Wednesday, 30 January 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
1. To ask the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, about Brexit since December 2018; and if issues were discussed. [1714/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
I last met the DUP leader, Ms Arlene Foster, on 15 October, when we discussed a range of issues, including the current political situation in Northern Ireland and Brexit.
At our meeting I emphasised the Government's full commitment to all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement and our continuing determination to secure the effective operation of all its institutions. We discussed what could be done to get the institutions in Northern Ireland up and running again.
I reiterated to Ms Foster that the Government wants to put a political system in place that can secure an agreement on the operation of the devolved institutions and that we will continue to engage with the UK Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek progress within the period immediately ahead.
We also discussed Brexit, including the negotiations that were ongoing at that time on the backstop to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. Ms Foster explained her difficulties with the backstop, while I outlined why Ireland and the EU considers it necessary. The withdrawal agreement agreed between the UK Government and the EU includes the important backstop provisions. Unfortunately, this agreement has not been ratified by the House of Commons, and this House will be aware of the current situation in Westminster.
The Government has had discussions with a number of DUP representatives in recent months. For example, the Tánaiste met Arlene Foster and other DUP members in Belfast on 10 January as part of a round of meetings with the leaders of all political parties and a range of civil society groups in Northern Ireland. The Tánaiste will continue to engage with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the leaders of all political parties in the weeks ahead.
We can all agree that the great position we are in today regarding Brexit would be much better if the Northern Assembly and the Executive were active. Instead of the DUP promoting its hardline pro-Brexit approach, the majority in Northern Ireland would be in a position to pass resolutions and other measures supporting the current withdrawal agreement. History will not look kindly on the fact that Northern Ireland was left voiceless because its institutions were collapsed over a heating scheme, or, indeed, that the inquiry into that scheme has revealed an incredible story of the involvement of background forces that operated to an unknown agenda. The situation yesterday confirmed yet again that the lack of any relationship outside of increasingly rare meetings is an important part of the barriers we face. There is no doubt about that now.
Last year, the Taoiseach said he expected a significant initiative to get under way to get the institutions re-established. He then said this initiative would wait until after Brexit. Can he indicate to me the current status of the initiative? Given the seriousness of Brexit for the Good Friday Agreement, when will he produce the promised analysis of areas for action that need to be addressed, irrespective of the nature of Brexit? For example, the human rights architecture of the agreement specifically includes the direct justiciability of European-level rights in Northern Ireland's courts. I raised this as an issue as early as July 2016. What discussions has the Taoiseach had with the British Government on this specific matter? As it is a purely bilateral issue, I think he will agree that it is entirely separate from the withdrawal agreement, so he might enlighten me in this regard.
It may turn out to be an historical tragedy that the people in Northern Ireland who voted to remain have not been represented and that the Executive in Northern Ireland has not been reconvened. We all understand there are political difficulties in this regard, but the consequences of Brexit are so great that those difficulties need to be addressed and overcome, and they can be. In view of the difficult circumstances that have arisen, what proposals, if any, does the Taoiseach have to meet Arlene Foster and to reach out to her and the DUP, who are representatives of a large segment of unionist and pro-Brexit sentiment in Northern Ireland? Does he have plans to meet her regularly? He indicated in his reply that their latest meeting was in the middle of October. In the context of the important events that are happening, that is a long time ago. Has he, for instance, had an opportunity to engage with any of the MPs of the DUP, specifically Nigel Dodds, or any MEPs and establish their concerns about the backstop? Has he sought a bilateral meeting? Has he engaged with the DUP concerns about a no-deal exit and its impact on Northern Ireland? In the event of a no-deal proceeding, have he and, say, the IDA given consideration to how Northern companies may be facilitated by having a presence south of the Border in the Republic, to try to ease the obvious difficulties that may arise from a hard Brexit?
Like previous speakers - perhaps more so, given that Sinn Féin is a national organisation and we represent a substantial portion of the electorate north of the Border - I am anxious that the institutions of government be re-established. I am also a realist. We have a mandate from the North of Ireland and we know there is no appetite among Northern nationalists or progressives to re-establish the institutions on anything other than a grounded, sustainable and full-blooded power-sharing basis. It is not that we have minor political difficulties, and anyone in this House who is seized by that delusion is on the wrong track. The issues at play are significant and long-running. I remind Members that we arrived at a fair accommodation last February. This was not acted on and the DUP did not deliver. I regret that but those are the circumstances we are in. I met Arlene Foster in January and we had a very frank and friendly conversation, but it is absolutely apparent that the DUP has not moved one inch or one iota, nor does it intend to. For the purpose of the record of the Dáil if nothing else, I wish to identify why this is the case. It is because both governments, Theresa May's Tories and Deputy Leo Varadkar's Government, have acquiesced with the DUP agenda of delay - delay on Brexit and delay while they hide at Westminster. This is why we have had no substantive process, despite having been promised one. This is why the Taoiseach and Ms Foster can meet until the cows come home; if there is no real political pressure on the DUP to do business, it will not do business. It is as stark as that.
