Wednesday, 30 January 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
Cabinet Committee Meetings
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 9, inclusive, together.
The remit of Cabinet committee C covers EU and international issues, including Brexit, and assists my participation as a member of the European Council. It last met on Thursday, 21 June 2018, in advance of the European Council meeting on 28 and 29 June 2018. It was the third such meeting of this Cabinet committee. The next meeting has not yet been scheduled.
Cabinet committees are often used to prepare topics for discussion ahead of consideration by the full Cabinet. Given the significance of Brexit for the country, we have discussed it at full Cabinet level several times in recent months, as was the case most recently on 15 January, again on 22 January and again indeed yesterday. It is important that all Cabinet Ministers should be fully across what is happening in relation to Brexit. Several other important EU issues have also been discussed at full Cabinet level in recent months.
I also meet regularly with individual Ministers, or groups of relevant Ministers, to focus on particular issues, including those relating to Brexit and other EU and international issues, with a view to seeing how Government can best assist the delivery of priorities and commitments.
It is interesting that the Cabinet sub-committee is basically redundant in terms of Brexit, but that is for another day.
As the Taoiseach said earlier, as things stand, there is deadlock over Brexit. The British House of Commons has voted in favour of Brexit, against the draft withdrawal agreement, in favour of having a deal and against the proposed backstop. Obviously, as the Taoiseach has just articulated, he is simply going to keep repeating that the deal is closed. Can he be clear with the House for a moment? Is the Taoiseach saying that unless the British Parliament changes its position, there will be a no-deal Brexit on 29 March?
In recent weeks, we have had entirely contradictory statements from Government on important matters. The Taoiseach may recall the Tánaiste went as far as to tell the Minister, Deputy Ross, to shut up when he said there might be security measures at the Border. Yet a few days later, the Taoiseach said not only the same thing but much more in terms of what would happen at the Border in a no-deal scenario. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste have also said they are not contemplating a hard border and that a hard border is inevitable. They said both things. Two months before Brexit, we have no legislation before the House. The majority of businesses are not Brexit ready and the Central Bank is warning of a more dramatic impact this year than the Government's official projection. Can the Taoiseach be clear and explain exactly what security or other measures are likely in March, if there is no deal? Enough time has been wasted in telling us what is not being contemplated seven months after the Taoiseach first announced the acceleration of no-deal preparations and 58 days before a possible hard Brexit. What will happen on the Border unless the deal is ratified in London?
I understood the Taoiseach to say Cabinet committee C on the European Union has not met since June. Cabinet subcommittees have a purpose. The Taoiseach indicated to us before that he is not too fond of them. They allow very senior civil servants to brief in detail on the detail of papers and, for example, to set out how they imagine the backstop would work in detail and what considerations and planning are required and who they have talked with. That kind of information is not normally at a full Cabinet meeting nor are people other than members of the Cabinet, the secretary to the Government and the Attorney General normally present. Is the Taoiseach saying he is bringing some of these people, who have an enormous skillset, from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and his own Department in to brief the Cabinet or is it the Taoiseach who is doing all the briefing? I am not surprised that the Minister, Deputy Ross, was very surprised because clearly, as the leader of the minor party in the Government, he would need to be kept very well briefed and possibly have access to something like a Cabinet subcommittee to be aware that there were or were not going to be issues and how they were likely to pan out at the Border. I have not heard that Cabinet meetings have gone on extraordinarily long. If the Taoiseach is having Cabinet subcommittee meetings at Cabinet meetings, we should be reading that the Taoiseach is coming out grey and exhausted ten hours later because he is piling them on. We deserve to know a little bit more about how the members of the Cabinet are briefed and about the subcommittee and the minor party because it is a very big issue for Ireland. We want the people who are representing us to do so to the best of their ability. Has the Taoiseach spoken with any of the leaders in the European Union, the President of the Commission or the President of the Council since the votes last night? When does he anticipate he will go on a tour of Europe to meet the leaders to discuss the situation? What he is indicating to us now is, if I understand it correctly, there will be no change and that he is not anticipating meeting anyone from Northern Ireland such as the DUP and those on the leave side. Is Theresa May planning to come to Dublin? The Taoiseach said he spoke to her yesterday and will speak to her again today. Will he tell us something about that?
I direct the Taoiseach to the hearings of the justice committee of the House to familiarise himself with the extent of the loss of citizens' rights that Brexit will entail. He should inform himself in that regard. It is a matter of astonishment that the events in the House of Commons last evening were being depicted as a great success for Theresa May within sections of the British media. The reality is that Mrs. May whipped her own MPs to vote against and press the destruct button on an agreement which she herself negotiated. The truth is that Theresa May has acted absolutely in bad faith in respect of an agreement that she brokered with the European institutions. More fundamentally, and more importantly for our purposes, it was an act of absolute bad faith in respect of the Good Friday Agreement and the obligations of the British state under international law. I read last evening's turn of events not as some gaffe or something borne of ignorance but as an act of belligerence by an element of the British political establishment. I regard it as an act of aggression against the Irish people, North and South, and against Irish interests. It did not happen by accident. This is a calculated matter that comes from the thinking of the Boris Johnsons and the Jacob Rees-Moggs, all the other extremist Brexiteers and the DUP. It has to be faced down. It is absolutely essential at this stage that the Taoiseach's will is not bent, that he does not blink and that he is not cowed irrespective of the overtures from London. In terms of contingency planning, the facts are this: if there is a crash and if the extremist Brexiteers have their way, there will be a hard border on our island. The Taoiseach may be aware there was a demonstration over the weekend on the Border. The communities there have made it absolutely clear they will not tolerate any hardening of that border. Therefore, part of the Taoiseach's contingency planning has to be in the event of a crash to reach back to the Good Friday Agreement which all have vowed to protect and implement and to look towards the provision for a referendum. In other words, if the political system cannot deal with and resolve the issue of the Border, put the question in the hands of the people by way of a democratic referendum.
