Dáil debates

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

1:07 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

1. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland last met; and when it is next due to meet. [43770/21]

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

2. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland will next meet. [47863/21]

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

3. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit will next meet. [50909/21]

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

4. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland is next due to meet. [52350/21]

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

5. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland will next meet. [53388/21]

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together,

The Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland operates in accordance with established guidelines for Cabinet committees and where appropriate, substantive issues are referred to the Government for discussion and approval. In general terms, the Cabinet committee oversees implementation of relevant programme for Government commitments in the area of Brexit and Northern Ireland, and ongoing relevant developments.

The committee was formally established by the Government on 6 July 2020 and had its first meeting on 29 October 2020. The Cabinet committee last met on 4 March 2021. However, relevant issues arising on Brexit and Northern Ireland are also regularly considered at meetings of the full Cabinet. The Cabinet committee on Europe which last met on 14 October also discusses related matters. In addition to meetings of the full Cabinet and Cabinet committees, I also meet Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues where required.

The next meeting of the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland is scheduled for 29 November.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

There are growing concerns that the British Government is about to introduce legislation to deliver an amnesty for British soldiers and perpetrators of acts of violence and criminality in Ireland by its forces. As the Taoiseach knows, this has been in prospect for some time. He also knows the families, campaigners and everybody across politics island-wide are opposed to this amnesty. He will also be aware that international organisations and opinion makers have similarly expressed their absolute opposition to this comprehensive, wide-ranging and utterly disgraceful amnesty proposal. As he knows, that proposed legislation would ban inquests, stop civil actions and bring very severe limitations even in respect of judicial reviews.

I ask the Taoiseach to reiterate the stance of the Irish Government with victims and families. I also ask him to reiterate his absolute commitment to the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. I ask him to confirm that the Government remains 100% committed to this position and that it will not give way to any British demand to water down the Stormont House Agreement or assist in any way the British efforts to impede the delivery of truth and justice. What direct contact has he had with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in respect of this proposed amnesty legislation?

1:17 pm

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Taoiseach for his full response, as always. I am heartened to hear the subcommittee will meet again on 29 November but I am slightly concerned it has taken this long, taking into account what the Taoiseach has mentioned about the works of other committees and bilateral discussions between Ministers.

There are two issues hanging over this entire area of debate that are extremely concerning and they relate to the twin approach of sabre-rattling by the British Government on the one hand by constantly threatening to invoke Article 16 and on the other the comments of the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who is now constantly threatening to collapse the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is after he withdrew his ministers, potentially unlawfully, from North-South engagement through the ministerial council.

What work is going on in advance of the subcommittee meeting and with key partners on a North-South and, crucially, an EU basis to counter these constant threats and prepare for the worrying potential they may be acted upon? That potential action would be of no benefit to anybody on this island, the island of Great Britain or across the European Union.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

From the very beginning, Brexit represented a threat to the Good Friday Agreement. This led to the Northern Ireland protocol being agreed between the EU and the UK to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process and avoid the creation of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Negotiations between the EU and the UK on the implementation of the protocol are continuing. The EU has come forward with sensible, practical proposals to deal with the matters that have arisen in respect of the protocol. European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič has consulted widely in Northern Ireland and brought forward his proposed solutions. Nonetheless, there seems to be a bit of megaphone diplomacy now under way, which is not a good sign. Writing in The Daily Telegraphrecently, European Commission Vice President Šefčovič stated that he believed the UK was embarking on a path of confrontation. In response, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Brandon Lewis, stated that the European Commission Vice President was "wilfully misrepresenting" Britain's demands on the Northern Ireland protocol. The mood music is not good.

The UK is opposed to any role for the European Court of Justice and there is a constant threat of Article 16 being invoked. As Deputy Richmond has said, the DUP is threatening to pull down the institutions. The Taoiseach said at the weekend that the conditions are now in place for a rapid conclusion to the discussions. What does he base his optimism on in this regard and will he update the House on the state of negotiations at this stage?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Deputy McDonald raised the legacy matter. As soon as that was announced by the British I spoke to the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to say we were unequivocally opposed to such a proposal and that in our view, an amnesty is not acceptable for anybody who murdered anyone else in Northern Ireland. That applies to members of the British army, any state police or whatever. It also applies where there were victims of IRA atrocities or loyalist paramilitary atrocities. All of these must be accountable to the law and particularly with regard to the victims, who need genuine closure and efforts made to uncover what happened in individual cases. We owe it to victims and the families of victims to think about how we approach this.

