Strategic Communications Unit

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3)

Catherine Murphy

Ceist:

1. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Taoiseach if the attention of the strategic communications unit was drawn to the fact that it must comply with rules that relate to advertising standards; the number of publications that were approached to include paid content with respect to the national planning framework, NPF, capital plan; the budget for this campaign; the reason it was decided to ensure the advertisements resembled news reporting; and his plans to alter this strategy. [10927/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

2. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if officials from his Department particularly the SCU met editors of the national and regional newspapers in the past six months. [11374/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach his plans to reform the strategic communications unit. [12933/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (22 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

As I previously informed the House, a review is currently being undertaken into the work of the strategic communications unit. This review will be concluded before Easter. The results of this review will inform the future structure, role and work plan of the unit.

A clear instruction was given from the SCU to the media buyer that all media partnerships needed to be clearly identifiable as such. This was to be achieved by the use of the wording, "brought to you in partnership with Project Ireland 2040" or "brought to you in partnership with Project Ireland 2040, an initiative of the Government of Ireland". A decision was not taken to ask that the advertorial should resemble news reporting. I am happy to refute that allegation once again.

In keeping with previous national development plans, Project Ireland 2040 is being communicated to citizens through media partnerships. Content partnerships were established with the following media outlets: The Irish Times, the INM Group, the Examiner Group, Journal Media and a suite of 30 regional newspapers. While the full spend will not be finalised until the end of the campaign, an indicative budget of €1.5 million was allocated for Project 2040. However, it is now envisaged that this will not all be spent. No meetings were held with editors of regional newspapers. In the development of content partnership agreements, management and editorial staff of national newspapers were met by staff members.

I made a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland which made me look at the codes of the authority. One particular code states, "A marketing communication should not mislead, or be likely to mislead, by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise." There is, at the very least, ambiguity in respect of some of these advertorials. That is being kind. They resembled and could have been interpreted by the reader as a normal editorial as opposed to an advertisement. Lines were significantly blurred as a consequence. I asked some parliamentary questions and I got replies to them last night. I was shocked at the amount of money being spent on advertising. That is a separate issue and I do not want to conflate the two issues because I think the strategic communications unit is causing a serious problem. The Taoiseach would not be reviewing it if it was not.

One company was paid just under €250,000. I am flabbergasted at the amount. Some of this is cross-departmental. There is a significant issue in respect of value for the money that is being spent. I do not want to conflate the two issues. The strategic communications unit is a serious blurring of the lines between politics and the public service. That does neither politics nor the public service any favours. It should not just be reviewed but should be dispensed with.

In yesterday's petty and self-regarding speech from the Taoiseach, he again questioned why we should be talking about this at all. I must remind the Taoiseach that it was he who made this a personal priority and devoted significant Government time and resources to it. After only nine months in office, the Taoiseach is becoming increasingly intolerant of people challenging him. We have reached a serious moment where he believes he owns the Government while Parliament should stay quiet and get out of the way. That is the only way I can interpret his behaviour on this particular issue.

It has been leaked by his staff that the official who oversees the unit will report that everything is fine with the unit and that any mistakes were made by outsiders. It appears to be the Taoiseach's position that he will use this closed internal review to declare vindication and move on. Yesterday the Taoiseach said the Dáil has no right to interfere in a purely Civil Service matter. That is a serious construct to put on matters. Documents released under freedom of information legislation show that it was the Taoiseach who instructed the unit be established, recommended its head and brought a memo to Cabinet to finalise its establishment. At every stage, this was a political process led by the Head of Government who is directly and constitutionally responsible to the House.

Will the Taoiseach respect the will of Parliament or will he carry on regardless? Will he continue to deny the right of the Dáil to a say on the matter which he and his Government are involved in as it is a Government political priority? Will he indicate the national newspaper editors met by his staff, which he outlined at the end of his answer? Does he accept policies determined by him are open for parliamentary scrutiny and accountability?

