Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 9 together.
I last met DUP leader Arlene Foster at the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies in Enniskillen on Sunday, 10 November, when we both participated in the laying of wreaths at the cenotaph and attended a remembrance service in St. Macartin's Cathedral. We also exchanged messages yesterday. In terms of Enniskillen, it was my second year to attend and the eighth year in a row that the Irish Government has been represented at Remembrance Day ceremonies to remember the men and women from the island of Ireland who died in past conflicts and to remember those who lost their lives in the Enniskillen bombing in 1987.
My most recent engagement prior to that was a meeting with the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, in Government Buildings on 18 September where we discussed issues relating to Brexit and ongoing efforts between the two Governments to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.
I want to raise two matters with the Taoiseach. In respect of his ongoing contact with the DUP, I have discerned and maybe others in the House will have noticed a significant shift in the view of the DUP on the whole Brexit issue. It was a campaigning party in favour of Brexit and in fact was a conduit of a lot of money into England in support of Brexit. I think the reality of Brexit is a different proposition for its members. Certainly the presentation of their position, although I do not want to misrepresent them, that I discern in the general election campaign now under way is that in certain circumstances, they might favour a second referendum because the various forms of Brexit negotiated and the difficulties for the island of Ireland in any form of Brexit have dawned on people. Has that been explored in any way with the DUP by the Taoiseach and his officials?
Second, I want to return very briefly to the debate we had yesterday on advance preparation for future constitutional arrangements on this island. It was a useful start for a discussion. The Taoiseach made a very valid point when he said that he did not want to have a forum in which 1 million unionists would not involve themselves and which in effect then would be simply a pan-nationalist forum. I think most of us would agree with that but it is not the point. We need to start to begin to think of what the future might bring in terms of a future constitutional arrangement and begin to see what sort of forum would allow people in some shape or form to be included in that discussion, including the unionist community. That is what we need to do. The notion that it is too difficult or we will not get people now or that it is not the right time will mean we will postpone the beginnings of shaping a dialogue until we are faced with an issue like the Brexit vote itself. We will not have thought out the consequences of a democratic decision and I would like to have years of conditioning and preparation for this, for all of us to see what it means for us. In the context of the suggestions I made yesterday, I hope the Taoiseach would think this through, perhaps over the Christmas period, and have scoping exercises with the democratic parties in this Dáil as a beginning basis for a broader discussion on the future.
The breakdown of key relationships has been central to the ongoing crisis in North-South relations in recent years. I am sure the Taoiseach would agree that his statement last year that his relationship with the DUP was fine because he had Arlene Foster's mobile number was not really a reflection of reality. When the DUP went off with the European Research Group, ERG, Tories in their Brexit fantasies, it was never going to end well for them. However, the entire point of the peace settlement is that the betrayal of the DUP by the Tory fundamentalists is not something in which we can rejoice. What we are left with is the need to pick up the pieces of a badly damaged relationship. The peace settlement cannot work without cross-community and cross-government co-operation. The failure to show urgency on this in the past three years has done real damage. Should the withdrawal treaty be ratified, and all indications are that it will be, we need to move quickly to demonstrate our goodwill and the fact that we are sincere in saying that the special economic arrangements for Northern Ireland are not a threat to the constitutional rights embedded in the agreement.
In the last two weeks, all parties and governments have said they will engage in trying to re-establish the assembly and the Executive. We need something concrete in terms of a new process and new dynamics in the discussions or we will end up back with the two largest parties jockeying for who can declare victory over the other. What actions are proposed to build cross-community confidence in the new economic status of Northern Ireland? What specific efforts are proposed to get the democratic institutions restored before the need for yet another assembly election arises?
I would reiterate what I said yesterday in terms of what Deputy Howlin and others have said. I find it extraordinary that there is a framework there but it is deliberately not being used. The framework was deliberately collapsed. Everybody wants to go off again and have another discussion for the next ten years. A lot of people want people to work the institutions. If people are elected, they are expected to take their seats in the assembly or Executive and work for the benefit of the people. It is an extraordinary failure and an indictment of Sinn Féin initially, as it collapsed the assembly and the Executive, and of the DUP, which should have worked with Sinn Féin to restore it. Sinn Féin took a premeditated decision on the renewable heat incentive, RHI, scandal. We now learn from the inquiry that Sinn Féin was slow to close it down because unelected officials said the Minister for Finance in the North had to bow to them, to unelected officials within Sinn Féin. The emails are there. He sends emails to them. An Executive and an assembly is collapsed. If there is a scandal in the Republic we do not collapse the Dáil. We do not collapse the Government. We have an inquiry and try to get to the bottom of it. That is what should have happened. At a time when there was a huge threat economically to Northern Ireland I find it just incomprehensible that people could still try to justify not having an assembly and an Executive. Before we go anywhere else, will people in the North for God's sake demonstrate that they can work the institutions that are constitutionally there to be worked? That is a basic prerequisite for anything.