There had been an agreed approach and I am against any unilateral approach, as I made clear to the British Government. That is why, at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on 24 June, the Irish and British Governments joined all the parties in Northern Ireland, as Members are aware, in a process of intensive engagement on these matters. That process has engaged fully with victim representatives.

On our side, we work on a continuous basis to implement the Stormont House Agreement framework as a way of assisting wider societal reconciliation to meet the legitimate needs of victims and survivors in Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland. The Irish Government has always been very forthcoming in this respect and it will continue to be. We do not accept the British Government's proposals for a blanket statute of limitations on Troubles-related killings and attacks. We are with all the other parties in the North. On my recent visit to the North I met representatives from all parties and they confirmed to me their opposition to such an approach. Some parties indicated to me that the process involved in Operation Kenova, for example, is a model that perhaps people should give consideration to in terms of investigation and how to retrieve information. That is up to the parties involved. No party from any political perspective I met was in favour of the view advanced by the British Government.

Deputies Richmond and Haughey raised very important continuing matters concerning the protocol and the European Commission's approach. Outside the Cabinet subcommittee I have met frequently with all the main actors and during my visit to Belfast I met all the political parties on this matter. I met European Commission Vice President Šefčovič prior to him going to Northern Ireland. When he went to Northern Ireland he met all the representatives in the social, economic and political spheres. He very clearly responded then with very far-reaching proposals that went beyond what many people thought the European Union would present in respect of sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, measures, where we would be looking at an 80% reduction in checks. There would also be a massive reduction in checks for customs and a full solution for medicines. He also said he would be open to discussions.

In Ireland, we have engaged with this entire process in good faith. We have sensitised the European Commission to Northern Ireland issues and we believe the European Commission wants the best solution. As I said at the weekend, it has been a long-standing supporter of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. It has supported it with substantial funding over the years and a genuine commitment to have a sustained peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. That is its main rationale for the level of detailed engagement subsequent to the agreements that the British Government signed up to.

The British Government signed up to the protocol as a condition of the trade and co-operation agreement. The trade and co-operation agreement would not have been signed off by the European Union without the protocol being signed off in advance. The British Government has knowingly signed up to that. The objective, of course, is to increase and protect jobs in Northern Ireland through access to the European Single Market. A unique solution was developed to facilitate continuing access to the Single Market for Northern Ireland with simultaneous access to the market in the United Kingdom.

The interaction between European Commission Vice President Šefčovič and the main sectors in Northern Ireland has confirmed that operational issues concerned them most, specifically checks and the operation of the protocol. We have acted in good faith and the European Commission has acted in good faith. A good faith response is required from the United Kingdom Government. It would be irresponsible, unwise and reckless to invoke Article 16 as a response to the proposals from the European Commission. If such an act was taken by the British Government, it would have far-reaching implications for the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. It would also have implications for the relationship between the United Kingdom Government and the Irish Government as such action would not be in accordance with the spirit of partnership that has informed the peace process from the get-go and the creation of the entire architecture that underpins the Good Friday Agreement. That is my very strong view.

We are hearing, as Deputies Richmond and Haughey have outlined, similar vibes and sabre-rattling. I met with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, at COP26 yesterday and with the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, the day before who briefed me and updated me on the discussions between the EU and the UK. They were clear on the implications that would arise if such a decision were to be taken. I spoke with other EU leaders also, including briefly with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who was very involved in COP26. He is very aware that this issue needs to be resolved. When I said at the weekend that conditions exist for rapidly bring this to a conclusion, which Deputy Haughey raised, I meant that not in an optimistic tone but rather that the conditions do exist. Imposing the European Court of Justice, ECJ, as a response to proposals by Vice-President Šefčovič would be disingenuous and wrong. Anyone who knows about this issue will know that in regard to any issue that arises from the operation of the Single Market, it is accepted that the ECJ must be the governing body in that regard. It is in the interest of the people of Northern Ireland to have access to the Single Market.

At the COP26 summit, President Biden called me over to have a brief conversation with me after one of the sessions. He reiterated to me, in the strongest possible terms, how the Good Friday Agreement matters deeply to him and his administration. He said that he made this unequivocally clear to the British Government. I hope I have brought the Deputies up to date on the current situation. It is a very challenging and serious situation because international agreements have been entered into and signed off on. We must keep the needs of the people of Northern Ireland foremost in our minds as we proceed.