Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

Ireland and the EU 2021 Poll Results: Discussion

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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No apologies have been received. I re-emphasise that members must be on-site to contribute.

I welcome Ms Noelle O'Connell, CEO, and Mr. Stephen O'Shea, European Movement Ireland. As the delegation is on-site I do not have to read the normal long note on privilege, which is good news.

I hope that Ms O'Connell does not mind but we teed up the findings during last week's public session as they were already in the public arena. Members will look to extrapolate, examine and scrutinise these interesting figures and we look forward to engaging with the delegation on them.

Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory regarding an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

Members are reminded of long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members of the constitutional requirements that members must be physically present within the confines of the place in which Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House or the Convention Centre Dublin, to participate in public meetings. I will not permit a member to participate where they are not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting. In this regard, I ask any members who are participating via Teams to confirm, prior to making their contributions, that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus.

I invite Ms O'Connell to make her opening statement.

Ms Noelle O'Connell:

I thank the Chairman and the distinguished members of the committee for the opportunity to address them this morning.

A Chathaoirligh agus baill an choiste, is mór dom a bheith libh agus táim an-bhuíoch as an gcuireadh teacht chun cainte libh inniu ar ábhar fíorthábhachtach dúinne i nGluaiseacht na hEorpa in Éirinn agus daoibh mar choiste, gan amhras. It is a great privilege to discuss the findings of the latest European Movement Ireland's opinion poll entitled Ireland and the EU 2021. I will also briefly make reference to the Conference on the Future of Europe.

As the distinguished members of the committee will no doubt be aware, since 2013 the European Movement Ireland has carried out annual, independent polling on Ireland's relationship with the European Union. Our efforts to track and analyse this sentiment is unique and, I hope, valuable. The regularity with which we carry out this polling, analysis and exercise allows us to not only capture a snapshot in time but present changes and trends that occur.

Bearing the usual caveats about opinion polls in mind, I will highlight a few points from the results that the distinguished members might find interesting. To start with our regular question on support for Ireland's continued membership of the EU remains strong at 84%. Support was highest in the youngest and oldest age cohorts at 87% and 93%, respectively.

We see a reluctance to give up control over certain areas of national competence. Only 35% of people favour giving the EU more control over healthcare policy if that meant losing control at a national level, while fewer than a third of people or 29% would support more political or economic integration if it meant losing control over key economic policies such as tax. However, the younger cohort and demographic are more supportive of EU health competences, and further economic and political integration. It is encouraging to see that more than three quarters of people or 77% believe that EU funding to member states should be linked to rule of law principles.

Interestingly, fewer than a third of respondents or 32% believe that there will be a united Ireland in the EU in the next ten years. That figure is broadly similar to the question we polled in 2020. This is somewhat surprising given the increased scrutiny in this area since last year's poll.

On the future of the EU and Europe, 52% agree that now is the time to hold a Conference on the Future of Europe, and to reform the EU even if this would result in a referendum in Ireland. There will be more on that later.

It might be useful to members to highlight some trends, themes and suggest some associated insights arising thereof. The key finding of 84% agreeing that Ireland should remain part of the EU remains encouraging, and is consistent since we started polling. However, the finding that 53% believe that the EU is moving in the right direction suggests that strong support for EU membership in Ireland cannot be taken for granted.

We were not entirely surprised by the numbers having confidence in the EU vaccine strategy. A useful reference point to consider in this particular question is that in 2020 we asked respondents if the EU had dealt well with the Covid-19 pandemic and found that sentiment was pretty evenly split between 47% who agreed and 46% who disagreed.

We have included questions on defence co-operation in several years. Since 2017, we have asked if Ireland should be part of increased defence and security co-operation. While the numbers agreeing with that have remained relatively consistent, with 54% this year and ranging between 49% and 59% over the period in question, the numbers disagreeing have declined steadily from 40% in 2017 to 27% in 2021.

I draw the attention of members to the fact that in reply to several questions, those in the 35 to 54 age cohorts were less positively disposed than those in other demographic groupings. It is difficult to arrive at certain and definitive conclusions regarding the reasons for this. However, we need to pay attention to what seems to be a somewhat disconnected and disenchanted middle.

Broadly, these numbers tell us that while Irish people remain positively disposed towards the EU, support is not unequivocal and should not be taken for granted. Furthermore, it cannot be conflated with unquestioning support for further integration, particularly related to areas that have traditionally been associated with strong member state competencies. Those of us who support Ireland’s place in Europe should be encouraged by these findings while recognising that it will take commitment, effort and engagement to maintain support for EU membership in Ireland.

We only have to look to our nearest neighbour or, a little further afield, to some of our neighbours in eastern Europe to see how quickly things can change and the consequences that arise. In a world that is changing fast, old certainties are becoming new uncertainties. The Covid pandemic has had a significant impact on economy and society but the EU will be central to our collective recovery and its future legitimacy and public support depend greatly on how it responds to these many challenges. Ireland’s position as an active, engaged and progressive member state will be central to that effort but that position can only be maintained with the support of the Irish people and that support must be earned and trust maintained through action and engagement.

I will make some brief remarks on the Conference on the Future of Europe. European Movement Ireland was delighted to partner with the Government on the official national launch of the conference by the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, last Friday in Iveagh House. When addressing the committee last November, I outlined our view that the Conference on the Future of Europe should deal with substantive issues affecting the EU and should be citizen-led. We see this process as a significant opportunity for citizens to contribute to the future shape of the EU. However, we must remain determined and diligent to ensure it is a truly bottom-up exercise that genuinely engages citizens and delivers tangible outcomes. In that regard, we are very pleased to be working and partnering with the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government on engaging citizens on these issues on the island of Ireland as well as the diaspora overseas. As members will know, European Movement Ireland has a long history of engaging citizens on European issues and Ireland is considered to have a long and distinguished track record in engaging citizens more broadly on issues such as those debated at the Citizens' Assembly. Ireland is seen as an example of best practice in terms of how we go about engaging citizens and I hope that, through the Conference on the Future of Europe, we can continue that strong tradition. We are currently in the process of finalising plans in that regard - the conference was only launched on Europe Day, 9 May, in Strasbourg - but our aim and goal is to meet and engage with as broad, diverse and representative a cross-section of people as possible, including those in Ireland and EU citizens in Northern Ireland and beyond. We will start doing this in the virtual world first, through online consultations that will begin in a couple of weeks and go on into next year.

