Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11)

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his contact and engagements with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson. [37276/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson. [37373/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Prime Minister Johnson; the issues that were discussed; and his plans to hold additional meetings and or engagements. [37403/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the British Prime Minister. [37444/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with Prime Minister Johnson and the issues discussed. [37564/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he discussed the Operation Yellowhammer paper with Prime Minister Johnson when they met or since 9 September 2019. [37688/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

7. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with Prime Minister Johnson. [38502/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with Prime Minister Johnson at the United Nations. [39455/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

9. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on reassurances he sought and received from Prime Minister Johnson regarding the Good Friday Agreement and that there would not be a need for checks or controls at the Border; and if he discussed alternatives to same. [39629/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

10. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if Prime Minister Johnson indicated when the UK Government will be in a position to produce its alternative suggestions for a possible deal to the EU in order that they can review same before the EU Council meeting on 17 October 2019. [39630/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with Prime Minister Johnson since he met him in the United States of America; and the issues that were discussed regarding Brexit; if a written proposal will come from the UK to the EU in the near future. [39892/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (22 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 11, inclusive, together.

I have met with Prime Minister Johnson twice in recent weeks. We had a meeting in New York on Tuesday, 24 September, when we were both at the United Nations General Assembly. We previously met in Government Buildings in Dublin on 9 September. Brexit was, of course, the main topic of conversation on both occasions.

While we both acknowledged that formal negotiations take place between the EU and the UK through the EU task force, TF50, we agreed that there was also merit in us having direct discussion. We confirmed that we both want to see an agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Johnson explained the changes he is seeking while I set out our view that the withdrawal agreement represents a compromise and the best basis for agreement. The discussions were useful, but there is still a very wide gap between the EU and the UK in terms of reaching an agreement. We also discussed Northern Ireland and our shared commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and the restoration of the power sharing institutions in Northern Ireland and the North-South bodies.

While we did not specially discuss the details of Operation Yellowhammer, we both acknowledged the disruption that a no-deal Brexit would cause for Ireland, Britain, and Northern Ireland. Our discussions were not focused specifically on security in the Border region but that is, of course, a major concern for all of us and one of the reasons we need to secure an acceptable agreement. I urged the Prime Minister to accelerate engagement with the European Commission. The UK has yet to put forward any credible proposals and I urge its Government to bring forward formal proposals as a matter of urgency, given the limited time that is now available.

In addition to our meetings, we have spoken twice by phone, on 30 July and 19 August. At our meeting in New York, we agreed to meet again in the near future and that our officials would keep in close contact.

I thank the Taoiseach. If his discussions were directed toward bringing some logic, common sense, or rationality to the British Prime Minister, I am afraid he has failed in his mission. For a British Prime Minister to claim that he or she cares about the Good Friday Agreement and peace and security on this island on the one hand while floating a non-paper which very provocatively - almost maliciously - envisages a scenario that would be deeply destabilising simply does not add up. From here on in, in the discussions the Taoiseach has with the British Prime Minister, he needs to remain very firm and very focused. Discussions between Dublin and London cannot in any way be used as a mechanism to dilute or step back from the bottom-line requirements of this island.

Like the Taoiseach, I have been very clear in my engagements with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and with the British Prime Minister that any proposals for customs checks are unacceptable and provocative because such checks effectively represent a hardening of the Border, which in turn is an abdication of the British Government's general responsibilities in respect of good neighbourliness and economic and social stability, but also in respect of the Good Friday Agreement. I put it to the Taoiseach that it would be very dangerous for us to go down a political or diplomatic cul-de-sac that might pit the Border against the integrity of the Single Market. We should not have to make a choice between the Single Market on the one hand and the Good Friday Agreement on the other.

In the course of the Taoiseach's discussions with the Prime Minister, as he shared his inner thoughts did he indicate the contents of this non-paper, which I acknowledge he distanced himself from this morning?

Boris Johnson's non-paper proposal for a string of customs posts on either side of the Border has been rightly dismissed by everybody as completely unacceptable. It demonstrates the total disregard, if not contempt, Boris Johnson holds for the economic and political well-being of this country. I find it alarming that the Taoiseach says that this is totally unacceptable and that this proposal could not possibly be considered in the context of trying to do a deal, but that he hints he will do the same thing Mr. Johnson is proposing in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Taoiseach's proposals for a no-deal Brexit are very similar to Mr. Johnson's proposals for a deal, that is to say, that there will be checks somewhere in order to protect the integrity of the Single Market. I put it to the Taoiseach that this is not really good enough. While border checks imp

osed by Boris Johnson are unacceptable and threaten the peace and stability of this island, so do border checks imposed by anybody in any context, regardless of whether there is a deal.