Yesterday the Dáil debated a Sinn Féin motion calling for the disbandment of the strategic communications unit. If he were wise, the Taoiseach would take heed and credence of that. Questions have arisen not just about value for money - I do not wish to conflate the issue of advertising either as Deputy Catherine Murphy has said - but, more importantly, the appropriate uses of public moneys. It is a communications disaster to ignore the fact that those questions have now arisen, not simply among political rivals or those who, as the Taoiseach said, may wish to dent his popularity, but among the general public and taxpayers who actually fund all of this.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Taoiseach stands by a review that is internal in its nature and whose independence, irrespective of the qualities of the persons involved, comes into question. I cannot understand why he is clinging to this so rigidly. The smarter way ahead, and what would communicate a progressive message to the public we serve, would be if the Taoiseach stated he is willing to stand this unit down and in a collegiate and non-party way that we put our heads together to decide the best and most efficient way to enhance all of Government communications. Members are more than able to participate in such a project. It would certainly demonstrate bona fides on the part of the Taoiseach. So far, however, blindly, arrogantly and in a high-handed way, he has suggested the Dáil has no business to ask questions on this matter. That is quite an outrageous position for any Taoiseach to take.

The Taoiseach has made many comments on the strategic communications unit since it became a matter of controversy, including saying the unit itself was getting in the way of the communication of the Government's message. Has he inputted into the review himself in his own reviews?

Regarding the Sinn Féin motion before the House, if Dáil Éireann votes for the abolition of the unit, will the Taoiseach respect and implement that instruction?

As the unit is currently extant, is it still advertising? Will the Taoiseach agree that full transparency on the type of advertising needs to be made now? Has the unit, or contractors from the unit engaged by his Department, met with the owners of commercial radio stations or the directors of local or commercial radio stations? Was there an allocated budget planned for local radio advertising by the unit? If so, how much was it?

I will do my best to answer questions raised. Deputies will be aware that I spoke on this matter yesterday in Private Members' time for about ten minutes. I do not propose to repeat today what I said less than 24 hours ago in my speech.

I understand the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland, ASAI, has decided not to hear the complaint in question as it was non-commercial and, therefore, did not come under its remit.

I have immense regard for the House. I was an Opposition and Front Bench Deputy for several years. I have been a Minister and am Taoiseach now. I am sure I will not always be Taoiseach. I have immense respect for the House, having sat in many positions in it. I also obviously understand the separation of powers and the different role that Parliament has to the Government. A Government's role is executive and it makes decisions. The Parliament's role is legislative in that it passes primary legislation and can annul secondary legislation.

It also controls money by constitutional right.

This is not a legislative matter. However, I will take into account any motion passed by the House on any matter.

What is disrespectful to the House is the making of allegations which are not supported by evidence. There has been so much of that in this controversy. When they are not backed up by evidence, the decent thing is to withdraw them. There has been much of that. Making stuff up is not showing respect for the House. I just heard a Member say that I said the Dáil should not ask questions. I never said that. I do not believe people should make stuff up. That is not respectful to the House. I do not believe conspiracy theories are respectful to the House either. There have been so many of them. I am waiting for people to allege that I was somehow involved in the assassination of JFK on the basis I visited Dealey Plaza in Dallas last week. Conspiracy theories are beneath people and disrespect the House. Misquoting people is too.

On Sinn Féin's suggestion to have an Oireachtas panel, it is not for me to establish one. If the Oireachtas wishes and votes to do so, it can appoint a chair and terms of reference. That is a matter for the Oireachtas.

There were media partnerships planned with local radio but they did not proceed with. That would have been within the €1.5 million allocation but, obviously now, that will not happen.

What about my question about the editors of national newspapers?

I do not have the names.

Can the Taoiseach give them to us and tell us who met who?

I can find out for the Deputy but I honestly do not know.

Will he give a commitment to furnish us with the details?

I will give a commitment to inquire. I do not see any reason why I have to answer that question. Maybe there are reasons.

It is about transparency. We have been dragging out information for the past five months on this.

If the Deputy puts it down as a written parliamentary question, I am sure he will get an answer.

It is unfair to put this into a conspiracy theory category. If something looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I tend to think it is a duck. Much of the advertising done looked like editorial.

