Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, about Brexit since December 2018; and if issues were discussed. [1714/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his engagement with the DUP on Brexit over the past six months. [2546/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

3. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the leader of the DUP since the withdrawal treaty was rejected by 230 votes on 15 January 2019. [2658/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the leader of the DUP, Ms Arlene Foster, recently. [2542/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent engagement with the DUP. [4208/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

I last met the DUP leader, Ms Arlene Foster, on 15 October, when we discussed a range of issues, including the current political situation in Northern Ireland and Brexit.

At our meeting I emphasised the Government's full commitment to all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement and our continuing determination to secure the effective operation of all its institutions. We discussed what could be done to get the institutions in Northern Ireland up and running again.

I reiterated to Ms Foster that the Government wants to put a political system in place that can secure an agreement on the operation of the devolved institutions and that we will continue to engage with the UK Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek progress within the period immediately ahead.

We also discussed Brexit, including the negotiations that were ongoing at that time on the backstop to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. Ms Foster explained her difficulties with the backstop, while I outlined why Ireland and the EU considers it necessary. The withdrawal agreement agreed between the UK Government and the EU includes the important backstop provisions. Unfortunately, this agreement has not been ratified by the House of Commons, and this House will be aware of the current situation in Westminster.

The Government has had discussions with a number of DUP representatives in recent months. For example, the Tánaiste met Arlene Foster and other DUP members in Belfast on 10 January as part of a round of meetings with the leaders of all political parties and a range of civil society groups in Northern Ireland. The Tánaiste will continue to engage with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the leaders of all political parties in the weeks ahead.

We can all agree that the great position we are in today regarding Brexit would be much better if the Northern Assembly and the Executive were active. Instead of the DUP promoting its hardline pro-Brexit approach, the majority in Northern Ireland would be in a position to pass resolutions and other measures supporting the current withdrawal agreement. History will not look kindly on the fact that Northern Ireland was left voiceless because its institutions were collapsed over a heating scheme, or, indeed, that the inquiry into that scheme has revealed an incredible story of the involvement of background forces that operated to an unknown agenda. The situation yesterday confirmed yet again that the lack of any relationship outside of increasingly rare meetings is an important part of the barriers we face. There is no doubt about that now.

Last year, the Taoiseach said he expected a significant initiative to get under way to get the institutions re-established. He then said this initiative would wait until after Brexit. Can he indicate to me the current status of the initiative? Given the seriousness of Brexit for the Good Friday Agreement, when will he produce the promised analysis of areas for action that need to be addressed, irrespective of the nature of Brexit? For example, the human rights architecture of the agreement specifically includes the direct justiciability of European-level rights in Northern Ireland's courts. I raised this as an issue as early as July 2016. What discussions has the Taoiseach had with the British Government on this specific matter? As it is a purely bilateral issue, I think he will agree that it is entirely separate from the withdrawal agreement, so he might enlighten me in this regard.

It may turn out to be an historical tragedy that the people in Northern Ireland who voted to remain have not been represented and that the Executive in Northern Ireland has not been reconvened. We all understand there are political difficulties in this regard, but the consequences of Brexit are so great that those difficulties need to be addressed and overcome, and they can be. In view of the difficult circumstances that have arisen, what proposals, if any, does the Taoiseach have to meet Arlene Foster and to reach out to her and the DUP, who are representatives of a large segment of unionist and pro-Brexit sentiment in Northern Ireland? Does he have plans to meet her regularly? He indicated in his reply that their latest meeting was in the middle of October. In the context of the important events that are happening, that is a long time ago. Has he, for instance, had an opportunity to engage with any of the MPs of the DUP, specifically Nigel Dodds, or any MEPs and establish their concerns about the backstop? Has he sought a bilateral meeting? Has he engaged with the DUP concerns about a no-deal exit and its impact on Northern Ireland? In the event of a no-deal proceeding, have he and, say, the IDA given consideration to how Northern companies may be facilitated by having a presence south of the Border in the Republic, to try to ease the obvious difficulties that may arise from a hard Brexit?