I am very grateful for the committee's previous engagement on this issue and the excellent report arising from that which was an extremely beneficial and important contribution to the process. I offer my congratulations in that regard. I would be delighted to return to speak to the committee about our progress in more detail at a later date when we are more up and running. Míle buíochas, a Chathaoirligh, agus baill an choiste. Ba mhór agam an deis labhairt libh inniu.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank Ms O'Connell. She referred to several figures. One that is of interest to me is the lower percentage relating to the 45 to 54 age cohort. A few members of the committee are in that age bracket. Members might focus on that issue and maybe she could come back to the issue of why there is less enthusiasm for membership of the EU among that cohort. I know she referenced it already but maybe we can tease it out a bit further.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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I am in the Leinster House complex. I thank Ms O'Connell for her presentation, the very interesting research she has carried out and the work done by European Movement Ireland with regard to the European project. As regards the figures, they are positive for those of us who are champions of the European project. I will zone in on three of them. Some 53% of respondents agree that the EU is moving in the right direction, 29% agree that there should be more political and economic integration in the EU even if that means that member states lose control over economic policy and tax, and 54% agree that Ireland should be part of increased EU co-operation on defence and security. There are warnings relating to those three figures. We have the Conference on the Future of Europe. That may result in a referendum, treaty changes or whatever may be proposed. As politicians, there are certainly warnings in the context of those figures with regard to treaty change and a referendum. Does Ms O'Connell agree that is the case? It seems to me that although there is great support for the European Union generally, with 84% in favour of continued membership, many people only want it to go so far. I know we have to be ambitious with the project, but we also need to be cautious. Does Ms O'Connell agree?

I was interested in a phrase used by Ms O'Connell either in her article in The Irish Timesor in her presentation to the committee, that is, the disenchanted middle. There is certainly food for thought in that regard, as the Chairman noted. Is there any evidence in the poll findings of polarisation or extreme views supporting or opposing the EU? We have seen the rise of the far right and populism in Europe generally and polarisation in politics globally. Is there evidence of such polarisation in Ireland?

Can Ms O'Connell provide the committee with more information regarding how European Movement Ireland intends to consult citizens? In her article in The Irish Times she mentioned the Traveller community, islanders, the Roma community, minorities, the LGBTQ+ community and citizens of Northern Ireland. That is very welcome. We need to reach out to as many people as possible. When will European Movement Ireland have its plans finalised for genuine consultation and making a big effort to reach out to people to participate?

Ms Noelle O'Connell:

The Chairman and the Deputy posed similar questions in terms of the disenchanted middle. That is an interesting finding that occurs across many of the responses. It is not indicated in all of the findings, but it is evident from enough of them that we have remarked on it as a trend and a pattern. We are seeing the challenge of that cohort and demographic who have suffered significantly as a result of the economic crisis in terms of a possible inability to access their own homes and the challenges that are impacting them in terms of living and working through the Covid pandemic. It is something of which we need to be mindful and on which we need to continually engage. As part of the Conference on the Future of Europe we are, of course, going to work with all demographics. There is a welcome and understandable focus on engaging with the younger population, which is really important, but I am very conscious and cognisant of the fact that we must continue to engage with all sectors and demographics. We cannot afford to allow that middle 35 to 54 age cohort - many of those present are in that demographic - to feel left behind.

The Deputy asked several valid questions regarding the levels of support and engagement. Of course, we cannot take the level of support for granted. The Deputy is right to be cautious. What we are ascertaining is whether people are in favour of progressing to deeper involvement in Europe and what type of integration that requires. Understandably, many people still wish for Ireland, as a member state, to maintain control over national competencies. Obviously, it is a complex issue. Anything to do with the European Union in terms of sentiment and opinions certainly is. Support cannot be taken for granted or given on all issues. It will be interesting to see on what topics citizens particularly focus and what views are expressed as we virtually travel the country in phase 1 of this online consultation.

Nevertheless, the Deputy is correct. In terms of treaty change and a referendum, it is welcome from our perspective. The Taoiseach said only in recent days that Ireland will not rule out treaty change and that will have an impact on a possible referendum in Ireland, but that should not be the starting point. It would not necessarily be helpful or beneficial to have that as the prerequisite and starting point, but if that is what arises from the process of consultation that will take place throughout the 27 member states, that will be considered.

As for polarisation, opinions fluctuate and vary. For example, if we had asked the vaccine question a couple of weeks after the significant increase in vaccine dosage, that would, arguably, have led to a higher finding.

The Deputy asked about the process of the Conference on the Future of Europe and I am very happy to share that with members. As they will appreciate, the conference had a somewhat challenging institutional beginning but we officially launched on 9 May. For us in Ireland, we will seek to take the learnings and adopt best practice, as we did in the future of Europe consultation process in 2018 and 2019, and examine the use of a citizens' assembly, with a safe, interactive and engaged forum for people to have their say. We will reach out to all elected members to ask them to invite any constituents who are interested in getting involved.

It is fantastic that we have had a number of expressions of interest from members of the public, including people in the mid-west and Connacht, looking to get involved in the process. It will take place virtually over a couple of hours, with discussions on a number of key topics such as the economy, digitisation, the role of the EU in global affairs, the environment, climate change and agriculture. In a series of guided discussions, participants will get relevant information in advance to help prepare and guide them in the discussion. We will then have an open conversation, which will take place virtually in the different constituencies and be fed back to the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, and the Department of Foreign Affairs. That will, I hope, form part of the Government's thinking and consideration on this process, as it did in the previous iteration.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank Ms O'Connell for her presentation and for carrying out this research. I have a few questions that will build on what Deputy Haughey raised. I was struck that 84% of respondents support remaining, which is, statistically, more or less the same as the referendum result in 1972 that led to Irish accession to the European Communities. I acknowledge there have been a couple of changes in our guests' findings over recent years, which is to be expected with the highs and lows of Brexit and how that transpired, but it is nonetheless remarkable that the figure is still so high. As Deputy Haughey rightly said, that should not be taken for granted. How resilient does Ms O'Connell believe the figure is? I appreciate that European Movement Ireland is part of the wider European Movement International network. Has any similar research been carried out by its sister organisations? How does Ireland stack up in terms of approval for remaining within the EU?

