Dáil debates

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Ceisteanna - Questions

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

4:05 pm

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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12. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Oxford to meet with the British-Irish Association, BIA. [43741/21]

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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13. To ask the Taoiseach the details of his recent address to the British-Irish Association. [43772/21]

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
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14. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his address to the British-Irish Association. [48289/21]

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 to 14, inclusive, together.

I attended the British-Irish Association conference held in Pembroke College, Oxford, on Friday, 3 September. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Finance also attended. I delivered the opening address, the text of which is available on the merrionstreet.iewebsite. This was followed by a questions and answers session, moderated by the BIA chair, Mr. Hugo MacNeill. Discussion focused on the British-Irish relationship, developments in Northern Ireland, including the United Kingdom Government's proposals on legacy issues, and issues around the protocol. I also took the opportunity to outline progress on the Government's shared island initiative.

I particularly welcomed the opportunity to engage in an informal setting with a wide range of representatives from across the islands, including Mr. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the First Minister, Mr. Paul Givan, with a brief discussion with Lord Frost at the end of the evening.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach's speech to the BIA conference in Oxford last month was a significant one. He dealt with a number of issues affecting British-Irish relations, including the Good Friday Agreement and the obligations of the two Governments, Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol, legacy issues and the shared island initiative.

On a personal level, I welcome the Taoiseach's remarks about the constitutional position of Northern Ireland when he stated that everyone on the island had the right to make the case for the constitutional future he or she wished to see for Northern Ireland, be that person nationalist or unionist or someone who does not identify with either tradition. That is as it should be and it should be done in a way that takes into account the complex and comprehensive provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. I also welcome that the Taoiseach took the opportunity to promote the shared island initiative and the associated shared island dialogue to a wider audience.

I wish to ask two questions. With the UK now gone from the EU, what initiatives are being taken to re-examine the UK-Irish relationship and to put new structures in place to ensure that it can be further enhanced and developed? As the Taoiseach knows, the UK Government plans to introduce an amnesty for Troubles-related killings. He stated in his speech that he was clear that all bereaved families should have access to an effective investigation and to a process of justice regardless of who the perpetrators were. Has he spoken to the British Prime Minister about this and what is the Taoiseach's assessment of the situation at this stage?

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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Like Deputy Haughey, I welcome the Taoiseach's comments at the association's conference. I wish to refer to the European Commission's proposals last week regarding the protocol. Naturally, the Taoiseach and his colleagues in government will have contributed to the discussions in order to remove as many obstacles as possible. When I engage with people in Northern Ireland, be they business people or community members, they want to see us getting on with the daily work of doing business, growing trade, creating and maintaining jobs, and protecting employment. What the European Commission has outlined can go a long way towards removing obstacles to trade. We welcome the development of more trade on a North-South and South-North basis. Any obstacle to that should be removed and I hope that the protocol issues can be resolved.

It is important that we as the Oireachtas continue to reject the British Government's proposals for an amnesty for people who committed horrific crimes, including the murder and maiming of people. Regardless of whether they were in state forces, paramilitary organisations or other criminal gangs, the perpetrators must not get away with what they did if possible. We all know many families who have lost loved ones. What they are seeking is the truth. It is not a vendetta. Under no circumstances should investigations be shut down. People are at least entitled to the truth about what happened to their loved ones.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I wrote to the Taoiseach requesting that he meet the family of Gavin McShane. In July, the Taoiseach responded to say that his officials would be in touch, but they have not been. Perhaps he could look into the matter.

