Tuesday, 29 January 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
42. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if Foreign Ministers other than the Polish Foreign Minister have raised the possibility of or requested that conditions be attached to the backstop other than what is already stated in the withdrawal agreement; if they have sought to alter or raised the possibility of altering the backstop; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3980/19]
Other than the Polish Foreign Minister, have any EU Foreign Ministers raised the possibility or requested that conditions be attached to the backstop other than what is already stated in the withdrawal agreement? Have any of them sought or raised the possibility of altering the backstop in any way? I ask the Tánaiste to make a statement.
I am glad the Deputy has raised this matter. It was unfortunate that last week the Polish Foreign Minister decided to publicly to make the statement he did. I think he was trying to be helpful, but I do not think what he said was helpful. He came to Dublin in December. He had just come from London. At the time, as a way of trying to break the deadlock, he raised this idea that we should consider applying a time limit to the backstop. I informed him I did not think it would work and that Ireland could not accept it because once a backstop has a time limit, it is no longer a backstop unless there is a clear plan after the agreed period that prevents border infrastructure. He accepted my view in December, but last week he made the proposal again.
No other Foreign Minister to whom I have spoken or met has suggested anything similar. In fact, quite the opposite happened after he spoke. There was a line-up of EU Foreign Ministers essentially who backed Ireland's position. The Polish Government also did so and distanced itself from its Foreign Minister's suggestions.
The EU has shown remarkable solidarity with us, which has been very welcome. We need that solidarity, particularly at this critical time. It is important that the other member states remain firmly behind Ireland and its position.
The amendment tabled by Tory MPs today in the British House of Commons seeking to change the backstop and seeking alternative solutions is of great concern. It is even worse to see the British Prime Minister backing that amendment but not stating what might be that alternative solution. Obviously if there is an alternative solution that does exactly what the backstop does and is better, we will be all ears. However, as yet we have not seen that alternative solution. After her team negotiated the current backstop, it is deeply regrettable to see the British Prime Minister now seek to abandon the backstop or undermine it significantly and state today that she intends to go back to Brussels to reopen the withdrawal agreement. What is the Government's response to that?
The Government's response is to allow Westminster have a debate and take votes this evening. We will need to assess where we stand after those votes. This is a ratification process or it is supposed to be. Unfortunately, there are attempts by some - we do not know if it will get a majority - to reopen the negotiations as opposed to concluding the ratification process. For us, that is not helpful. We need to wait and see what the British Parliament votes for or does not vote for this evening before we can make an informed response to that.
It is difficult to see where we go from here. The EU deputy chief negotiator, Sabine Weyand, said that the UK had significant input into shaping the backstop and it was its preference for the whole of the UK to remain in the customs union rather than having a specific arrangement for Northern Ireland. It is deeply challenging when those who negotiated the backstop are now seeking to undermine it and amend it in some way without evening proposing what that amendment might be.
Ms Weyand also clearly stated that there is no negotiation between the EU and the UK, and that the negotiation is finished. However, for some reason this seems to have fallen on deaf ears in the UK. The British are still very much beating the drum that the negotiation can be reopened, that the withdrawal agreement can be renegotiated in some way and that the backstop can be altered or that conditions could be attached or in some way time limited. I would be deeply concerned if the Graham Brady amendment were to be supported and voted through. The Irish Government is still very much behind that agreement and we would love to see it passed. However, if that amendment is passed, it would leave the withdrawal agreement as negotiated in a very precarious position.
From our perspective, the onus is now on the Irish Government to outline what happens next, in the event that the position of the UK Government is that it wants to reopen the issue of the backstop. Where do we go from here?
We should not try to pre-empt decisions of the British Parliament. We will know later on today and will hopefully have a clearer picture of what the majority in the British Parliament is seeking. We have an idea of what the majority does not want but we do not yet know what a majority is willing to support. Seven or eight amendments will be taken in Westminster this evening. Let us wait and see. This is a debate for the British Parliament to manage but obviously the Government and the Prime Minister have a big input into it. We must wait to see the combined effect of the votes this evening before responding.