Wednesday, 14 February 2018
Recent statements, particularly from Mr. Michel Barnier and Commissioner Phil Hogan, have indicated that there will be a border if Britain leaves the customs union and Single Market. On 9 February, Mr. Barnier stated:
It is important to tell the truth. A UK decision to leave the Single Market and to leave the customs union would make border checks unavoidable.
Commissioner Hogan stated: "The best Ireland can do is to expect the worst and prepare accordingly."
The Taoiseach will agree that the United Kingdom Government has been consistent and unambiguous for some time, particularly going back to the Lancaster House and Florence speeches by Prime Minister May, that it will not be staying in the customs union or Single Market. Inevitably, that means a form of agreement that will be damaging to Ireland and Border checks.
In today's The Irish Times, it is reported that Prime Minister May asked the Taoiseach to participate in shaping such a final status agreement between Britain and the European Union. That agreement, if Britain is to remain consistent on staying out of the customs union and Single Market, has significant implications for Ireland. It has been reported that the British Prime Minister asked the Taoiseach to participate in shaping a final status agreement without invoking the default arrangement that would keep Northern Ireland closely aligned with EU rules. In December, the clear presentation of the December agreement was that, irrespective of what transpired, full alignment of Northern Ireland with EU rules was guaranteed and there would be no border.
People may argue that the December deal was overhyped and oversold and that certain interests might have been undermined or spooked in their responses, in particular unionism, but it is unquestionable that we are in an uncertain situation. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether it is true that the British Prime Minister has requested Ireland's assistance on a final status deal? Given that Britain has consistently said that it will not be in the customs union or Single Market, does the Taoiseach now accept the view of Mr. Barnier and Commissioner Hogan that this inevitably means Border checks?
Brexit is a complicated negotiation, but our objectives are very simple. Our first and overriding objective is to ensure that we continue to have free movement of people and free trade, not just North and South, but also between Britain and Ireland. The best way for that to be achieved would be for the United Kingdom to stay in the Single Market and the customs union. It has indicated that it is not willing to do that, so the best alternative in that context is that we try to negotiate a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement that also covers customs. The Deputy will see from the British papers that, while they do not talk about a customs union, they do talk about a customs union partnership. Perhaps there might not be such a big difference between a customs union and a customs union partnership. That is the option A that was laid out in the December joint report.
Yes, we have been asked by the British authorities to work with them at official levels on how that might be achieved, but of course all negotiations will have to be done through the Barnier task force. We have made that abundantly clear. That is the objective - to make sure that people can continue to travel freely between Britain and Ireland and North and South, and that our businesses, particularly those that may be most exposed - those in aviation, the agrifood sector and farmers - do not face tariffs, non-tariff barriers and new barriers to trade, not just North and South, but between Britain and Ireland.
However, what we have in the joint report of December is a guarantee - a commitment - that a hard border will be avoided. The backstop in that arrangement, or the last resort as the Prime Minister prefers to call it, is a special arrangement for Northern Ireland whereby Northern Ireland will retain and maintain full regulatory alignment with the European Union. Our objective now is to make sure that is written into the withdrawal agreement. We achieved what we wanted to achieve in phase 1. Now what we need to do in phase 2 is make sure that that is written into the withdrawal agreement, a legally binding agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union that is now under negotiation.
Never mind December, I will just give the Deputy what was agreed two weeks ago in black and white as part of our European Union guidelines - the Barnier guidelines - for negotiation:
The European Council ... made clear that negotiations in the second phase could only progress as long as all commitments undertaken during the first phase were respected in full and translated faithfully in legal terms as quickly as possible. During the second phase of the negotiations, an overall understanding on the framework for the future relationship of the Union with the United Kingdom should also be reached. For that purpose, the European Council decided that it would adopt additional guidelines on this framework in March 2018 and called for further clarity on the United Kingdom's position on the framework for the future relationship....
During the second phase of the negotiations, in view of the unique circumstances and specific nature of issues related to the island of Ireland, the work on detailed arrangements required to give effect to the principles and commitments set out in the Joint Report should continue in a distinct strand.