I was struck by Ms O'Connell's comments on the Conference on the Future of Europe and the important role her organisation will play in that. I appreciated her presentation to our committee on the previous occasion, and I hope the findings that her organisation sends to the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will also be sent to this committee. When we talk about the future of Europe, that 52% approve of holding the conference is all well and good but it is not a massive number. There is a danger the conference will become an internal reflection for the European institutions, as opposed to a real discussion among the citizenry and member state parliamentarians about how we can move Europe forward. Whether we like it or not, there are considerable challenges facing the Union at the moment.

I do not buy into the narrative, which is probably put across in other jurisdictions, that the EU is facing a crisis, that it may collapse, that this is the end of the EU and that it is a Franco-German hegemony. The European project was born out of crisis. It thrives in crisis. Its raison d'êtreis to respond to crisis. Between the global pandemic and the climate emergency, there are certainly plenty of crises to go round and for the Union to play a strong role in. How can we, as member state parliamentarians, best feed into this process to ensure it will not just be a talking shop and that there will be some tangible contributions in order that what emerges from the process is not just something that could have been done around a boardroom table in Brussels without talking to any citizens?

On defence and security co-operation and our allies within the EU, while the figure is still generally positive in regard to increasing co-operation, I am struck by the decline in opposition to such. The cyberattack on our systems in the past week goes back to the importance of co-operation with other member states in the context of security and defence. That does not necessarily mean sending troops to some far-flung battlefield or building up armaments but it does mean the exchange of data and information, with the levels of smart policing and security that are so necessary at the moment. Does Ms O'Connell believe that will feed into the conference or is the issue a little removed, with people simply not thinking about it until it is on their doorsteps?

It is interesting that the vaccine strategy received a relatively low approval rating. We are all politicians, and as much as we may deny it in public, we love opinion polls. We read each one of them and pay attention to them, even though we say the only poll that counts is that on election day, which is of course true. Even so, they are a snapshot in time, and an opinion poll taken a couple of weeks ago, such as this, could have very different results if taken today. I wonder, therefore, whether that result might be slightly different if the poll were taken now.

I should declare I am on campus in Leinster House. I am not in that squeezed middle cohort but I wish the Chairman the best of luck with his vaccine registration. In due course, I hope to get there myself. As the roll-out moves through all the different cohorts and registration opens to them, we see how important the issue is.

We are very grateful to Ms O'Connell and Mr. O'Shea for the report. The importance of it is that it is consistent over a period. They have asked topical questions but the same questions, and we start to see interesting patterns emerging. Colleagues will want to raise various issues but my final question relates to the feasibility and possibility of a united Ireland. One of the early achievements of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach, straight after the Brexit referendum, was to get European Council approval that if, at a future date, we voted for unification on this island, that would be automatically accepted by the EU following the precedent of East Germany and West Germany. That is obviously a major issue for us in Ireland, but as when we talk about Brexit and the Border issue, the level of awareness and knowledge among colleagues in other member states, including former member states, is pretty negligible about what is happening on this island. Harking back to our guests' engagement with European Movement International, in which they play an important role, are the feasibility and permutations that a vote on a united Ireland might lead to ever raised, even anecdotally, post the Brexit process?

Ms Noelle O'Connell:

The Deputy raised some excellent questions and points and I will do my best to address them. On how resilient the 84% figure is, it has fallen from the halcyon high of 93% in 2019, which we can attribute to a Brexit bounce or dividend when solidarity and all things Brexit on the island of Ireland were front and centre during the Brexit negotiations.

However, as the Deputy mentioned, 84% of respondents being in favour of continued membership of the EU reflects the figure of 83.1% from almost 40 years ago. How many things remain consistent through 40 years? It is a pretty strong tribute to, and recognition of, not only the benefits we have gained as an economy and society, but the increasing level of growth and development we have experienced that in large measure has been helped by our membership of the Union and has enabled us to have a greater voice and say at the global table.

As regards the Deputy's question on whether other organisations in the wider European Movement International network have carried out similar surveys, they have done so on occasion, although probably not with as much regularity as European Movement Ireland.

The Deputy asked how the Irish level of support for the EU compares with that in various other member states. As distinguished members of the committee no doubt know as purveyors of opinion polls, many such polls, a bit like buses, come along at once. The most recent Eurobarometer survey was published in recent days and indicated that 75% of Irish people have a positive image of the Union. That is the second highest level in the EU. It also found that 77% of people in Ireland agree that the interest of Ireland is taken into account at the EU, which is the highest level in the Union. That is really encouraging. Of course, we cannot take that for granted or be complacent because, sadly, Brexit has demonstrated the challenges of trying to reverse more than 40 years of negative discourse, rhetoric and diatribe in a very short six-week referendum campaign. That process of combatting and rebutting misinformation with facts, engagement and constructive dialogue is ongoing and it is not one in respect of which we can choose to take our foot off the pedal, so to speak, notwithstanding the challenging times through which we are living.

The Deputy made a great point regarding the Conference on the Future of Europe. We certainly do not want the conference to be more of the same or a navel-gazing, introspective opportunity for the bubble to talk to the bubble, to be honest. That is why we want as broad, representative, constructive and diverse an engagement with the people of Ireland as possible. That is why we will be working very hard to ensure we have a diverse and representative demographic. To follow on from that point, which is similar to a point made by Deputy Haughey, we will be reaching out to bodies and associations that represent and advocate for the rights of migrants, Travellers, civil society groups in Northern Ireland, women's groups, sporting organisations and farming bodies. Nobody will be left off our list. In that regard, we are really grateful to and appreciative of the members of the committee for engaging with their constituents and encouraging them to have their say, get involved and put themselves forward to take part in this really important process because if not now, when, and if not us, who? This is why we want to get as many people involved as possible.

