Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Ceisteanna (17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23)

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

17. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent telephone conversation with Prime Minister May. [53007/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

18. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent conversation with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [53034/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

19. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on discussions he had recently with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [53143/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

20. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May about Brexit and Northern Ireland since Dáil Éireann adjourned for the Christmas recess. [1215/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

21. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent conversations with Prime Minister May. [1385/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

22. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May since Christmas 2018; and if so, the issues that were discussed. [1427/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

23. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, since the vote on the withdrawal treaty took place. [1713/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (31 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 to 23, inclusive, together.

Prime Minister May and I are in regular contact, both directly and through our offices. Our last contact was just before I went to Africa.

Our most recent meeting was in Brussels on the morning of the European Council meeting of 13 December. We discussed the state of play with Brexit and in particular what she hoped to achieve at that Council meeting. We also discussed the political situation in the UK following her decision on the previous Tuesday to defer the meaningful vote in the House of Commons, and the vote by her party MPs in respect of her leadership of the Conservative Party on Wednesday, 12 December.

In the run-up to that meeting of the European Council we also had a detailed telephone conversation on Sunday, 9 December. At that time the vote in Westminster was still scheduled for Tuesday, 11 December. In each of our discussions I restated the Government's position that while the backstop is an essential part of the withdrawal agreement, we share the objective of securing a very close future relationship between the UK and the EU in order that the backstop would not need to enter into force or, if it did, that this would be for a short time only.

Brexit is a priority issue for Government, and my Cabinet colleagues and I will continue to take every opportunity to engage with EU partners and the UK to put across our views and advance Ireland's priorities.

Could we perhaps take just a minute for each question? Then we will be able to get a response from the Taoiseach.

Déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall. I will do my best.

Go raibh maith agat.

May I ask a very direct question then, since the Ceann Comhairle wants us to be very direct and very succinct? When has the Taoiseach scheduled his next conversation with Prime Minister May? Does he propose to telephone her today? Presumably, he will allow the no confidence motion to be determined. The expectation is that she and her Government will survive that.

The scale of the defeat of the negotiated plan was such in the House of Commons that it is the very clear view of virtually everybody who has spoken that plan is no longer viable in terms of its potential to be approved in any slightly modified way by the House of Commons. Does the Taoiseach know what Theresa May's plan B is, which she is now required to present to the House of Commons next Monday? Does the Taoiseach have a plan B or is the view simply that what is negotiated is negotiated and if it is not that it is no deal?

I thank the Taoiseach for the account of his conversation. When does he propose to speak to Mrs. May? We can speculate and no doubt people will on what form the management of this parliamentary crisis will be across the water and that is all fair enough. The question for us is where Ireland is positioned. Will the Taoiseach make absolutely clear and plain to Mrs. May that the needs and interests of Ireland have not changed, that the back stop remains the absolute bottom line? Will he also talk to her about the contingency, of which he has not spoken, in the event of a crash and a no-deal and no-backstop scenario on that issue, that she has raised in the House of Commons, that is the prospect of putting the constitutional question and a referendum on unity?

Will the Taoiseach be more specific about when exactly his last contact was with the British Prime Minister? I think he said it was before his visit to Mali. Was that a telephone call or what was the nature of that contact and the deliberation? The Tánaiste yesterday seemed to confirm what the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, said, that there would be checks in the context of a no-deal Brexit but he does not want to talk about it because once we start delving into what he said all of a sudden we will be the Government that reintroduced a physical border on the island of Ireland. We need clarity on that and I did not quite get it this morning from the Taoiseach. What was the Tánaiste saying? Was he saying that in the event of no deal there is no backstop? Therefore, what are the implications and has the Taoiseach discussed with the President of the Commission Mr. Juncker or with Michel Barnier how we prevent a border emerging? Have the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister discussed the idea of an extension of Article 50?

I have been saying for some time that my concern is that if there is no deal Europe will insist, in order to protect the Single Market, that there should effectively be a border with customs checks and so on, North and South, and the conversation between the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and the Tánaiste rings alarm bells in that regard. We hope there will be some sort of deal even if it is not this deal - I think at one point the Taoiseach referred to the "no-deal deal" that could be done between Ireland and the UK in that event. If all that fails, will there be pressure from Europe on us to impose a border?

Europe says it will stand with us on all these issues. Will it stand with us to the extent that it will make funds available to protect certain sectors of the Irish economy, workers, small farmers and so on from the impact if there is a crash-out Brexit with all the potential consequences of that?