Like previous speakers - perhaps more so, given that Sinn Féin is a national organisation and we represent a substantial portion of the electorate north of the Border - I am anxious that the institutions of government be re-established. I am also a realist. We have a mandate from the North of Ireland and we know there is no appetite among Northern nationalists or progressives to re-establish the institutions on anything other than a grounded, sustainable and full-blooded power-sharing basis. It is not that we have minor political difficulties, and anyone in this House who is seized by that delusion is on the wrong track. The issues at play are significant and long-running. I remind Members that we arrived at a fair accommodation last February. This was not acted on and the DUP did not deliver. I regret that but those are the circumstances we are in. I met Arlene Foster in January and we had a very frank and friendly conversation, but it is absolutely apparent that the DUP has not moved one inch or one iota, nor does it intend to. For the purpose of the record of the Dáil if nothing else, I wish to identify why this is the case. It is because both governments, Theresa May's Tories and Deputy Leo Varadkar's Government, have acquiesced with the DUP agenda of delay - delay on Brexit and delay while they hide at Westminster. This is why we have had no substantive process, despite having been promised one. This is why the Taoiseach and Ms Foster can meet until the cows come home; if there is no real political pressure on the DUP to do business, it will not do business. It is as stark as that.

The Taoiseach is the person in charge.

What is his plan to get the institutions back up and running?

I reiterate a call I made in this House several weeks ago to get the institutions of Northern Ireland back up and running. It is intolerable, at this most historic and sensitive time, where the issue of Northern Ireland and the Irish Border is centre stage of politics in Ireland, the UK and Europe, that the only active politician representing the majority opinion of the North in the House of Commons is Lady Sylvia Hermon. The absence of the assembly is inexcusable at a time when we may need it to manage a crash out Brexit that could not be left to civil servants. I encourage the Taoiseach to do everything in his power to see those institutions return.

We are all scratching our heads after the votes in the House of Commons last night. What should, or could, our approach to that be? One option for the Taoiseach in any negotiations or discussions he will have with the UK Prime Minister today, or in the coming days, is to go back a year and two months to the initial agreement of December 2017 which stated that the Irish Border would be maintained open and there might be some regulatory and other checks in the Irish Sea, per se, to allow us do that. That may not be to our advantage in the sense that it might hinder east-west trade. It may be to the disadvantage of the UK because it might like the customs arrangement to which it agreed in the withdrawal agreement. However, it would be one way of responding to the UK Prime Minister by which we maintain our insistence around maintaining our Border and offers a flexible mechanism.

The DUP will not like it. The DUP stopped it after the UK Prime Minister agreed it in December 2017. Given that Prime Minister May and her officials signed off on that agreement with the EU negotiating team, it might be a suggestion to come back to the British Government within what is going to be a fraught two weeks. I put that idea to the Taoiseach.

I am, of course, very aware of the votes which took place in the House of Commons last night and I will speak to Prime Minister May by phone again this afternoon. We scheduled a call yesterday and that call will take place this afternoon in light of the position the UK Government took yesterday to support the Graham Brady amendment and in light of the two votes which occurred last night which passed the Spelman amendment and the Brady amendment.

The European Union, including Ireland, stands by the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol and backstop relating to Ireland. As European Council President Tusk said yesterday, we are not offering a renegotiation. That is not on the table and there are no plans to organise an emergency summit to discuss any changes to the guidelines, nor is there any pressure to hold one. The message which came from the European institutions and the European Union yesterday was abundantly clear: the withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation and is not going to be reopened.

It is important to acknowledge that two amendments were passed last night. The first was the Spelman amendment which says that there should not be a no-deal exit by the UK from the European Union. It is in the hands of the UK Government and the UK Parliament, at any time, to take away the threat of no deal. They have the authority to do that either by revoking Article 50 or seeking an extension to Article 50. Ireland and the European Union are not threatening no deal. The UK Government and the UK Parliament have it in their authority to take the threat of no deal away at any time they wish to do so.

The Brady amendment speaks of alternative arrangements. I do not know what are those alternative arrangements. We have been down that track before and I do not believe that such alternative arrangements exist and that is why we have the agreement that we have now. The only way we can avoid a hard border, physical infrastructure and checks and controls in the way foreseen in the original December agreement is through full regulatory alignment, to use the language of that December agreement.

It is really regrettable that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are not functioning and have not been in operation for the past two years. Absent a functioning assembly and executive, parties do what parties do. They have taken party positions that have largely appealed to their bases. Had the parties been in the executive, and holding ministerial office, they might have been more willing to think about what was best for Northern Ireland business and agriculture and what was best for Northern Ireland as a whole, rather than taking positions which very much derive from party policy.