The Deputy made a very interesting point regarding the involvement of the committee. There is the formal structure as part of the conference in which national parliaments can become involved. I am sure that is something he and other members of the committee will consider. More broadly, it is obvious that we cannot have 5,000 people in Munster on a Zoom call debating the various topics. We will have to try to narrow it down. We will encourage people to listen in, get involved and have their say. As the process progresses, we would love for the members of the committee to get involved and take part. We are somewhat in the embryonic planning stages. This was a lot easier in the world before Covid. As the Chairman is no doubt aware, we had an excellent citizen dialogue in person up in lovely Letterkenny where we had approximately 80 people get involved around tables for three hours. There was a moderator on every table and we got to meet everyone. The Minister heard what the constituents were saying. We now have to try to replicate that process in the virtual online world. I encourage members to consult, engage and promote and help us to spread the message and to exhort their constituents to get involved.

Deputies Richmond and Haughey referred to the finding that 54% of respondents favoured Ireland being part of increased defence and security co-operation. As we have gone around the country in recent years discussing this range of topics on the future of Europe, we have seen an increasing recognition and realisation in this regard, as the Deputies mentioned, and observed that the number of those against such increased co-operation has been in steady decline. There is a growing awareness that, as we have sadly seen this week, cyberterrorism does not respect borders, which highlights the importance of cybersecurity. It is necessary to pool our collective knowledge and consider how to defeat these challenges that are not just at a national level but at a global level. That is certainly an issue of which people in Ireland are increasingly mindful.

As regards Deputy Richmond's question on a united Ireland in the EU, I refer to the situation prior to December and the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, TCA, and the withdrawal agreement being signed off. There is obviously a welcome understanding, recognition and appreciation of the importance of supporting, maintaining and upholding the principles and hard-won peace of the Good Friday Agreement and the solidarity of mitigating the worst impacts of Brexit on the island of Ireland. There is among our counterparts a recognition, appreciation and understanding of that. This issue has moved down the agenda somewhat within the EU more broadly. Many member states and our sister organisations are focused now on growing and navigating their way to recovery post the Covid pandemic and looking at the institutional challenges the EU may need to consider further. The tax issue is one to which the Deputy referred. The issue of the island of Ireland and the Brexit impact is not as high on the agenda as it was previously but I am confident and assured that solidarity remains and support exists for working collectively to mitigate against the worst impacts of Brexit, which, let us be frank, is something that certainly was not desired by the majority of people on this island.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I thank Ms O'Connell for her comprehensive and thoughtful presentation, as always, to those of us engaged on European matters. As Deputy Richmond stated, Oireachtas Members use polling all the time and are impacted by it, regardless of what we say publicly. We are also focused on the nature of polling and know that the question put and the timing of it is extremely important to the result one gets. Some advocacy groups present poll findings to committees of the Houses and others with a question that is obviously weighted in such a way that it will get the result the group expects. However, this comprehensive view is important for us. I wish to drill down into the nature of the questions put. The overarching question with regard to whether the person supports continued membership of the EU is straightforward and clear and people understand that. It is remarkable that there has been such a high and consistent figure in favour of continued membership. I know from looking at polls from my constituency and political polls that a consistent figure in an area over several decades cannot involve the same people, so there are different cohorts of people who amount to the same number being won over.

The impact of the debate on Brexit has focused people on the EU, which had been a sort of passive backdrop to our lives for many people. The notion that a state can disintegrate itself or disentangle itself from a 40-year integrated trade and political co-operation arrangement has underscored the value of membership of the Union. Some people, including very many British colleagues to whom I have spoken, were also genuinely surprised by the degree of solidarity Ireland received. The view, certainly of the Brexiteers, was that we would be left alone amid the greater economic consequences of Brexit when hard economics came into play, and that was not the case. That has impacted people's positivity.

The more granular questions, such as whether there should be more health competence or more economic integration if it means less control, are too abstract to get meaningful answers from. Someone has to say specifically what he or she means if he or she is to get a meaningful response to a question such as that. The default system for most of us is the status quounless we have a compelling reason to support change. To the notion as to whether competence will be ceded, questions must be asked as to what end and what specifics? One cannot receive meaningful responses to those general questions.

This comes down to my last focus and question, which is on the future of Europe, a really important debate, and the nature of our interaction. We all love hearing from people. After every election defeat, the first thing a political party will say is that it will talk to the electorate again and reconnect. That is a really important thing to do, but the nature of that reconnection and that dialogue is important. We have a representative democracy, that is, an elected Parliament; we do not have a direct democracy whereby everything is put to a popular vote. People therefore expect suggestions, ideas and visions to be presented to them. My question is how the witnesses see the process unfolding. Should it involve the electorate in all their different structures and compositions being presented with alternative visions of the future for them to make their choice, or is it to be a passive listening exercise whereby someone goes into a room and asks them what they think, which is a lot less constructive?

Finally, I recall many years ago, when I was involved in local government discussions, that the local government organisation went around to communities to ask what they wanted in their communities. They said, "Here is a blank page. What do you want?" Everybody had a great dialogue and there were round tables and so on and at the end of it every community wanted a swimming pool, a bowling alley and a hospital. There was a list of items everybody wanted as opposed to a vision of what was practical and doable and what the options were. How do the witnesses see the dialogue meaningfully engaging with people to build a consensus as to what the vision of a new Europe should be?

Ms Noelle O'Connell:

I thank the Deputy. I agree with him. All his comments resonate with us and we will take them on board. Far be it from me to drill down into the merits, nuances and subtleties of polling with distinguished committee members. They all know far more about opinion polling than I ever will. Let us be very honest: it is difficult to set definitive answers to specific questions. We are limited by both resources and the number of questions in the poll; otherwise, we would have had hundreds of questions. They are designed to try to gauge broad sentiment in specific areas. Unfortunately, the Deputy is correct that we cannot drill down into every nuance and specific policy area to the extent we would like, but we see the value and the merit in nonetheless getting a broad brushstroke focus. It is interesting that we have seen a reluctance among people in Ireland to cede control over tax more broadly over many years and in response to different question formats. That trend has remained consistent throughout our polling. What we are trying to do is build a picture of the sentiment in certain areas, recognising, of course, the limitations that come with this and the caveats and health warnings the Deputy constructively outlined.

