Tuesday, 17 December 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
1. To ask the Taoiseach if he or his officials have met the Sinn Féin leaders in relation to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the upcoming deadline of 13 January 2020. [50122/19]
3. To ask the Taoiseach the outcome of the most recent discussions held with the UK Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland in relation to the need to have the Executive and Assembly restored in Northern Ireland. [52768/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
I spoke by telephone to Prime Minister Johnson on Friday, 13 December, the day following the election in the UK. I congratulated the Prime Minister on his election victory and we agreed that there is now a significant opportunity to restore the Good Friday Agreement institutions. We pledged to work with the parties in Northern Ireland to achieve this.
Talks aimed at restoring the Northern Ireland Executive started yesterday in Stormont. The Tánaiste and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will lead the talks with the five main political parties. We believe finding a final agreement on the issues outstanding in these talks can be done in a short period of time. A substantial talks process has already taken place during the period 2017 through 2019.
Notwithstanding this, a successful outcome in the weeks ahead will require political will and leadership by the parties.
The Government will continue to do everything in its power, in accordance with its responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to secure the restoration and effective operation of all of its institutions.
I met Sinn Féin along with the Tánaiste on Tuesday, 26 November in Leinster House. Our discussions focused on the political situation in Northern Ireland and on a timeframe for post-election talks. I emphasised the Government's full commitment to all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.
As I reported to the House on 27 November, I last met the DUP leader, Ms Arlene Foster, at the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies in Enniskillen on Sunday, 10 November, where we both participated in the laying of wreaths at the cenotaph and attended a remembrance service in St. Macartin's Cathedral.
I spoke to the SDLP leader, Mr. Colum Eastwood, by phone on 9 December 2019 and we discussed Brexit, the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive and the influence Irish MPs could have in Westminster. I recently met Ms Claire Hanna, MP, of the SDLP in Government Buildings. In November, I wrote to the new UUP leader, Mr. Steve Aiken, to congratulate him on his appointment as party leader and to seek a meeting in the near future. I have not been in contact with the Alliance Party in recent weeks although I spoke by telephone to Ms Naomi Long, leader of that party, on 8 October. I congratulated Mr. Stephen Farry, MP, on his election a few days ago.
The Tánaiste is in regular contact with all the Northern party leaders and keeps me fully briefed on developments. There are also ongoing contacts at official and advisory levels.
The results of the Westminster election last week have made it very likely that there is a movement towards the restoration of the democratic institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement. Immense damage was done in the past three years since the Assembly and Executive were collapsed due to a controversy over a heating scheme, in which it turns out both sides were implicated. A very good book, Burned, was written on this by Sam McBride. It is worth reading. Northern Ireland was essentially left without a voice at a very critical moment in its history and the history of the island given the threat of Brexit. It was unforgivable and unacceptable that the North was without a Government and Assembly.
In last week's election, the two largest parties lost over 12% of the vote and received a very clear message from the people that they want action on urgent issues such as health and schools and they want politicians to go back to work. From knocking on doors in Derry, that was a very clear message I received. When I was out canvassing with Mr. Colum Eastwood and my party colleagues were canvassing with Ms Claire Hanna, Michael Savage and others, there was a very clear message that the people wanted the politicians to go back to work. Because of this and many other reasons, such as the fact that the largest parties know another Assembly election would weaken their positions, there is every reason to believe there will actually be a deal before 13 January. The challenge is to make sure there is a sustainable deal. The fresh start agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin in 2015 was at the time heralded as a breakthrough and an end to instability but it was nothing of the sort. There was a quick return to the sort of secret behaviour and party-first tactics exposed so damningly during the heating scheme inquiry. The most important way to end the cycle of inaction and breakdown is to end the system whereby everything is controlled in two private offices, with other parties and civil society excluded. Will the Taoiseach give an assurance that all parties will be meaningfully involved in the discussions and that any agreement will not be allowed to become yet another closed one between parties that do not represent nearly half of the electorate? Given the critical importance of significantly improving North–South co-operation in order to make the new special economic status of Northern Ireland work, does the Taoiseach agree it is essential that we table substantive proposals on that?
Though it is not acknowledged often enough, there is another 32-county party in this country. It is called People Before Profit. We have an Assembly Member for West Belfast and a number of councillors in Belfast and Derry. Interestingly, in the recent elections our vote in West Belfast went up by 5%, rising from 10% to 16%. By any standard, this is a significant improvement for a party that organises not on green or orange lines but on the basis of socialist politics and on uniting Catholic and Protestant working-class people in their common interests. One of the key issues that came up when I was canvassing in West Belfast was the health service. Indeed, this issue dominated. It echoes the circumstances down here. Why are nurses in the North and other health workers on strike? It is because people are waiting up to two years for important operations and because they are put on trolleys in accident and emergency wards. Also, actions of the Tories, sanctioned or not challenged by the two major parties in the North, mean health workers in the National Health Service in the North earn less than their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom. Would it not be very reasonable to say the restoration of the Assembly should be conditional on increased investment to address the crisis in the National Health Service and on a clear commitment to pay parity between nurses and other health workers in the North and their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom? Pay parity is a major issue affecting people across sectarian lines in the North.