I have sought for the Committee of Public Accounts to look at the business case for this unit from a value for money point of view and that the Secretaries General of both the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Taoiseach attend it.

Will the Taoiseach provide details on the contracts under which the people in the unit were appointed? That is an important issue. He may well not have it to hand but I would appreciate if he could come back to us with that information. There is a blurring of lines in this. There is a process by which somebody goes through public appointments. It is not readily obvious that this happened in this instance.

To reiterate the question put by Deputy Howlin, if the Sinn Féin motion is passed by this House, will the Taoiseach accept that, will he respect that and will he act in accordance with it?

I also think the Taoiseach should respect the will of this House in this regard and he should answer the question on the position if the motion is passed. In passing, and I genuinely do not mean to be glib in this, if the Taoiseach is somewhat credibly saying that people should not make stuff up - I do not think the queries about the strategic communications unit are that, as they are genuine concerns about politicisation - he might also indicate some regret over making stuff up himself, as it would appear, when he was in Washington telling stories on the international stage about favours done or apparently done-----

We are getting into something that is not envisaged by the question.

Yes, but the Taoiseach cannot, on the one hand, say people should not make stuff up and then go to Washington and make stuff up, and then subsequently deny it.

What I will do is take into account the vote on the motion when it happens and I will also look at the review that is being carried out by the Secretary General to the Government. I think the right thing for the Opposition parties to do would have been to wait for the review before tabling the motion. It would be the correct procedure if the review is under way to wait for that review to be done, particularly if it is going to be done in a few weeks, and after that to table the motion. I suppose it was a political move to pre-empt that by tabling the motion in advance of the review, even though the review is already under way. That is just politics. It was a political tactic and I can live with that.

On conspiracy theories, every theory is not a conspiracy theory but there have been plenty of them. The Deputies can check the record from yesterday and I hope they will have a laugh reading some of the bizarre conspiracy theories that some Deputies came up with yesterday, even involving Donald Trump in all of this, which was one of the odder ones. A conspiracy theory is when you put two and two together and get 22, and there has been a bit of that, or when you join the dots and come up with a total fantasy. Conflation, of course, is where you take something related to a different campaign, like, for example, Creative Ireland, which was about local festivals and local arts events, and was a campaign that predated the SCU, and then assume it is the same for a totally different campaign. That is conflation.

Northern Ireland

Ceisteanna (4, 5, 6)

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the leader of the SDLP, Mr. Colum Eastwood MLA. [11217/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement with representatives of civic nationalism from Northern Ireland on 27 February 2018. [11218/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the SDLP leader and engagements with representatives of civic nationalism. [12797/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, together.

I met representatives of a group of nationalists from civil society in Northern Ireland in Government Buildings on Tuesday, 27 February. I heard from the group their concerns about rights and equality in Northern Ireland and also discussed the current political situation in Northern Ireland and Brexit. I acknowledged the concerns of the group and pointed out that, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government is cognisant of the concerns of all communities in Northern Ireland. I also emphasised the Government's unwavering commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and its determination to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions. I encouraged the group to reach out to civic unionism for cross-community dialogue on these issues for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland. I have also made clear that I am equally happy to meet representatives of civic unionism on a similar basis. Finally, I assured the group that the Government will continue to work with the nationalist and unionist communities, political parties in Northern Ireland and the British Government to support the formation of a new Executive, to further the peace process and to protect the interests of the island as a whole through the ongoing Article 50 negotiations.

I also met Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP, on 28 February in Government Buildings, along with Nichola Mallon. At the meeting we discussed the current political situation in Northern Ireland and Brexit. The SDLP outlined its concerns in the wake of the unsuccessful conclusion of the latest talks on Executive formation in Northern Ireland. I also had an opportunity to meet Mr. Eastwood in Washington last week, along with the Secretary of State and a number of other politicians who were represented there. I assured the SDLP of the Government’s continued commitment to working to support the parties, with the British Government, with the aim of having all of the institutions under the Good Friday Agreement back in operation.