The question about the process unfolding and whether it will just become a passive listening exercise is a great one. From our perspective, there is a big challenge in this regard. It is a little like apple pie, swimming pools and bowling alleys for everyone. We will have to try to set realistic expectations and manage them because what the people in Ireland might have to say about how they see an evolving and a reforming EU taking place could be very different from what our counterparts in, for example, Slovenia, might say. Slovenia will assume the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU in a couple of weeks. How do we get this balance right? There will have to be compromise, and the committee has discussed this over previous meetings. The challenge will be to reconcile the vision while managing realistic expectations and taking on board the differing and competing views and perspectives across member states, as we have seen only too well and too frequently with something as complex, multifaceted and challenging as the 27 member states that comprise the EU and its diverse population of more than 450 million citizens. At the end of the process, perhaps we will be able to get an idea of how the Union can be better, work better and serve the interests of its citizens. I refer to polls similar to those we have carried out in Ireland and the Eurobarometer polls and their findings and statistics. They will tell us what the EU is doing and give somewhat of a report card. That will be important. The Deputy is absolutely correct.

When I present on the topic of the citizens' assemblies, as I am frequently invited to do, and I am asked to share the Irish experience, Ireland is held up as a model of best practice, which is a fantastic tribute to how we approach these debates. People always point to the fact that the citizens' assemblies dealt with very sensitive, delicate and contentious issues on which the Government reflected and which the Oireachtas looked at and that many of those issues were then put to a vote in referendums in which people voted and made their voices and opinions heard on those issues. It will be a challenge to get the balance right between vision and expectation management, but I hope we will have the constructive engagement of committee members, the Oireachtas and the Government, and that commitment is there. We always say that this cannot be just a talking shop and that the information, views and feedback cannot be just compiled, put into a report and left sitting on a shelf. A tribute to us all in Ireland is that the views and perspectives of our citizens have been inputted into the Irish position. That is of real comfort and is something we will stress and reinforce as we embark on this constructive conversation, dialogue and listening process.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy Ó Murchú, to be followed by Deputy Brady.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I will defer and cede my time initially to Deputy Brady. I believe he had his hand up and I would not like him giving out about me afterwards. However, I would like it to be noted how constructive, collegial and magnanimous I am.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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I am unsure what favours in return Deputy Ó Murchú is looking for, but we will soon find out.

I thank Ms O'Connell for the presentation. It showed some interesting results. Every politician will say that an opinion poll is only a snapshot in time.

One of the questions posed in the poll is rather poignant. It is the question on Ireland's position on the UN Security Council as an opportunity for us to influence global affairs. It would be interesting if we asked that question at this point after four meetings of the council in light of the horrendous situation in Gaza and its failure to take a position or at least issue a statement. I believe the response to that particular question now would be skewed in a different way given the complete failure of the council in that regard.

There was a question on whether Ireland should be party to increased EU defence and security co-operation. That was a timely question given everything that has gone on in respect of cybersecurity. Was any analysis done on the views of people on neutrality? We know people have strong views on Irish neutrality and that two thirds of people favour our strong position on neutrality. Was any analysis done on fears of erosion of our position, especially given our strengthening ties with the European Defence Agency and our participation in EU battle groups and so on? Was any analysis done around concerns in that regard?

There is another question I am keen to tease out further. It relates to the law and principles such as democracy, human rights and equality. It is an important question but I believe it was skewed a little. Was any further analysis carried out in respect of trade agreements in which the EU is a participant? Under a Euro-Mediterranean agreement we are trade partners with Israel. We know about the gross human rights violations that are continuing. We know about the human rights aspects of that trade agreement and the failure of the EU to implement sections relating to human rights. Was any analysis done with regard to the views of people on trade agreements and human rights violations? It was probably a missed opportunity in not asking a question around the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. It is an issue on which this committee has undertaken specific work and analysis. Was any assessment or analysis carried out on that?

The next issue is the question in respect of a united Ireland in the EU within the next ten years. Again, this was a missed opportunity. While the results are interesting, I do not believe they are in line with the broad view of Irish people and the broad support for Irish unity. That particular question could have been accompanied by other questions to determine the numbers who support the concept of Irish unity. Will Ms O'Connell touch on that to see whether any analysis was carried out?

I will finish on the Conference on the Future of Europe. What are the views of Ms O'Connell and the organisation on how we engage with citizens from the North in the conference? Should the Government make a specific argument for northern citizens to partake in the conference in their own right? It is well known at this stage that they will be subject to EU rules and regulations but will have no say in the future of the EU.

Ms Noelle O'Connell:

I thank the Deputy. There were some excellent questions there. I will start with the question on the UN Security Council. As I mentioned previously in response to Deputy Howlin's, we are somewhat limited by breadth. We do not carry out a Eurobarometer survey. As much as we would like to, we cannot and do not have the resources to really drill down into greater detail on the 50 key topics that we would like to. Maybe some day we will get to that stage.

In any case, every year we try to ask a pertinent and topical question. I am delighted that the Deputy raised the question we posed on the UN Security Council. It is encouraging to see 68% of people in Ireland agreeing that Ireland's seat on the council offers us an important opportunity to influence global affairs. That is certainly to be welcomed. Ireland's permanent mission to the UN is working constructively and proactively on all matters to ensure we exercise the Irish voice and bring to bear the Irish perspective to the best extent that we can through the UN and the UN Security Council. It is important to see that support is in place among people in Ireland in that regard.

