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Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 4 May 2022

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Ceisteanna (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15)

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent engagement with the British Prime Minister. [17582/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister. [18413/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

10. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister. [18416/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Paul McAuliffe

Ceist:

11. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the UK Prime Minister. [20346/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Ivana Bacik

Ceist:

12. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with the British government and Prime Minister. [21059/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

13. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister. [21793/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

14. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister. [21794/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Neale Richmond

Ceist:

15. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister. [22025/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (15 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 15, inclusive, together.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit London ahead of St. Patrick's Day. It was a positive opportunity to engage with Irish community representatives and business leaders. I met with Prime Minister Johnson during my visit. We discussed the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine and the profound global security, economic and humanitarian consequences. Having just come from a meeting of European Union leaders in Versailles, I emphasised the strength and unity of the European Union response. The Prime Minister and I welcomed the close collaboration between the EU, United Kingdom and other partners to hold Russia to account, to provide support to Ukraine and to address the humanitarian needs of its people, noting that in an uncertain world, the European Union and the United Kingdom are key partners, underpinned by shared values.

We also discussed political developments in Northern Ireland, looking ahead to the Assembly elections this month. We emphasised the need for the two Governments to work closely together to ensure a return to the full operation of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. I highlighted the importance of ongoing engagement between the European Union and United Kingdom on issues relating to the Northern Ireland protocol and the importance of reaching durable, practical solutions for people and businesses in Northern Ireland. My visit to London also gave me a positive opportunity to engage with a range of business and community groups and to participate in London's St. Patrick's Day festival and parade.

Boris Johnson has again been sabre-rattling, with threats to suspend unilaterally parts of the Irish protocol through legislation. We know that these statements have everything to do with the British Prime Minister's political woes, but the reality remains that the Conservative party is fundamentally reckless and cares little about the North of our country or its people. The Nationality and Borders Act is a case in point. Not only is the legislation an affront to Britain's international obligations, but it will be very damaging to the North's economy and society. The legislation also undermines the Belfast Agreement and the common travel area and creates significant restrictions of freedom of movement on the island. Will the Taoiseach give us more detail about his engagement with Boris Johnson, whether they discussed these two Acts and what additional efforts the Taoiseach and his officials will make in advance of the opening of Parliament on 10 May?

The Taoiseach mentioned the Assembly elections in the North. People Before Profit is one of a few parties in this House that is also represented in the North, with an MLA in Belfast West. We run candidates across the constituencies and will hopefully challenge for new seats in Derry, with a bit of luck. People on the doorsteps are talking about the cost of living and the same issues that the Taoiseach's Government has failed to deal with, including the spiralling cost of living, energy prices and unaffordable rents. Despite the attempts of the DUP in particular to divert people's attention back along the same old failed sectarian lines, people are talking about the need for action on the cost of living and rent controls, which we have being calling for North and South and which have been resisted by those in government both North and South. Actual rent controls would make rents affordable. There should be windfall taxes on the profits of energy companies and actual controls on the price of heating and energy fuel.

Does the Taoiseach agree that that is actually what is really concerning people and that Governments both North and South are failing to address the concerns that affect people, whether Catholic or Protestant or in the North or South, including the cost of living and housing? Did he discuss with Boris Johnson the need to have a radical shift to address those issues in the way that People Before Profit candidates are campaigning for in the Assembly elections?

Did the Taoiseach raise with Boris Johnson the question of debt cancellation for Ukraine? The UK holds 4% of voting rights at the International Monetary Fund, IMF, which is the biggest holder of Ukrainian debt. It is due to pay over €2.5 billion this year, which is equivalent to 16.5 million average pension payments in Ukraine. In exchange for this money, the IMF imposed conditionalities on Ukraine, including liberalisation and promotion of foreign trade, the removal of price controls on essential commodities, the reduction of subsidies on essential goods, cutbacks in public services and the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. People understand what IMF programmes do. They are not in the interests of ordinary people. The indebtedness of Ukraine is a consequence of the oligarchisation of Ukrainian society and the failure to tax the rich.

It is odious debt; it is not the debt of the people. It is a huge burden on the ordinary people of Ukraine in terms of the conflict with Russia and the attempt to repel the invasion but also in the context of rebuilding of the country. This is why there is a demand from social movements in Ukraine and from the largest trade union there for the cancellation of the debt. When I asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, about the matter, I received quite an incredible response to the effect that "debt forgiveness by the IMF risks impairing the Fund's financial integrity". Will somebody please think of the IMF's financial integrity and that fact that it is going to be in some way undermined by taking the absolutely necessary step of cancelling Ukraine's debt?