This is the document that we have agreed among the EU 27 as to how we are now proceeding in a distinct strand to deal with those Irish-specific issues while also very clearly insisting and demanding that the commitments and guarantees that were given to us in December are now reflected in full in the legal withdrawal agreement. That is where we are at the moment.
Forgive me, Taoiseach, but most people thought from the presentation before Christmas that that was all sealed and delivered. For example, one headline read: "Taoiseach spells it out: no hard border, no matter what".
I wish to focus on a point regarding the final status agreement to which the Taoiseach referred. The Copenhagen Economics report is clear, in that a customs union-type deal - Britain would not be in the customs union - would be damaging to Ireland in terms of GDP potentially being as much as 4% less than would otherwise have been the case. One perspective that could be put on this is that we are now being sucked into negotiations with Britain that will result in a final status agreement that will by definition be damaging to Ireland - I accept that Brexit in almost all scenarios will be damaging to Ireland and arguably to Britain as well - and inevitably mean Border checks. Is that not the reality? If Britain has consistently said that it will stay out of the customs union and the Single Market, anything less than membership of same will involve Border checks of some form. Does the Taoiseach not accept that this is the practical outcome of such a final status agreement? There will be full alignment during transition. We get that, but after transition and a status agreement has been finalised between the EU and the UK, if Britain does not remain in the customs union and Single Market, it will involve Border checks. Is Mr. Barnier not correct in saying that? Does the Taoiseach accept his position on that?
In relation to what other people may believe or may surmise, I cannot be accountable for that. What I can be accountable for is what is agreed and what is written down in black and white. People can read the December joint report for themselves, and they can also read the guidelines from only two weeks ago, which I have read out to the Deputy today. That is what I will be accountable for - what we actually agreed to in black and white.
If it is the case that the United Kingdom decides to leave the customs union and Single Market and does not replace them with a new arrangement that is very similar or close to them, be it a deep free trade agreement plus a customs arrangement or a customs union partnership, as the UK calls it, it is inevitable in those circumstances that there will be checks between Ireland and Britain. However, it is in that scenario-----
-----that we trigger the backstop, that we trigger what is there in the joint report from December, which is not just for the transition, but on an ongoing basis, a special unique arrangement-----
-----to be written into the legal text of the withdrawal agreement, but I think if there is a misunderstanding or difference of opinion here, it seems to me that the preferred outcome for Fianna Fáil and the preferred outcome for Sinn Féin is that we only have a special arrangement with Northern Ireland that allows-----
I do not want a border between Dundalk and Newry any more than I want a border between Dublin and Holyhead or between Rosslare and Fishguard. Of course we are trying to get to a point, working with the British and negotiating as part of the European Union, where we avoid new barriers to trade and new barriers to the movement between Britain and Ireland.
If we are going to change the format of Leaders' Questions and have an argy-bargy here each morning, let us do that, but we should do it by way of an order of the House, otherwise we should get on with the business in the normal way. I call Deputy Pearse Doherty.
-----important document. It sets out the plans and funding for the development of the State over the next 20 years and crucially the document will be placed on a statutory footing. It will supersede county development plans and be materially relevant when it comes to planning applications and appeals to local authorities and to An Bord Pleanála. Sinn Féin supports the idea of a national planning framework. We believe it should be on a statutory basis. We did not support the last draft because it was vague, without clear commitments and it lacked ambition. It did not address the overdevelopment of the greater Dublin region and it did not take a truly all-Ireland approach to social and economic development. It was weak on investment in public transport and measures to tackle climate change. It was silent on spatial distribution of inequality and disadvantage. Unless there are substantial changes, we will not be in a position to support a final draft. We will make our final decision clear when we have time to consider the final document. It now appears the Government intends to deny the House the opportunity to vote on the plan. The legislation underpinning the national planning framework is in the Seanad and has already passed this House. It is very clear on the role of the Oireachtas. Section 20C(8) states that "[t]he Government shall submit the draft of the revised or new National Planning Framework ... for the approval of each House of the Oireachtas before it is published." However, yesterday in response to a parliamentary question by my colleague, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, said a formal vote on the final national planning framework was never envisaged under the legislation. Clearly, that is not the case. The legislation requires a vote of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Why is the Government now seeking to deny the Oireachtas a vote on the national planning framework despite a clear requirement in the legislation for the Dáil and the Seanad to approve such a document? Is it deliberately publishing the national planning framework on Friday before the final passage of the legislation in order to avoid a vote? How will the national planning framework be placed on a statutory footing if the Government discards the legislation specifically written to put it on a statutory footing? Is the decision not to allow a vote on the NPF part of a secret deal or understanding between the Government and Fianna Fáil to avoid any embarrassment on either side and to keep the confidence and supply agreement from collapsing?