I very much agree with the Taoiseach when he says civic nationalism and civic unionism need to have a conversation and also that he would meet the group which drafted that letter from the civic unionist side of the public discourse. I think it is extremely important and very heartening that this initiative has been taken within the unionist community.

I met the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, on a recent trip to the United States. I am very sorry to report that, as yet, there is still no plan - not the outline of a plan, not the notion of a plan - coming from the Secretary of State, coming from Theresa May or, so far as I can ascertain, coming from the Government here in respect of those very issues that Colum Eastwood rightly raised with the Taoiseach around Acht na Gaeilge, marriage equality and legacy inquest funding, which are crucial. Civic nationalism is as one. The SDLP, Sinn Féin and others such as the Alliance, the Greens and People Before Profit are as one in demanding that these issues get sorted out. We cannot ask or suggest that everybody stands still because the DUP, unfortunately, and I do not want to get into recriminations, on this occasion, could not get the deal we struck over the line. It is not acceptable to say to people that, therefore, we freeze things.

I know the Taoiseach has called previously for the convening of the intergovernmental conference. I believe that is the framework within which those outstanding issues need to be named and a pathway forward identified. I think that can be done entirely within the structures and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, and it is important that we protect the integrity of that agreement, as the Taoiseach knows.

It is good the Taoiseach is having these meetings but we can meet each other from here to kingdom come. At some stage we need to call it and we need a plan. What is the Taoiseach's plan?

The SDLP has for a long time called for a British-Irish intergovernmental conference to be convened. I raised this issue yesterday with the Tánaiste and he indicated to me that he had raised this with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Has the Taoiseach raised the convening of an intergovernmental conference with the British Prime Minister and, if so, what was her response? As I said in statements on Northern Ireland in recent weeks, it would be a platform, for example, for both Governments to table the draft agreement that was virtually over the line with the parties involved in the discussions on the reconvening of the Executive in Northern Ireland.

The two Governments, as guardians of the Good Friday Agreement, obviously have a responsibility to forge a path forward. Would the Taoiseach support the return of the civic forum for Northern Ireland that was created under the Good Friday Agreement in 2000 but which last met in 2002? The assembly voted to recall the forum in April 2013. It was proposed in the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 that a smaller civic advisory panel be established. Recreating it would, I think, provide a space for those in civic nationalism, as the Taoiseach has described it, and in civic unionism to have a forum to address some of the issues people are talking about in silos now.

It was regrettable that the Taoiseach was not in a position to participate in full statements on Northern Ireland in recent weeks. His predecessors would always have contributed to such statements, especially at a critical moment in regard to the peace process.

The evidence of recent days seems to be that the two Governments agree on nothing more than the general idea that it would be a good idea if the institutions were re-established. On two specific occasions the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have made public statements concerning what should happen next but, subsequently, these points have been rejected both on and off the record. Following last week's debate, the Tánaiste expressed support for the idea of changing the dynamic of the negotiations by making them genuinely all-party and potentially bringing in an independent chair. Does the Taoiseach support this, given I understand he did so at one stage? The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said, however, that this should not happen and that it should be left up to the DUP and Sinn Féin to sort things out.

In other words, it is the same strategy that has failed miserably in recent years.

The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste correctly supported the demand for the convening of the intergovernmental conference. However, it is being reported that the British Government is refusing to move on that demand. That suggests that, away from the banal generalities, the two Governments are at loggerheads on the basic strategy to resolve the issue, something that has not happened for more than 30 years. Does the Taoiseach intend to take any initiative on the matter? Will he insist on the negotiations being changed in order that all parties will have an input and that there will be an independent chair? At what point will he tell the British Government that it does not have the right to block the convening of the intergovernmental conference? What discussions has he had with Prime Minister May on the matter, specifically in the past three weeks? Why is there a growing divide?

Does the Taoiseach agree with the suggestion of People Before Profit representatives in the North that, in the light of the political paralysis, we need a new civil rights movement to break the logjam and from the failed paradigm of green and orange politics? Since the civil rights movement that it tried to quell in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that paradigm has paralysed Northern politics. The issues that could break through it include extending marriage equality and abortion rights into the North. These issues cut across sectarian divisions, as does that of the Irish language. It is not the case that support for the Irish Language Act is limited to nationalists and Catholics. Growing numbers of Protestants are learning the language and support having such an Act. Should we not start to discuss building a new civil rights culture in which these and other issues could break through the failed paradigm of green and orange politics that is locked into the North's political structures?

