Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Ceisteanna (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

Rose Conway-Walsh


3. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach the financial and staff resources that will be made available to the shared island unit. [25179/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Peadar Tóibín


4. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will create a new Ireland forum to bring together civil and political society to start to work towards further all-Ireland integration and unity. [25415/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Ruairí Ó Murchú


5. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach if the citizens’ assembly will examine the practicalities of what a united Ireland would entail. [25613/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Niamh Smyth


6. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Taoiseach if the citizens’ assembly could examine the practicalities of a united Ireland. [26630/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Rose Conway-Walsh


7. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach the specific role of the shared island unit. [26807/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Peadar Tóibín


8. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will create a new all-Ireland forum to bring together civil and political society to start to work towards further all-Ireland integration and unity. [27114/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (36 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 8, inclusive, together.

The programme for Government sets out the Government’s commitment to working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. A shared island unit has been established in my Department in support of this commitment and its work is now under way. The unit’s work is being led by an assistant secretary, with two staff appointed and further assignments in train. The work programme and related resourcing for the unit are being further developed.

The unit will examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected. This work will at all times be grounded in the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. Strengthening social, economic and political links on the island and the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing Ireland, North and South, are key objectives for the unit.

Research and dialogue are also at the core of the unit's work. It is tasked with working collaboratively across the Government and with research, sectoral, business and community organisations, and with engaging with political and civil society representatives on an inclusive basis. The unit will seek a broad base of contributions from across society on this island and work to ensure that people who have been proportionally under-represented in the peace process, such as women and new communities on the island, are fully represented.

There are no plans for a civic forum or citizens' assembly on the constitutional future of the island. As I have said, I do not believe that a Border poll could be constructively pursued in the current term of the Government. It would have a very divisive impact.

The Government respects and affirms everyone’s right on the island to make the case for the constitutional future for Northern Ireland they wish to see, whether they are nationalist, unionist or neither. The Good Friday Agreement and the two sovereign Governments explicitly recognise and validate the legitimacy of both constitutional positions, which are deeply held. I am and the Government is firmly committed to working towards a consensus on a shared future for the island in which all traditions are mutually respected. The work of the shared island unit will support this and the Government will listen to and engage with the views of all communities and traditions on the island.

Our approach will at all times be founded on realising the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to sustain progress, deepen mutual understanding and further reconciliation.

It really concerns me and many of the Taoiseach's grassroots and lifelong supporters that nowhere in the 1,900 words of the programme for Government section on the shared island unit does it mention a united Ireland. That is why many supporters of the Taoiseach's party are leaving and joining Sinn Féin. I can only speak from my experience in Mayo on that.

This concerns me as the Taoiseach and his partners in the Government have not acknowledged their constitutional obligation to achieve a united Ireland. There is no reference to the explicit commitment in the Good Friday Agreement for the referendum on Irish unity. I have to ask the Taoiseach why that is so.

Despite this, the shared island unit is tasked with a wide range of responsibilities, although I will not name them now. The shared island unit must be capable of delivering progress in a wide range of areas that needs to be reflective of how it is staffed and resourced. It is expected of a shared island unit that it would establish a citizens' assembly, publish a White Paper on Irish unity and facilitate an Oireachtas joint committee to encourage structured dialogue North, South, east and west, which would also involve our diaspora and allow us to discuss how we share and shape this island.

The hour has come for the Taoiseach to show me and people like me from all around the country that a shared island unit is a genuine attempt to unify our island. The folly of partition is demonstrated over and over again, more recently with Brexit and Covid-19, and dismantling it, while always important, is now urgent. Before he gives me a lecture about Sinn Féin having disregard for the Protestant, unionist or loyalist population, I tell the Taoiseach that I am a mother from the far west of Ireland. I was born in London and I lived a very good part of my life in England. I want the same opportunities for my sons as do mothers in east Belfast. I want to see a good and respectful relationship between both our islands that embraces the Irish living in Britain and the British living in Ireland.

There are two very important documents that frame this country. The first is the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and that document very clearly states the rights of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland.

It calls for full Irish Independence.

The second important document is the Good Friday Agreement. Thankfully, that document helped bring the peace that none of us then believed was possible. The truth at the very heart of that document is the idea that the will of the majority of the people of the North of Ireland should direct its future constitutional location.

I have heard the Taoiseach argue against Irish unity on several occasions, and I have heard him argue against the majority element of the Good Friday Agreement as well. Why does he oppose elements of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and elements of the Good Friday Agreement? He uses the phrase "shared Ireland" all the time, as if "united Ireland" were somehow dirty words. It shocks me that a leader of Fianna Fáil, a party which once confidently supported Irish unity, would feel that way.

I completely understand why the Taoiseach would be cautious. It is absolutely logical to be cautious with regard to Irish unity, but the chaos that has been created in our country by the Tory Government, which affects our ability to trade, move people and do business between North and South, must have limits in light of our own self-interest as a nation. There must be some point on that spectrum where even the Taoiseach would come to the view that Ireland's self-interest makes it logical to set up an all-Ireland forum to which we can bring civic and political views from across the island of Ireland, discuss the best ways to ameliorate the worst excesses of Brexit and start to plan for Irish unity.

I have to agree with what several speakers have said. The conversation on Irish unity has begun. It has undoubtedly been sped up by Brexit and the madness of the Internal Market Bill. We have recently heard mention of Bloody Sunday. Last week I spoke about the case of Seamus Ludlow, who was killed by loyalists and members of the British Army. The reality is that British rule in Ireland has never been good and Boris Johnson has just given everybody a reminder of that.

