Tuesday, 6 November 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of my Department covers work on all international, EU and British-Irish and Northern Ireland affairs within the Department, including Brexit matters. The division assists me in my international role, including as a member of the European Council, and in my other EU and international engagements. The division also provides advice to me regarding Northern Ireland affairs, British-Irish relations and Brexit matters. It also provides advice and briefing relating to my varied international engagements, including meetings of the European Council and other EU summits, bilateral engagements with Heads of Government of EU member states and other countries and international affairs more generally. The division also aids the work of Cabinet committee C, which deals with EU affairs, Brexit and international matters. It works closely with other relevant Departments, notably the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
To augment the ongoing work of my Department’s international, EU and Northern Ireland division on Brexit, my Department has recently established a new unit to work on Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The new unit will assist a recently established Secretaries General group, which oversees ongoing work on national Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The unit will focus on cross-Government co-ordination, planning and programme management. It will work closely with other divisions in my Department, including the economic division, and with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit.
It says everything about the Taoiseach that when his performance or competence in the discharge of his duties is questioned, he lashes out. In an exchange earlier today, he accused me of being too radical and - ouch - apparently I am a bully. The Taoiseach levelled these accusations at me for having the temerity to put it to him that he is not acquitting himself well at this point, when the Brexit negotiations are at a sensitive point, and that he has taken his eye off the ball or lost his nerve.
The Taoiseach may have seen a letter published yesterday in the Irish Newsfrom over 1,000 people from what is termed "civic nationalism". They set out in the clearest terms their needs and the benchmarks required to protect their rights. They have written to the Taoiseach and I really hope he does not see them as being too radical and does not feel bullied by them on the open pages of a newspaper. If he has not read the letter, I suggest he study it very carefully. It sets out all of the well-trodden ground we have been across and all the reasons we do not have institutions in the North. For the record, those reasons have everything to do with the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, and its toxic relationship with British Prime Minister May, as well as the fact that the Government has failed to move forward those matters. The authors, not me, have asked that language rights, rights around marriage equality and so on be honoured and given expression to. If the Taoiseach finds me too radical, does not like how I put things to him or feels - God help him, the poor delicate soul - a bit challenged by the fact that he is being challenged on the floor of the Dáil, I invite him not to respond to me because that clearly causes him angst, but to the 1,000 people who signed the letter directed to him in which they set out his responsibilities, mar Thaoiseach, to them as Irish citizens. I ask him for a response to their letter.
Unfortunately, I missed Leaders' Questions earlier as I was attending meetings, along with colleagues, with the British Labour Party shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Tony Lloyd. It was to keep in touch with what is happening. As such, I may cover ground that has already been covered.
I will first make a general point. I have made it crystal clear in all my discussions with the British Labour Party and other politicians in Britain that there is a unity of purpose in this House across parties in our desired outcome for Brexit negotiations. There is nonetheless some merit in the view expressed by Deputy McDonald that if there is any questioning of the Government, there seems to be a tetchiness. There is an impression that this is somehow an undermining of our national effort when we are working, might and main, to be lock-step in a common objective. It is very unhelpful.
I have a question on the specific point made over the weekend because there was much rumour and counter-rumour as to where we were and whether we were close to a deal. I refer to the content of the telephone conversation between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, particularly the review mechanism on which they are willing to agree. Will the Taoiseach explain this specifically? I do not understand how a review mechanism can be used with a backstop, which is, by definition, fixed and immovable until and unless such time, as we understand from the December agreement, a better alternative agreement is put in place. Will the Taoiseach clarify that once and for all?
The Taoiseach may have had other discussions and it is important we do not isolate the DUP in any of this. Has he had any discussions with Ms Arlene Foster and the DUP on the type of final arrangements that they would be satisfied with? The Taoiseach should know their minds because they will clearly have an input in the British position towards the end of these negotiations.
We all know any re-imposition of a physical border between the North and South would be a disaster and we are all united in insisting that under no circumstances or in whatever agreement is reached should there be any question of a hard border. We should make it clear to Britain and the European Union that we will not in any way facilitate this, co-operate or play any part in the erection of a physical border if Britain and the European Union fail to agree.
I suggest to the Taoiseach that it would strengthen our hand in a situation where these intractable arguments go on and on and we have backstops, long stops, back long stops and long backstops if we were to put a full stop to this rather tedious discussion-----
-----by making it clear that the question of the Border was not up for negotiation. The Taoiseach's hand and ours would be strengthened if we were to make it clear that the Irish people would get to vote on any final deal if it were in any way ambiguous or ambivalent on the question of the Border, now or in the future. That would be pure democracy as far as I am concerned, but the people of Ireland should have a vote on any final deal if it might be adverse to their desire to ensure there will be no border.
We should not be opposed to a review within this process, even if it is very late and we are all waiting, but it should only be a review with a view to replacing the backstop on the basis of consensus. There can be no UK insistence that at the end of a review it would remove the backstop. As we are all absolutely agreed on that point, I hope the Taoiseach can come up with creative structures for such a review. I presume it is within the political declaration how the customs arrangement will work in practice which gives the alternative backstop and I hope it will break the deadlock which it is in all of our interests to avoid.