The Deputy asked about our analysis of neutrality and the view of 54% on increasing defence co-operation. Over the 2018-19 period, physical future of Europe citizen dialogues took place throughout the country. We can see the views from our conversations with people from Letterkenny to Cork and everywhere in between. There is appreciation, understanding and a proud recognition of our track record in peacekeeping. We have the longest unbroken peacekeeping service. There is recognition of the importance of maintaining our neutrality. The view is that it is not mutually exclusive from looking at proactively engaging in some of the defence and security matters that can be engaged in co-operatively. Arguably, few would disagree that the recent cyberterrorism and cybersecurity attacks have highlighted the importance of looking to combat these threats.

As the Deputy knows, there were efforts to look at misinformation and disinformation. We saw a great deal of misinformation around vaccines and coronavirus. Interestingly, one of the questions we posed in the poll was whether the EU should do more to regulate social media platforms. More than 70% of people in Ireland believed that should take place.

The Deputy asked an interesting question on trade agreements and trade deals. Due to space and budgeting, we had to leave that question out this year. In the 2020 poll, we posed a question to people on whether EU trade deals with other countries throughout the world benefit Ireland.

A total of 75% responded in the affirmative so they agreed that EU trade deals with other countries around the world benefit Ireland, 17% did not know and 8% disagreed. The rate for Dublin was 75%, the rate for Leinster was 79%, and the rate for Munster, Connacht and Ulster was 72%. The Deputy is correct that we did not pose a question specifically on CETA but, again, this issue is certainly not going to go away. We look forward to putting the question, or some form of it, in future polls.

On the Deputy's question on a united Ireland, he is absolutely right. Our polling has indicated broadly similar answers on this question over recent years. A Kantar-Independent News and Media poll on 1 May showed that 67% of adults in the South support a united Ireland and that 16% are opposed to it. For Northern Ireland, the same poll shows 35% of adults are in favour of a united Ireland and 43% are against it, although, significantly, one in five did not express an opinion. That there are those who say they do not know or do not express an opinion highlights for us the importance and necessity of constructively engaging and having a conversation on this topic. The BBC LucidTalk poll showed 51% would vote for a united Ireland while 27% would vote against it. It is interesting to see the different figures in the various polls. It indicates that this is a topic whose importance is such that we have to engage on it. We must have a conversation on it in the North and South. We will certainly be doing that.

Reference was made to EU citizens in the North. As I am sure members will be aware, more than 700,000 people in Northern Ireland have an Irish passport and are therefore entitled to be and are EU citizens. At the national event to launch the Conference on the Future of Europe on Friday, 14 May, it was constructive and welcome to hear the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Taoiseach and the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Thomas Byrne, all refer specifically and repeatedly in their opening remarks to the importance of focusing on and engaging with people in the North. We will do this in the Ulster citizens' dialogue. We will reach out to all community groups, political organisations, civil society groups, trade associations and sports clubs and encouraging them to help us spread the message. I hope some of their members will be interested in taking part. I assure them that we will be doing this very proactively. It is welcome to see that everyone from the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the Taoiseach were at one on this.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the witnesses. As always, we have heard an interesting presentation. Deputy Howlin's remarks on polls and how they are read are worth reflecting on. I will take up the Chairman's challenge on behalf of all those between 45 and 54. We are Generation Europe. Some of us were born in 1973. We grew up with Europe. According to the poll, 55% of those aged between 35 and 44 agree Europe is moving in the right direction. The rate drops way down to 42% among those aged between 45 and 54 and increases again among those aged between 55 and 64. On the question on whether Ireland should remain a member of the EU, 85% of those aged between 35 and 44 agree. The rate is nine percentage points lower among those aged between 45 and 54. To what is that decrease attributable? What is the most sceptical age group in other EU countries? Is this process replicated in European movements in other member states? How do our key measures stand by comparison with those of other member states?

Ms O'Connell mentioned consultation and engagement. In this regard, is it worthwhile to focus on the age groups that seem to diverge from the norm? I do not want to use the word "sceptical". There is a lot of convergence regarding the questions but the figures I have mentioned stand out.

Ms Noelle O'Connell:

I thank the Deputy. He made a great point on Generation Europe. He referred to the disenchanted middle, to which I alluded. From a socio-demographic perspective, it is interesting to note support for EU membership is particularly high among younger and older generations. Interestingly, this contrasts somewhat with the trend in many fellow member states, which generally experience a decline in support for the EU among the older cohort. Ireland is something of an outlier in that regard. That is probably attributable to the older generation having seen how many improvements were afforded to them, their children and grandchildren through the opportunities afforded to us by membership. Interestingly, with regard to the finding that 76% of those aged between 45 to 54, or Generation Europe, support membership, a possible explanation is that this cohort has gained the most from opportunities afforded by EU membership since 1973 but, conversely, has also lost the most as a result of the economic, banking and financial crises from 2008 and onwards. To follow on from Deputy Brady's points, we would probably need to carry out further analysis of this and have more focus groups on it. It is, perhaps, illustrative of the point Deputy Calleary is trying to make. He is correct in asking what more we can do to engage. It is a matter of ensuring that the demographic in question is represented at every stage in the Conference on the Future of Europe process.

On the question on what other organisations do, which was also posed by Deputy Richmond, some organisations do what we do on occasion but not to the same level. The EU's Eurobarometer surveys, which are carried out regularly and consistently, give a quite good EU perspective on some of the questions and topics we have touched upon but the EU poll we have carried out since 2013, with its caveats and health warnings, is to try to give an Irish snapshot. It gives us a little more leeway to pose some of the questions through an Irish prism. Perhaps we lose the Irish flavour in the wider Eurobarometer surveys, which, understandably, must cater for, and are targeted at, a wider EU audience. It is a matter of trying to get the balance right. I am sure we could have many committee meetings and engagements answering a compare and contrast leaving certificate question on all the various polls, results and findings. I do not know what time we would finish at but there would certainly be a lot for us to explore.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I will probably be in some agreement with much of what has been said but I will pontificate and the witnesses can feel free to agree, refute or even attack what I say. Like everyone else when it comes to polls, I trust the ones that support my argument and the others, I believe, need to be questioned.