The Tánaiste has been in touch with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland this week but we need to focus on ratifying the withdrawal agreement and creating some certainty around Brexit. Perhaps after that there will be a space to re-engage with the parties.

Fundamentally, the assembly and the executive cannot function unless the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, are able to agree. The Irish and UK Governments can facilitate, help and cajole, but we cannot force those two parties to come to an agreement. I understand the DUP and Sinn Féin now hold the world record for failing to negotiate a coalition agreement and form a government and that is not something of which either party can possibly be proud.

We understand that the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR, will continue to apply to all of the UK, including Northern Ireland. The UK is leaving the European Union but it is not leaving the ECHR.

That, of course, may change. People in Northern Ireland who have Irish passports and are Irish citizens will continue to have the rights that EU citizens have, that is the right to travel freely and to reside and work in any part of the European Union. That is something that, unfortunately, UK citizens may not have in a few weeks' time. EU citizens and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland will continue to have those rights that come with European citizenship, the right to live, work and study in any part of the European Union.

In terms of rights that are linked to residency, as opposed to citizenship, such as participation in the ERASMUS programme and the European health insurance card, the withdrawal agreement proposes that that continues throughout the transition period and that, even though people in Northern Ireland would not be in the EU anymore, they would continue to have access to the European health insurance card and to be able to participate in the ERASMUS programme, for example. It is our intention, as part of the future relationship treaty, to negotiate a position whereby EU citizens living in Northern Ireland would still be able to access all those different programmes.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Ceisteanna (6, 7, 8, 9)

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C (European Union including Brexit) last met. [2651/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C (European Union including Brexit) last met. [3861/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C (European Union including Brexit) last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [3891/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C (European Union including Brexit) last met. [4068/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (14 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 9, inclusive, together.

The remit of Cabinet committee C covers EU and international issues, including Brexit, and assists my participation as a member of the European Council. It last met on Thursday, 21 June 2018, in advance of the European Council meeting on 28 and 29 June 2018. It was the third such meeting of this Cabinet committee. The next meeting has not yet been scheduled.

Cabinet committees are often used to prepare topics for discussion ahead of consideration by the full Cabinet. Given the significance of Brexit for the country, we have discussed it at full Cabinet level several times in recent months, as was the case most recently on 15 January, again on 22 January and again indeed yesterday. It is important that all Cabinet Ministers should be fully across what is happening in relation to Brexit. Several other important EU issues have also been discussed at full Cabinet level in recent months.

I also meet regularly with individual Ministers, or groups of relevant Ministers, to focus on particular issues, including those relating to Brexit and other EU and international issues, with a view to seeing how Government can best assist the delivery of priorities and commitments.

It is interesting that the Cabinet sub-committee is basically redundant in terms of Brexit, but that is for another day.

As the Taoiseach said earlier, as things stand, there is deadlock over Brexit. The British House of Commons has voted in favour of Brexit, against the draft withdrawal agreement, in favour of having a deal and against the proposed backstop. Obviously, as the Taoiseach has just articulated, he is simply going to keep repeating that the deal is closed. Can he be clear with the House for a moment? Is the Taoiseach saying that unless the British Parliament changes its position, there will be a no-deal Brexit on 29 March?

In recent weeks, we have had entirely contradictory statements from Government on important matters. The Taoiseach may recall the Tánaiste went as far as to tell the Minister, Deputy Ross, to shut up when he said there might be security measures at the Border. Yet a few days later, the Taoiseach said not only the same thing but much more in terms of what would happen at the Border in a no-deal scenario. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste have also said they are not contemplating a hard border and that a hard border is inevitable. They said both things. Two months before Brexit, we have no legislation before the House. The majority of businesses are not Brexit ready and the Central Bank is warning of a more dramatic impact this year than the Government's official projection. Can the Taoiseach be clear and explain exactly what security or other measures are likely in March, if there is no deal? Enough time has been wasted in telling us what is not being contemplated seven months after the Taoiseach first announced the acceleration of no-deal preparations and 58 days before a possible hard Brexit. What will happen on the Border unless the deal is ratified in London?