The way legislation works is that it has to pass through both Houses of the Oireachtas and then be signed by the President before it becomes law. Legislation in the Seanad is not the law. There is no requirement that either the national planning framework or the ten-year infrastructure investment plan be subject to a vote of either House.
They are Government decisions as they were in the past and will be Government decisions on Friday. Rather than talking about procedure, we should go back to first principles and ask ourselves why we need Ireland 2040-----
-----a ten-year infrastructure investment plan or a national planning framework. It is because we need to change what has been done in the past. We need to not repeat the planning mistakes made by others in the past. We need to make sure the trajectory of development in this country changes. We are projecting that there will be an extra million people living in Ireland by 2040. We need to plan for where they will live, work and study and how they will get around. That requires a proper planning framework. This planning framework will provide for a change. It will provide for only 25% of further population growth happening in Dublin and 75% happening in the rest of Ireland. It will provide for 200,000 more people to be living in rural Ireland by 2040. Backing that up and making it possible is investment in transport, broadband, enterprise, tourism, agriculture and everything else. It provides for the other major cities like Limerick, Cork, Galway and Waterford-----
-----and some other major towns to grow at a faster rate than Dublin, which is something that has not happened for decades or centuries. In order to do that we need to support those cities and large towns to unlock development sites particularly at their centre, places like the north quays in Waterford, Tivoli on the docks in Cork-----
The Taoiseach had another 51 seconds to answer any four of the questions I put to him. When did he abandon the process that was agreed that the legislation, which has already been approved by the House and is going through the Seanad, would be the legislation that would put this plan on a statutory footing? If he has decided to abandon that and rush the publication of it this week instead of next week when the legislation will be law, how will he put this plan on a statutory footing? Has he entered into discussions with Fianna Fáil to create the circumstances to avoid his own legislation and his own plan to put this on a statutory footing going to a vote in this House? It shows complete contempt for the House for the Taoiseach to decide over a period of two years to introduce legislation specifically designed to put the national planning framework on a statutory footing and the week before it will be signed into law by the President, for him to rush the national planning framework through and publish it. Will the Taoiseach answer any one of those four questions? The reality is there was always a vote envisaged for the national planning framework. That is what it says in the legislation. That is what the majority of the House voted for. That is what section 20C(8) is. This is a political stroke that has consequences for the State and how it deals with planning for the next 20 years. It should not be allowed.
If Fianna Fáil wants to sit back and allow this to happen in order to avoid any type of embarrassment so it will able to go on local radio and say it did not agree with it, so be it. The Government should be straight-up and honest with the House. When did the Taoiseach abandon his plans to put the national planning framework on a statutory footing based on this legislation? Now that he has abandoned those plans, how will the plan end up on a statutory basis?
I have straight answers for the Deputy. First, we have no arrangement or understanding with Fianna Fáil on this matter. Second, the legislation the Deputy referred to is not the law. There is no plan to have it signed by the President next week nor was there ever. We were going to publish this plan before the end of last year. That was the commitment I gave last June. We should have had this published long before now.
We got held up with other issues. The legislation the Deputy refers to does not say the final plan has to be approved by the Houses of the Oireachtas. What it says is that Government shall submit the draft of the revised or new national planning framework together with the environmental report and appropriate assessment report for the approval of each House of the Oireachtas before it is published.
