Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
I last met First Minister Sturgeon at the British-Irish Council in Manchester on 28 June. We subsequently spoke by phone on 7 August regarding political developments in the United Kingdom, including Scotland, and also Brexit developments. Prior to that, I met the First Minister over lunch in Farmleigh on Monday, 27 May last. We discussed mutual challenges and considered how best to maintain and further develop the strong bilateral relations between Ireland and Scotland. We also discussed the latest political developments in the wake of the recent European Parliament and local elections, as well as Brexit developments. We acknowledged the strength of bilateral relations between Ireland and Scotland and committed to working to maintain and deepen them.
The Tánaiste and the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Ms Fiona Hyslop, have just announced a joint review of bilateral relations for the next five years. The joint review will cover government-to-government work and will also look beyond government to the areas of business and economy, community and diaspora, academic and research links, culture, and rural, coastal and island communities. We want to learn from the best in each country and empower those who can bring our relationship to a new level. I look forward to greeting First Minister Sturgeon again at the British-Irish Council meeting, which I will host in Dublin next week.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. First Minister Sturgeon has always been clear that, since Scotland voted 62% to remain within the European Union, she and her party are determined to do everything possible to maintain that position. I refer in particular to ensuring that Scotland remains within the customs union and Single Market. The First Minister has also spoken repeatedly about the serious implications for Scotland if Northern Ireland were to stay in the Single Market and Scotland did not. She has also spoken about the close ties between our countries.
It is also interesting that the Scottish National Party, SNP, gained three Members of the European Parliament, MEPs, with a Remain stance when so many Brexiteers were elected in England. A general election is on the way in the UK and the Government cannot take sides, although there have been leaks that the Government is hoping that a Tory victory emerges. We should keep in mind that many forces contesting the UK election are supportive of Remain. Have there been bilateral meetings between officials from each Government? Notwithstanding the review that has just been announced, will additional staff be deployed to the Consulate General of Ireland in Scotland?
Regarding the Brexit situation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's agreement is a harsher one for the Republic of Ireland than was Prime Minister May's proposition. That aspect has not been given the profile or discussion it merits and it is potentially very serious for us down the road in respect of Britain staying out of the customs union and Single Market. That seems to be where Prime Minister Johnson wants to go. The SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the British Labour Party and others, however, want to stay in the customs union, or as close as possible to it, and within the Single Market. The impact of this UK election will be critical to Ireland, as will the volatility at the end of January and what may happen as a result of the election.
We cannot comment on the various strategies but maintaining a seamless common travel area is still very important in the years ahead, as are reciprocal rights in health, education and social protection. I welcome the review that has been announced. At this stage, however, we probably need to increase the resources we devote to enhancing the relationship between Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. I also believe that the Taoiseach is supportive of Prime Minister Johnson's idea of building a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Has the Taoiseach spoken to the First Minister and-or Prime Minister Johnson about this proposal? Is this a serious suggestion or was it just one of these top of the hat comments that the Taoiseach is capable of articulating now and again?
The Taoiseach stated earlier that he was wary of commentary because an election is under way in the United Kingdom. We need some reflection here, however. During the election campaign already under way, the First Minister of Scotland has indicated that it will remain an important priority for her to have a second independence referendum for Scotland. There is real potential that might form part of the next programme for government in the United Kingdom, if the SNP is supporting the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats, or some combination of such parties, in a future British Government.
We have to think about our future as well. I listened very carefully to the Taoiseach's answer to a previous question regarding the future structure of the island of Ireland. More than two years ago, I raised the idea that in calm times - and not now in the midst of an election in the next four weeks - we need to start scoping out the prospect of some mechanism for a revisitation of the New Ireland Forum or a Citizens' Assembly. The Taoiseach ruled that out as if it was one issue in a queue of issues. I do not think that this is simply one issue in a queue of ten issues. The future of the island of Ireland, how we envisage that and how we make it an acceptable home for all of the people on the island of Ireland is something that we need to scope out now. We must not leave it until we are faced with a Border poll for which there has not been proper preparation. If any lessons are to be learned from Brexit, it is that if we are to make any definitive constitutional decisions, an enormous amount of advance preparation needs to be done. The Taoiseach speculated previously that there was some merit in having a Citizens' Assembly on this matter. We should at least sit down, as leaders of the political parties in this Dáil, to think and discuss out loud among ourselves how these issues might be addressed in the coming months and years.
In a similar vein, the Taoiseach may be aware that there was a massive rally in Glasgow last Saturday. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding Scottish independence and supporting a call for a second referendum. Contrary to some of the political commentary we hear when Deputies on this side of the Chamber ask for similar debates on Irish unity, the sky has not fallen in over in Scotland. Now is time to start a conversation here. The upcoming general election in the UK is being used by supporters of Scottish independence as a platform to campaign for independence. That is not being done in just an abstract way. Independence is being viewed in the context of new opportunities that Scotland may enjoy in the new political landscape following Brexit. We are not yet 100% sure what shape that will take. We do not know what is going to happen in the next couple of months concerning the delay. I echo Deputy Howlin's call. We need to start having this conversation. That conversation is already happening and it is longer an issue of green and orange.