I welcome the Taoiseach's remarks to the BIA where he indicated that everyone had the right to argue for constitutional change or the constitutional future that he or she would like to see. That is a welcome move away from the use of terms such as "divisive" in respect of those who advocate that we should be moving towards Irish unity. The Good Friday Agreement provides for that and discussions are already taking place across civic society. In this the centenary year of the absolute disaster that was partition, there is a particular onus. Will the Taoiseach allow for a citizens' assembly to take place that would allow people of all backgrounds and views to come together and discuss how we can capture the full potential that Irish unity presents?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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First, I thank the Deputies again for their interest and for raising these issues. In respect of Deputy Haughey's points, every political party and movement has its aspirations in terms of the constitutional future of the island, including Northern Ireland, and that is as it should be. I have no issue at all in articulating that. Our party, which is the party that I lead, has a clear view in terms of the unity of the people of Ireland, and we have shared that on numerous occasions. Equally, we have been a party that has been to the forefront in advancing progress, particularly throughout the totality of relationships - the British-Irish relationship, the North-South relationship and the relationships between the different traditions on the island - and culminating in the Good Friday Agreement, which is an agreement that we still need to maximise the potential of on a whole range of fronts.

The main point, which Deputy Haughey referenced in his question, that I wanted to get across was the need for an absence of unilateralism in terms of any one party's approach to legacy issues or, indeed, the protocol. I made that point specifically to the British Government during that speech and through the medium of that speech. There cannot be unilateralism in respect of legacy issues because there was agreement between all parties and Governments in respect of legacy issues.

In respect of the protocol, there is a facility within the withdrawal agreement for that to be resolved through joint committees and so on. We have worked hard. Vice President Šefčovič of the Commission has worked very hard and has come forward with what I think is a very imaginative set of proposals that has the potential to unblock the issues around the operation of the protocol. I think it is in the best interests of all in Northern Ireland that the talks be progressed now in a proactive and constructive way to make sure that we can get the best outcome for the people in Northern Ireland in respect of the operation of the protocol. That means continued access to the Single Market of the European Union, which is a huge prize for everyone living on the island. North-South trade is very important and has continued to grow in the aftermath of the protocol. Equally, businesses in Northern Ireland should have access to the UK and the European Union.

In respect of amnesties, I agree with what has been said by Deputy Brendan Smith. The perpetrators of violence, particularly those who were engaged in the murder and maiming of people, cannot get away with it and they must know that they will be subject to investigation. Some of these cases are still being pursued and people can still bring forward information that would lead to a resolution of these cases. I would urge people to come forward with information in respect of a lot of the unsolved cases where the families of victims, including the families who have lost loved ones, eagerly seek closure. Different models are being discussed. The British-Irish Council discussed this. People have mentioned Operation Kenova. I met all the parties last week, and some of them were instancing that as a useful model, but what is important is that whatever emerges be done in agreement between all parties and the two Governments without any unilateral move.

In terms of the issues Deputy Carthy raised, I will come back to him. I do not know why my officials have not been in touch, but I will follow that up. Regarding the idea of a citizens' assembly, these questions relate to the British-Irish Association and I have had a long engagement with the association since I was a backbench Deputy many years ago.

I have spoken on many occasions of my experience at Corrymeela, for example, meeting with politicians from different traditions. The citizens' assembly is a representative forum, in respect of which a particular number of people from different strata of society are selected by poll. That is not how we will resolve Northern Ireland's issues. I mean that genuinely. We need constant, consistent engagement with people to work out issues. A citizens' assembly, on its own, will not achieve this. We need a constant interaction between Parliaments, community groups and political parties to get these issues resolved. I genuinely believe that.

4:15 pm

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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That is happening already. We have to look to the next step.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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A citizens' assembly does not achieve that. On the British-Irish Association, I do not know if Deputy Carthy has ever attended it, but I have done so, on and off, for 30 years. I missed ten years of it because as I was in government and I did not get the opportunity to attend. During that time, even one weekend in Oxford, I would have met more people and professionals who had different perspectives and different experiences on the North. That educated and informed me. It gave me a broader breadth of experience and expertise. I do not think anything can replace that. If anything, as a Parliament, we should intensify our engagement on those fronts. We should put all of the ideologies to one side and meet people and try to prove to people that we can achieve an awful lot more together that we can divided.