Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Ceisteanna (4, 5, 6)

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he has responded to the open letter addressed to him from a group (details supplied). [46346/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

5. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he has responded to the open letter seeking dialogue on the constitutional future of the island of Ireland. [47363/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he has responded to the open letter seeking dialogue on the constitutional future of the island of Ireland. [48846/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, together.

On Friday, 1 November an open letter was received in my office signed by citizens North and South as an initiative of the Ireland’s Future group. I became aware of the letter when it was published in the media the following Monday.

The letter raises extremely important matters which naturally require very careful and serious consideration and the Government will engage and reflect on the contents of the letter.

I welcome the initiative taken by this group and the Government has had ongoing and constructive engagement with it, since its formation in 2017. The Tánaiste and I have met representatives and the Minister, Deputy McHugh, participated for the Government in its conference at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast in January this year.

We look forward to continuing this constructive engagement on these important matters and I see the open letter as part of the debate that the group wishes to foster.

The Government respects everyone’s right on this island to make the case for the constitutional future they wish to see for Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole, whether that is nationalist, unionist or neither.

As I said in the House on 6 November, I do not rule out a citizens' assembly on the future constitutional arrangements in Ireland, but the Government is already committed to a pipeline of citizens' assemblies which is under way, including some voted on by the House. The Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality is about to start. It will run for approximately six months. After that, we will have the one on local government in the Dublin area. There are several suggestions about other citizens' assemblies that also have merit, including one on biodiversity on which the Dáil has passed a motion.

We recognise that the course of Brexit has led to more civic discussion and engagement, North and South, about constitutional change, as provided for under the Good Friday Agreement. The Government will continue to listen to and engage with the views of everyone on this island both on rights issues and on the constitutional future they wish to see for Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement explicitly recognises and validates the legitimacy of both constitutional positions, which are deeply held. The Tánaiste and I will continue to engage on these matters in the spirit of ongoing positive debate.

In the near term, the Government is focused on securing ratification and implementation of the withdrawal agreement to allow for an orderly Brexit, including a smooth transition period; preparing for the next phase of Brexit negotiations dealing with the future EU-UK relationship; restoring the effective functioning of the devolved institutions and the North South Ministerial Council; and ensuring the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the achievements of the peace process as the UK leaves the EU.

Earlier this month, over 1,000 Irish citizens published an open letter calling on the Taoiseach to establish a citizens' assembly to discuss the island's shared future. The signatories noted the Government's responsibility to ensure the democratic wishes and rights of Irish citizens are respected and protected regardless of where they live on the island. The essence of the letter is a modest ask that the Taoiseach acknowledge the debate that is already taking place and play his role in facilitating the discussion on Ireland's future. Deputy Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil have followed the line followed by the Taoiseach, which is that now is not the time for citizens North and South to discuss Irish unity. This is very disappointing. Recent referenda on women's healthcare, marriage equality and other issues are proof that politicians are often years behind public opinion when it comes to matters of national importance and public interest.

Latest opinion polls tell us that a majority of people in this State would like a referendum on Irish unity in the next five years. A poll conducted in September in the North produced a similar result. The reality is that the Taoiseach and people in Fianna Fáil are simply out of step with public debate on Irish unity. They both continue to frame the debate in terms of what will be lost instead of what is to be gained. A major event calling for a citizens' assembly to shape Ireland's constitutional future will be held in Croke Park this Thursday. Over 1,500 people took part in a similar event in Belfast in January 2019. The debate on Irish unity is taking place in towns and villages across Ireland just as the Good Friday Agreement anticipated. Has the Taoiseach responded to the letter from Ireland's Future and will he consider the establishment of a citizens' assembly?

Earlier this month, the civic nationalist group known as Ireland's Future wrote yet another open letter calling on the Government to establish a citizens' assembly to look at building broad support for a united Ireland. I have raised this issue since I became leader of the Labour Party because I believe it is important that we have a mechanism akin to the New Ireland Forum that does not set an end location for the journey but opens up a journey of discussion. To put that in the context of yet another topic, important and all as the other topics are, in a queue for a citizens' assembly is to fundamentally miss the point. If there is a variety of lessons to be learned from the Brexit debate, one is the lack of preparedness for a decision put to the UK electorate. Nobody really knew what the actual outcome was and they have spent more than three years trying to make up what the outcome of that journey in the UK is to be. It is incumbent on democratic nationalist parties and others to be invited to reimagine what the constitutional future of this island would be and for all of us, and I say this with a real open mind to all the democratic parties in this House, to approach this with an open agenda and mind - not to see that there is to be an end destination that is presumed because we will not have the broad participation in that dialogue.

