Wednesday, 24 March 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I spoke with deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, on 2 March following the publication of the Northern Ireland Executive's pathway out of restrictions document, which maps out a five-level approach to easing out of lockdown. We agreed on the need for a cautious approach to the easing out of lockdown to avoid any reversal of direction. We also discussed recent developments on the Northern Ireland protocol and concerns about rising tensions around it. I stressed the need to de-escalate tensions and the hope that dialogue between the United Kingdom and the European Union would reach agreed outcomes on implementation challenges.
I previously spoke by phone with First Minister, Arlene Foster, and the deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, on 25 January. We discussed the latest situation on Covid-19 at that time and the measures being taken in response, including in relation to travel. We discussed the similarity of approach across many of the actions we are each taking in response to Covid-19. We also discussed the issue of new variants of the virus and the importance of genome sequencing in detecting their presence.
I also met by videoconference with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on Wednesday, 13 January, when we also discussed the latest developments on Covid-19. There was also had a very useful discussion on Covid- 19 between the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive at the North-South Ministerial Council plenary meeting on 18 December, which was hosted by the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
In addition, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Simon Coveney, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, jointly chair Quad meetings which discuss the ongoing response to Covid- 19 and are also attended by the First Minister, Arlene Foster, and deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill. There is also regular contact between the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and his Northern Ireland counterpart Minister of Health, Robin Swann, and between the chief medical officers North and South. There is also regular engagement at official level on Covid more generally, including through a series of meetings of officials from the Irish Government, the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, which are co-ordinated and jointly chaired by my Department and the Cabinet Office.
As part of my St. Patrick's Day programme, I was pleased to contribute to the virtual relaunch of the Ireland-Northern Ireland-National Cancer Institute Cancer Consortium, which also included contributions from the First Minister, Arlene Foster, and deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill. This is an important initiative which will bring together the appropriate bodies North and South, and in the United States, to help in tackling cancer.
I thank the Taoiseach for the full response. There are one or two areas on which I would like him to elaborate, if possible. The Taoiseach referred to similarities in the approach by this jurisdiction and Northern Ireland in terms of restrictions and tackling the pandemic. We are all aware that those similarities are about to change. We need to question what level of formal co-ordination there is between Governments on this island when infection rates and hospitalisation rates in Northern Ireland are declining and its vaccination rate is at a much higher level than ours. This week, mandatory hotel quarantine comes into force in this jurisdiction, but still there will be no mandatory hotel quarantine in Northern Ireland. There are continuing concerns about the sharing of data North-South regarding travellers coming into this country. My question is twofold in response to the Taoiseach. First, what efforts can be made to have that formal co-ordination to ensure that Northern Ireland does not spread too far from the Republic and we have a repeat of elements that we saw in Border regions over the summer? Second, what actions will be taken and what discussions will be had to ensure the measures or restrictions we have placed on travel in terms of mandatory hotel quarantine and so on are not undermined by the lack of action in Northern Ireland?
The issue of a human right to life is a devolved issue under the Good Friday Agreement yet the Northern Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, has driven a coach and four through devolution and the Good Friday Agreement and sought to introduce an extreme form of abortion legislation on the people of the North of Ireland against their will. Shockingly, this has been done with the active lobbying of Sinn Féin and the SDLP. For 200 years republicans have stated that London has no business legislating in any part of Ireland yet Sinn Féin has actively lobbied for this law to come into force in the North. Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna have reversed the policy of the SDLP that goes back to John Hume and sought to actively campaign for the commissioning of this British abortion legislation.
In every poll carried out in the North over the last number of years the majority of the people agreed that the issue of abortion should be decided in Stormont. Even those in support of abortion agree with that. Every time this vote has come up in Stormont, the representatives of the people of the North have voted against abortion being introduced into the North. Even last week, the representatives of the people of the North of Ireland in Stormont voted against that extreme abortion provision from Britain that abortion should be made available up until birth in the case of disability. We in Aontú are in communication with our legal advisers on whether we can bring a case in protection of the Good Friday Agreement against the Northern Secretary of State. What has the Taoiseach done to defend the Good Friday Agreement and devolution on this issue?
I would like to raise the same issue with the Taoiseach, but coming from the opposite angle. The Labour Party MP, Stella Creasy, secured abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland while her Bill was passed through Westminster. I want to know if the Taoiseach has raised with the First Minister and deputy First Minister the failure to implement this law and put those services in place. We all know that the UK Government has moved to compel the introduction of such services in the North. This is a critical issue for women on this island. We all know the fight undertaken here to ensure we brought about change in this jurisdiction. What discussions has the Taoiseach had on this issue and will he update the House in that regard? We need to ensure that women and their health is protected in Northern Ireland as well.
We all know that the plan in Northern Ireland is to have its population vaccinated by the end of July. What arrangements will be put in place, or are planned to be put place, with regard to travel then? Furthermore, has the Taoiseach had discussions with the First Minister and deputy First Minister on the vaccine green certificate that will be in place and how it will work on this island?
