Tuesday, 14 November 2017
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
5. To ask the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister, Mrs. May, since the Secretary of State, Mr. Brokenshire, made his comments regarding possible direct rule of Northern Ireland on and after 30 October 2017. [45040/17]
6. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on contact made by the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, to discuss the Brexit impasse prior to the European Council meeting; and the issues that were discussed and his response to each. [44679/17]
7. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent discussion with the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, with regard to the unique circumstances regarding the Border with Northern Ireland. [44680/17]
8. To ask the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May since the October 2017 EU Council meeting or the latest deadline of 30 October 2017 regarding developments in Northern Ireland. [46345/17]
9. To ask the Taoiseach if he has spoken with Prime Minister May since the talks in Northern Ireland broke down on 1 November 2017; and his views on whether talks will recommence to avoid the possibility of direct rule under the mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement. [47083/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 10, inclusive, together.
I had telephone calls with the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, on 16 October and on 1 November. In our conversation on 16 October, we discussed the latest developments in Northern Ireland at that time and urged a rapid resumption of talks, with a view to restoration of the Northern Ireland institutions urgently in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. We also discussed Brexit, including the unique circumstances regarding the Border, and preparations for the upcoming meeting of the European Council in Brussels on 19 and 20 October. In our call on 16 October we also spoke about the damage from Storm Ophelia, the Bombardier case and the impact that may have on jobs in Belfast.
The Prime Minister and I spoke by telephone again on 1 November to review progress made by the political parties in Northern Ireland since our previous telephone conversation, including in light of the statement to the House of Commons by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, the previous day. We agreed that it is still possible to form an Executive, which would be in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. I underlined that there could be no return to direct rule as it existed prior to the Good Friday Agreement and that the various provisions of the Agreement would have to be honoured. The Prime Minister was clear that she did not want to see a return to a direct rule and that moves to implement a budget for Northern Ireland should not be seen as a first step on the road to direct rule.
We agreed that there is still time to reach an agreement and that the parties should continue to work to this end, with the support of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, and the Northern Secretary of State, James Brokenshire. The Prime Minister and I agreed to stay in close contact on the matter over the coming period.
I acknowledge that parties have a principled role in relation to the negotiations but there is also an obligation on the Taoiseach, his Government and the British Government. The Taoiseach and the Government are not spectators or commentators, nor is the British Prime Minister. They are all co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, with all the responsibilities that entails. Over the past ten months the focus of the negotiations has been on the issue of rights which are the norm on the rest of this island and in Britain. Marriage equality, language rights, the bill of rights, rights to legacy inquests and such things are not only supported by Sinn Féin but by the majority of those in the Assembly and in wider society. These rights benefit all sections of society and should threaten no one. The only reason they are being denied is that the DUP has resisted a rights-based agenda and the British Government has acquiesced in this.
This is compounded by the fact the Tory-DUP pact is in place. It is completely unacceptable and I hope the Taoiseach has reflected this in his conversations with Theresa May. Sinn Féin did so in our conversation with her last week, and it is important that the Government does this on behalf of the Irish State. The issue of rights is not going away and it needs to be dealt with satisfactorily. For our part, we have done our best to be flexible and we did our best to stretch ourselves in the common good, and I believe the Taoiseach knows this. He also knows that in the context of an agreement on the delivery of rights, and these are rights which have already been agreed in previous agreements, Sinn Féin will enter government. In the absence of these rights the Executive is not sustainable. What is now needed is the two Governments to act urgently to deliver equality. This is their joint responsibility under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. This is to honour the outstanding commitments and deliver the rights enjoyed by everybody else on these islands to the people of the North who are being denied these rights. In the absence of doing this, perhaps the Taoiseach will enlighten us on which rights he believes we should forego.
We now have an imposed budget on Northern Ireland brought about by Secretary of State Brokenshire. In doing so he has, for now, ruled out direct rule, as the Taoiseach has in his answer to this question. What then, in the absence of an agreement ongoing between the parties in Northern Ireland? If direct rule is ruled out by the British Government and the Taoiseach, and if no agreement is possible, and we have spent many months seeking such an agreement, between the parties democratically elected in Northern Ireland, what is the path the Taoiseach envisages out of this particular impasse? The British Labour Party Member of Parliament, Conor McGinn, has said there should not be direct rule from Westminster but that instead we should explore a new partnership arrangement between Dublin and London. Is there any out of the box thinking going on? Has the Taoiseach had a discussion in detail with Prime Minister May on what specifically they will do in the event of there being no direct rule and no Executive in Northern Ireland? How is the province is to be administered?
For the past six years we have been told relations with the British Government have been excellent, yet every bilateral issue falls into neglect or some form of crisis. It is fair to say that previous to 2011 it would have been inconceivable that any Taoiseach or Prime Minister of any party would have taken such a hands off approach to the vital issues, particularly on the Good Friday Agreement and the institutions contained in the Agreement, and particularly the institutional crisis in Northern Ireland where there has been drift for a number of years, culminating in what I genuinely believe was the contrived collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive and assembly, notwithstanding the greatest crisis that faces the North and the island of Ireland, which happens to be Brexit. If we are to devise any credible approach in terms of a special economic zone, or reflect the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland in any Brexit solution, then it has to involve a devolved administration, legislature and Executive, through which a special economic zone or something similar could be achieved while respecting the constitutional status of the United Kingdom as contained in the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin and the DUP have not worked this out. On the rights issue, it seems a majority in the assembly is now in favour of marriage equality, for example, so if the assembly came back it is quite plausible there would be a vote in favour of marriage equality. Not having it back is a delay to getting marriage equality through. I do not believe there is any huge resistance now to an Irish language Act.