We need to absolutely, categorically rule out border checks or anything else that will move us towards a harder border or that will damage the all-Ireland economy. The Taoiseach needs to say that very categorically to Boris Johnson, but also to the European Union.

In just over four weeks the latest deadline for Brexit will pass. Anyone paying even the most basic attention will agree that we have so far seen zero evidence that Prime Minister Johnson's Government in London is actually trying to reach a deal or that it is acting in good faith. Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the British Government is acting in good faith with regard to wanting to avoid a no-deal Brexit? It seems the Brexiteers care little about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland. With regard to electoral proceedings in Britain, a general election is imminent. It seems the pre-eminent issue for the Tory Party is to dominate the pro-Brexit vote in that election and to marginalise the Brexit Party.

That is its starting point in these negotiations. One of the most striking developments so far concerns the number of areas in which there is a point-blank refusal to explain what is being planned and the impact of various options.

Earlier this year, we came within weeks of a no-deal situation for which Ireland was manifestly not ready. A large amount of work has taken place in recent months. This was completed in other countries before March. We still have no idea what will happen on 31 October if Mr. Boris Johnson and Mr. Dominic Cummings get their way and if Britain crashes out of the European Union. We all saw the leaks of the non-papers yesterday. Everybody knows they are not credible at one level and involve what is, in effect, a hard border. They would take a long period to put in place and rely on technology that is simply not in place. The proposals show ignorance of the reality of our Border and, equally, disinterest in how peace was slowly built on this island. Of equally great concern - Deputy Boyd Barrett alluded to this - is that the emerging reports on the non-papers and the British proposals are a mirror image of what we propose to put in place in the case of no deal. The Taoiseach said there will be checks near the Border, back from it. The Tánaiste has said likewise. He said they will not be on the Border, that they may not be near the Border and that they will be some distance back.

The Taoiseach has said he wants to be transparent with the Irish people. He has had discussions with the European Commission. It is becoming a little lacking in credibility to suggest these are not concluded or that both sides have not some outline as to what will happen. I take the Taoiseach's point that in the context of negotiations and things coming to the wire, he has difficulty in showing all his cards. I can understand that but it seems we are down to a choice. Is that the case? Is there another formula being developed? I refer to a choice involving Northern Ireland staying within the customs union at the point of the exit deal, or no deal. Is that what could form part of the negotiations yet to take place, if they are to take place?

It seems the UK-wide backstop is something the UK Prime Minister has clearly set his face against. Therefore, one is back to the Northern Ireland backstop. There was some talk about a consultative role earlier this month for the Northern Ireland Assembly in terms of regulatory alignment and taking on new EU regulations. That was coupled with the idea of Northern Ireland somehow remaining within the customs union. The British Prime Minister and DUP have publicly hardened their position on the customs union idea, whereby Northern Ireland would remain within the customs union. It seems this is the key area for resolution or no resolution. The choice seems to be falling down to that. Is that a fair assessment? I am basing my views on public discourse and the commentary. I am very conscious, and we should all be conscious, that there is a desire on the part of the British Government to create all sorts of hype and angst between now and 31 October.

Clearly a chaotic Brexit, including a hard border, is now on the cards. Only an election or progressive alliance of Opposition parties can now stop a no-deal Brexit and seek an extension from the European Union. Last week, my party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin, attended the UK Labour Party conference and met a number of the key stakeholders, including Mr. Jeremy Corbyn. Mr. Corbyn has repeatedly promoted the idea of putting whatever exit deal is negotiated back to the people again in a referendum, which would also keep the remain option on the ballot paper. If the Labour Party is in government in the United Kingdom, a fresh referendum of the people will be held, with the option to remain on the ballot paper. The EU must make it clear that it would enable such an extension to allow the British democratic process to proceed and conclude. Can the Taoiseach confirm that his Government is open to the granting of such an extension? Will he stress this need to our EU partners?

It seems the British Prime Minister, whom I heard demand on the radio this morning that British sovereignty be recognised in any deal, is disregarding the constitutional ambiguity stitched into the Good Friday Agreement. I refer to ambiguity in the sense of having the ability to swap or share identity. That is a real tragedy at this moment. The Prime Minister made much play on the radio this morning of phytosanitary arrangements and of not having checks on animal movements. Could the Taoiseach confirm whether this one area would require further arrangements? Would there have to be some sort of check on animal products coming from Britain into Northern Ireland, whatever about the rest of any potential deal? On a related matter, is there agreement, in regard to that deal, on the common environmental standards needed in agriculture and other areas in terms of the nitrates directive, the water framework directive and the habitats directive? These are all transboundary measures that relate to the agriculture issue. How can it be said the agriculture sector is being looked after if there is no recognition of common jurisdiction in how the environmental rules are managed?