From my conversations with people in my business in the North, I detect among civic unionism and nationalism, each of which is diverse - it is not fair to say anyone speaks for it; I would not agree with Deputy Mary Lou McDonald's claim to speak for civic nationalism because I do not think that is correct - and also among what I call the Agreement generation, people who were born after 1998 or who were too young to vote in 1998, a huge sense of frustration that the institutions are not working and that even when they were up and running, they were not really working in the view of civic society in the North. At least, that is my impression. There is huge frustration with all of the political parties in the North and a real sense that they are just not doing the people's business. It is so striking to see and I would not be surprised if we were to see falling turnouts at elections and so on into the future as a consequence unless there is some change.

What I intend to do more and more in my engagement in Northern Ireland is to talk more and more to civic groups, business, farmers, trade unions, campaign groups and also, in particular, younger people, the Agreement generation to which I referred. In that sense, I have some sympathy for Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett's analysis that there are a lot of issues in Northern Ireland that transcend unionism and nationalism, orange and green. As I said last week in the United States, in the Library of Congress, it is my strong view that any right or freedom an Irish citizen has in Ireland or a British citizen has in Britain should also apply to British cand Irish citizens in Northern Ireland. Such rights include marriage equality and the recognition of native languages, as well as others. When I spoke in the Library of Congress, I set out what I thought should be the plan, that, after Easter, the two Governments - the UK and Irish Governments - should come together again to agree a joint paper or proposal, on foot of which they should have all-party talks. However, I am a realist, in that it is the case that the DUP represents a clear majority of unionist voters, while Sinn Féin represents 70% of nationalist voters. Therefore, there can be no agreement unless there is an agreement between these two parties. That is just the way the numbers stand. There is no meeting of minds with the British Government on this issue. The Tánaiste when speaking to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I in my last telephone conversation with the Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May - I am not sure whether it was in the last three or four weeks, but it was recently enough - suggested the BIIGC be convened. While there has been no formal refusal from the UK Government, it certainly has not committed to doing so, which is a disappointment.

The political context is different - it is not the same as it has been for the past 30 years - and it is different for two very big reasons, the first of which is Brexit which has changed the climate and the weather around all of this issue, while the second is the UK Government has a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP at Westminster which does change the context. That is the reality of what we face, but by no means are we going to give up. We will keep pressing these issues. That is our solemn role as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

On the civic forum, I have not given it much consideration, but I will give it consideration and certainly speak to the Tánaiste about it and seek his views.

Brexit Negotiations

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website

Ceisteanna (7)

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May since the publication by the European Commission of the draft text of the withdrawal deal on 28 February 2018. [11263/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I last spoke to Prime Minister May on Monday, 26 February, as I reported to the House on 28 February. We discussed Brexit and I restated our preference that a solution on the Border be found within the overall future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. I pointed to the necessity on the EU side to have the detail of the backstop option spelled out in the draft legal text of the withdrawal agreement.

I listened with interest to the Prime Minister's speech on Friday, 2 March - the Mansion House speech - in which she gave a number of important reassurances, including stating her overall goal of having a very close relationship with the European Union after the United Kingdom left. I particularly welcome her clear commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland peace process, the need to avoid a hard border and also the agreement reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union in their December joint report, over which she stands. Her speech included a number of signals about the type of future economic relationship there might be between the European Union and the United Kingdom, but it also recognised that the United Kingdom would have to face hard choices, given the constraints between some of its stated aims and objectives and the red lines it had set out, including departing from the Single Market and the customs union and rejecting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

For our part, a close economic relationship and free trade are very much in the interests of Irish business, Irish citizens and public services, as is having a smooth transition period. I am concerned, however, that some of the constraints in leaving the customs union and the Single Market are not fully recognised on the UK side. Therefore, we will now need to see more detailed and realistic proposals from the UK Government.

