Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Ceisteanna (5, 6, 7)

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

5. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he has met the leader of the DUP, Mrs. Arlene Foster, or the vice president of Sinn Féin, Ms Michelle O'Neill, recently. [29749/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to or met the leader of the DUP, Mrs. Arlene Foster, recently; and if not, his plans to do so. [37408/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to or met Mrs. Arlene Foster since she met Prime Minister Johnson on 10 September 2019. [37687/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (15 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

The media will be delighted to hear that Prime Minister Johnson may make a reappearance in Dublin.

He might be busy in November.

People will be fascinated with what he will wear on the day and the hairstyle to go with it.

We will allow the Taoiseach to provide his answer before the Deputies ask supplementary questions.

On a related matter, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland , Mr. Julian Smith, this week stated that a revived Stormont Assembly-----

The Taoiseach normally answers before the Deputies ask supplementary questions.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 7, inclusive, together.

The Tánaiste and I met the leader of Sinn Féin, Deputy McDonald, and Ms Michelle O'Neill in Dublin on 18 June. We discussed Brexit developments, the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time and what could be done to get the institutions in Northern Ireland up and running again. 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 of its institutions. The Government wants to see an agreement in place to secure the operation of the devolved institutions and will continue to engage with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek urgent progress in the period immediately ahead. I organised a briefing for party leaders last Monday. Although Deputy McDonald was unable to attend, we spoke at length that day by phone.

I met the leader of the DUP, Mrs. Arlene Foster, at the funeral of Ms Lyra McKee in Belfast in April. I also met her in Washington in March during my visit there for St. Patrick's Day. We have spoken by phone in the interim and arrangements are being made for me to meet her soon.

The Government is in ongoing contact with the Northern Ireland parties at official level and through the work undertaken by the Tánaiste to progress the restoration of the Northern Ireland institutions.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Julian Smith, stated that a revived Stormont Assembly could be part of the solution to the Brexit impasse.

However, he stated that efforts aimed at securing an agreement to revive power-sharing have been very difficult because there are issues, including the Irish language and culture, that need to be resolved. It seems that neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP, at a time of grave political crisis for the North and for the whole island, have shown their inability to put the common good above party politics and devise a compromise that will honour the Good Friday Agreement and allow for Northern Ireland's voice to be heard in the Brexit discussions. The situation does not appear to be sustainable. The people of Northern Ireland deserve an end to the impasse and to have a real say in any Brexit decision that undoubtedly will affect their future, given that they voted against leaving the European Union.

Last April, the Labour Party called for a Northern Ireland citizens' assembly to address the issues that are still causing trouble between the two parties. We found that useful for resolving deeply conflicted issues here in the Republic. I believe that could be useful and would allow citizens' voices to break the deadlock in Stormont. I know the Taoiseach is committed to exploring every avenue to stop a no-deal outcome but will he commit to proposing the idea of having a Northern Ireland citizens' assembly to the Northern parties and to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State? It has proven tremendously useful in resolving many difficult issues here and, similarly, it could be of great value in resolving the Brexit impasse in the North.

The Taoiseach mentioned that one of his meetings with Ms Foster was at the funeral of Lyra McKee. The celebrant of that funeral, Fr. McGill, set a challenge for all politicians to act. That was in April. It is now September. Are we any further on in that regard? We do not have the institutions up and running and I fear the vacuum that existed in April still exists coming towards the end of September. What we have seen in recent weeks is an increase in activity and community-related violence that seems to be trying to fill that vacuum, and we cannot allow that to happen. We cannot have another tragedy like that involving Lyra McKee while this vacuum still exists. What is the Taoiseach's sense now, at the end of September, of a restoration of the institutions this year on the basis of his conversations with Ms Foster? I am intrigued that she is coming to Dublin this weekend and that there will be no meeting at Government level. She is coming to speak to the business community. I know that has been a regular and welcome move over the years but given the vacuum the Government should be engaging with her at every opportunity to try to move this on.

The Fianna Fáil Party and the Labour Party leaders' interest in these meetings has to be welcomed but when was the last time they were in the North and engaged in discussions with party leaders and representatives across the political spectrum? I suspect it was quite some time ago. The Deputies should be in no doubt that people in the North, regardless of their political view, recognise self-interest when they see it. Both parties would be better served if they took part in the political system in the North as opposed to being hurlers on the ditch-----

You could do the same yourselves. Take part in what you were elected to.

-----as their founding fathers and mothers would have expected them to do. To describe the issues in the North as party politics is unhelpful given the well-recognised and debated issues of fundamental rights. Playing party politics with those issues is certainly not helpful.

The development of a Citizens' Assembly here solved the problem.

The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, is the forum set out in the Good Friday Agreement for both Governments to exercise their responsibilities towards equality of treatment and removing the obstacles at the heart of the political crisis in the North. It provides political parties with the opportunity to hold the Taoiseach and his British counterparts to account in honouring their shared responsibilities to past agreements and to the rights of the people in the North on behalf of those same citizens. As we approach the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, with all the implications that scenario has for the Good Friday Agreement, when will the next British-Irish summit be held to discuss these matters?

I thank the Deputies. In respect of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, I had the opportunity to meet him with the Tánaiste on Monday evening, and I am very much aware of the content of his Cambridge speech. Work is ongoing on restoring the Assembly and the Executive. There is deep engagement between the Tánaiste and the Secretary of State at the moment. It is fair to say that they have already developed a very close working relationship.

In terms of a citizens' assembly in Northern Ireland, it is a new idea. It is one that has some merit and I will certainly give it some consideration with my team but it would not be our call to establish it. It would have to have the support of the parties in Northern Ireland and also the Northern Ireland Office. The Good Friday Agreement already provides for a civic forum so perhaps that mechanism could be used too.

In terms of the prospects for restoring the Executive and the Assembly, much of that hangs on Brexit. If we are able to secure a deal we would be in a good position to do so. If we are not, I believe it will be very difficult to do so for many reasons that are obvious to every Member in the House.

The next British Irish Council will be held in Dublin in November. We do not have a date for a summit of the BIIGC. However, both Prime Minister Johnson and I will be in New York next week and we are trying to find a time where we are both in the same building in order to have a follow-up meeting.

Written answers are published on the Oireachtas website.