Wednesday, 15 September 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 and 5 together.
I spoke with Paul Givan, First Minister, at the British-Irish Association conference in Oxford on 3 September. My most recent detailed engagement with him and with the deputy First Minister was on 30 July when I chaired the latest plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council via videoconference. This wide-ranging discussion between our two governments covered the ongoing co-operation between North and South in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, including the roll-out of vaccines and the gradual reopening of society, developments in the delivery the New Decade, New Approach commitments, the development of the PEACE PLUS programme, corporate governance matters, and board appointments. Following the meeting, the Tánaiste and I participated in a joint conference with the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
I hosted a meeting with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in Government Buildings on 27 August. We had a good discussion on likely developments over the months ahead. I emphasised to him the importance of the stability and proper functioning of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. On the Northern Ireland protocol, he outlined the serious difficulties and concerns that the unionist community have with the protocol. I stressed that this Government was focused on supporting practical solutions and on reducing friction where possible and that we have been active in engaging with our EU partners on issues relating to the protocol. I also outlined our ongoing outreach with stakeholders in Northern Ireland, and that we are listening carefully to the concerns of the unionist community. We also discussed legacy issues, North-South co-operation, Covid-19 and Afghanistan. We agreed to remain in contact on these and on any other matters of mutual concern.
As the Taoiseach knows, the new DUP leader has threatened to collapse the Northern Ireland Executive unless the Northern Ireland protocol is effectively set aside. He has also said that his party will not co-operate with the institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement, in particular the North-South Ministerial Council. This cannot be allowed to happen. The Taoiseach must do everything possible to persuade him not to do that. We saw what happened when Sinn Féin deliberately collapsed the institutions previously. Government in Northern Ireland effectively ceased, domestic problems piled up, a political vacuum opened up and opportunities for violence emerged. We know that there are electoral considerations behind the move by the DUP leader, but we must do everything possible to resolve the outstanding issues in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol. The UK wants to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and the protocol. That is not going to happen, but the outstanding issues need to be resolved. The EU needs to be flexible. I welcome the recent visit by Commission Vice President, Maroš Šefčovič, to Northern Ireland, where he engaged with all the relevant stakeholders. The issues of medicines and pets, for example, have been sorted out, but further compromises and solutions are needed. In the Taoiseach’s discussions with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, did he see a pathway to sort out these problems?
There is also the matter of legacy, which the Taoiseach mentioned in his contribution. The UK Government plans to introduce an amnesty for Troubles-related killings. It is proposed that legislation will be introduced by the end of the year.
This is contrary to the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. Did the Taoiseach discuss this issue with the DUP leader? What is his view on the British Government proposals on legacy?
I am not sure if the Taoiseach mentioned the shared island initiative. Did that come up in his discussions with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson? Did the Taoiseach get the impression that the DUP leader is supportive of it? Does he believe it is beneficial to the people of Northern Ireland? Does the DUP support the shared island initiative and what it is trying to achieve?
I will speak about Question No. 5, which is in my name. I thank the Taoiseach for his ever-fulsome response about his recent meetings with the First Minister and the leader of the DUP in Northern Ireland. However, when will he meet them next? Will there be a next meeting before there is an assembly election? What can the Taoiseach do in the office he holds to ensure those meetings take place involving not just himself but also Ministers from this Government and Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive? It is unacceptable that once again political activities are jeopardising the Good Friday Agreement and the very important institutions which ensure North-South co-operation at a time when such co-operation has never been so important.
We look worryingly at the Covid-19 situation in Northern Ireland and we need to see how both Administrations can work closely together. Both Administrations have very clear opposition to the British Government's position on legacy. As Deputy Haughey has outlined, much work remains to be done on the protocol. In his position as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, how can the Taoiseach ensure that the DUP's political play-acting does not jeopardise the responsibilities of that agreement?
The Good Friday Agreement and how it underpins Stormont needs to be reformed. We cannot have an ongoing situation where one party can pull down the Administration in the North of Ireland.
I want to focus on another aspect of this. Denise Mullen is an Aontú councillor in Mid Ulster. Forty-six years ago, the Glenanne gang murdered her father in her family home. Denise was just four when she came upon her father's lifeless body in that home. She had to stay with her father for two hours before the medical professionals could get into the house because they were fearful the house was booby-trapped. The Glenanne gang murdered 120 people in the Tyrone and Armagh area. They did so in cahoots with the RUC and the British Army. They also planted bombs in the South, killing 34 people in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974.
Just last year, Councillor Denise Mullen received a death threat from Garfield Beattie, the man who murdered her father. These issues are ongoing in people's lives right now. It is absolutely wrong that the British could consider giving an amnesty to people who were involved in these heinous crimes. I have asked three taoisigh - Enda Kenny, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, and the current Taoiseach - to meet the survivors of the Glenanne gang. The first two refused to do so and ignored those requests. In fairness, the Taoiseach said he would, which I appreciate it. I know the Covid pandemic has got in the way of that. I ask him to try to find time in his schedule to finally meet those people, especially at this critical time when the British are seeking to do what they want to do.