My party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, has covered very extensively and comprehensively the issues we want to see addressed in the current round of talks. I have just come from a meeting of the foreign affairs committee, which heard a presentation from the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. As we all know, the centre has provided a safe space for people from different traditions to negotiate, have dialogue, talk about moving forward and get away from the era of the Troubles. It is very important that the legacy issues are given very detailed consideration. I hope progress can be achieved in dealing with them. I represent a constituency that unfortunately suffered death and destruction as a result of the Troubles north of the Border predominantly. There was the loss of life in a bombing in Belturbet. The Dublin–Monaghan bombings impacted my constituency also. The families who have been bereaved or lost loved ones and some of the victims who survived say they are all getting older. Some say they lost a sibling, parent, son or daughter but that they are no nearer to getting justice. Many say to me they want to see some justice before they go to their eternal reward. We have to achieve progress in dealing with the legacy issue. It is a very important ingredient in ensuring a peace process that deals with the issues of the past and removes the pain and anxiety to some extent. For those who have lost loved ones, there will never be closure just by getting the truth but it is an important issue to address. It needs to be dealt with comprehensively and not sidelined.
I congratulate everybody who has been elected to the new Westminster Parliament. In particular, I congratulate Mr. Colum Eastwood and Ms Claire Hanna of the SDLP and Mr. Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party. They will now represent three Irish voices in the new House of Commons. More than ever, it will be critical for all-island voices to be available in the very difficult negotiations that will be under way.
I have never agreed with Sinn Féin's abstentionist policy. Over and over, I have heard from many in the North that when it needed voices in the UK Parliament, the abstentionist policy meant a whole stream of Irish opinion was not available to be heard. This left the gate open for extreme groups such as the European Research Group to peddle the kind of vision of Brexit it has been offering. The electorate in Northern Ireland delivered a very loud message to all the parties there. I hope the talks will be successful. Pre-Christmas talks have a history of some success in the North. I hope this will be the case again this time. I believe the issues around language can be addressed in good faith among the parties, in addition to issues concerning the sectarian conflict that have yet to be resolved and the issue of legislation being blocked by any of the parties in Stormont. All of these issues are fixable to the credit and benefit of people in the North but also the whole island of Ireland.
It is worthy to congratulate all those elected to parliament. People are pointing out that Sinn Féin did not get as many votes in this election as in previous elections. The reality, however, is that we stood back and did not run in three constituencies, South Belfast, East Belfast and North Down, because we had an agreement with other parties to have, insofar as possible, pro-Remain candidates elected. That had an impact but we are where we are. Sinn Féin still has seven MPs, as we had going into this election. It is still the prominent voice of Irish republicans and nationalists in the North and that should not be forgotten.
Support for the union has fallen and I do not say that out of a sense of triumph. This is the fifth election in a row where unionists have been a minority in the North. This points us to the kind of future Ireland we are going to have. We need to come back to that question once again and see how we can resolve these issues. The talks in the next week or two aimed at getting the Stormont Assembly back up and running are vital to that process. It is to be remembered that the red lines that people talk about have already been agreed. The St. Andrews Agreement, Stormont House Agreement and Good Friday Agreement will provide the answers to all of this if they are implemented. We are going into these talks primarily to try to hold the DUP, in particular, to task. It must implement the agreements to which it and both Governments have signed up. We understand that this is a difficult place for the DUP and we are prepared to work with it to try to find a solution. At the end of the day, both Governments also have a role to play and I know and expect that both Governments will play that role. However, as we move into the future, we need to look at what this election means. It means that support for the union is on the wane. Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland party and organisation.
I thank the Deputies again for their contributions. There is a real window of opportunity now to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Executive and the North-South Ministerial Council between now and the deadline of 13 January. There have, however, been windows of opportunity in the past and unfortunately it was not possible to come to an agreement, so it is far from granted at this stage. The alternatives are not palatable. The Irish Government certainly could not support a return to direct rule, nor do I think that new elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly would provide a solution.
Deputy Micheál Martin asked that all five major parties be included meaningfully in the talks and I absolutely agree with that sentiment. Not only the two major parties, but all of the five major parties should be included. The strong performance of the SDLP and Alliance Party is noteworthy. I congratulate all 18 newly elected MPs in the House of Commons and I look forward to meeting and working with them throughout the course of 2020.
I am sure that any agreement that the parties come to, assisted by the two Governments, will want to deal with the burning issues that concern the people of Northern Ireland, whether it is the deepening health crisis, homelessness or the economy. Deputy Brendan Smith's points on legacy issues are also well made. Again, I am sure that the parties will want to do that and the Governments have a particular role to play when it comes to helping to bring a solution or resolution to some of those legacy issues.
As far as the Government is concerned, it will be our role to support the parties in Northern Ireland to come to an agreement, a programme for government, and also to work closely with the British Government to achieve our shared objective, that is, to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland, to restore structured North-South co-operation, as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement, and also to strengthen, rebuild and renew the bilateral relationship between Britain and Ireland as the United Kingdom exits the European Union.