment or early report on those issues, given that many families are still struggling with mortgage debt? A series of banks are now suggesting that they will sell off their mortgage books. I am happy to say Bank of Ireland has indicated that it does not propose to do that, which is a relief to those who have loans in respect of which they have reached arrangements with the bank.

For clarity, I will restate the fact that the commission is an independent commission of inquiry. My Department has an administrative role but does not run the commission. It is not operating as our creature in any way, so I am not in a position to answer questions that can only be answered by Mr. Justice Cregan, who is heading up the commission.

It is, as Deputies will be aware, investigating first of all the Siteserv transaction module which, to the best of my recollection, does not involve any mortgage. The commission, when it was set up and as we will all recall, was very much a demand of the Opposition. Government parties at the time warned about the difficulties that could arise from asking a commission of investigation to investigate commercial transactions. The nature of asset prices, just like houses, just like shares and just like everything else, can go up and go down. It will be very difficult to determine whether or not the best price has been secured for any asset. Asset prices, by their very nature, fluctuate over time.

It is estimated that it may cost between €20 million and €25 million for the commission of inquiry to do its work.

In terms of the timeline, I will make inquiries into whether I can request an indicative timeline. I do not see why it would not be permissible for me to ask that question, but I will ask it, if it is permissible for me to ask it. Obviously, I cannot give any assurance to anyone on a timeline because that will depend on how the inquiry goes and it would be very much in the hands of the judge in that regard.

The commission has requested an increase in fees that it pays to its counsel. Under the rates agreed by the Government for counsel engaged by any commission of investigation, a senior counsel is paid €788.27 per diem and a junior counsel is paid €394.14 per diem, excluding VAT. The commission requested that the fees be almost doubled to €1,500 per diem for a senior counsel and €800 per diem for a junior counsel. The commission maintained that the current rates were inadequate and becoming problematic for it, in that they were not sufficient to attract and retain counsel with the relevant commercial law experience and expertise to analyse the financial issues and enormous volumes of documentation involved in this complex investigation. In support of its view, the commission drew a comparison with the higher rates that were paid to counsel currently engaged in the disclosures tribunal.

I consulted representatives of other parties in the Oireachtas about the commission's request at a meeting on 14 November. At the meeting, concerns were expressed about the impact on the cost of this and the knock-on impact on the cost of other commissions of investigation if the request were to be granted. Reflecting on the views that I heard at the meeting, my Department subsequently wrote to Mr. Justice Cregan and informed him that it was not intended to agree to his request for an increase in fees in light of the concerns about the impacts on cost. I do not accept that the work involved in a commission is the same as a tribunal. For example, a commission's hearings are held in private while a tribunal's are held in public. That is a very different nature.

Since it was established to the end of January this year, the commission has spent €1.23 million on legal fees in respect of two senior counsel and six junior counsel. It should be noted that the counsel work for the commission as required rather than on a full-time basis. As required under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004, the IBRC commission's legal cost guidelines were prepared at the outset by the commission and the Taoiseach as specified by the Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in consultation with the commission.

In its fourth interim report last December, the commission stated its view that the guidelines were inadequate and there needed to be proper consultation between the commission, the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in order to establish supplemental guidelines to meet the particular needs of persons involved in the commission. The commission also stated that various witnesses had made submissions to it and were concerned that they would be out of pocket in respect of the legal expenses incurred by them in order to comply with the commission's directions and protect their own good names and reputations.

My Department has recently offered to meet the commission to discuss its proposal for supplemental guidelines and understand what the implications might be. However, reflecting the outcome of my meeting with the Opposition last November, it is not intended to agree to an increase in the level of fees payable to senior and junior counsel.

The commission is independent in its work and it would not be possible or appropriate for me to interfere with its work in any way. However, my Department did convey concerns raised at the meeting with other political leaders and, in its interim report last December, the commission stated that it was open to discussion with the Department of the Taoiseach as to how to conduct its work in the most efficient manner possible, consistent with the applicable legislative and constitutional requirements of due process, and how the duration of its investigation might be shortened. My Department, along with the Attorney General's office, has offered to explore these issues further with the commission.

In the fourth interim report in December 2017, the commission stated that it did not have details of the amount of third party legal costs incurred to date. However, in view of the large and complex nature of the investigation, I think it can be assumed that the costs arising will be substantial. To illustrate this point, I would point to the second interim report in April 2016. The commission stated that the special liquidators had informed it that the costs incurred by them in assisting the commission were €2.78 million, comprising their costs up to 31 January of €2.3 million, exclusive of VAT, and legal costs up to 15 March of €456,000. The Department of Finance had informed the commission that its external legal costs were €246,000. Third party costs were also likely to be claimed by the former directors of IBRC and some other parties. The costs are likely to have increased very substantially since that report in April 2016. It will, of course, be a matter for the commission to make a determination on the validity of claims for third party legal costs at the end of its investigation.