Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
3. To ask the Taoiseach the formal contacts by him with the UK Prime Minister and political leaders in Scotland and Northern Ireland since 31 July 2016 regarding the issue of Brexit. [27012/16]
5. To ask the Taoiseach the outcome of any discussions he has had with the British Prime Minister in regard to possible Border controls following the British EU membership referendum decision. [27104/16]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 6, inclusive, together.
I met Prime Minister May on 26 July in London, when we agreed to work together to build on the continuing strength and the closeness of the UK-Ireland relationship. We had a good discussion on the good progress that our two Governments have made in recent years following on from the joint statement, British-Irish Relations, the Next Decade, which was agreed in 2012. Prime Minister May affirmed the UK Government's commitment to this comprehensive programme of engagement between our two Administrations. This will allow us to continue to work together on a range of issues that are of benefit to all the people of Ireland and Britain, such as jobs, trade, tourism and energy, as part of our joint Ireland-UK work programme.
The meeting also gave us the opportunity to discuss developments in Northern Ireland. We reiterated the importance of the partnership between our two Governments in supporting the peace process and in contributing to stability and continued progress in Northern Ireland. We are both committed to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and successor agreements - St. Andrews and Fresh Start - and will continue to work in partnership for a prosperous and secure Northern Ireland.
We discussed the many issues that arise in the context of the outcome of the recent UK referendum on EU membership. While it is not the outcome that we wanted, we fully respect the democratic vote of the people of the UK and we will work with the Prime Minister and our partners in the EU and the Northern Ireland Executive to make sure we achieve the best possible outcome in forthcoming negotiations.
We agreed that we would work together to ensure that the benefits of the peace process are preserved in any new arrangements which might emerge regarding the UK's future relationship with the EU. In particular, we both recognised that Ireland is the only EU member state that shares a land border with the UK. We are in agreement that we do not wish to see any return to the borders of the past on the island of Ireland.
The meeting gave us the opportunity to have a broader discussion on the common issues of concern in the context of the referendum, such as our close trading relationship and the benefits of the common travel area. Both the Irish and the British Governments value the common travel area and will work to keep this in place to the greatest extent that is possible as part of future arrangements. There is no desire whatsoever to limit the freedom of people on both sides of the Irish Sea to live, work and travel freely across these islands. It will be a key issue for us in the context of negotiating new terms and conditions for the EU's continued relationship with the UK.
I last met with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and Scotland's First Minister at the extraordinary meeting of the British-Irish Council on 22 July, which was called specifically to discuss the Brexit issue, and hope to meet them again in the near future.
Through the Taoiseach's contacts with the British Prime Minister, has he any sense of where Britain is at in terms of Article 50? We are getting various indicators that Article 50 could be triggered early next year. The British Government is now busily recruiting about 300 people to strengthen its capacity to deal with the Brexit negotiations. As I said to the Taoiseach earlier, there are already different poles of influence developing within the Tory Party. One group is looking for a soft exit, EEA-type agreement or Norwegian trade agreement; others want a very hard Brexit and, though very ill-thought, are considering either a WTO-type agreement or something close to the Canadian deal. However, they are not clear themselves, and it seems that this sense of absence of clarity on the British side must be hampering our attempts to formulate a proper set of strategies and tactics in how we pursue and achieve our objectives.
For the most part we know what are our objectives but the key issue will be how we go about securing them, both across Europe and the EU member states and in ensuring that we can influence to a certain, albeit limited extent the degree to which Britain will approach these talks. It is interesting that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for example, is beginning to witness the hard realities of what Brexit means for the British Exchequer and for the financial services sector in the UK. At recent meetings he has had with some of the big banks and so on, they have been telling him straight that they need clarity from Britain, or else. An element of that could be of benefit to Ireland, but the fundamental point is the lack of clarity.
Regarding our objectives in Northern Ireland, my worry is that not enough detailed work has been done. For example, about a billion gallons of milk a day come into the South from the North. That is just one small illustration of the enormity of the two-way trade between the North and South that will be affected by this. I thought the Taoiseach and I agreed in July that we would try to have an all-island approach to Brexit. I put forward the idea that a mechanism should be developed whereby a social and civic forum would be established on an all-island basis to facilitate inputs from civil society in the North and the Republic into an issue of common concern, that is, Brexit and its implications for business, trade, workers, education, research and agriculture and farming on the island of Ireland. The implications will be very severe.
