Wednesday, 9 September 2020
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
The Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland was formally established by Government decision on 6 July and the first meeting will be scheduled to take place over the course of the autumn. Brexit matters have, of course, remained firmly on the agenda of Cabinet. The Government has taken a number of decisions recently on Brexit, including to intensify work across government to ensure that we are ready for the end of the transition period. The Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland will oversee implementation of relevant programme for Government commitments and ongoing developments and negotiations. In addition to myself, its membership comprises the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Ministers for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Justice and Equality, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Finance. Other Ministers or Ministers of State will participate as required.
I thank the Taoiseach.
Britain does not renounce treaties. Indeed, to do so would damage our integrity as well as international relations.
I hope that is the first and last time I ever have to quote the former UK Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher. We are in a difficult situation, given what the British Government has stated. I was interested in the Taoiseach's tweet yesterday:
Any negotiation process can only proceed on the basis of trust. When one party to a negotiation decides that they can change what's already agreed and incorporated into law, it really undermines trust. This is a critical time in the Brexit process and the stakes are very high.
I agree with the Taoiseach and I support him because, as a country, we have to pull together. There is a critical issue here. The country has to take this in a certain direction because we are being critically impacted. I listened carefully to the Taoiseach's comments in response to the leader of Sinn Féin earlier but this is a time, from an international point of view, that the Taoiseach needs to stand up and call this out for what it is. This is a critical juncture but I do not trust Boris Johnson. I know the Taoiseach cannot say that but he more or less has to say so in diplomatic language because this is unprecedented.
Never before has a government, that of our closest neighbour, treated an Irish Government - the Taoiseach's comments reflect this as well - the way that the British Government has treated Ireland in the last 48 hours, by letting this news seep out, then doing what it did in the House of Commons yesterday and continuing today. It needs to be called out as part of this process and the Taoiseach should do that quickly and publically. I state that because what will work with Boris Johnson is what will have the biggest impact on him domestically. We need to call this action out for what it is. This is not trustworthy. This is not the standard of behaviour that we expect from a sovereign country, our closest neighbour. This is not the appropriate way to treat anybody, let alone one's nearest neighbours. This is especially the case given what was agreed regarding the Northern Ireland protocol. Dare I say it, but even the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, which may not like the agreement, came out and stated that we have to work within what was agreed.
The Taoiseach is speaking to the Prime Minister this afternoon. Given the type of character he is, however, I think he will only react to one thing and that is being called out quite publicly. The Taoiseach needs to say that and we will support him. This is a seminal moment for the Taoiseach personally. We have been through much in this country since he became Taoiseach but this is possibly the most important moment, in some ways. The Taoiseach needs to call out this action. I ask him to do that. The only pressure that works on this Prime Minister, given his behaviour, is pressure that will impact him domestically. The Taoiseach will be doing the whole world, and definitely the whole of Europe, a favour.
The Taoiseach might, therefore, outline his thinking regarding this issue. Has the Taoiseach spoken to Michel Barnier this week regarding this matter? The Taoiseach might also outline what other diplomatic channels he is using. We do not need to know the full details, just that the exhaustive list of diplomatic channels is being used. Furthermore, if the British Government pursues this line and if it intends to behave with this brinkmanship, what actions is the Taoiseach pushing to put forward in the coming days, subsequent to his telephone call?
My real request to the Taoiseach, however, is for him to call out this behaviour during that call and to tell him straight up that he is going to do Europe and the world a favour by publicly calling out that the British Prime Minister is behaving in a way that is reprehensible. He is not going to honour international treaties and he is breaking a tradition of the nation and of the British Government that has gone on for so long; about which they have made such grandiose claims and for which behaviour they have claimed such respect. Hitting him domestically is the only way the Taoiseach will be able to get him into the line of where we believe he has to go, which is to honour the commitments that he made as part of this agreement.
This is not, in fact, a new departure for a British Government. Departing from agreements struck and made is pretty common practice but what makes this different is the public way in which it has been presented. The Secretary of State came to the House of Commons and said that the British Government would breach international law. It is not so much that the British state has never breached international law - for goodness sake we know its track record in this country - but that it is doing so openly and brazenly in clear sight and with eyes wide open. That does need to be called out.
It must also be stated, however, that news of this broke on Sunday. The Secretary of State met Michelle O'Neill and the First Minister on Monday and said there was nothing to worry about. He then went onto the floor of the House of Commons on Tuesday and stated that the British Government was going to breach international law. It is now Wednesday, we await this legislation and the Taoiseach has still not had a conversation with the British Prime Minister. It is just staggering that the Taoiseach's first instinct was not to lift the phone and go looking for Boris Johnson.