I ask Deputies to be conscious that we have four more speakers and there are three and a half minutes on the clock. Do we want to add additional minutes onto this question and take from the next, in order for the Taoiseach to respond?

The Northern Ireland Assembly elections will take place on Thursday. I had the pleasure of canvassing on Saturday in Belfast South with Matthew O'Toole and Elsie Trainor of the SDLP, along with Claire Hanna, the MP there. The concerns that so many people share in the North are about what will happen after the election takes place and, in particular, what approach the DUP, which is likely to remain the largest unionist party, will take regarding the return of the power-sharing Executive. Has the Taoiseach had any discussions with the British Prime Minister about how the Governments here and in London will address this matter? What concerns has the Taoiseach raised with Boris Johnson about the potential for the British Government to, depending on how the elections in Stormont on Thursday turn out, introduce legislation to undermine or diminish the Northern Ireland protocol?

As the Taoiseach is aware, the 48th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, which took place on 17 May 1974, is approaching . There were many dark days on our island during the era known as the Troubles, but that was darkest day of all because 33 innocent people were murdered and hundreds were badly injured. Sadly, nobody has been brought to justice for those horrific crimes. The Taoiseach will recall that in 2008, 2011 and 2016 this House unanimously passed motions calling on the British Government to give an independent legal expert access to papers relevant to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Sadly, the British Government has not responded to the legitimate requests of a sovereign parliament. This inaction on the part of the British Government is absolutely reprehensible.

For many years, the Taoiseach will have heard me express concerns about the Belturbet bombings of 1972, when two young innocent teenagers, Geraldine O'Reilly and Patrick Stanley, were murdered. Some time ago, I put on the record of this House information given to me by the University of Nottingham which showed conclusively that state forces in Northern Ireland colluded in the transport of the bomb from County Fermanagh to Belturbet on that fateful night. Families have waited for decades to try to get to the truth. In the Taoiseach's next engagements with the British Government and Mr. Johnson, these issues must be top of the agenda. We must try to ensure that the truth is obtained for the families involved, who continue to suffer and grieve so much as a result of the actions of murderers operating on behalf of paramilitary organisations and some within British state forces.

There is no doubt that Brexit and issues relating to the Northern Ireland protocol have caused serious problems for the Northern Ireland peace process over the past six years. They have also caused problems for British-Irish relations. We should enjoy an harmonious relationship with our nearest neighbour, for so many reasons, but this has not been possible in recent years. As we are aware, the Northern Ireland Assembly elections take place tomorrow. Does the Taoiseach agree that it is vitally important that an Executive is formed fairly quickly once the election results are declared in order that normal politics can resume in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland? Will he engage with the British Prime Minister on this matter in order that the British and the Irish Governments can, if necessary, intervene as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement? In addition, would the Taoiseach agree that the Northern Ireland protocol issue needs to be resolved, once and for all, in the interests of the peace process and to ensure that normal British-Irish relations can be restored?

I thank the Taoiseach very much his reply. By way of a supplementary question, when does he next intend to meet with the British Prime Minister? Does the Taoiseach believe that the formal arrangement of a monthly or fortnightly phone call between him and the Prime Minister is imperative? We are entering the final few hours of the election campaign in Northern Ireland. I would like to believe that everyone in this Chamber very much hopes to see an Executive established quickly. That is going to require the direct involvement of the British and Irish Governments. I ask the Taoiseach to consider that we would finally get formalised - not ad hoc - meetings between him and the British Prime Minister, and that such an arrangement be extended to include meetings between all Irish Cabinet Ministers and their British counterparts?

I have a brief follow-up question on that. We all want the Executive up and running. We all probably thought that some of what happened in the context of undermining the Irish protocol was possibly a sop to unionism. We believed that there were bigger fish to fry for the British Government and the European Union. The fear is that the British Government is willing to enter into a game of chicken. We need to know what interactions the Taoiseach has had with Boris Johnson in dealing with this, and with the Nationality and Borders Act. As was stated previously, we need a formal set-up to ensure that any issues which exist are dealt with. Obviously, it must be stated absolutely explicitly to the British Government that this is not workable and is utterly ridiculous.

