Wednesday, 23 September 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 8 together.
Following my meeting with the Northern Ireland First Minister and deputy First Minister in Belfast on 16 July, I welcomed them and their colleagues in the multi-party Executive to Dublin for the 24th plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council at Dublin Castle on Friday, 31 July, which I chaired. This was the first plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council since November 2016. It provided the new Irish Government and the restored Northern Ireland Executive the opportunity to meet formally for the first time and exchange views on a wide range of issues of mutual concern, including Covid-19 and Brexit.
I took the opportunity to emphasise the Government's full support for preserving and strengthening North-South co-operation and the Government's commitment to ensuring the New Decade, New Approach agreement is implemented in full. I also briefed the council on my plans for a shared island unit in the Department of the Taoiseach.
The Government is focused on working with the Executive through the North-South Ministerial Council to deliver projects that benefit people throughout the island, including greater connectivity between North and South, investing in the north-west region and Border communities and supporting reconciliation as an integral part of the peace process.
I also spoke with the First Minister and deputy First Minister by phone on Wednesday, 9 September, to discuss political developments on Brexit relating to the publication by the United Kingdom Government of the draft internal market Bill. I expressed my deep concern at this development, which is a unilateral attempt to undermine the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is completely unacceptable and risks seriously eroding and damaging political trust in Northern Ireland in our bilateral relations and between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
I have also discussed these issues by phone with Colum Eastwood, the leader of the SDLP. I have also indicated that I will work with all leaders of other political parties. I received an invitation to a meeting and we are endeavouring to organise or schedule that, or some mechanism by which I can talk to each individual leader again on these issues.
We also discussed the practical impact of Brexit for Ireland and Northern Ireland and I assured them of my ongoing commitment to working with them to advance prosperity on this island.
We all listened with deep concern and almost bewilderment as the British Prime Minister announced he was going to rip up his own agreement, which had been approved by his own Parliament, and then breach international law and introduce new legislation to override key parts of the withdrawal agreement relating to the North, legislation that would directly violate the Brexit deal signed only last year and give British Ministers powers to disapply elements of the rules of their own choosing.
I understand the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is to meet parties in the North tomorrow, including my colleague, Michelle O'Neill. Meetings such as this are exceptionally important and I hope it will be a productive and helpful incentive for all.
There is no doubt that Downing Street is actively pursuing a path of betrayal by reneging on what has already been agreed and inflicting potentially irreversible harm on the North's economy, undermining the power-sharing administration and the Good Friday Agreement.
The Taoiseach listed the names of some of the party leaders in the North with whom he had spoken. Has he specifically spoken with the DUP leader regarding the comments she made that her party will also work to try to change the protocol included in the withdrawal agreement? The Government's priorities must be to avoid any border on the island of Ireland, protect our peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and work on an all-Ireland economy basis.
This is a critical time for a range of issues, not just Brexit but also Covid-19, so the necessity for co-operation is at an all-time high because of what we are all facing. We have consistently called for a new Ireland forum to examine these issues. To cut straight to the chase, the Taoiseach spoke about telling our colleagues in Northern Ireland about the shared island unit in the Department. What details did he go into with them? We do not have a huge amount of detail ourselves so it would be interesting to know what details the Taoiseach went into with them.
With regard to the withdrawal agreement and Arlene Foster, there was a bit of a schemozzle between the First Minister and some of her colleagues when she said she recognised the reality of the withdrawal agreement and then Sammy Wilson came out and said the complete opposite. In the Taoiseach's engagement with Ms Foster, what was the outcome of those discussions as regards where she was going to go on this at that juncture? Obviously she was going in a certain direction, recognising the "reality" of the withdrawal agreement, but was then perhaps overtaken by other comments and other political possibilities or realities.
In the Taoiseach's engagements with representatives of the Assembly he should consider engaging with our MLA, Gerry Carroll. People Before Profit in the North and South brings a unique perspective that goes back to Connolly and Wolfe Tone on the possibility of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter in a project to fight for a different type of Ireland. If we look at the reckless behaviour of Boris Johnson and, for that matter, Arlene Foster, with the health and economic welfare of the North, there has never been a more opportune time to begin to break the grip of Unionism and argue for the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter in a fight for a different type of Ireland.
Gerry Carroll would tell the Taoiseach that if we are to make that case, and we should, to unite working people for a different project and end partition, we also need to tackle the legacies of what Connolly called the carnival of reaction down here. They are manifest. I mentioned the case of St. Mary's Centre Telford, whereby religious organisations are turfing vulnerable disabled women out of nursing homes and social housing.