We must move away from just fuzzy talk or generalisations to concrete realities. We all say we do not want a hard Border. How does one put flesh on that bone? It is easier said than done if Britain separates from the EU. Are we looking at a border between the UK and the island of Ireland rather than one between the North and South? Clearly we want the former but we need to be thinking legally through formulas and models that can realise those kinds of objectives. It cannot all be wishful thinking or the articulation of wishful thoughts that we might like to see happening. The implementation and the realisation of those objectives are two different things.
There is a great deal of confusion and uncertainty about the entirety of this situation. The Leave campaign were in a state of shock when the result was announced. I did not like the result but we must deal with it.
On the question of when the Prime Minister is likely to trigger Article 50, from speaking to Secretaries of State Brokenshire and Davis and indeed the Prime Minister herself, under the law it is a matter entirely for the Prime Minister to do so. The feeling in a European context, when the original date for the appointment of the new Prime Minister was to be in October, was that one would need some time to reflect on what it is that one wanted to do and then trigger the article. My impression is that it will be towards the end of January or February before Article 50 is moved. I cannot confirm that as it is not my business but that is the impression that I get.
However, there are, as Deputy Martin says, different views within the Tory Party, and the Prime Minister has had to comment on a number of those in recent days. What sort of agreement does Britain want? It wants a deal which, from its point of view, protects its interests, and that will be unlike the Norwegian deal or the Swiss deal or whatever. What it wants is a British deal. We must see that our interests are protected. There is a great deal of contact going on between officials because before Article 50 is moved it will be necessary for the British side to be able to know the areas in great detail that will become a central focus of those negotiations. I assume that they are now identifying what those areas and starting to work through them. From our point of view, our senior officials will continue to work very closely with them in that regard.
The Deputy is right to mention agriculture, and the Minister, Deputy Creed, has been in regular contact with his Northern Ireland counterpart, Michelle McIlveen, MLA. He will travel to London shortly. As I said, I have asked every Minister before the next North-South Ministerial Council to have in in-depth conversation with their counterparts and their officials about what the impact will be including on areas such as milk production, dairy products in general, beef, pork and all the other agri-sector issues that are of concern North-South and South-North on a regular basis.
I have met representatives of companies here who are now seeing the impact of the currency fluctuation where prices are due to increase. Given that there is generally a lag of two or three months, those prices will take effect in Britain in November and December, which is a difficult time in terms of retail for Britain. The impact on some agri-plants here has already been evident. There will be an increasing challenge for the British consumer because of currency fluctuations and therefore price increases in meeting all of that. We need to be very careful about these aspects.
I hope in the context of the all-island conversation we will have, there will be real contributions about where this will go. When will it be finalised? It took about three years to get Greenland extracted from the European Union and there are not too many people living in Greenland. This could run much longer than people might imagine. Although there seemed to be an impression at the European Council meeting that this should certainly be done before the next European Parliament elections in 2019, these things are very difficult to predict.
We will prepare as assiduously as we can and we will keep everybody here informed of that because it is important that we have the views of the Irish Parliament in protecting our particular interest, both continuing with the United Kingdom in the links we have and our specific relationship as a member of the European Union.
Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Is deas an rud é tú a fheiceáil arís. Tá súil agam go raibh sos maith agat.
I do not have the time to get into the detail I had prepared. We can speculate all we want about what the British might do, but it is very important to spend a lot of time figuring out what we will do. I listened carefully to the Taoiseach's answer to my question where I asked him if he would accept the vote of the people in the North. He said that yes, he does accept the vote of the people in the North, the people in Scotland, the people in England and the people in Wales. While I do not want to put words in his mouth, he went on to say something to the effect that this was a collective decision or a corporate decision. That is the nub of this problem. The Taoiseach has to accept, advocate and promote actively the vote of the people in the North. There is no getting out of it. He has to do that or else say he does not accept that approach. Either way there must be clarity from the Government on the issue. It follows through that if he is not clear, then he will not be clear with the British Prime Minister. He has to say to the British Prime Minister that the vote was taken.
