Tuesday, 6 February 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.
Cabinet committees are used to ensure a whole-of-Government, co-ordinated approach on issues, as necessary. They often allow for more in-depth examination of issues in advance of consideration by the full Cabinet.
Cabinet committee C assists the Government in its ongoing consideration of Brexit and other EU issues. It is also of use in the context of my participation as a member of the European Council. It last met on 11 September and is scheduled to meet again this month.
In the intervening period, there has been regular discussion of issues relating to Brexit at full Cabinet meetings, including in the run-up to the December agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom and at the all-day meeting in Cork on 13 October last year. In addition to meetings of the full Cabinet and its committees, I meet Ministers on an individual basis, as required, to focus on particular issues with a view to seeing how the Government can best support delivery of priorities and commitments. There is also ongoing and regular co-ordination of EU and Brexit issues at official level, including through meetings of inter-departmental senior officials groups, a number of which are chaired by officials of my Department.
The question of Irish unity is governed by the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. Issues relating to Northern Ireland are regularly considered by Ministers and the Government. We do not need a new Cabinet committee in that regard. More generally, the North-South Ministerial Council is the best forum to advance North-South issues and co-operation. I hope we will see early restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and urge all the political parties to work to that end.
In my party's view, the Government and the political parties in the Dáil need to get to grips with the reality that it is no longer tenable to speak rhetorically about Irish unity. The Taoiseach is right when he speaks about the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. It provided a democratic and peaceful means of achieving Irish unity. If we want Irish unity, however, we must put bones on exactly how that is going to be brought about. Sinn Féin put forward a practical proposal to have an all-party committee in the House to examine how that could be done. We are aware that recent population changes in the North have underpinned the need for such an approach. We also know that the census in the North, which for the first time asked about identity, revealed that those who view themselves as British are now a minority at 48%. Unionists have, for the first time, lost their majority in the Assembly. In the same census, those who define themselves as Irish were at 45%. While I wish to see a united Ireland, I also wish to see one in which those who are British and those who have a different identity are comfortable and where their rights are fully protected. I have always maintained, as does my party, that unionists in a united Ireland can never be treated like nationalists have been treated in a partitioned Ireland. We want a new republic and we want a different type of Ireland, North and South. We do not want to peg North and South together to simply have a united Ireland but not a united people. That is the type of Ireland I want to build. It makes practical sense to have a committee in this House that would look at how we can practically work towards Irish unity.
I was not surprised that the leader of Fianna Fáil rejected such an offer, given that he is the most pro-unionist leader of his party, certainly in my lifetime and possibly for longer than that. I expected, however, that the new Taoiseach would see the reality of what is before him; that this is a realistic practical proposal by Sinn Féin. The Taoiseach asks for proposals all the time, and when we give them to the Taoiseach, he rejects them. I am asking him to reconsider it because it is in the spirit of wanting to work towards Irish unity in a practical way.
On a point of order, I thought the Irish unity issue would have been a separate question to that on the Cabinet sub-committee. Could we have a bit more time? Essentially we are asking two questions; one on Brexit and the European Union and one on Irish unity.
I will do my best. On the question on Irish unity, one point that has caused a lot of division in recent years is that many people are getting tired of the politics of the empty gesture. The only credible way of achieving Irish unity remains in showing the majority in the North the strength of our community of interests and that we utterly reject the zero-sum sectarianism, of which there is sadly still too much in this House and in Irish politics.
When the leader of a party that claims to want unity says the equality agenda is "the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy", or when his hand-picked successor honours sectarian killers, that party shows an attitude that directly stands in the way of building support for unity. That is a fact.
-----to Irish unity. As a former Minister involved in North-South infrastructural development in education, health and enterprise, I regret very much the lack of progress on North-South infrastructure over the past eight or nine years. Will the Taoiseach tell the House of the North-South projects the Government is identifying, with the British government and the Northern political system - as it now exists in the absence of the Executive - and about these developments. I believe that the failure to deliver the Narrow Water bridge project concretised and encapsulated in a nutshell the lack of energy and impetus regarding North-South co-operation on all sides, including Sinn Féin, the unionists and the Irish and British Governments. It was a classic project that had both communities from different traditions urging it on but through inertia and a lack of commitment, it failed to be delivered.
On the issue of the EU, I have a number of questions on Cabinet committee C. It is striking that the Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit has not met since September. This means that the Government's proposals on Europe were not cleared by the Cabinet sub-committee or the ideas were not discussed there initially prior to the Taoiseach speaking to the European Parliament. Were they agreed with the Taoiseach's colleagues beforehand?
As for the studies on the impact of Brexit, last week the Taoiseach listed a range of documents, including studies not carried out by the Government, but having reviewed the list the fact remains the Government has not produced any report that goes into detail about the possible impact of likely scenarios or mitigating activities that might be required. We know about sectoral exposure because of work that was completed before the Taoiseach came into office but we do not know the sectoral impacts under various scenarios, including, for example, under a Canada-type trade deal or a South Korean-type trade deal. There is no clarity in respect of the services sector. We have had no debate about it. While everyone goes on about merchandise, hard borders and physical infrastructure, services are a huge part of the trade between east and west and North and South. We have not had enough focus on that and I question whether there is a whole-of-Government approach to Brexit or whether the other Departments are lagging far behind in engaging with the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
My main question is about Palestine but I will briefly ask about the united Ireland issue. I agree with having the committee but if we want to further the drive towards Irish unity, we need to immediately separate church and State, get our schools and hospitals out of the hands of the Catholic Church and do something about the appalling lack of a universal, proper national health service that does not have people queuing for years on lists. In general, we need to improve social services, especially in the areas of housing. This would make the prospect of unity attractive and would be the best preparation to forward the struggle for Irish unity.