I rang and tried to make contact on Monday, but I am not the Head of Government. The Taoiseach is and that is his job, his role and his responsibility, and he has not given an explanation as to why he has dragged his feet on this issue. To be clear, if the Tories believe they can behave in this manner, if they believe that Dublin will be soft or that the criticism will be couched in diplomatic language for fear of giving offence, then that is simply egging them on. They will take that as a green light to continue in this manner. I do not have to tell the Taoiseach this; because he knows it. Word of this legislation has caused absolute shock across the island, but particularly north of the Border, where people are fearful for their livelihoods, their jobs and their rights. Critically and above and beyond all else, they are fearful for the Good Friday Agreement and all the other agreements we have entered into. This is because if Boris Johnson feels emboldened to walk away from the Irish protocol, then make no mistake, if he gets away with that, he will feel emboldened to walk away from the whole lot. That is the fact and the unpleasant truth.
Imperial arrogance is the stock in trade of the British Tory establishment. Johnson's announcement of his intention to breach international law is very much in line with that rotten and arrogant tradition but it is also a direct snub and insult to the Taoiseach and to the people of this country. It is a reckless and dangerous assertion by Boris Johnson. It endangers peace and stability in this country and once again summons up the prospect of hard borders and all the conflict that can ensue. The Taoiseach needs to be very clear and very tough with Mr. Johnson in stating that he is not accepting this and that his recklessness is not going to lead to hard borders.
I believe this is further evidence of the need to start talking openly about the need to end partition, for a Border poll and about the unsustainability of partition. There has never been a better time to make that case, when there is such a rotten Prime Minister as Boris Johnson, who embodies the worst of British imperial arrogance.
I have been very clear in this regard. This is a unilateral action. It fundamentally undermines trust and trust is the foundation stone upon which agreements are made and negotiations conducted. I could not be any clearer than that. I think Deputy Kelly is right. The British Government, via legislation, today is unilaterally seeking to undermine or alter an international agreement. Regarding the conduct of international relations, that is unprecedented in the middle of negotiations. The type of comment made by the Secretary of State in the House of Commons yesterday, to the effect that he was openly declaring that he was going to break the law or to bring in legislation to breach the law, was something to behold in itself.
We are, however, in the middle of very serious negotiations. People can speculate as to the timing and motivation for this action. I do not, however, agree with Deputy McDonald's assertions. We were not prepared to jump in. If the United Kingdom Government has issues with the protocol, then the proper forum to discuss that is in the joint committee and in the negotiations process itself. We do not have a problem with the protocol. Ireland does not have a problem with the withdrawal treaty or the protocol. I will, therefore, exercise judgment concerning how I intervene, when I intervene and the manner of my intervention.
Sometimes it is not all about lifting the phone. What is at stake is adherence to an international treaty that Ireland has agreed to, is satisfied with and is getting on with. If the British Government has an issue or problem, the only place to resolve it is within the agreement, through the joint and specialised committee. It is not for Ireland to get embroiled in whatever issues the UK has or to become a party to whatever machinations are ongoing in terms of these negotiations or where they will end. I will say no more than that.
We will work with the European Union. I spoke last night to the President of the European Commission who is viewing this very seriously. The stakes are high. This is about the manner in which the UK is going to leave the EU. That will have a profound impact for ordinary people on the streets of Ireland, the UK and Europe. The stakes cannot get any higher. Brexit is bad and a no-deal Brexit will be much worse.
Today we launched a Brexit readiness plan which seriously takes on board the prospect of a no-deal Brexit and the alternative of a limited free trade agreement which is now the optimal outcome. Those are the two options. The action of the British Government is unacceptable, undermines trust and raises the question as to how one continues to conduct negotiations with that type of action.
I will again be in touch with President von der Leyen today. We have been in touch on a regular basis with the negotiating task force which is of a similar view on the unprecedented nature of this and the manner in which this has happened and they are clearly not satisfied. Up to now, progress has been very limited. In the three overall areas, namely, the level playing pitch, governance of any subsequent agreement and fisheries, progress has been limited, not to mention aviation, transport and so on. At a late juncture in the negotiations, this unilateral action in which the UK Government has engaged causes real issues for the European negotiating team of which we are a part. We will work with the European Union in our response to the UK.