When I last asked about this, the Taoiseach's response was that the time is not right. The problem with that is that if we wait and wait until somebody determines the time is right, it will be too late. We will be in a Brexit-style situation where there will be pressure to make a decision without knowing the context and outcome of that decision. I ask the Taoiseach to sit down with the leaders of the parties in this House to see if we can create the possibility of a forum, be it a New Ireland Forum mark two or a citizens' assembly, to see how we can reach out to the broadest possible strands of opinion across the island of Ireland to contemplate what the future constitutional arrangement might look like in a changing Ireland. I ask the Taoiseach not to dismiss that but to give some consideration to it, possibly come back to it after Christmas and invite a quiet discussion with all the party leaders to see if we can work together on that.

The facts show that today, the entire peace settlement is in crisis. Brexit has been incredibly destabilising but nobody can seriously deny that the crisis in the peace process began well before the Brexit referendum so we need some real talking and a bit of reality here. The core issue is a sense of people retreating from trying to find a shared approach, which was the essence of the Good Friday Agreement. Instead we have a return to communal sniping. That is what is happening right now. The entire point of the Good Friday Agreement was to stop an endless focus on a binary constitutional choice from destabilising society. The agreement provided assurances for all and an opportunity to focus on shared interests. At a point where it looks like there is a majority for permanent constitutional change, a process is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement which takes it out of the day-to-day business of party politics. The evolution to a pathway was already there in the Good Friday Agreement and it still is there.

We have been referenced by the Sinn Féin spokesman today. It is surprising to say the least that at the conference in Derry, Sinn Féin announced that it would set as a precondition for entering Government in the Republic being given cast-iron assurances about the holding of a unity poll. When one takes that in tandem with the book Burned: The Inside Story of the 'Cash-for-Ash' Scandal and Northern Ireland's Secretive New Elite, the definitive work on the cash for ash scandal in the North, and its revelation that the Sinn Féin Minister for Finance in the North had to seek the authority of non-elected Ard Chomhairle officials of Sinn Féin - Ted Howell and Pádraic Wilson - before he could cease the scheme, it reinforces the fact that Sinn Féin is unfit to be in government established under Bunreacht na hÉireann because its own party demands take the place of engagement and persuasion. I would put it to the Taoiseach that for Sinn Féin, it is a legitimate tactic to collapse democratic institutions until it gets its own way. I ask people to read Burned: The Inside Story of the 'Cash-for-Ash' Scandal and Northern Ireland's Secretive New Elite and also to look at the fact that in a recent election within Sinn Féin, the challenger was disappeared from public view and was not allowed to make his case. That is not democratic. Anyone genuinely interested in the unity of the people of this island should be trying to get the agreed institutions of the peace settlement to work and to show those opposed to Irish unity that they share a community of interest. How does collapsing the Assembly and Executive advance Irish unity? It was deliberately collapsed by Sinn Féin.

Why did the Deputy call for it to be collapsed?

I did not at any stage call for it to be collapsed. Does the Taoiseach agree that what we need today is an end to the politics of collapsing democratic institutions and a return of the democratic Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland? I met people in Newry recently who cannot understand why it has been collapsed. Only when this is done can we return to engagement, without which the union of peoples on this island is impossible. It is about persuasion, not dividing people.

Deputy Micheál Martin and I disagree on a lot and clash a lot but I very much agree with his analysis and comments on this matter. We should not forget what the Good Friday Agreement settlement is all about. It is about acknowledging that Northern Ireland has a unique history and geography and, therefore, has special arrangements - power sharing in Northern Ireland, North-South co-operation structured through the North South Ministerial Council and east-west co-operation through the British Irish Council and the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

It is a good model and while it may not be functioning at the moment, it is still the best model for our generation, rather than dividing people and forcing them to choose between territorial unity or reincorporation into the UK.

When it comes to the whole issue of a citizens' assembly, as I have said before, it is certainly not something that I rule out and is something to which I will give consideration. At the right point in time, as Deputy Howlin suggested, perhaps I will call the party leaders together about the matter. It is a sensitive time now, however, because we are only two weeks or so from Westminster elections, which are happening in Northern Ireland as well as in Great Britain. The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are not functioning and the Brexit withdrawal agreement is in the balance. We might find ourselves in a very different place in two or three months' time, in a more stable situation and a better political environment to progress these kinds of ideas.

One thing we need to bear in mind and ask ourselves is whether unionists would participate in a citizens' assembly. One million unionists make up half the population of Northern Ireland and a significant minority on this island. Would British citizens living in Northern Ireland participate in such a citizens' assembly? If not, that would fundamentally change the nature of the assembly because it would seek to discuss the constitutional future of this island absent the representatives of those 1 million people. It would then be a pan-nationalist assembly and not an assembly of all the citizens of Ireland. It would have a very different nature to that which many of us would like to see.