I am aware of the petition of concern. Let it flow and let it happen. Times are changing. Let the assembly meet and adjudicate on the issue. Likewise, I do not see any great barrier to the language Act. I am not aware of any great impediment to the establishment of an Irish language Act at this particular stage. If we are to have special arrangements in the context of Brexit there would have to be regulatory conversion with Europe. The only way this can happen is through a devolved administration being given the leeway to legislate or maintain convergence with the European Union.
Has the Taoiseach raised with the British Government any proposals concerning a special economic zone or something similar for Northern Ireland? Last week, the Taoiseach indicated he felt a breakthrough was on the way. This was followed very quickly by indications that a breakdown might be on the way. Within the space of days this is what we were treated to. Fundamentally, there was an attitude from our Government that it was a matter for the British Government to sort out what special arrangements it may have. We have a role in thinking through scenarios that could be the solution, particularly for Michel Barnier and his team and the European Commission, who are very consistent in saying they want the rule of EU law to continue to apply. Therefore, we need to be creative in identifying the right potential solutions to what is a very grave issue for the citizens of this island and particularly for Northern Ireland.
Deputy Martin's analysis of the situation is largely accurate. In terms of our conversations with the UK Government, to the extent we have spoken about special arrangements they are in the context of the paper agreed by the EU 27. That paper attempts to make real the promises made to us. We have all heard the language of the past 18 months, that there should be no hard border, no return to the borders of the past and no physical infrastructure along the Border, and we, not as Ireland but as the European Union, and as a negotiating party of 27 with the strength of all of Europe behind us, have set down in writing how we think that can be best achieved. We are not demanding that the UK or any part of the UK should have to remain in the customs union or the Single Market. We are, however, saying that if we are to honour this promise and commitment we have been given of avoiding a hard border or a return to the borders of the past there must be regulatory equivalence, if not between the United Kingdom as a whole and the EU then between Northern Ireland and the EU. It is set out in the paper, which has been extensively leaked at this stage, that the same rulebooks must apply.
The Minister, Deputy Coveney, describes this very well. We cannot have a situation where a factory north of the Border making hair dryers could be given state aid by the UK Government while a factory south of the Border making hair dryers would be forbidden from receiving aid under state aid rules. We could not have a situation where the CAP in the Republic of Ireland as part of the European Union would require eight inspections a year whereas British or UK deregulation might only require four. This is what we mean by regulatory equivalence. It means the rules of the customs union and the Single Market continue to apply, even if the UK and Northern Ireland are not in the customs union.
There are many examples of bespoke arrangements throughout Europe. The Isle of Man is one small one. It has never been in the EU or part of the UK. It does not pay into the EU budget or get anything out of it, but under a protocol to the Treaty of Rome, it, by its own legislation in its own parliament, adopts the rules and regulations of the Single Market and the customs union. It is a sovereign decision for it to do so because it is its own parliament that does it. Deputy Martin has touched very accurately on how the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly could be to do something exactly like this.
Our preference, however, is that arrangements which would allow free trade to continue should not just be a special arrangement for Northern Ireland. We would like these arrangements to apply to the entire United Kingdom because that is what is most important for Irish jobs, the Irish economy, Irish businesses and Irish farmers. Let us not forget that most of the exports from business and farming in Ireland do not go to Northern Ireland but to England. A beef farmer's produce is probably going to go to England. The solution we want is one that protects free trade and free movement for the UK and Ireland and not a special arrangement just for Northern Ireland. That is a secondary outcome. It is not the preferred outcome. It may be better than the worst outcome, but our preferred outcome is an arrangement that allows us to continue to trade and travel freely with all of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland but not just Northern Ireland.
By definition, a special arrangement for Northern Ireland means we are accepting new barriers between Britain and Ireland. Of course, that is damaging for our farmers, agrifood industry and exporters and also for trade and jobs. Those who are advocating a special arrangement as a great outcome need to understand they are proposing something very damaging for agrifood, farmers and Irish jobs and businesses.
The Government cannot support a return to the kind of direct rule that existed 20 years ago prior to the Good Friday Agreement. With the agreement of the UK Government, some of the provisions of the Agreement, such as those relating to the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and the North-South Ministerial Council, could be brought into operation or back into operation. However, that is not what I want to see happen.
I do not want Ministers from this Government meeting Northern Ireland Office Ministers. I would rather see Ministers from this Government meeting Ministers elected by the people of Northern Ireland to discuss these matters.
To respond to the first group of questions asked by Deputy Pearse Doherty, I absolutely agree that this Government is neither an observer nor a commentator. It is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has been unbelievably engaged with this issue on the Government's behalf. He must have spent at least two days a week in Northern Ireland over the past four months. When he is dealing with the parties in Northern Ireland and with the UK Government, he speaks for me and the whole of the Irish Government. I have been far from hands off in my approach. I have met all the parties. I have met the DUP and Sinn Féin twice. I met the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Féin on a one-to-one basis - without officials - so that we could speak honestly and off the record. I speak to the Prime Minister every two weeks and I will speak to her again on Friday. I have travelled to Northern Ireland on three occasions since my election as Taoiseach. I have been to Belfast and Derry and I was in Enniskillen just last weekend. My analysis of the difference between Sinn Féin and the DUP is much closer to that of Deputy Micheál Martin than that of Deputy Pearse Doherty. I do not think this is about rights any more; I am of the view that it is about trust and terminology. It is almost a Swiftian situation at this stage. If people knew how small the difference is, I think they would be quite shocked in some ways.