I welcome the real progress that has been made between the EU and UK negotiating teams on the withdrawal agreement. The Government, as part of the EU 27, has pushed hard for sensible and practical approaches to citizens' rights, the financial settlement, the transition period and issues specific to Ireland. There has been progress on the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. On Monday last the United Kingdom conceded that a backstop solution on the Border issue would form part of the legal text of the withdrawal agreement. It has also agreed that all of the issues identified in the European Union text will be addressed to deliver a legally sound solution to avoid a hard border. Prime Minister May confirmed these agreements in her letter to President Tusk last Monday, in addition to reiterating the United Kingdom's commitment to agreements reached last December on protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process, including the overarching guarantee to avoid a hard border.

Meanwhile, the Government has continued to work closely with Michel Barnier, whom the Tánaiste met as recently as Monday, the Commission task force and our EU partners as we prepare for the European Council later this week. I expect to see Prime Minister May at the meeting on Thursday. I also expect further guidelines to be agreed to by the Council to enable detailed discussions to begin on the European Union's future relationship with the United Kingdom. Progress on the recently published withdrawal agreement, including the Irish issues, will be important in the next phase of discussions.

I hope the Taoiseach will not continue the extraordinary and petulant line taken by the Tánaiste yesterday when he basically accused anyone who was questioning the Government of undermining the country. It has to be said there are very legitimate questions people have a right and duty to raise in discussing this issue. The Government's obsession with spin means that people are increasingly unwilling to take its claims at face value, which is an unfortunate consequence. The very direct issue is how the unagreed backstop text will be turned into a final text. Most non-Irish commentators have said Monday represented the kicking of the can down the road for a few months. The comfort of the Tory Brexit fanatics with what has been agreed to on Ireland suggests no significant progress has been made. Will the Taoiseach explain to the House the exact process between Friday and a final backstop text? Will he confirm that there will be no agreement to proceed to final status discussions until the final withdrawal treaty is completely finished, other than for the most minor of technical discussions? There is a real danger that the issue will be isolated down the road. Therefore, it needs to be brought to a head sooner rather than later.

On the east-west axis, people tend to forget that the east-west relationship is critical economically to the island, North and South. It is absolutely critical, not just in terms of the agrifood sector but also to industry, SMEs, the midlands and the west. There are times when the discussion takes place on Brexit and that dimension is not brought to the fore to the degree it should be. It is critical that we get the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom right.

I was going to raise the issue - it is probably better coming from me - of the tetchy response from the Tánaiste yesterday to a very legitimate question put by the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Brexit. Those of us who are seriously grappling with every legal document, trying to be supportive of the Irish position and working as Team Ireland on this issue deserve better than that. The questions are legitimate. From what emerged from the discussions on Monday a view can be put on it that the European Union gave in to the United Kingdom on its position on the backstop, whereby the legal text drafted by the European Union interpreting its understanding of the December agreement was rejected by the United Kingdom. What we now have is an acceptance of the issue in principle by the United Kingdom but a legal text to be negotiated sine die. If one reads all of the background stuff - there are interesting articles in The Guardian today - there is real concern that in the context of the focus on the wider trade agreements, the Irish issue which the Irish Government included successfully in the phase one discussions will be more marginalised in the general discussion. When push comes to shove, there is a view among some commentators in Britain that the trade demands of the French and Germans and so on will at the end of the day ensure Ireland is pushed off its position. It is a very legitimate question to ensure we will keep our focus on what is important to us. I understand also the dialogue that there are some in Europe - the Taoiseach is very close to his colleagues in the European Council - who believe Theresa May's Government is hanging by a thread and that if they are pushed too hard, it will collapse. Therefore, it was important to cut her some slack last Tuesday. Perhaps that is the case and I will return to the issue in my pre-European Council statement later.

The east-west dimension which accounts for the bulk of our trade is as important as the North-South dimension. Both are critically important to the journey on which the country has been, economically and politically, in the past 30 years. We have to ensure we will not compromise it in whatever emerges. The Government has done a reasonable job, but it is also legitimate for us to continue to ensure our concerns will be the focus of the negotiating position of the EU 27.

