Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Ceisteanna (10, 11)

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [2541/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

11. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [3862/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (27 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 11 together.

The international, EU and Northern Ireland division of my Department covers work on all international, EU and British-Irish and Northern Ireland affairs within the Department, including Brexit issues. The division assists me in my international role, including as a member of the European Council, and in my other EU and international engagements. The division also provides advice to me regarding Northern Ireland affairs, British Irish relations and, of course, on Brexit issues. This includes work to advance peace, prosperity and reconciliation on the island of Ireland, including assisting me in my engagement with the British Government, in institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement and on restoration of the institutions including the devolved Assembly and power-sharing Executive.

The division provides advice and briefing relating to my varied international engagements, including meetings of the European Council and other EU summits, bilateral engagements with Heads of Government of EU member states and other countries and international affairs more generally. The division also works closely with other relevant departments, notably the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Augmenting the ongoing work of my Department’s international, EU and Northern Ireland division on Brexit, is the Brexit preparedness and contingency planning unit, which assists the secretaries general group, overseeing ongoing work on national Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The unit works closely with other divisions in my Department, including the economic division, and with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit.

Did the Minister, Deputy McHugh, give the Taoiseach any feedback from the very large conference held in the Waterfront in Belfast at the weekend? I hope he gave the Taoiseach a sense of the frustration among a very large and broad gathering of people, and also the sense of ambition that was expressed in terms of Ireland after Brexit. It is really important for the Taoiseach to hear those voices and for him to have his finger on the pulse of popular opinion. He is right to say that opinion is not reflected by the DUP. He will be aware, of course, that business organisations in the North are despairing at the fact that the backstop has been trashed at Westminster with the connivance of the DUP. He is also aware of the very serious perils that confront agriculture at these times.

I also raise the issue of European foreign policy. It relates in some measure to the issue Deputy Haughey raised about the future of Europe, the future of Ireland within Europe and the direction of Europe. We have a long-standing policy of military neutrality and of independent foreign policy. I heard the Taoiseach say in Davos - I hope I am quoting him right - "I think that Europe needs to really be able to have a common foreign policy." I think he is entirely on the wrong track there. Our neutrality and independence in foreign policy matters-----

All right, Deputy-----

-----in accordance with and chiming with our historical experience-----

We have to skip to the final-----

-----is extremely important.

We will have to-----

We need to know the Taoiseach's view on sovereignty and fiscal sovereignty.

If we do not give the Taoiseach time, we will not know his views on these matters.

On a previous occasion when the Taoiseach was away, I asked for the Government to set out its vision for the future of Europe. He was not there on that occasion, but I repeat that call again today. We need to know where the Government stands on these issues.

If people are going to consume all the time, there will be no time left for a reply.

What is the Government's position on the recently agreed German-Franco treaty which has many implications for Europe? Does the Taoiseach foresee that treaty impacting on the future of the European Union, including Ireland's role in the European Union?

How many people in the Department of the Taoiseach are working on the bid for our membership of the UN Security Council?

Given the weekend that is coming up, does the Taoiseach intend to travel to Japan for the Rugby World Cup later in the year?

There is no doubt, with the negative developments that have happened in the UK, that Ireland will have to make a much stronger push regarding its global presence, particularly if the staunchly pro-Brexit voices in the UK prevail and Britain crashes out of the EU.

The Taoiseach mentioned that there are many parties in the North of Ireland but the DUP is the largest unionist party.

The Deputy's time is up.

John Hume would never have made any progress if he had not reached out and talked to people with whom he had very serious difficulties. Ultimately, he and others were able to resolve, through the Belfast Agreement, an all-Ireland framework for progress to be made. It is not that we are in agreement with the DUP's position but it has a position, which is not a majority one. The majority of people in the North voted to remain.

The Deputy's time is up.

We need to know the Taoiseach's approach to the DUP.

The Taoiseach ran out of time and was not able to answer the question I posed in the last round. I will not ramble this time, if I was rambling, and will give the Taoiseach an opportunity to praise the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee, who conducted the citizen's dialogue on the future of Europe. The report she produced concludes, "In advance of this summit we will publish a statement on our strategic priorities for the European Union, capturing your ideas to set out Ireland's vision for the coming years.". When will that statement be produced and will the Dáil be fully involved in the debate on the future of Europe?