I understood the Taoiseach to say Cabinet committee C on the European Union has not met since June. Cabinet subcommittees have a purpose. The Taoiseach indicated to us before that he is not too fond of them. They allow very senior civil servants to brief in detail on the detail of papers and, for example, to set out how they imagine the backstop would work in detail and what considerations and planning are required and who they have talked with. That kind of information is not normally at a full Cabinet meeting nor are people other than members of the Cabinet, the secretary to the Government and the Attorney General normally present. Is the Taoiseach saying he is bringing some of these people, who have an enormous skillset, from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and his own Department in to brief the Cabinet or is it the Taoiseach who is doing all the briefing? I am not surprised that the Minister, Deputy Ross, was very surprised because clearly, as the leader of the minor party in the Government, he would need to be kept very well briefed and possibly have access to something like a Cabinet subcommittee to be aware that there were or were not going to be issues and how they were likely to pan out at the Border. I have not heard that Cabinet meetings have gone on extraordinarily long. If the Taoiseach is having Cabinet subcommittee meetings at Cabinet meetings, we should be reading that the Taoiseach is coming out grey and exhausted ten hours later because he is piling them on. We deserve to know a little bit more about how the members of the Cabinet are briefed and about the subcommittee and the minor party because it is a very big issue for Ireland. We want the people who are representing us to do so to the best of their ability. Has the Taoiseach spoken with any of the leaders in the European Union, the President of the Commission or the President of the Council since the votes last night? When does he anticipate he will go on a tour of Europe to meet the leaders to discuss the situation? What he is indicating to us now is, if I understand it correctly, there will be no change and that he is not anticipating meeting anyone from Northern Ireland such as the DUP and those on the leave side. Is Theresa May planning to come to Dublin? The Taoiseach said he spoke to her yesterday and will speak to her again today. Will he tell us something about that?

I direct the Taoiseach to the hearings of the justice committee of the House to familiarise himself with the extent of the loss of citizens' rights that Brexit will entail. He should inform himself in that regard. It is a matter of astonishment that the events in the House of Commons last evening were being depicted as a great success for Theresa May within sections of the British media. The reality is that Mrs. May whipped her own MPs to vote against and press the destruct button on an agreement which she herself negotiated. The truth is that Theresa May has acted absolutely in bad faith in respect of an agreement that she brokered with the European institutions. More fundamentally, and more importantly for our purposes, it was an act of absolute bad faith in respect of the Good Friday Agreement and the obligations of the British state under international law. I read last evening's turn of events not as some gaffe or something borne of ignorance but as an act of belligerence by an element of the British political establishment. I regard it as an act of aggression against the Irish people, North and South, and against Irish interests. It did not happen by accident. This is a calculated matter that comes from the thinking of the Boris Johnsons and the Jacob Rees-Moggs, all the other extremist Brexiteers and the DUP. It has to be faced down. It is absolutely essential at this stage that the Taoiseach's will is not bent, that he does not blink and that he is not cowed irrespective of the overtures from London. In terms of contingency planning, the facts are this: if there is a crash and if the extremist Brexiteers have their way, there will be a hard border on our island. The Taoiseach may be aware there was a demonstration over the weekend on the Border. The communities there have made it absolutely clear they will not tolerate any hardening of that border. Therefore, part of the Taoiseach's contingency planning has to be in the event of a crash to reach back to the Good Friday Agreement which all have vowed to protect and implement and to look towards the provision for a referendum. In other words, if the political system cannot deal with and resolve the issue of the Border, put the question in the hands of the people by way of a democratic referendum.

We are preoccupied with the issue of Brexit in the House, and rightly so, so I am reluctant to raise another issue. I will ask the Taoiseach about the debate on the future of Europe. Many developments are happening with regard to the European Union at present. There are big issues such as migration, the rise of populism on the far right and far left, moves towards corporate tax harmonisation and further integration within the European Union. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, engaged in a public consultation process with regard to the future of Europe and produced a report on the citizens' dialogue on the future of Europe. The report concludes with reference to the summit which will take place in Sibiu in Romania on 9 May. It will be an informal summit. The report states: "In advance of this summit, we will publish a statement on our strategic priorities for the European Union, capturing your ideas [which were put forward during the consultation process] to set out Ireland's vision for the coming years." Can we get some indication of how the Taoiseach intends to approach the summit? There is plenty of time in advance of that European summit. I am interested to know the Taoiseach's thinking at this stage and the Irish stance. Will he keep the House fully informed about this particular debate because the future of Europe is obviously of consequence to us all?