Is there any communication on or understanding of what the Labour Party's proposal might be in the deal it says it might like to strike should it take over control of the House of Commons or the UK Government in the end? Historically, I understand it was supportive of the backstop but then joined the Tory Party in saying it was a key part of the problem with the current withdrawal agreement. Has the Labour Party made it in any way clear to the Irish Government what it would do differently? That might influence what happens in the next few weeks.

We have used up most of the 15 minutes for this group. The third group contains just two questions. Would it be conceivable to take five minutes from that and use it for the Taoiseach's response to this group? Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. Once again, I welcome the fact that Prime Minister Johnson has distanced himself from the proposals for customs posts on either side of the Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The withdrawal agreement, in the view of the Government, remains the best way forward but we are, of course, willing to listen to proposals that achieve the same objectives, that is, avoiding a hard border between the North and South, allowing the all-island economy to continue to thrive, and ensuring that North-South co-operation can continue as it does now, with free movement of goods and people north and south of the Border.

In the meetings and telephone calls I have had with Prime Minister Johnson, we did not discuss the non-papers or their content specifically but obviously we discussed the kinds of issues that arise in them, including customs, sanitary and phytosanitary controls, the Single Market and all those issues pertinent to the non-papers, which I still have not seen.

It is a fact that if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without a deal, it will do so on World Trade Organization, WTO, terms. There are some enthusiastic hard Brexiteers who want to do exactly that. They want to leave without a deal and on WTO terms but if that happens, it will be their decision, not ours and certainly not that of the European Union. Those concerned will be responsible for any consequences that flow from it. If it happens, as the Tánaiste and I have said, we will not allow ourselves to be dragged out of the Single Market also. Our jobs, economy, livelihoods and industry are all dependent on our remaining a full member of the Single Market of 450 million people in 27 countries.

Perhaps I misunderstood Deputy Boyd Barrett, who seemed to be suggesting that we would allow ourselves to end up in the worst of all worlds and have the UK leave without a deal, involving customs and inspection posts on the UK side, and find ourselves out of the Single Market, facing checks in Rotterdam, Zeebrugge and Calais and tariffs and checks on our trade from north to south and east to west and with the Single Market. We certainly cannot allow ourselves, out of belligerence, to end up surrounded by a border on all sides.

That is certainly not a situation we want to be in. If we think about it from first principles, we will realise that there have really only ever been five ways of avoiding a hard border between North and South. The first option is a united Ireland-----

That is the best option.

-----for which there is not a majority at present. The second option is that we join the United Kingdom.

That is a terrible option.

I do not think anyone in this House would entertain that option. The third option is for the UK to remain in the EU, which it does not want to do at present. The fourth option is for the UK to stay in the Single Market and the customs union. This is known as the Norway-plus option and has been rejected by the current UK Government. The fifth option is the backstop or something like it. We still think that the fifth option is the best one to be pursued. We have always been open to the idea that there might be alternative arrangements that would achieve the same objective. We have yet to see such arrangements. If the non-papers that were leaked the other day reflect what is meant by "alternative arrangements", those alternative arrangements look very like a hard border to me.

The Irish Government is absolutely open to a request from the UK Government for an extension, should it come. I think there would be a strong view across the EU that if there is an extension, it would have to be for a very good reason - perhaps to facilitate a referendum or a general election, which would give us a change of policy, more clarity on policy or a parliament that is able to ratify a deal of some sort.

I am not an expert on SPS checks, but I am starting to become one, bit by bit. My understanding is that there are SPS checks into Northern Ireland already because we are treated as a single phytosanitary zone. We want to avoid SPS checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The last time I met representatives of the British Labour Party was when I met Jeremy Corbyn and his team some months ago. They are pursuing their own model, which they call Single Market 2.0. This is a different model for leaving the EU while having a close relationship with the customs union and the Single Market, still having a say in the customs union and aligning to some European standards, but not others like state aid and competition. Again, it is a kind of cake-and-eat-it solution that probably would not fly at European level.

I asked a question about the choices. Is it a question of the customs issue versus no deal? Is that where we were at?

No, because we do not have an agreement on regulatory alignment either.

The Taoiseach has dodged my question.

It is worse than that.

The Taoiseach has avoided my question.

It has not come down to customs as the only issue remaining.

I know, but the Taoiseach could have given a response - even a broad one - and maybe that tells me something too.

This is a nice little chat between the lads.