On Palestine, I am aware there were some discussions about the outrageous moves by the Trump Administration to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in what was a flagrant provocation of the entire Arab world and the Palestinian population. It reinforced even further the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem and the illegal occupations of the West Bank by settlers. Is the Taoiseach willing to follow the example of Denmark? Whenever we ask why the Irish Government does not unilaterally show a bit of backbone on the issue of Palestine, recognise the state of Palestine and boycott Israel for what under international law and UN security resolutions is illegal activity in Jerusalem and the West Ban, the Government always hides behind the European Union. The Irish Government states it cannot do anything because Ireland is tied into the foreign policy of the European Union. Denmark, however, has proven that this is not the case. This month, Denmark has made a decision to boycott any companies that have any involvement whatsoever in the occupied territories. If Denmark can do it then we can do it. We should do it immediately. It is simply unconscionable how countries in Europe that claim to uphold human rights can stand by while Israel flagrantly acts in defiance of international law and flouts the human rights of Palestinian people in the occupied territories. Will the Taoiseach respond on whether we could follow the lead of Denmark and take independent, unilateral action to boycott Israel for its actions in the occupied territories?
I shall address the first matter on Irish unity. I reiterate the Government is committed to the Good Friday Agreement and we see ourselves as - and are - co-guarantors of that agreement. We should not forget that when the Good Friday Agreement was approved, it was approved by 97% of people voting in a referendum in this State and more than 70% of people voting in a referendum in Northern Ireland. Talks are under way in Stormont at present. As I speak, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, is in Belfast representing the Government.
As those talks are at a very sensitive stage, today is not the day to be asserting our unionism or nationalism. I do not think any good purpose would be served by giving anyone any cause to take offence. I think that is all I will say for now. The Tánaiste is working very hard today in Belfast to try to help the parties, particularly the two largest parties, to come to a compromise in order that the Executive and the Assembly can get up and running again.
Even though the Executive and the Assembly are not functioning, a great deal of good work is still being done with regard to North-South projects. For example, the cancer service at Altnagelvin Area Hospital in Derry is seeing patients from County Donegal who need radiotherapy every day. There is an agreement in place to ensure patients from County Donegal who have particular types of heart attacks can get primary percutaneous coronary intervention treatment in Altnagelvin in Derry, rather than in locations like Galway or Dublin, which are much further away. We are making very good progress on integrating cardiac surgery for children in order that children from the entire island of Ireland will have their cardiac surgery in Crumlin and subsequently, in the new national children's hospital.
The A5 project has received approval in Northern Ireland at long last. I anticipate that the sod will be turned on the first phase of that road this year. We are co-funding that. We are very keen to complete that project, which will connect Dublin to Derry and Letterkenny. It will pass through Northern Ireland and counties Monaghan and Meath. When I was looking at the travel times the other day, I noted that when the road has been completed, it will take an hour to drive from Emyvale to Derry. It will be quicker to drive from the northern part of Monaghan to Derry than to Dublin. This shows how infrastructure of this nature can change a country. We are very committed to this project.
Obviously, the ten-year infrastructure investment plan has not yet been agreed. It will be published when it has been agreed. As Deputy Donnelly will be aware, the Government is very committed to the A5 and N2 upgrades. Deputies will be aware that the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is very committed to the Ulster Canal project. Approval is now in place for the North-South interconnector, which will integrate our energy markets. There was a lot of support for the Narrow Water bridge project, but there was also a lot of opposition to it.
I had a little involvement with the project when I served as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. There were objections from the fishing industry in the area and, more recently, those who operate a ferry service there.
This project has certainly not been ruled out. I think it is a very attractive project but it would require support from the Executive in Northern Ireland when it is up and running. The Government will be supportive of it when it gets to that point.
Funding has been released to allow progress to be made with the north-west gateway project between Derry and Donegal. A great deal of low-key co-operation is happening under the radar. Maybe that is sometimes the best type of co-operation that happens between North and South. On the health side, some patients are now attending the new hospital in Enniskillen, which is helping us with our waiting lists.
Cabinet committee C involves approximately 40 people including some, but not all, Ministers and many officials. As a Cabinet sub-committee, it is not empowered to make any decisions on behalf of the Government. We use it, by and large, as a clearing house to make sure everyone is informed about what is going on. When decisions have to be made, they are made by the Cabinet. There have been a number of special Cabinet meetings on Brexit, including one in December at which Government support for the EU-UK report was approved. I imagine there will be further meetings of that nature in the coming weeks as well.
Speeches that are made by me, the Tánaiste or the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs do not require Government approval. I have spent seven years serving at Cabinet level and I have never seen a speech being agreed by the Cabinet.
The Government's position on Palestine is clear. We support the establishment of a Palestinian state. No such state exists at present. The Palestinian territories are occupied by Israel. We have taken a decision not to recognise a state that does not yet exist. It is very much our view that Jerusalem and the state of Jerusalem should be settled as part of a final stated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. In the meantime, our embassy will stay in Tel Aviv. I am not up to date with the foreign policy position Denmark is taking in this regard, but we have to bear in mind that when a country recognises Palestine, Israel interprets that in the same way as the Palestinians have interpreted the US Government's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I understand this has happened in the case of Sweden. The Israeli Government has a tendency to disengage with countries that recognise the state of Palestine. That could undermine the important humanitarian work we do in that region. We have plans to intensify and increase the humanitarian work we do in the Palestinian territories. We have to consider that this work could be undermined.