Let us try again. The national planning framework has been in development for over three years. There was a rigorous governance roadmap in place. There was a pre-draft national consultation in February and March of last year, which was much vaunted by the current Tánaiste. It was followed by further consultation on the draft framework in September and November. The entire plan was based on legislation. The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill was published in January 2016 by my colleague, the then Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly. The three of us were at Cabinet at the time and it was envisaged it would be formally voted on in the House before publication.
It provides a legislative framework for the proposed national planning framework. It passed the Dáil in January and is currently on Committee Stage in the Seanad but something has changed in the past three weeks. The initial focused approach has been abandoned and we now understand that what is about to be launched on Friday is neither the strategic, evidence-based plan for the development of Ireland based on solid data, on which we have been working, nor a Fianna Fáil-type spatial strategy in which every town in the country was notionally a gateway or a hub, which proved to be entirely meaningless. In 2002, there were nine gateways and nine hubs. The aim of that spatial strategy was to prevent the urban sprawl of Dublin but it abjectly failed. Instead, a hybrid of the two is to be launched, where proper planning is to be undermined by the intervention of the Ministers with the sharpest elbows. The Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, gets to announce a new capital for the midlands, Sligo and Athlone have been promoted to the champions league of regional capitals, and Letterkenny, Dundalk and Drogheda are to be given some scraps as designated centres of growth. Drogheda was looking for city status as it is the sixth largest urban centre in Ireland. We are to have second-tier towns and, apparently, third-tier towns but those without any voice at Cabinet are to have no-tier towns.
To underscore the sense of drift, the commitment in the plan to have the new planning strategy underpinned by legislative authority also seems to have been dropped. It was to be binding on regional and local government in future planning decisions, and the Government's own Bill requires a draft of the plan to be approved, as the Taoiseach has written. He cannot have it both ways and say it does not require it because it is not yet law but that we will proceed with the law anyway, having ignored it. If the Government allowed Seanad Éireann just a few days more to complete the Bill, the draft plan would require approval of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann before publication.
Will the Taoiseach publish all the underpinning documentation that supports the final draft when it is published on Friday? Will he tell us what evidential factors were taken into account in the redraft of recent weeks? What statutory footing will the plan which the Taoiseach is announcing on Friday have, and why is the Government rushing it out before the law we have been working on for three years is enacted by these Houses?
Irrespective of the legislation, which has not yet passed through these Houses, becoming law or being signed by the President, the national planning framework will automatically go onto a statutory footing as a consequence of the fact that the draft motion was adopted in November.
Even if the legislation to which Deputies refer was passed, there would still not be a requirement for the final document to be passed by the Oireachtas. The requirement is for the draft to be passed by the Oireachtas and that the Government has regard-----
-----to any resolution the Oireachtas may adopt. The sad thing about this for people in all parts of Ireland is the extent to which politicians in opposition have wrapped themselves in process and procedure.
The important thing about project Ireland 2040 is the ambition it creates for Ireland, with 200,000 more people living in rural Ireland by 2040 and Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford growing at twice the rate of Dublin.
Instead of growing out into other cities, Dublin will grow up and there will be a much better quality of life. Backing this up is the €115 billion capital plan for investment in roads, railways, schools, hospitals and health care, as well as a huge package for climate change. This is a real vision for the country of the future and for a much better place than we have now, and the Opposition is terrified of it.
I had discussions with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport last week about how resolutions of this House, which were once binding, are meaningless in this Dáil. If the Government is defeated, it is meaningless. The authority of this House is the same as that of a local debating society but it comes to a new low when not only are motions and resolutions meaningless, the laws we enact are entirely ignored. That undermines democracy and undermines people's faith and trust. Why is the Taoiseach ignoring the three-year programme of successive Governments, which was to ensure that the new national spatial strategy, the blueprint for development in our country for the next ten years, was properly debated in this House before being published? Even at this late stage, will he relent?
The planning framework will be on a statutory footing and that is one of the ways it will be different from the national spatial strategy. It was brought to this House and there was a vote on the draft in November.
One cannot raise a point of order on Leaders' Questions. I will suspend the House if people do not demonstrate some respect for this forum. Members can challenge the Taoiseach all they want, but not in this way.