In the past week, I heard the religious order in St. Laurence College, Ballybrack, is selling off the playing fields of a publicly funded school, similar to what happened in Clonkeen College with the Christian Brothers. If one was in the North, beginning to question unionism and loyalty to the likes of Boris Johnson, one's questioning would be checked if one looked down South and still saw the rule of religious organisations, taking facilities away from school kids, as well as elderly and disabled women, while the State allowed it to happen.
If we are going to fight for a united Republic and end partition, surely we have to be seen to take the lead on matters like separating Church and State to show we are a progressive and modern Republic and, in my opinion, trying to fight for a socialist Republic which James Connolly, whose statue is behind me in this House, argued we should do many years ago.
In my discussions with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on the internal market Bill, my objective is to protect the interests of the citizens of this island in the context of the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Notwithstanding if somebody was pro-Brexit or pro-remain, everyone shares a pragmatic view that the least damage possible should be done to workers, employers, the economy and the social fabric of this island as a result of Brexit. The ultimate deal between the UK and the European Union does matter in terms of the well-being of people for the long-term on this island. That is what informs my response.
It has informed my response to the unacceptable behaviour of the British Government in coming forward with the internal market Bill and notwithstanding its new-found alleged concerns about aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol and withdrawal agreement, which I do not accept. Those concerns could easily have been resolved in the context of the joint committee set up especially between the EU and UK to deal with the practicalities of working out the Northern Ireland protocol. Some progress had been made on that already in terms of facilities and funding provided for customs and facilities in the North in terms of declarations, SPS, sanitary and phytosanitary, and all of that.
The European Union is very clear that it does not want to fall into any preordained strategy or react in a knee-jerk way. It will remain firm on the fundamentals, however. The joint committee met and there has been engagement between the European Union and the United Kingdom on this issue. It has not been resolved, however. I made it very clear to the British Prime Minister, as has the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, to his counterpart, on the Irish Government's position on this. While the British Government's response is contradictory to the reality of the Bill, it is adamant it does not want to affect, in any shape or form, the seamless interaction of goods and services North and South. It does not want to create any situation that would erect any barriers on that front. On the broad thrust of the withdrawal agreement, it is still asserting that it is committed to its implementation.
There is a distance to go yet. It really boils down to a will on behalf of the British Government as to whether it wants to do a deal or not. The European Union will do a deal but it has to be a fair one, based on resolving the state-aid issue, which could be resolved, governance structures around any future trade agreement and ensuring adherence to commitments. Obviously, the decision of the British Government to introduce this Bill has eroded trust with those it is negotiating with, including ourselves.
The First Minister and deputy First Minister are aware of the implications of all this for the North and the island as a whole. I have always been of the view that we should engage with the reality of what is before us. People voted for Brexit. We are not going to undo Brexit in the short term. Our objective is to protect the livelihoods of people on this island. That is what we will do in the next budget, based on a no-deal Brexit. We hope that is proven wrong. We are telling businesses to prepare for a no-deal Brexit and in any event to prepare for customs and the need for declarations, even if we have a basic free trade agreement without tariffs or quotas.
I have appraised them of the principles behind the shared island unit. There was a good series of articles recently in The Irish Timesaround the whole theme. The unit has been established and we are beefing it up with new people being recruited and deployed. It will be involved in a number of different strands of work. Some will be commissioning research and some will be outreaching and engaging in dialogue with different perspectives and people from different backgrounds, irrespective of their views on constitutional or political issues, to see how we can share this island in a better and more effective way across many fronts into the future. There is rich potential for us to do that.
I have no difficulty with meeting with Deputy Boyd Barrett's MLA to get his perspectives. I accept the Deputy's long-standing commitment to a non-sectarian view of how the island should develop.
Our education system is evolving too. There is far greater State involvement in our education system now than there would have been historically. Religious orders did play a significant role historically in the evolution and development of our education system and continue to do so. It was a Fianna Fáil Minister, the late Paddy Hillery, who brought in comprehensible and community schools. Mary Hanafin brought in the State primary school system through the VECs.
I take the Deputy's point that some service providers have capacity issues both in education and health. I favour a stronger State input in health, social services and education. That said, we have pluralist system in education where we have different patrons, the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and other denominations, as well as Educate Together and Gaelscoileanna. Our view has been to facilitate different patrons to set up schools and give choice to parents insofar as is practical in given locations.