At some point in the future relations will be rebuilt between this island and London. So far, few details have been available on any discussions there may have been on this point. It has been said in the past month that the Taoiseach wants to have some form of annual joint cabinet meeting along the lines of the Franco-German meeting. Other than this, we have heard absolutely nothing and we certainly have not been consulted on anything. This is another example of meetings being called at which we do not get any substantive detail and the media, inevitably, being briefed in advance.

I have put forward proposals on this issue publicly and would like the Taoiseach to tell us what level of discussion there has been about new bilateral structures. Once Britain leaves the EU, there will be an enormous gap. The European Union was the context for the significant development of relationships between successive Irish and British Ministers and officials that, in itself, was a catalyst for the Good Friday Agreement in terms of familiarity between people who had worked with each other as members of the EU.

Irrespective of the nature of the future relationship between the UK and the EU, there will always be substantive bilateral issues including, for example, the common travel area and other matters. We need substantive and ongoing contact and structures at political and official level and this cannot be allowed to become focused on annual photo opportunities. It will involve hard, unglamorous work. If there is a no-deal Brexit in 58 days, what arrangements for bilateral discussions and negotiations are ready?

The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, briefed me on the meeting in Belfast last weekend. I know that it was very well attended and it seems to have been a very successful event. I hope if there is a follow-up event at some point in the future that I will be able to attend in person and continue to engage with that important body of Northern Ireland society.

Regarding European foreign policy, the EU has a Common Foreign and Security Policy, CFSP, and a common defence policy in the form of PESCO, of which Ireland is a member. PESCO is quite new and we will have to see how it develops on a case-by-case basis. We will get involved in various security projects but that will not involve Ireland taking part in a putative European army or getting involved in any military alliances. The CFSP needs to be a lot stronger and it could work a lot better. Europe can be a force for good when it comes to foreign policy. We have an increasingly multi-polar world, with a very strong America but one that is abdicating the kind of global leadership role that it had in the past, alongside an emerging and increasingly influential China. Many other countries are coming to the fore on the world stage while Europe's population and wealth continues to decline proportionately. If we want to promote European values and ideals in the world, we need to have a stronger European common foreign policy. That means leading on issues like international development, Africa, climate change, combatting terrorism and security threats and the crises in places such as Syria and Ukraine. In the case of the latter, Europe acting together as one could have done better and could have helped to bring peace and security to those places.

I note that in the past couple of days a number of European countries have indicated that they may take action against Venezuela. Unfortunately, we do not all agree but the majority of people in this House agree that what has happened in Venezuela is terrible. If one goes back 20 or 30 years, Ireland was ranked 20th in the world in terms of human development by the United Nations. We are now in fourth place. Venezuela was in 40th place, not too far behind us but now it is in 70th or 80th place, which shows the effect that socialist and anti-democratic policies-----

And sanctions-----

-----have on a country. Venezuela is experiencing increases in maternal mortality and neonatal deaths, a refugee crisis, abject poverty and the removal of people's democratic freedoms. A number of European countries are taking a stronger stand on this and are calling for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela and for free and fair elections. We want people in that country to have security, democracy, human rights and hope again. That announcement was made by four countries but it would have been more effective if it had been made by an EU of 27 countries. These are the kinds of areas where the Union can be a force for good in standing up to the terrible badness and evil that is happening in Venezuela at the moment.

The UN Security Council bid is being led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There is nobody in my Department whose specific job is to work on that bid but my Department plays a supporting role and many of us are involved in many different ways.

I do not have any plans to travel to Japan. I am not sure if I have even received an invitation-----

There is a sporting encyclopaedia in the form of Deputy Shane Ross and I am sure-----

Perhaps he should travel.

The Taoiseach and the Minister could travel together.

I have no plans at present but a lot could happen between now and September.

We are out of time now.

Obviously, with regard to the DUP, we listen to and respect its views but generally we have an exchange of views with that party. We do not see eye to eye on these matters.

On the future of Europe, I would very much welcome a Dáil debate. I do not know the current position with regard to the statement and will have to check with the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. She did a good job on the public consultations and is doing a stellar job as a Minister of State at the moment.

On bilateral structures between the UK and Ireland, I envisage the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, which was created under the Good Friday Agreement, being upgraded and used as an opportunity for British and Irish Ministers to meet. Currently we run into our British counterparts at least four times a year at European Council meetings but that will be gone in a few months. Upgrading the BIIGC might be the bilateral mechanism we could use to make sure that we are continually and regularly engaging with our UK counterparts.

Written answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 2 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.