Tuesday, 29 January 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
38. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the status of Anglo-Irish relations; the efforts being made to maintain and protect relations, particularly in the context of Brexit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3978/19]
What are the Tánaiste's views on the current status of Anglo-Irish relations and the efforts being made to maintain and protect those relations, particularly in the context and with the backdrop of Brexit?
I thank the Deputy for this question. I have quite a detailed answer that I could read into the record of the House but I will just respond directly to the question.
These are challenging times for Anglo-Irish relations. The good relationships that have been built up, particularly over the past 20 years, need to be used now to find sensible ways forward for the sake of Northern Ireland in finding a way to create a context by which devolved government can function again and be re-established. To do this, we are using the elements of the Good Friday Agreement that are relevant not only for east-west relations but also for interaction on North-South co-operation. As the Deputy will be aware, we have had a number of meetings of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which have been good. Through this forum we will have another meeting in a couple of months which will confirm new relationship structures between Britain and Ireland for a post-Brexit environment. We will also plan for at least an annual meeting of both governments led by the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister but involving many other Ministers as well. The kind of structural relationship that France and Germany or Spain and Portugal have, for example, is one we want to see in the future to build on other structures that exist through the Good Friday Agreement. We must recognise, however, that Ministers will unfortunately not meet one another regularly in Brussels or Luxembourg and work together on EU projects in the future in the way that they have done over the past 45 years or so.
The personal relationships are good. My relationships with key partners such as Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, or David Lidington, who is effectively the equivalent of a deputy Prime Minister in the UK, are good and we speak regularly. I will meet Ms Bradley again this week to discuss Northern Ireland. It is important to say that while decisions being made this evening in Westminster, of course, impact on Ireland and Irish people on this island, North and South, the personal relationships between the British and Irish Governments remain strong, and they need to be so to find a way through a difficult Brexit process.
We all know that Brexit has added an unwelcome dimension to our relations with the UK and brought our relationship into sharp focus as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, our largest trading partner and our nearest neighbour. I refer to the common travel area and all that flows from it regarding cross-Border matters and the rights of citizens on both sides of the Border. The Tánaiste alluded to the fact that as members of the European Union, we had an opportunity to work with the UK on various projects and we became allies. This laid the foundation for the building of the peace process at a crucial point in time. It is fair to say, though - and my party leader has pointed this out previously - that the Government took the eye off the ball regarding Ireland-UK relations and exposed us when it came to Brexit. Has the Tánaiste considered any new structures? Could he give us a little more detail in this regard? My party has suggested a model similar to the Nordic Council of Ministers in terms of structures for dialogue between the governments in a post-Brexit scenario. The Minister alluded to the fact that a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference meeting is due in the coming months. Should it not take place as soon as possible? Since it last met in November, what actions, if any, have flowed from it? I recognise that Brexit is all-consuming at present but I ask the Tánaiste to deal with those questions.
I strongly refute the accusation that the eye was taken off the ball. The British-Irish relationship in recent years has been strong and positive and has allowed us to find a way forward on some complicated issues linked to Brexit in the context of the negotiations that took place. These resulted in a sensible, pragmatic and legally sound way of dealing with the complication of the Border question in the context of an insurance mechanism that became known as the backstop and of an Irish protocol, to which the British Government signed up fully as part of the withdrawal agreement, protecting the common travel area. The follow-up bilateral discussions about that common travel area in terms of legislation that will need to be passed in Westminster and in the Dáil are testament to how close the relationship is between Britain and Ireland. This is despite the fact that the British Parliament has not yet ratified the agreements to which its own government signed up a number of months ago and the fact that, unfortunately, the need for the reassurance mechanism that it is for so many people has not been the focus of the debate on the backstop in Westminster. Instead, it has been painted as something that it is not. This is unfortunate but not a reflection of the relationships between the two governments.
In the context of the post-Brexit relationship we are trying to tease out, the Tánaiste alluded to the perceived new structures in a macro sense. He said the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister would meet annually. Can he give us more detail as to what the Government envisages will be the new relationship rather than the two heads meeting once a year?
That is a fair question. It is envisaged that the meeting would be much more than a summit between the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister. They happen every now and again anyway. Instead, we would have agreement on an annual meeting between the governments, to include not only the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach but probably six or seven other Ministers on both sides in order that there would be a build-up and a proper preparation period for that meeting each year. We would look at areas on which Britain and Ireland need to co-operate, not just Northern Ireland, which is, of course, important, but also economic development, tourism, development aid policy, security issues and many other areas on which, as two neighbouring islands, we need to work together. There is an appetite on both sides to formalise a proposal that has been discussed and agreed in principle. It will need sign-off at prime ministerial level in the UK and by the Taoiseach here. We are talking about a meeting, probably during the summer months, that would last a day or so and involve a series of different sectoral discussions led by Ministers but also with the gravitas of having both the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister in attendance.