It is straightforward. The idea that we must tug our forelocks and cannot mention Irish unity serves no purpose. It does not make us more liked by a certain section of unionism that may have a difficulty. This question is happening. Brexit makes it far more likely. A huge number of people are now determining that they want to stay within the European Union, and if Irish unity is the way to do it rather than as part of the very dysfunctional so-called United Kingdom, this question may happen faster than anticipated, possibly faster than even we in Sinn Féin had anticipated or wanted. The Government needs to prepare. We need to look at the practicalities and have a full conversation about all the people who live in Ireland, including unionists, nationalists, republicans and beyond. As I said in this House last week, Ireland has changed a great deal since I was 16 or 17. The idea of a united Ireland that I had then probably does not relate to what a united Ireland will look like. We need the Government to step up and put plans in place. We need to allow a full conversation. I accept the difficulties of Covid-19. If an all-island forum needs to start as a partly online forum, so be it.

I wish to join other speakers and note that the Labour Party supports moves towards a united Ireland. We are interested to know whether the shared island unit in the Department of the Taoiseach has discussed the Government's vision with unionist leaders.

I am somewhat amused by some of the contributions from the Deputies opposite. Deputy Conway-Walsh said she did not want me to lecture her. I have no intention of doing so.

Sorry now, I did not interrupt anybody. I would equally ask Deputy Conway-Walsh not to lecture me. Since first coming into this House I have had a commitment to North-South relationships and to the issue of the future of this island. That has been my principal interest. I have worked hard behind the scenes and as a Minister to develop collegiate arrangements with people of all political persuasions in the North. I do not need lectures from Deputy Conway-Walsh or from anybody on the Sinn Féin side of the House. Working with others, Fianna Fáil was essential to the Good Friday Agreement. Fianna Fáil enabled the Deputy Conway-Walsh's party to give up the gun. Sinn Féin endorsed violence as the way to unify Ireland and did more damage to Irish unity than anybody else. Sinn Féin continues to endorse that narrative of violence, not understanding that every time it does so it makes more difficult than ever to get a united Ireland or to get consent.

When Deputy Conway-Walsh's colleague, Gerry Kelly, celebrates a prison escape which resulted in the murder of a prison officer, is that okay? Does she think that advances the cause of Irish unity? Of course it does not, nor does saying that Sinn Féin is more pure than Fianna Fáil because of my position on a shared island unit. That sums up Sinn Féin's view. Its members see it as something to appease the base. How many more votes can I win if I shout "united Ireland" more often than somebody else? That is the essence of what I have just heard from the Deputies opposite.

That is not what I said.

If we shout "united Ireland" better than somebody else, we are more deserving of grassroots support.

The Taoiseach has hearing difficulties.

It is much more profound and complex than that.

Taoiseach, please do not patronise me.

He always patronises people. It is his thing.

The Good Friday Agreement is an excellent agreement. It is about time a lot of people worked the agreement. I am prepared to work the agreement in all its aspects. The problem is that too many people for far too long were not prepared to work the agreement.

The Taoiseach opposes the majority element.

I do not. That is an outrageous assertion.

The Taoiseach is on the record as saying that a simple majority is not enough.

No. You are wrong again.

That is exactly what the Taoiseach said.

I do endorse-----

I ask the Taoiseach to speak through the Chair.

I am speaking through the Chair.

Several questions are grouped. I ask the Taoiseach to address them.

I am answering the question. I did not interrupt any other Deputies when they spoke. I have been heckled since I began to speak and there have been efforts to interfere. With the greatest respect, I would appreciate the protection of the Chair when I have the floor.

Regarding the questions around the shared island unit, it is a noble objective to work with all sides to enable people to share this island together in whatever format into the future. I have clear views on it and I want to work with people in that regard. It is outrageous that Deputy Tóibín would put those words in my mouth about Irish unity. I never said that and I never would say it. This is about people and about minds.

I do endorse aspects of the Seamus Mallon approach, not the majoritarian approach or whatever particular formulas he had, but the ethos of what he said, that there were people in his own neighbourhood who had been there for 400 years and that it was about time we learned to share our homeland, so that people would live in neighbourhoods together rather than always opposing each other. That is the spirit in which we should go forward on the island. There is lots to engage on and we need to engage people, not just constantly polarise them through rhetoric and appealing to the base.

The Taoiseach means to say "discussion".

I am all for discussion. I have engaged in discussion on all fronts with all people involved in the North. The shared island unit can do a lot of useful work in the areas we have mentioned, including health, the range of issues concerning justice, education, including a shared approach to history within the curricula, and commemoration, notwithstanding people's different perspectives. It must also deal with Brexit, which will have an impact. Brexit must be dealt with in terms of the pragmatic impact it will have on people's lives, the economy, business and jobs. We need to resolve that as quickly as we possibly can.

Brexit could put this question in front of us a lot more quickly.

The approach Sinn Féin has put forward will only divide people more, both in the manner it has been put forward and the very partisan approach taken by Deputies opposite. I do not share that approach. I do not need lectures about Irish unity or republicanism.

The essence of my party has been to unite Protestant, Catholic and dissenter. We are of the Wolfe Tone persuasion. We are constitutional republicans who believe in the European Union.

Slightly constitutional.

I am delighted that the Deputies opposite came around to the European Union after opposing it for decades, as it opposed this State and its institutions for decades.

Fianna Fáil opposed the State for a period of time.

I thank the Deputies for their co-operation.