I imagine a significant number of people would agree that the EU is moving in the right direction, particularly post Brexit and the solidarity that was shown. I do not know if it relates to what the Chairman, Deputy Calleary and others said about the 45 to 54 years cohort and whether that could still be the outworkings of the banking crisis and the feeling that we were treated badly by Europe. People’s mode and mood changed on the EU in respect of the Covid vaccine. It was really good at selling the idea of European solidarity but there was a certain failure to keep the eye on the ball and it was not until Thierry Breton was put in place that there was more focus. The question that will occur next time will be about the part the EU and the Commission plays in international solidarity, ensuring maximum supply throughout the world so we are all safe, because that is the only way that will happen.

People welcomed it when the EU and the Commission got their acts together on co-operation. I understand that we are always afraid of ceding that terrible term "sovereignty", and but it can be of benefit particularly on healthcare. Even without having competencies, when we made determinations at a European level we were able to do business. That is probably what we have to work on. It is only through that sort of work that you will sell that idea.

There is a question on the Conference on the Future of Europe, reform and a referendum. I am not sure if there is much desire for a referendum but everyone wants to have their voice and we need to take the opportunity and try our best to get out to all parts of society. I attended the launch remotely and I feel as though Ms O'Connell and Mr. O'Shea have spent a considerable time on my screen at this stage. It is necessary work and we need to ensure that we engage as many people as possible because there are many cohorts and groups that do not engage, for whom Europe is very much foreign. That is something we need to deal with.

The EU is seen as a means for dealing with some issues that we have not been good at dealing with, notably climate change and digital media. Sometimes significant issues need to be dealt with on a global or European basis. It is hardly shocking that there is 71% agreement on the issue of sharing platforms and social media. We had a shock this week with the cyberattack. That fits somewhat into the question of security and defence but I would separate out anything relating to military areas. The State has a very good history of peacekeeping, which is something that people are proud of and want to maintain.

There is a question around whether there should be more political and economic integration in the EU and whether this means member states lose control over economic policy and tax. That is the area of corporation tax and fear around that. As much as we want co-operation, we also want to be able to set rules that impact positively on our own economy and how we organise our society. These issues will have to find a level. Over the years, some people had a difficulty with the EU veering too far to the right and away from the public space into the private. In Ireland and across Europe, the pandemic showed the need for governments to step up to the mark, particularly when the chips are down.

I referred to increased EU defence and security co-operation. People are okay with some parts but I agree with Deputy Brady’s earlier remarks about neutrality being a core belief. I am not sure about the idea that the US should remain an important ally for EU defence co-operation. That probably requires more questions on what people are agreeing to there. As much as America is a significant entity whether in defence or international trade, this week in particular we find ourselves having been in disagreement with the Trump Administration, now in disagreement with the Biden Administration and what it is not doing to sort out the Palestine issue.

Of course everyone is going to agree that the EU should only provide funds to member states if their governments adhere to rule of law principles, democracy, human rights and equality. There are issues in Hungary and Poland, particularly around LGBTQ people, but there are also issues we overlook such as Catalonia and the disgraceful actions of the Spanish Government. Some of those may not technically fall under European competencies but we need to have a real conversation on this.

This week we saw the difficulty the EU had among foreign ministers to merely support a call for a ceasefire this week. Hungary held out on it. The onus is on us as a State and those who agree with us when it matters. When we are dealing with the slaughter in Palestine and years and years of annexation, plantation, stealing of lands and apartheid, action needs to be taken. We need to step up whether we act alone or alongside some of our colleagues but not all of them. Only by doing the right thing will we put the pressure on. In recent weeks, there has been agreement that we need to do what was done to apartheid South Africa, which was done through international solidarity. Let us look at what happened in Ireland. It started with a small number of workers in Dunnes Stores who were simply not willing to deal with South African produce. We need to start looking at this because it is not just about the slaughter at this time but about ensuring justice and a real solution for the Palestinian people because the disparity is too great between Israel and Palestine. As long as we give only weak words while the Americans give complete support to Israel, nothing will change. Were this to happen at an EU level, it would show Europe in the best light and be a major selling point to citizens that it is stepping up for our rights and those of others.

Deputy Brady also dealt with the UN Security Council. We believed it was great but we were shown how powerless it was when it could not even determine a statement on a ceasefire, never mind the stronger terms that were required about the crimes of Israel. It is another case where we have to use the position, even if only to call out the ridiculousness of our not being able to make a determination at that level and make a clear statement on an absolute wrong.

On the question of whether there will be a united Ireland in the EU in the next ten years, further questions need to be asked. The Brexit crisis has changed everything. The conversation has started. People may be agreeing on the basis of the conversation going on at this point in time with regard to unionism being at odds with itself. The British Government then piles confusion on top of confusion. Even at meetings of this committee, he heard how the relationship between Vice-President Maroš Šefovi and David Frost was going quite well but now David Frost has set a date of 12 July, by which he will either get his way or it will be end of the Irish protocol. This is utterly ridiculous. Like all statements from the British Government on European affairs or the relationship with Europe, one cannot be sure if it is a negotiating gambit or a real position. The fact is that agreements have been agreed to and these must be honoured.

We have all mentioned the democratic deficit in Northern representation. We have to use every forum we have in this regard. I accept what the representatives have said; the Taoiseach, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, did all attest to the fact that significant Northern representation or involvement was required in the Conference on the Future of Europe. That is all to be welcomed but there is a need for further questions. I also imagine that a significant number of those engaging are doing so on the basis of the rights that were removed from them by their removal from the EU despite their having voted to remain within it. The only solution to this which will be enabled by the EU is Irish unity. Whatever anybody thinks about that, if we fail to plan, we are not doing what needs to be done. It is straightforward. The sensible thing is to have a plan and a conversation and to deal with the ins and outs of what this united Ireland would look like. Again, this would be a united Ireland within the framework of Europe. I have definitely pontificated sufficiently. I thank the witnesses very much. I am sure some will have wished they had a button to mute me.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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No, we appreciate the Deputy's insights.