I thank the Deputies for their comments. Deputy Ó Broin raise the issue of the Nationality and Borders Act, and the recent leaks or articulation around Brexit and the protocol. We decided not to take the bait entirely, given that people in Northern Ireland are in the midst of an election. I was anxious that we would allow the election conclude without us wading in, so to speak, because that could be misconstrued. That said, we are very clear that the protocol issue can be resolved between the United Kingdom Government and the European Union. There is a landing zone there, and, in my view, there has been for quite some time. I believe that European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič has made very strong and valiant efforts to reach a compromise. He did not produce a fait accompli, but he did produce significant advancements on the EU position which should, I believe, have been received more generously by the British Government. The discussions continue. The Foreign Secretary is now in charge of the British perspective in the context of engaging with Maroš Šefčovič. I anticipate that after the election an indication will emerge fairly quickly as to whether a desire to get an agreement is there or not.

In my view, it is very clear also that the protocol is benefiting Northern Ireland. Anybody I have met, be it business or political, is very clear that they want to maintain access to the European Single Market. Along with access to the market in Great Britain, this puts Northern Ireland in a relatively advantageous position for inward investment and also for indigenous companies to export, to develop and to grow. The Nationality and Borders Act is not acceptable. It would be very damaging to Northern Ireland. Whoever conceived of this genuinely does not understand the island, or its impact on Northern Ireland. We have made representations in this regard and will continue to do so

Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. With regard to the cost of living, I must disagree with the Deputy. We have been far more advanced in responding to the cost-of-living issues than perhaps the Executive in the North has. We have responded with €2.1 billion in measures to mitigate the rising cost of living. The personal income tax package is worth €520 million. The social welfare package is €550 million. In the budget the fuel allowance will increase the weekly rate so that €114 is paid to eligible households over the course of the winter. An additional lump sum of €125 was paid to 370,000 households receiving the fuel allowance in mid-March, and a further €100 will be paid in the coming weeks. There has been a 55% increase in the 2021-22 fuel allowance. We have reduced the excise duty on petrol, diesel and green diesel, saving motorists between €9 and €12 each time they fill their tank. We have reduced VAT from 13.5% to 9% on gas and electricity bills from the start of the month until the end of October. This will result in an estimated annual saving of between €50 and €70 for households. Households are now seeing the €200 energy credit appearing on their bills.

We will reduce the annual public service obligation, PSO, levy from €58 to zero by October. We will reduce caps on multiple school transport fees for children, as well as reducing VAT on kerosene, which is the main type of home heating oil in Ireland, to 12%. We did not do that because of the impact on the wider Exchequer, given that we would have to do something about a whole range of other goods and services. We did take other measures as well, however, in terms of transport fares coming down.

On Deputy Paul Murphy's question, I met with Prime Minister Shmyhal from Ukraine recently when he stopped off in Shannon. He was actually heading to the United States to meet members of the Washington Administration and representatives from the IMF. There are different mechanisms than the one the Deputy put forward in terms of debt cancellation that the Ukrainian Government is exploring with the IMF and others. Ukraine will need the support of many member states to ensure that is current budget is supported and that there are continued supports for it on the current side and on the reconstruction side.

Deputy Bacik raised the concerns about the position after the election. Again, my view is that after the election, all political parties should take their seats and work towards the establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive, irrespective of the result. The electorate want people to fulfil their mandate, take their seats and set up the Executive.

I appreciate the comments made by Deputy Brendan Smith regarding the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. The views of this House were unanimously expressed in a motion in the context of appointing an independent person who would have independent legal access to the documents and work done at the University of Nottingham. I have raised the broader issue of legacy consistently with Prime Minister Johnson during our bilateral meetings, not just in March but prior to that. We have written to him to express our deep concern at the approach set out in the British Government's July command paper and to emphasise that any decision to proceed with UK legislation on that basis would have negative consequences for reconciliation for victims and for political stability in Northern Ireland. That remains our position. We do not favour unilateralism in the context of legacy. We believe the British Government needs to respond to the views and concerns of victims, primarily in relation to the legacy issue, and follow through on the Stormont House Agreement, which was agreed in 2014 between both Governments and the parties. That is the way forward. It is a comprehensive framework.

Deputy Haughey is correct in terms of the impact Brexit and the protocol are having on British-Irish relations. We need to get the issues resolved in order that we can have a more dynamic post-Brexit relationship on a whole range of fronts. We have many discussions on the way in terms of joining the shared island initiative, with an east-west dimension in respect of research projects, for example. I think it would be well-received by all communities in the North if there was that east-west dimension. The British Government has indicated support for research hubs on the island, which we are supporting through the shared island funding.

To answer Deputy Richmond, we do meet regularly. The meetings are formalised and have set agendas. We continue to engage as issues arise.

I thank the Taoiseach. We have a final set of questions.

How much time is there for them?

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