We are preoccupied with the issue of Brexit in the House, and rightly so, so I am reluctant to raise another issue. I will ask the Taoiseach about the debate on the future of Europe. Many developments are happening with regard to the European Union at present. There are big issues such as migration, the rise of populism on the far right and far left, moves towards corporate tax harmonisation and further integration within the European Union. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, engaged in a public consultation process with regard to the future of Europe and produced a report on the citizens' dialogue on the future of Europe. The report concludes with reference to the summit which will take place in Sibiu in Romania on 9 May. It will be an informal summit. The report states: "In advance of this summit, we will publish a statement on our strategic priorities for the European Union, capturing your ideas [which were put forward during the consultation process] to set out Ireland's vision for the coming years." Can we get some indication of how the Taoiseach intends to approach the summit? There is plenty of time in advance of that European summit. I am interested to know the Taoiseach's thinking at this stage and the Irish stance. Will he keep the House fully informed about this particular debate because the future of Europe is obviously of consequence to us all?
I will return to the Brexit issue. I encourage the Taoiseach to continue to brief the leaders of the Opposition and to convene later this week or early next week the meeting he had last week to allow us to discuss in private what the latest developments are. It is important we retain cohesion and consensus as best we can. We need to be careful with our language. We need not to inflame it or to be antagonistic towards the UK political system which is in a real mess on this. We also need to keep very close to our European colleagues. I hope to have one of the co-leaders of the European Green Party in Dublin next week. It will help us to brief each other on the approach. I imagine each party or grouping here will be doing the same with its European colleagues. As Deputy Burton said, it would help if the Taoiseach could share his sense of what the approach will be from the European institutions, the negotiating team and the Presidents of the Council and Commission.
Have they given any indication to the Taoiseach as to their approach in the coming two weeks in response to yesterday's votes in the British House of Commons?
I agree with the Deputies that Cabinet committees serve a purpose, but my preference is to use the Cabinet itself as much as possible to discuss matters of major importance. Meetings are longer and more frequent than they would have been in the past. We regularly have two meetings in a week, which allows us to be focused and not to have to come out tired and looking grey, which I can assure Deputy Burton will never happen.
Cabinet briefings are done by me, or the Tánaiste, or in some cases depending on the issue by other Ministers or the Secretary General to the Government. However, there are other briefings. Ministers will regularly receive briefings from officials in the EU section in my Department. Sometimes we will do that in the Sycamore Room, but it is exactly that - a briefing. It is not a meeting of a Cabinet sub-committee which requires a senior officials group before it, agendas and lots of other things. Briefings are much more straightforward than a Cabinet sub-committee.
I heard how Deputy Micheál Martin described the position of the British Parliament. It is not really for me to interpret the will of the British House of Commons. As I understand it, its position is that there should not be a no-deal exit on 29 March, based on the Spellman amendment passed last night. It is obviously up to them to realise that should they choose to do so.
Nobody knows for sure what would happen in the event of a no-deal exit. It is uncharted territory.
However, we can prepare for different scenarios and eventualities, which is exactly what we are doing.
I was asked if I had spoken to other the EU Heads of State and Government. In Davos last week I spoke to about seven in person, anticipating the events. We are all ad idemthat the withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation and cannot be reopened. I obviously spoke by phone to President Juncker from Davos on Thursday. I will probably travel to Brussels next week, but that will depend on other business and the availability of other people. The EU-League of Arab States summit will take place in a few weeks' time. That will be another opportunity to meet people in person.
At the moment there are no proposals for the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, to visit Dublin. There was a proposal for her to do so back in November or December, but she could not make it on the day because some of her own party members tabled a confidence motion on her.
I absolutely intend to meet the party leaders again. That is done when there is something new to say or to talk about. Perhaps that will be next week. It is right and important that party leaders should be able to meet in private. Hopefully that will be possible.
On Mrs. Foster, we reached out to each other last week by phone. Efforts are under way to convene a meeting involving the Irish Government and the DUP. However, it is always important to remember that these negotiations are between the EU, including Ireland, on the one hand and the United Kingdom on the other. We are not negotiating or even approaching any type of negotiation with any political party. There are many political parties in Northern Ireland. When we listen to the voice of Northern Ireland we should not make the mistake of thinking that is the voice of only one party; there are many other parties in Northern Ireland. Of course, there is the voice of Northern Ireland, which includes people who are not members of political parties, including those in business groups, the Ulster Farmers Union and many others with whom the Government has regular engagement. There is, of course, regular informal engagement with DUP MPs and MLAs as Ministers visit Northern Ireland and in London as well.
Could the Taoiseach answer my question? Is he saying that unless the British Parliament changes position, there will be a no-deal Brexit in March? Is that where we are?