Ms Noelle O'Connell:

I thank the Deputy for his excellent points. I could not comment on whether there was any pontificating involved. I will start by apologising. May is traditionally one of the busiest months in European Movement Ireland. Not only did we have Europe Week starting on 9 May but, in the past two weeks, we have been involved in supporting the fantastic work of, and partnering with, the Government, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and the Department of Foreign Affairs in two national launches. One was the launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe, which the Deputy mentioned, and the other was the launch of the Government's EU jobs strategy, which is about encouraging and promoting awareness among Irish people of the career opportunities that exist for them in the various EU institutions, bodies and agencies. That is a fantastic strategy. It is very important because it will really work to provide opportunities to make sure we have a pipeline of Irish officials to ensure we are represented at every level and around every table.

With regard to the screens, if I can use the EU jobs strategy launch as an example, paradoxically, one of the positive aspects of this crisis with regard to the virtual world is that more than 700 people registered to watch the Government's national launch of the EU jobs strategy. I was contacted by people working for UN agencies in Fiji and people working in Canada who were looking to learn more about the opportunities available. I apologise but this is a great opportunity to discuss and debate Ireland's relationship with the EU and Europe and how to go about framing and improving that relationship.

The Deputy is correct and he hit the nail on the head in respect of the vaccine strategy. If it a point often forgotten but the EU is one of the few global blocs, if not the only one, to export vaccines and to facilitate access to vaccines and to the supply chain for less fortunate or developing countries. If we are honest about it, others have not been as forthcoming or generous in that regard. The Deputy is correct that none of us is protected until we are all protected. That is why it is welcome to see the progress in respect of the roll-out of the vaccine strategy. I hope that, if it please God, we will swiftly move through all demographics and cohorts here in Ireland. The EU has, in fact, exported more than 100 million doses of vaccine. That is to be commended and recognised. It obviously did not get everything right. The Deputy is absolutely spot on in that. There was a slow and bumpy start. The template and roadmap were possibly not as easy to implement at such a fast speed but I really hope that the EU will take the lessons it has learned from this process into the years ahead. I apologise as I misspoke. In excess of 200 million doses have been exported. I am getting my statistics and figures wrong. It is therefore an even better and more improved performance.

The Deputy touched on corporate tax issues. It is a really interesting point. We want to put that question in our poll every year. I believe it is interesting. It shows where Irish people's thinking is. This issue is obviously assuming greater focus and urgency, not least following the Commission's announcement yesterday or President Biden's comments. It is certainly fair to say, in light of the work the OECD is doing and the challenges of dealing with tax, that this is a global rather than a national issue. It is certainly something about which people in Ireland feel very strongly. It is interesting to see such consistency in our findings across the years.

I agree with the Deputy. What we want, and what everyone really wants, is a reforming EU that fully lives up to the values it espouses and was founded upon. We are nothing if we do not hold true to our values. The Deputy is absolutely right. I share many of the sentiments he has expressed with regard to maintaining and upholding the rule of law, equality and respect for human rights and human dignity. We should not be afraid to call that out. It is welcome to see countries stepping up to the plate more actively and putting forward their perspectives more vocally, notwithstanding that it is impossible to get consensus and agreement across all member states. We in Ireland are doing that. Again, we have to be a little bit cognisant of managing expectations in that regard but it is welcome to see Ireland collectively putting forward our robust perspectives and constructively feeding into various conversations taking place at all levels. With regard to the UN, it is important that we continue to do that. It is something we have been doing. Notwithstanding the geopolitical challenges that characterise the increasingly multifaceted global world order, it is important that we in Ireland use our voice effectively to the best of our ability and that we continue to do that. The Deputy is correct; there is an onus and a responsibility on us to do so.

We touched on the united Ireland question. European Movement Ireland is one of the participants in the Brexit stakeholder forum of the Minister and the Department of Foreign Affairs. We very fortunate to have had a presentation a number of weeks or months ago from the Vice-President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefovi.

His knowledge, commitment and solidarity with the island of Ireland to work collectively to mitigate the worst impacts of Brexit for the citizens in the North and recognise the challenges it poses to businesses, SMEs and all of us here in Ireland, was striking, welcome and important. He carried out the same consultative forum listening process with stakeholder groups and associations in the North. That is to be commended.

I raised the issue with him of ensuring the representative voice of those people in the North who identify as Irish and European continuing to be represented and advocated for. I am grateful to and appreciative of Vice-President Šefovi recognising this fact. I hope the Commission will continue to seek to engage with all of us on this island in that regard and ensure we maintain that engagement.

A great Corkman said fail to plan is to plan to fail. Deputy Ó Murchú is absolutely right that in any of these conversations, question and discussions we have posed in our new Ireland and the EU poll we want to make sure we keep doing that. I will have that as our motto for the conference on the future of Europe. I hope when I am invited to look back on the process, we will be able to report on the positive and constructive outcomes and that we are in a better place this time next year, having gone through the process and learned significantly, than where we are now.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank Ms O'Connell and the members for their engagement today. It is always good to reflect on polls and to discuss issues. I will go back to that 45 to 55 year-old cohort again. It is fascinating in terms of the percentage who believe there will be a united Ireland in the EU in the next ten years. There was a lowest percentage of 20% as well. Deputy Ó Murchú alluded to the banking crisis in terms of the confidence in Europe. There are so many areas to explore and it is invaluable to have these statistics, especially as we embark on a comprehensive engagement on the future of Europe.

It is valuable and helpful and the breakdown, from geographical to gender breakdown, is interesting. The geographical differences are not stark; they are quite similar. There are a couple of differences on the Connacht-Ulster side and on the Munster side, where a bigger percentage in Munster, at 35%, see a united Ireland in the next ten years. There are many figures and statistics and we are grateful for them.

Ar son an choiste, tá mé fíorbhuíoch de na finnéithe agus na comhghleacaithe uile agus gabhaim buíochas leo as ucht teacht go dtí an díospóireacht. B'fhéidir go mbeadh seans againn arís labhairt faoi na staitisticí agus na rudaí atá tábhachtach amach seo.

Again, I thank the witnesses and the members for participating.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.04 a.m. until 12 noon on Wednesday, 26 May 2021.