The Taoiseach mentioned Greenland, which is a good example. It is an autonomous part of Denmark, which is a member state and yet Greenland is outside the EU while Denmark is in the EU. So there are arrangements and the EU is not an inflexible structure. The leadership falls upon the Taoiseach at this time.
The Taoiseach also said that both Governments reaffirmed their commitment to the peace process. I do not believe this Government is committed to underpinning, building and promoting the peace process, as it is required to do. For example, did the Taoiseach ask the British Prime Minister about her decision to scrap the human rights Act, which is a total undermining of the Good Friday Agreement?
The Taoiseach will know, or he should know, that the Ballymurphy families walked out of a meeting with the British Secretary of State who refused to fund legacy requests that are outstanding, some for more than 25 years. Within the Northern Executive, the DUP is also blocking this. That is despite the fact that the North's Lord Chief Justice, Declan Morgan, has proposed a five-year plan to clear the backlog in all of this. If our Government has not got its head around that and we just get these bland statements that the two Governments are supportive of the peace process, then the damage done by Brexit will be more deeply rooted and devastating than we might be able to contemplate at this time.
I ask the Taoiseach to give a firm indication that every effort will be made to ensure there are no restrictions in the movement of people or goods between North and South or between Ireland and Britain. In my constituency and the general Border area there is real concern over the impact of Brexit. Already uncertainty has arisen due to the weakness of sterling. Deputy Micheál Martin mentioned the dairy sector and the movement of raw milk from North to South and from South to North. Thankfully many of our good business enterprises are sited on both sides of the Border. Real difficulties will emerge for them if there is restriction on the movement of people or goods. I would like the Taoiseach to give the House an assurance that every possible effort will be made to ensure no restrictions are imposed on the movement of people. We underestimate one thing that has been very successful since the mid-1990s, which is the growth of economic activity on a North-South basis and the movement of workers. We want to ensure obstacles are not put in the way of the further development of that positive economic feature.
Let me ask my question. The critical point the Taoiseach made was that we were looking to keep the benefits of the common travel area or to keep it in place to the greatest extent possible, in other words recognising that it may not be retained as is. In the negotiations, will the Taoiseach side with the UK in terms of some sort of semi-hard Brexit option where the restrictions with the rest of Europe in terms of freedom of movement of people would be introduced, but we would have a special different relationship where we get some element of a common travel area? Or will he instead side with those within the European Union who are currently saying that irrespective of the position the British Government takes, the European Union will insist on the maintenance of free travel before giving any trade deal to the UK? If we took such a position, supporting that EU principle of free movement, would that risk the outcome of the barricades going up between Belleek and Ballyshannon, and between Belcoo and Blacklion? Ultimately the Taoiseach must make the call as to whether we side with Europe or with the UK on the issue of the free movement of people.
We enter these discussions as a member of the European Union, but we do so as a country with a unique set of relationships with the United Kingdom. The common travel area has been of great benefit to both countries before we joined the Union and since we joined the Union; it has not been tested when one country is in the Union and one is outside it. The British Prime Minister is clear that neither she nor I want to see a return to a hard Border and will do everything possible to see that the free movement of people and goods is as it is now.
We are in the negotiations as a member of the European Union, but we want to retain our specific traditional relationship with the United Kingdom. When I met the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, she made it clear that she does want to return to a hard Border and nor do we. She wants to retain the common travel area, as do we. We will speak as a member of the Union, but we have a particular relationship with Britain that we want to retain.
I spoke to the Secretary of State, Mr. Brokenshire, MP, at the British-Irish Association conference in Oxford and I reminded him that in respect of the Kingsmills massacre the Tánaiste had sent whatever information we had on our Garda files up to the coroner's inquest. I only made it as a point of information for him as an example of the kind of thing the British Government could start to deal with in terms of breaking down the legacy of pressure that is there, either in Ballymurphy or Kingsmills or wherever else, as Deputy Adams will well understand. It was shortly afterwards that the meeting took place with him in respect of Ballymurphy.
People in Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. People in Wales and England voted to leave, but people in greater London voted to remain. As Deputy Gerry Adams knows, people in Northern Ireland have a right to Irish citizenship in most circumstances. They do not want to see a border between Derry and Dundalk. These are some of the unforeseen questions that need to be answered and that we will have to deal with. We will have a lot more debate and discussion on these issues as we move forward.