Either way, it is not relevant because the legislation to which the Deputies are referring is not the law. It has not been passed by the Dáil and Seanad and has not been enacted by these Houses or signed by the President.
Despite the fact that 96% of our State-funded primary schools remain under the patronage of religious bodies, we now have the farcical situation where a number of oversubscribed multidenominational schools have been told to limit their intakes severely to a half stream of just 13 pupils from next September. The five Educate Together schools, in Trim, Tramore, Tuam, New Ross and Castlebar were established under the school divestment programme. This programme recommended that existing denominational school buildings be divested and transferred to Educate Together to reflect parental demand. However, just a handful of schools have opened under this process.
In total, eight have been established by Educate Together. Of the eight, only two are located in buildings that have been vacated by a Catholic school, while just one Church of Ireland school has transferred patronage. In spite of this, the Department has stepped in to stymie the development of the other five schools by severely limiting their intake. Not only is this causing huge upset among parents in these areas, it also flies in the face of the Department's previous statements on the need for these schools. Clearly, the Department and the Minister are reneging on earlier undertakings. In its analysis of the areas the Department not only found that there was demand for at least a half stream in the majority of the schools, it also recommended that, taking account of the likely long-term requirements, accommodation options to provide for a full stream should be considered. That was the final finding in respect of each of the schools.
In its letter to one of the schools the Department claimed that the intention of the divestment programme was to ensure the establishment of a divested school would not adversely affect existing primary schools in the area. Surely the Taoiseach can see that that is a contradiction in terms. The purpose of the divestment programme is to re-balance the numbers of school places in order to meet and reflect the demand from parents. How can this happen when existing multidenominational schools are being undermined and parents' choice of patronage is being denied? Will the Taoiseach undertake to ensure the Department's erroneous instructions to the five multidenominational schools will be withdrawn immediately and the schools permitted to proceed with a full junior infants class intake in September in order that they can continue to thrive and meet the established demand from local families?
I restate that the Government is committed to ensuring greater diversity in the provision of education and different types of school in Ireland. In the programme for Government we committed to reaching a figure of 400 multidenominational and non-denominational schools by 2030. This is a reflection of the fact that belief systems and cultures have changed in Ireland. Roughly one third - more than one third in some parts of the country - of marriages are non-religious. About 20% of people say they do not practise or do not follow any particular religion. A process to transfer patronage was established by the previous Government, of which I was a member, under the former Minister, Ruairí Quinn. That process has not worked well in that only ten schools have been transferred under the system. We need a new system that will allow more schools to be transferred.
The five schools concerned - the Educate Together schools in Tramore, New Ross, Trim, Tuam and Castlebar - had a half stream or less of junior infants in their year of opening. In some cases, that was due to the physical accommodation the new school was occupying and they could not accommodate additional numbers. The arrangement has reflected the Department's engagement with the patron of the schools - Educate Together - which was restated in correspondence and communications with the schools concerned. However, a case has been submitted by Educate Together to the Department to further expand the schools. It is being considered by the Department.
The Taoiseach seems to be repeating the erroneous statement made by the Department which it subsequently corrected. The original arrangement with the five schools was not to limit them to a half stream. In the case of the majority, it was a minimum of a half stream. In each case it was said the long-term requirement for accommodation for a full stream had to be considered. I ask the Taoiseach not to repeat the mistake made earlier this week by the Department which it has since corrected. My question to him is whether he will ensure the instructions are reversed by the Department in order that the five schools can proceed immediately with planning in order to take in a full junior infants class from September. We need clarity on this issue. Parents have been denied the right to a choice of patronage of their local schools. Will the Taoiseach ensure the earlier commitments will be adhered to?
As I said, the five schools have through their patron, Educate Together, made the case to the Department to be allowed to take in more than a half stream. I am confident that the Department will give full consideration to that case and application. Certainly, if space is available for those children and the teacher is already in place to teach them, it would make a lot of sense, but there may be issues of which I am unaware. I think it is important to allow the Department to assess the case properly.