We are all concerned to ensure the European Union will hold the line in there being no hard border on the island and there being full protection for the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts. The indications are that our European partners understand this. Nonetheless, nothing is finished until it is finished and nothing will be achieved, in a legal sense, until it is written in a legal text and agreed to. There is a challenge in that regard. A worry I have is that periodically one hears from the British system some very far-fetched and outlandish technical solutions to have a frictionless border. Has the Taoiseach seen them off in the Government's dealing with Michel Barnier and the discussions he has had with Mrs. May? It reminded me a little of a motion passed at the last Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis which raised eyebrows. It was toll-free, M50-style crazy stuff-----

That is not the position of the party.

-----which Deputy Micheál Martin disavowed, but it was on the clár and voted on. I do not want to be distracted by that piece of strangeness. The Border is 300 miles long and porous.

Sinn Féin will have to reconvene its Ard-Fheis.

The Europeans are very clear that they want to protect the Single Market which it seems trumps all else. Therefore, the stakes are very high for us. The British have not come forward with what they view as the backstop. I seek reassurance from the Taoiseach. I do not blame him for the inefficiency and the messing of the British system. It would be unfair to do so, but we have a legitimate expectation that he will keep the pressure on and hold the line. Have these technological wonderland musings been seen off? Have they been disabused of these notions?

It is always legitimate for the Opposition to ask questions about the Government's work on Brexit. It is the job of the Opposition to ask such questions and I have no difficulty with it. I do not expect to receive blind support from it, either on the North or Brexit. I ask for support and those with influence at a European level, whether in their transnational party groups or other contexts, to use it. Parties have done this. I acknowledge that the party leaders represented in the House have done it in their contacts with MEPs and the respective parliamentary groups, of which they are members. I am grateful for this on behalf of the Government and the people generally.

On the Irish protocol which essentially is the backstop, there will now be a process of talks which will involve the United Kingdom on the one side and Ireland and the task force on the other. The meetings have been scheduled and will occur in Brussels, which we think is the most appropriate place for them to occur. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and there will be no withdrawal agreement finalised until everything in it is finalised, including the Irish protocol, unless a better solution can be found in the interim. I have seen some commentary suggesting option A and option B, as I call them, have disappeared. They have not. It is still a possibility. It is still open to the British to come forward with option B and option A and if they do, we will examine them. It makes sense to talk about the final status and trade now. We should not agree by any means, but we should talk about the final status and trade precisely for the reasons mentioned by the Deputies.

The east-west dimension and the trade that occurs between Britain and Ireland are important to the economy, the agrifood sector, SMEs, jobs and many different things. We want to conclude a free trade agreement or better with the United Kingdom because it is in the interests of the economy, the people and jobs to do so. It is also possible that in coming to such an agreement we may be able to resolve or largely resolve the issues related to the Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. One of the things the British have put forward in some of their papers is a customs union partnership.

I do not know what the difference is between a customs union partnership and a customs union, but if a customs union partnership is something very close to a customs union, that would solve many of the problems that may arise between Northern Ireland and Ireland and we could have a bespoke arrangement to deal with the aspects that could not be solved. That is one of the ways it might go but it is impossible to predict at this stage.

The transition period will run until 31 December 2020. No changes will occur therefore until the first day of 2021. The UK has agreed, although this was not its position some time ago, that the acquis will apply during that transition period. The rules of the customs union and the Single Market will apply even though it will have no influence on or say in them. That is welcome because it gives public services, people and businesses the best part of two years to plan for any permanent changes that may take place. I acknowledge that it is very difficult to plan for permanent changes when we do not know what they are. That is why it is important that we conclude matters sooner rather than later.

In answer to the final question, we have not seen any technical solutions from the UK Government that we consider workable. We have made that clear. We will of course consider any technical solutions put forward, but I refer to a report carried out by a committee of the Houses of Parliament which studied this again in detail. It has come to the conclusion that such technology does not yet exist and that is a solid conclusion.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.