The Taoiseach is the person in charge.
What is his plan to get the institutions back up and running?
I reiterate a call I made in this House several weeks ago to get the institutions of Northern Ireland back up and running. It is intolerable, at this most historic and sensitive time, where the issue of Northern Ireland and the Irish Border is centre stage of politics in Ireland, the UK and Europe, that the only active politician representing the majority opinion of the North in the House of Commons is Lady Sylvia Hermon. The absence of the assembly is inexcusable at a time when we may need it to manage a crash out Brexit that could not be left to civil servants. I encourage the Taoiseach to do everything in his power to see those institutions return.
We are all scratching our heads after the votes in the House of Commons last night. What should, or could, our approach to that be? One option for the Taoiseach in any negotiations or discussions he will have with the UK Prime Minister today, or in the coming days, is to go back a year and two months to the initial agreement of December 2017 which stated that the Irish Border would be maintained open and there might be some regulatory and other checks in the Irish Sea, per se,to allow us do that. That may not be to our advantage in the sense that it might hinder east-west trade. It may be to the disadvantage of the UK because it might like the customs arrangement to which it agreed in the withdrawal agreement. However, it would be one way of responding to the UK Prime Minister by which we maintain our insistence around maintaining our Border and offers a flexible mechanism.
The DUP will not like it. The DUP stopped it after the UK Prime Minister agreed it in December 2017. Given that Prime Minister May and her officials signed off on that agreement with the EU negotiating team, it might be a suggestion to come back to the British Government within what is going to be a fraught two weeks. I put that idea to the Taoiseach.
I am, of course, very aware of the votes which took place in the House of Commons last night and I will speak to Prime Minister May by phone again this afternoon. We scheduled a call yesterday and that call will take place this afternoon in light of the position the UK Government took yesterday to support the Graham Brady amendment and in light of the two votes which occurred last night which passed the Spelman amendment and the Brady amendment.
The European Union, including Ireland, stands by the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol and backstop relating to Ireland. As European Council President Tusk said yesterday, we are not offering a renegotiation. That is not on the table and there are no plans to organise an emergency summit to discuss any changes to the guidelines, nor is there any pressure to hold one. The message which came from the European institutions and the European Union yesterday was abundantly clear: the withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation and is not going to be reopened.
It is important to acknowledge that two amendments were passed last night. The first was the Spelman amendment which says that there should not be a no-deal exit by the UK from the European Union. It is in the hands of the UK Government and the UK Parliament, at any time, to take away the threat of no deal. They have the authority to do that either by revoking Article 50 or seeking an extension to Article 50. Ireland and the European Union are not threatening no deal. The UK Government and the UK Parliament have it in their authority to take the threat of no deal away at any time they wish to do so.
The Brady amendment speaks of alternative arrangements. I do not know what are those alternative arrangements. We have been down that track before and I do not believe that such alternative arrangements exist and that is why we have the agreement that we have now. The only way we can avoid a hard border, physical infrastructure and checks and controls in the way foreseen in the original December agreement is through full regulatory alignment, to use the language of that December agreement.
It is really regrettable that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are not functioning and have not been in operation for the past two years. Absent a functioning assembly and executive, parties do what parties do. They have taken party positions that have largely appealed to their bases. Had the parties been in the executive, and holding ministerial office, they might have been more willing to think about what was best for Northern Ireland business and agriculture and what was best for Northern Ireland as a whole, rather than taking positions which very much derive from party policy.
The Tánaiste has been in touch with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland this week but we need to focus on ratifying the withdrawal agreement and creating some certainty around Brexit. Perhaps after that there will be a space to re-engage with the parties.
Fundamentally, the assembly and the executive cannot function unless the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, are able to agree. The Irish and UK Governments can facilitate, help and cajole, but we cannot force those two parties to come to an agreement. I understand the DUP and Sinn Féin now hold the world record for failing to negotiate a coalition agreement and form a government and that is not something of which either party can possibly be proud.
We understand that the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR, will continue to apply to all of the UK, including Northern Ireland. The UK is leaving the European Union but it is not leaving the ECHR.
That, of course, may change. People in Northern Ireland who have Irish passports and are Irish citizens will continue to have the rights that EU citizens have, that is the right to travel freely and to reside and work in any part of the European Union. That is something that, unfortunately, UK citizens may not have in a few weeks' time. EU citizens and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland will continue to have those rights that come with European citizenship, the right to live, work and study in any part of the European Union.
In terms of rights that are linked to residency, as opposed to citizenship, such as participation in the ERASMUS programme and the European health insurance card, the withdrawal agreement proposes that that continues throughout the transition period and that, even though people in Northern Ireland would not be in the EU anymore, they would continue to have access to the European health insurance card and to be able to participate in the ERASMUS programme, for example. It is our intention, as part of the future relationship treaty, to negotiate a position whereby EU citizens living in Northern Ireland would still be able to access all those different programmes.