I will return to the Brexit issue. I encourage the Taoiseach to continue to brief the leaders of the Opposition and to convene later this week or early next week the meeting he had last week to allow us to discuss in private what the latest developments are. It is important we retain cohesion and consensus as best we can. We need to be careful with our language. We need not to inflame it or to be antagonistic towards the UK political system which is in a real mess on this. We also need to keep very close to our European colleagues. I hope to have one of the co-leaders of the European Green Party in Dublin next week. It will help us to brief each other on the approach. I imagine each party or grouping here will be doing the same with its European colleagues. As Deputy Burton said, it would help if the Taoiseach could share his sense of what the approach will be from the European institutions, the negotiating team and the Presidents of the Council and Commission.

Have they given any indication to the Taoiseach as to their approach in the coming two weeks in response to yesterday's votes in the British House of Commons?

The questions have gone way over time. Would five minutes be adequate for the Taoiseach to respond?

Sure.

I agree with the Deputies that Cabinet committees serve a purpose, but my preference is to use the Cabinet itself as much as possible to discuss matters of major importance. Meetings are longer and more frequent than they would have been in the past. We regularly have two meetings in a week, which allows us to be focused and not to have to come out tired and looking grey, which I can assure Deputy Burton will never happen.

It will not happen with your sound-bite Cabinet.

Cabinet briefings are done by me, or the Tánaiste, or in some cases depending on the issue by other Ministers or the Secretary General to the Government. However, there are other briefings. Ministers will regularly receive briefings from officials in the EU section in my Department. Sometimes we will do that in the Sycamore Room, but it is exactly that - a briefing. It is not a meeting of a Cabinet sub-committee which requires a senior officials group before it, agendas and lots of other things. Briefings are much more straightforward than a Cabinet sub-committee.

I heard how Deputy Micheál Martin described the position of the British Parliament. It is not really for me to interpret the will of the British House of Commons. As I understand it, its position is that there should not be a no-deal exit on 29 March, based on the Spellman amendment passed last night. It is obviously up to them to realise that should they choose to do so.

Nobody knows for sure what would happen in the event of a no-deal exit. It is uncharted territory.

Is the Taoiseach saying if the British Parliament does not change, or is he saying there will be a no deal?

However, we can prepare for different scenarios and eventualities, which is exactly what we are doing.

I was asked if I had spoken to other the EU Heads of State and Government. In Davos last week I spoke to about seven in person, anticipating the events. We are all ad idem that the withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation and cannot be reopened. I obviously spoke by phone to President Juncker from Davos on Thursday. I will probably travel to Brussels next week, but that will depend on other business and the availability of other people. The EU-League of Arab States summit will take place in a few weeks' time. That will be another opportunity to meet people in person.

At the moment there are no proposals for the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, to visit Dublin. There was a proposal for her to do so back in November or December, but she could not make it on the day because some of her own party members tabled a confidence motion on her.

I absolutely intend to meet the party leaders again. That is done when there is something new to say or to talk about. Perhaps that will be next week. It is right and important that party leaders should be able to meet in private. Hopefully that will be possible.

On Mrs. Foster, we reached out to each other last week by phone. Efforts are under way to convene a meeting involving the Irish Government and the DUP. However, it is always important to remember that these negotiations are between the EU, including Ireland, on the one hand and the United Kingdom on the other. We are not negotiating or even approaching any type of negotiation with any political party. There are many political parties in Northern Ireland. When we listen to the voice of Northern Ireland we should not make the mistake of thinking that is the voice of only one party; there are many other parties in Northern Ireland. Of course, there is the voice of Northern Ireland, which includes people who are not members of political parties, including those in business groups, the Ulster Farmers Union and many others with whom the Government has regular engagement. There is, of course, regular informal engagement with DUP MPs and MLAs as Ministers visit Northern Ireland and in London as well.

Could the Taoiseach answer my question? Is he saying that unless the British Parliament changes position, there will be a no-deal Brexit in March? Is that where we are?

That is a kind of hypothetical question, is it not?

Departmental Operations

Written answers are published on the Oireachtas website.

Sitting suspended at 2 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.

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.