The Taoiseach has been outspoken on the issue of vaccines to the effect that there should be no barriers put in place and, should that happen, it would affect people in the North as well as us and the wider European Union. On that point of making sure there are no barriers in place in terms of vaccine production, distribution and roll-out, will the Taoiseach raise the temporary waiving of intellectual property rights so that can be carried out to full production levels?
On the issue of provision of abortion services, it needs to be remembered that unionism can no longer be allowed to exercise a veto in the provision of these services for women yet that is what is happening. There has been a blockage. There is an active campaign by the DUP and others to prevent the commissioning of services that are necessary and to which women are entitled. Everybody from every perspective needs to ensure that those services are delivered. It would be astonishing if anyone who claimed to have any kind of republican instinct was underscoring a unionist veto to affect women's rights in such a dramatic fashion.
I too encourage the Taoiseach and all others to use all influence to ensure that Robin Swann commissions the services and that unionism backs off from the truly shameful position it has adopted on this matter.
Second, on the issue of vaccination, it is true to say that the North is significantly ahead. The best approach, of course, is to have an all-Ireland approach in terms of efficient and safe vaccination. I would like to echo the sentiment that we cannot have a repeat of the delays from Dublin in respect of data sharing. Can the Taoiseach set out what his plan is and how he envisages a harmonisation of the vaccination programme and all other measures that will be necessary to keep us safe into the medium and long term?
On the issue of abortion rights in the North, anybody who is even vaguely interested in fighting for unity on this island would understand that the unprecedented movement from below of young people, particularly young women, unwilling to accept the control of their bodies and their right to bodily autonomy by the State was an all-Ireland movement. There were busloads of women, other young activists and people who want a progressive future for this island who came down and campaigned for repeal and helped that fantastic social and political earthquake that was the repeal of the eighth amendment. It was fully understood and very quickly reciprocated on an all-Ireland basis that young women, other young activists and people of a progressive mindset would go north of the Border immediately to say that the North must be next. That is the way in which we can undercut the sectarianism brought by partition and unite people on a progressive basis. It is really disappointing to hear anybody who considers himself or herself even vaguely associated with republicanism defending attempts to keep women in this country in the Dark Ages and working alongside the DUP in doing so.
Deputy Richmond tabled this question. I say to him that in terms of the alignment of restrictions between Northern Ireland and the Republic, we have been very much aligned up to now and will remain so until 5 April. Indeed, that alignment may extend because, notwithstanding the progress that Northern Ireland has made on the vaccination programme, there may be a phased approach to the easing of restrictions there. I make the point that, in essence, Northern Ireland has been part of the UK vaccination programme and we have been part of the EU-wide vaccination programme. That is well known. There has not been an all-Ireland approach on vaccinations for obvious reasons in terms of the source of the supply. I do not know why that issue got raised just now because it does not make a whole lot of sense. Ideally, it would be great, but we are not in that ideal situation.
What would be useful is if we had alignment on mandatory quarantining. I understand the Northern Ireland Executive might have said it has plans in this regard but I am not too sure where those plans are or how concrete they are in terms of realisation. Obviously, it would be very important if there was alignment in terms of the mandatory hotel quarantining, and people coming through the North will be subject to that legal framework if they come into the Republic. Deputy Richmond has raised an important issue in this regard. I point out that there has been good co-operation in the regions between North and South, particularly in terms of the engagement between the councils in the north west of the country. In phase 2, both local authorities, Donegal County Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council, issued localised leaflets to make the public in that region aware of the restrictions locally. That is the type of practical co-operation on the ground that we should encourage around restrictions and in encouraging people to adhere to the guidelines that generally apply to the prevention of Covid-19. We will continue to work and engage, particularly through the group of officials I mentioned, which meets on a regular basis, in consort with the Northern Ireland authorities, to iron out any potential issues or difficulties that may arise.
On the broader issue of the provision of abortion services, no one should have a veto, in my view, on general policy issues of that kind. I have not engaged on that issue. I have not had discussions with the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister, nor have they had discussions with me or raised the issue with me in terms of how it is being provided for within the North and in terms of the issue of devolution versus legislative initiatives from Westminster. Neither of them has raised that issue with me at all.
In terms of the Good Friday Agreement, we work with the British Government, as co-guarantor of the agreement, in upholding it. Deputy Kelly asked whether I have had discussions on this issue. I have not. It has not been raised as an issue in the context of discussions we have had, which have been more in the context of North-South initiatives, obviously, and in terms of upholding the agreements that are in place and all of the commitments made there.
As I said regarding vaccinations, the North and the UK are about a month ahead because of the different approach to authorisation, which is a key factor, and also the decision in terms of the interval period between the administration of doses. There was a whole range of other questions but the Ceann Comhairle has indicated that my time is up.