I do not remember the exact date of my last contact with Theresa May but it was by telephone about ten days ago. I think it was the day I was in Munich or the day after that when I was in Paris. We had pencilled in a call for the week gone by but given all the events in Westminster that did not happen. I do not anticipate I will speak to her today. The motion of no confidence is happening and I understand there may even be a series of rolling motions of no confidence. This, I understand, is the idea of the Leader of the Labour Party in the UK, to put down several motions of no confidence but I am sure we will speak soon and we may have the opportunity to meet in Davos next week if she is able to make it. I appreciate things are very fluid in Westminster at the moment. There is ongoing contact between our Sherpas and our chiefs of staff.

We have not had a detailed discussion on Article 50. In at least one meeting or telephone call I raised the prospect of Article 50 being extended, saying that was an option, which is just a statement of fact, but it was not something that she really wanted to pursue at that point. It was our shared objective to focus on securing the ratification of the withdrawal agreement.

Deputy McDonald asked many hypothetical questions. I do not have a problem with that. Asking hypothetical questions is reasonable but it is not always possible to give answers to hypothetical questions without guessing and I have found that guessing and speculating out loud is not a good idea when it comes to Brexit. There is one hypothetical question I might ask Deputy McDonald to consider: I know it is the Sinn Féin policy that if there is a hard Brexit, no deal, the only way to avoid a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is to have a border poll and bring about territorial unity. The question arises that if that border poll were defeated would Sinn Féin then seek that Ireland leave the European Union and align itself with the UK in terms of customs and the Single Market. These things have to be thought through because that is certainly something I would never support. We will stay at the heart of the European Union. I wonder if Sinn Féin might go back to being Eurosceptic in that situation. I would be interested to know how the Deputy would propose to avoid a hard border after the border poll was defeated.

I read the transcript of what the Tánaiste said yesterday. My reading of it is that he was specifically referring to checks on goods travelling between Britain and Ireland and we all know that those checks will occur at ports and airports. That is the most sensible thing to do.

He was not talking about that. He was talking about-----

That was my reading of it.

That is twice the Taoiseach has misled us. That is not what he said.

No journalist who was there said that.

No one is saying that. He was talking about the consequence of a no-deal Brexit.

I shall read it again but that was my reading of it. In a no-deal scenario obviously we have a big problem. As I have said before, it is not enough for people to say that a hard border can be avoided simply by saying that nobody wants one-----

What is the Taoiseach's plan B?

Is the Tánaiste correct in saying what he said?

-----and simply by saying that it can be achieved merely through political will and good intentions.

To maintain the absence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland we have to have an agreement on customs and regulation. We have to be in the same customs territory or customs union, whatever one wants to call it, and we have to have alignment on regulations.

In a no-deal scenario where do we go?

That is precisely why we have negotiated the withdrawal agreement.

It has been rejected. What is next from the Irish Government's perspective?

What was the Tánaiste getting at? Was he saying that in a no-deal scenario there would be checks?

The Deputy would have to ask the Tánaiste but that is what he told me he was getting at.

He is the Taoiseach's Tánaiste. I am asking the Taoiseach.

That is why we negotiated the withdrawal agreement and the backstop. I do not see much room for negotiation beyond that. What has to happen now-----

Then what if there is no deal, how do we prevent the border?

I will tell the Deputies then what. What happens now is exactly what Prime Minister May said would happen. She will now engage with senior politicians in Westminster to see if they can come up with a set of proposals that would allow us to ratify the withdrawal agreement. That is where the issue lies. We have to hear from the UK what its proposals are to resolve this problem and avoid no deal. We can then consider its proposals but any proposal it makes has to be acceptable to the European Union and to Ireland. There are many ways we can protect sectors of our economy that may be exposed. We already have approval for rescue and restructure, for example.

If in the event of no deal, particular businesses fall into huge difficulty as a consequence and where jobs and viability are threatened, we can use public money to help save those businesses if saving them is a possibility. We have approved that already. It is a rescue and restructure system. We can also bring in special supports for the food industry and the agrifood industry. When Russia closed its market to agricultural imports from the Baltic states the EU was able to go in with special assistance and special aid. They are the kinds of things we can do to protect industry and jobs and to protect the agrifood sector in particular if we need to do so. The priority for the next few weeks is securing a deal so we do not get into that kind of situation.

Written answers are published on the Oireachtas website.