I also attended the 50th anniversary of the Ballymurphy massacre in Belfast. One of the sentences I repeatedly heard is that the British are trying to get away with murder. That is exactly what they are trying to do in this situation. I ask the Taoiseach to say the Irish Government will not accept this unilateral move by the British Government under any circumstances.
Although it has already been stated, it is worth restating there is absolute opposition to any proposal from the British Government in respect of an amnesty. That is one of the issues on which we have a common position across the island. The question is how that can be leveraged to influence the behaviour of a British Government which frankly does not give tuppence for the rule of law or compliance with international law and norms.
I attended the meeting with Commissioner Šefčovič. The Commissioner set out the enthusiasm for the EU institutions to be flexible and reasonable. Everybody wants those things. He also pointed out that there are solutions. There are solutions in respect of medicines. There are solutions in respect of the checks which some regard as excessive in these times. What there is no room for is any misunderstanding on the protocol itself - the need for it and the fact it will endure. I regret and I know many people deeply resent the kind of sabre rattling that the DUP has engaged in. Everyone concerned, including those in London, needs to make clear to the DUP that kind of behaviour will not be rewarded in any fashion.
Commissioner Šefčovič heard at first-hand from business people and community interests that people recognise there are difficulties and complications, but they can be sorted out. They also heard a significant appetite for progress. The DUP is in a minority. In its unilateral action to pull away from the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, it is on its own. The party leaders will meet again on Friday and I believe the isolated position of the DUP will be reflected again. It is important the Taoiseach and this House realise that is the situation.
I thank Deputies Haughey and Richmond for raising these issues. I thank Deputies Tóibín and McDonald for their questions. Deputy Haughey asked about my meeting with the new DUP leader and the issue of the Executive in the North. The DUP leader took the opportunity to highlight his concerns. He left me in no doubt that there is unionist concern over the protocol. Whether you agree or disagree, that was his main purpose in the meeting. Our point back was that Europe was in solution mode and wants to create a flexible response to any issues that might arise with the operation of the protocol in respect of people living in Northern Ireland and the routine trade that goes on between the UK and Northern Ireland.
They are not against the shared island issue, but official unionism has had challenges in openly embracing North-South initiatives of this kind. It is very helpful that about 1,000 people have now participated in the dialogue on the shared island. They come from all communities and traditions in Northern Ireland and include many young people and more women. Two new groups have been formed within that dialogue. An all-island women's forum has been established arising out of the dialogues to give a stronger voice to women in respect of the future of the island and in terms of human rights and other aspects, which is good.
The DUP leader was unequivocally against any amnesty. He does not want anyone who is guilty of murdering or killing anybody to be freed from justice. He was very clear about that at the meeting. I took the opportunity to speak about the shared island initiative. He wished us well and understood our bona fides. We pointed out how we felt it was important not just to build bridges physically, as in the Narrow Water Bridge, but also to do it between people and to get practical things sorted on energy, climate change and all of that.
On the British-Irish Association and Deputy Richmond's point, there is now a window of opportunity to see if we can get this issue resolved between the European Union, the United Kingdom and the parties in Northern Ireland with the Government in the Republic playing a facilitative role. We have sensitised the EU system to the issues. Commissioner Šefčovič and I had a long meeting over dinner the day before he went to Northern Ireland.
It is clear to me from that meeting, as Deputy McDonald and others have said, that the EU is in solution mode. I have conveyed that to unionist leaders and to all parties. It is clear to us that the EU wants to be helpful. It has invested a lot in the peace process in Ireland. It sees it as one of the success stories of European conflicts. Most conflicts are frozen and have not been resolved. This one was resolved. The PEACE fund goes up to approximately €1 billion. That was because the European Union initially put in €120 million, then there were pro rataresponses from the British and Irish Governments and the Executive, so €1 billion will be available over and above the shared island fund for a range of range of cross-Border reconciliation projects and initiatives in the North. Europe is invested in this. It wants to be genuinely engaged and to try to get a resolution to this. I agree with what Deputies Haughey and Richmond said. It is not good enough to say that we will end all North-South co-operation unless this is resolved. The main point made by anyone I meet is that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement need to be retained and kept operating for the benefit of the people, so that health, housing and all the various issues relating to Covid are dealt with by the Northern Ireland Executive.
In response to Deputy Tóibín, the amnesty applies to the Glenanne gang too. I will meet with the relatives. I do not know if they have contacted my office. Things have been fairly hectic and we have UN business next week. I have met some victims in the past in a different context. They were families of victims of the Glenanne gang. It would be unthinkable for them to be given an amnesty. It is unthinkable that the perpetrators of the Kingsmill massacre, Claudy bombing or Ballymurphy massacre would be given an amnesty. I took the opportunity in my speech to the British-Irish Association to say that unilateralism has no place in the relationships between the British and Irish Governments and the parties in Northern Ireland. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is looking at the question of how we deal with Brexit. We said to the British Government that there cannot be a unilateral response to this. I made that clear in the opening address to the conference. I met with Ministers over that weekend. The Chatham House rule applies to British-Irish Association meetings, which allows us to speak frankly. There is a window of opportunity over the next month or so to try to get this resolved. The UK Government says that it does not want to escalate tensions in the North. I take it at its word but we need to get a solution.