The difference between the DUP leadership in place now and the one that was in place when the assembly was working well is that everyone saw, and we have seen around the world people looking on in awe at, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness working so well together and being able to find an accommodation despite being people who had held totally opposite positions. They were able to come together and find a way forward because there was a genuine commitment to make that happen. That is the difficulty we have at the moment. When I go to the North to canvass and I speak to people on doorsteps, they all recognise that the DUP's problem is that if the assembly was up and running, the conversation practically every day would be about Brexit and the party is on the wrong side of that. The party's representatives are quite content, in one way, to ensure that they have that discussion in Westminster rather than having an actual assembly in place that is talking about it.
There is a commitment, and Sinn Féin is determined, to ensure that the assembly is put back up and running, but on a basis of equality, social justice, working together and that it is power sharing rather than power dividing. That is what it had become, and that is the difficulty that we have.
Deputy Martin's interest in the North, unfortunately, does not extend to running candidates there. We will have to come back to the reality, which is that the people in the Six Counties decide who they will elect, and then we have to work out a solution. Sinn Féin is very clear on this. I know that Michelle O'Neill met the Tánaiste and Taoiseach yesterday and expressed the urgency that is required to conclude the talks and to restore the assembly in the coming weeks, if that is at all possible.
The point made by Deputy Howlin is also very valid, and the discussion yesterday was useful, which is that we need to be looking to where the future is on this island. Everyone I talk to and meet says that Brexit has brought home to them the absurdity of a border in Ireland. They ask what we are going to do about that and how we can be inclusive in bringing this forward.
The Taoiseach is quite correct. We do not want to have a conversation that excludes people who have a unionist or British identity. We want to have a conversation that includes them and assures them that their future is also with all of us on this island. To do that, we have to work the institutions but we also have a responsibility here. The Ireland's Future initiative is probably the start of something whereby, if we all work together on it and try to bring as many people as possible with us, we can come to a situation in the coming year, and certainly in the coming decade, such that it can be a decade about making change happen in an agreed and inclusive way. To do that, there is a responsibility, and the Citizens' Assembly idea or some similar idea is something that needs to be worked. We should all collectively in this House try to do that rather than trying to score political points off each other as to who did or said what and where. We need to work together.
The Brexit crisis has shown the problem and irrationality of a border. It has exposed a fissure that has always existed within unionism between an ideological commitment to being part of Britain and economic self-interest, which has now been exposed in a way, frankly, that is favourable to the project of uniting this island and getting rid of the Border. We need to explore it, but this is where I strongly disagree with Deputy Micheál Martin. We have elected representatives in the North, and as much as everyone welcomes the peace in the North as an alternative to sectarian warfare, the fact is that the political structures within the Northern Ireland Assembly institutionalise sectarianism. It means that very important issues like corruption on a scale of hundreds of millions in the renewable heat incentive, RHI, scandal will only be debated through the prism of sectarian politics, where on a sectarian basis one camp can stop and essentially veto effective action to deal with something like corruption.
If we want to look at a country that we can learn something from, we should look at Lebanon. The political structures set up in the 1920s were almost exactly the same as the political structures that were set up in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was institutionalised sectarianism based upon sectarian quotas, which did not work out very well for Lebanon.
It is a very good comparison and look what has begun to break through it in a very surprising way. Look at all the big protests in Lebanon now where young people have come out together over taxes being imposed on WhatsApp messages, breaking down all of the sectarian divisions. That is not an exact analogy, but LGBT rights, women's rights, the right to choose, and common economic and social issues are the ways in which we can begin to challenge the sectarian divide, the Border, and the green and orange politics in a way that can actually begin to further the struggle for a united Ireland.
I thank the Deputies for their questions and remarks. Deputy Howlin mentioned that he detected a significant shift in DUP policy on Brexit. I am not entirely sure if that it is the case. I watched "Newsnight" last night, which was broadcast from Belfast. I think many people did, and maybe they detected subtleties that I missed. Listening to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, he very much made the case that the DUP is for Brexit, is opposed to the withdrawal agreement, and would not support a Corbyn-led government, although it would consider its options if Corbyn was removed as leader of the Labour Party. We are very much in an election phase. The election is happening on 12 December in United Kingdom and also in Northern Ireland. I look forward to resuming talks with all of the parties in Northern Ireland next month.
Deputy Martin is correct to say that the special economic arrangement that is envisaged for Northern Ireland under the withdrawal agreement is not a threat to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and certainly is not intended to be. That is guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement and can only be changed if there is a referendum in Northern Ireland that seeks to change it.
On the Stormont institutions, we have an ongoing engagement with the UK government, even during this election phase. Number 10 is in touch with Government Buildings, and the Taoiseach is in touch with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I hope there is an opportunity between the elections for Westminster - we will have the results of those on 13 and 14 December - and the deadline of 13 January for Stormont to be re-established, during the Christmas and New Year period, for the two Governments and all of the parties to work closely together to achieve what is our shared, collective, stated objective, which is to re-establish the institutions in Stormont and to strengthen negotiations and relations between Britain and Ireland. It is an election phase and that work is best done when we know the results of the UK elections.