This is about respecting all cultures and traditions within the island, doing what is best for us as an island, and not doing what is best for one culture or tradition over another. We are all in this together and we all need to move forward. We cannot be afraid to have that debate. The sooner we have those types of debates and the sooner we are more open and transparent about where this country is going, the better. As an Irish republican, I want to see a united Ireland. There are other people on this island who do not wish to see that but that does not mean that we should shy away from having those conversations. It is critical we have those conversations. I urge the Taoiseach to start having those conversations with us because, as with many political issues in recent years, the public is way ahead of where this institution is in relation to those debates, and rather than us giving leadership, we will end up being behind the curve regarding the people's wishes. I ask the Taoiseach to reflect on that.
I thank the Deputies. I reassure them that the Government will not take sides in the UK general election. While individual parties might support other individual parties, as a Government, we certainly will not have any role or involvement in the UK election.
If there is a conservative win, I would expect the withdrawal agreement to be ratified quickly, allowing us to move swiftly on to talks about the future relationship. Everything is still to play for in terms of the future relationship, particularly because of the joint political declaration talks about tariff-free, quota-free trade between the UK and the rest of the EU, including Ireland, with a level playing field, and that is precisely what I want us to achieve. If there is a different government, a remain-leaning government comprising Labour, the Liberal Democrats and SNP, which wants to reopen the issue of a customs union, we would be happy to talk to them about that and, indeed, would welcome it. I only hope that whatever happens, it is a clear result because what we had for the past couple of years was a finely balanced hung parliament that ultimately could not approve anything.
I only hope that the result is clear.
In terms of our representation in Scotland, we have a consulate, not an embassy, in Edinburgh and we can certainly give consideration to additional staff there. We have just reopened the Cardiff consulate and I am glad that we were able to do that. We are also examining the possibility of opening a new consulate in the north of England, perhaps in Liverpool or Manchester, because we are aware that we need to think ahead to what the future relationship will look like after the UK leaves the EU and how we can continue to maintain strong relations with our nearest neighbour. Part of that might involve expanding our presence in the north of England as well as deepening our presence in the existing consulates, and seeing if we can use the mechanisms within the Good Friday Agreement, such as the British-Irish Council and the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, as vehicles through which we can have deeper bilateral contacts with the UK Government and with the devolved administrations on the islands.
Regarding the idea of a bridge between Ireland and Scotland, it is something I spoke about with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson. He specifically raised it with me when we met on the Wirral. I have not spoken about it with the First Minister of Scotland, Ms Nicola Sturgeon, but I may have the chance to mention it to her next week. Frankly, I do not know if it is feasible. I am aware of the issues that pertain, in particular, to Beaufort's Dyke, but it should not be dismissed or ruled out of hand. Some people dismissed the idea of building a tunnel under the channel between France and England as science fiction. In fact, it was science fiction for a period of time but it is, of course, now a reality. I am aware of 100 km long bridges being built in China, the bridge between Denmark and Sweden, and the bridges in Louisiana, which Members will have seen. Certainly, the distance is doable in engineering terms. Whether the depth is, I do not know.
-----to Derry and Donegal, and - something I would be very enthusiastic about doing - upgrading the train line from Belfast to Dublin and then on to Cork and Limerick Junction. We made a Cabinet decision the other day to go ahead with a feasibility study of high-speed rail between Belfast and Dublin, and then Dublin, Limerick Junction and Cork, looking at either the possibility of a new-build high-speed rail-----
-----or upgrading the existing infrastructure to a higher speed. Those projects would be a much higher priority on my agenda than a bridge between Northern Ireland and the west of Scotland.
To clarify what I stated earlier, I did not rule out a citizens' assembly on the future constitutional arrangements in Ireland but I remarked that there is a pipeline of citizens' assemblies under way-----
-----and we only have the capacity to do one at a time. The one on gender equality, which is of great merit, is about to start. That will run for approximately six months. After that, we will have the one on local government in Dublin.
There are a number of suggestions about other citizens' assemblies that also have merit. There is a suggestion to have one on education. There is a suggestion that we have one on disability. There are lots of suggestions that have merit for a future citizens' assembly and they should not be dismissed.
Regarding this particular proposal, I would only say that the timing is important. There are elections under way in the United Kingdom and north of the Border and we need to be sensitive about that. Brexit is also unresolved. I am keen that we do not constitutionalise the issue of Brexit. There are many unionists north of the Border who feel that the withdrawal agreement undermines the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK. I reassure them that that is not the case and that Northern Ireland will remain an integral part of the UK unless and until such time as the majority of people there decide otherwise in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, and I would not like to do anything that might cause people not to trust us on that. We need to be careful in our guardianship of the agreement. As somebody I admire immensely who Members will know, Ms Pat Hume, the wife of Mr. John Hume, always says, the Good Friday Agreement is the long-term solution. It is not an interim solution. We need to have regard to the fact that if people start to talk and consider and entertain the idea that the agreement might be replaced by something else, those who do not like it at all may misuse that opportunity to undermine the agreement.