I agree with Deputy McDonald on the need to maintain our concentration on the rights of Irish nationalists in the North, but the State and the Government should extend it by looking to defend the rights of civic unionism in any agreement. A colleague of mine, Steven Agnew, was in Brussels recently and one of the major difficulties he has is that UK passport holders in the North may not be able to continue to avail of the Erasmus programme, for example, or the EU health card, whereas an Irish passport holder living in the North may be able to do so. We should stand up for that part of the Unionist community on these practical measures which they also deserve to have as part of the Good Friday Agreement in order that we start to break down some of the nationalist divide that has bedevilled the country for years.
One of the major problems in the Brexit negotiations is the central role megaphone diplomacy seems to be playing. It is never constructive when leaks and tweets play a major part, yet it seems that both Governments are at it nearly every day. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab, MP, appears to believe tendentious leaks and hardline statements help. Equally, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste continue to engage in an ongoing public exchange back and forth. The other day the Tánaiste tweeted a particular position. In negotiations there are tried and tested ways of engagement, particularly when the eleventh hour is approaching. It seems that this megaphone diplomacy has been one of the problems from the outset, even going back as far as last December when it was unhelpful to what transpired that month, with the subsequent need for Prime Minister May to go back to Brussels to meet Mr. Tusk and Mr. Barnier to come up with a solution to that problem which has only worsened and complicated the situation in which we now find ourselves. Equally, a proper post-Brexit relationship with Britain is required. It is welcome that both Governments now acknowledge this. In other words, there is a need for a new intergovernmental arrangement post-Brexit between Britain and Ireland. We have put forward our ideas on it. The text of the draft withdrawal treaty includes a specific mechanism for a specialised committee to oversee issues related to Ireland in Article 158. Some have suggested this is a mechanism by which a decision on Northern Ireland's permanent status can be agreed. Can the Taoiseach confirm whether the operation of the Irish specialised committee is again being discussed? Furthermore, this is a withdrawal agreement stage that is being negotiated and everybody seems to agree that at this stage Britain and the European Union are talking about a Canada+ type trade agreement to be the basis of the permanent full-time relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. The Taoiseach said in reply to questions that the backstop would be in place until and unless it was replaced by an alternative agreement. Is that the ultimate permanent relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom which is envisaged to supersede the backstop at the end of the day because a Canada+ type trade agreement would not be good for Ireland, would have a damaging economic impact for Ireland and be less than optimal for Northern Ireland?
For the record, I did not say Deputy McDonald was too radical; I said she was too extreme and indeed she is. I noted that she accused me of constantly lashing out. In fairness, that is her signature performance piece, whether it is at me, the British Government, the DUP one minute ago, Mrs. May one minute ago or Fianna Fáil on occasion; she is constantly lashing out. What she does not do is come up with workable solutions and alternatives.
That is what a responsible Opposition party would do. Sinn Féin comes up with demands. There is a big difference between demands and coming up with alternatives and solutions. I read the letter to which Deputy McDonald referred and agree with the sentiments expressed. I will reply to it and do what they have asked me to do to the best of my ability both in terms of a Brexit deal and in terms of what we are trying to do in Northern Ireland to get the institutions operating again-----
-----and to ensure people living in Northern Ireland will have the same rights and freedoms as those living in Britain and Ireland. I note that some of the signatories, although not all, are Sinn Féin supporters. I hope they have also written to Deputy McDonald to ask her to do her job-----
-----which is to establish a Northern Ireland Assembly and a Northern Ireland Executive and build relationships with people like Mrs. Foster to try to get an agreement done.
Sinn Féin holds the world record in negotiations failure, something on which I hope it will work.
Deputy Howlin asked about the review mechanism. I am aligned more with what Deputy Eamon Ryan had to say on it. Review mechanisms are not bad in themselves. Many international treaties have review mechanisms and much of the legislation we pass in the Oireachtas has them. It is not something to which I have committed; it is only something the Government has agreed to explore on the basis and understanding it cannot involve an exit clause which would allow the United Kingdom to resile from the backstop unilaterally and cannot involve an expiry date.
I met Mrs. Foster for dinner in Dublin about two weeks ago. I know her mind on this issue and she is very clear. She says she wants Northern Ireland to be treated in the exact same way as the United Kingdom in everything, whether it be customs, regulations or anything else. That is her position and we have to respect that it is.
Deputy Boyd Barrett talked about a vote. As this is an agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom, there is no provision for a vote, but I am confident that if there is an agreement, it will not be one on which we will need a vote because it will do what we want it to do and satisfy our needs.
Deputy Eamon Ryan mentioned UK citizens in Northern Ireland. He makes a very valid point. One of the principles of the Good Friday Agreement is that UK citizens in Northern Ireland should be treated in the same way as Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and vice versa. However, there is a difficulty. What I am trying to achieve for Irish EU citizens in Northern Ireland is that they will continue to have the same rights as though they were resident in the European Union, even though they will not be. That is a tricky aim to achieve. When it comes to citizens' rights, there is a difference between rights as a citizen and rights as a resident citizen. For example, an Irish citizen living in Mullingar has different rights from an Irish citizen living in Montreal. The same applies to European Union citizenship. If someone is an EU citizen, he or she has the right to reside, work and study anywhere in the European Union, but rights such as an entitlement to the European health insurance card or to participate in the Erasmus programme are linked with residency, as well as citizenship. We are trying to get to a position where EU citizens living in Northern Ireland will be treated as though they are living in the European Union, even though they will not be. It will be difficult to deliver, but we are working on it. To deliver it for UK citizens living in the North also will be another ask. Perhaps it might be an ask too far.