Dáil debates

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Ceisteanna - Questions

Anglo-Irish Relations

1:32 pm

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
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1. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the UK Prime Minister. [47882/21]

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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2. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the British Prime Minister. [52216/21]

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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3. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent engagement he has had with the UK Prime Minister. [52554/21]

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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4. To ask the Taoiseach if he had recent discussions with the UK Prime Minister. [54307/21]

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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5. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the British Prime Minister. [54393/21]

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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6. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the British Prime Minister. [54396/21]

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. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

I participated in the world leaders' summit at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, COP26, in Glasgow on 1 and 2 November. I had an opportunity to engage briefly with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, during the summit, and we agreed to meet in the near future. I also attended a number of events hosted by him during the summit.

I spoke by telephone with Mr. Johnson on 20 July in light of the cancellation of our meeting planned for the previous day for Covid reasons. The Prime Minister and I had a good discussion across a wide range of issues on how we can refresh the bilateral relationship for the post-Brexit era. We also discussed the Northern Ireland protocol and I stressed the importance of utilising the EU-UK framework for issues related to the protocol. We exchanged views on the Covid-19 situation, especially in regard to the Delta variant. I also raised legacy issues, including serious concerns at the British Government's proposals and the impact they would have on victims and families.

Previously, I met with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Chequers on Friday, 14 May. On that occasion, our discussions focused on ways our two Governments can continue to work together to support all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and promote peace and prosperity on both a North-South and east-west basis. We also discussed implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol and legacy issues.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
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Last weekm the Taoiseach stated it would be reckless and irresponsible for the UK to trigger Article 16. As we all know, tensions continue to rise. A meeting between the EU negotiator, Mr. Maroš Šefčovič, and Lord Frost on Friday ended without any form of agreement. It is reported today that face-to-face talks are taking place this week between senior Irish and British Government figures. The Taoiseach might outline to the House in detail what that involves and who is taking part in those discussions.

Discussions between Irish and EU officials to plan a response should the UK trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol have also been held. The Taoiseach outlined to us his discussions and meeting with Prime Minister Johnson which, it seems, were not of much value. In relation to the Taoiseach's discussions with US President Biden, will the Taoiseach outline what was said and what, if anything, was helpful?

There is a real risk in the coming period. We all know that this dispute will end up in an all-out trade war. Unfortunately, the odds on that are growing all the time. Obviously, there are worries in relation to unrest in Northern Ireland, which is the last thing we all need. What are we doing collectively to minimise tension and conflict in the North? How will the approach of the Governments change? Will the approach change or will other tactics be employed, working with the EU, over the coming weeks?

I will meet the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Louise Haigh, who will address my party's conference on Friday night. I will express our views from our side of the House to her.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Taoiseach has reported that he raised the issue of legacy with the British Prime Minister in May and July. Can he confirm that he raised the issue in his exchange with Boris Johnson at last week's conference?

Will the Taoiseach elaborate on what contact has been had with the British Prime Minister over the past two weeks in respect of plans that are at an advanced stage, we understand, to introduce amnesty legislation - a Statute of Limitations - in the coming weeks? I know the Government is opposed to the legislation and while that is welcome, it is not enough. I am eager to hear what political and diplomatic moves and pressure have been used in respect of the British Government. I ask that the Taoiseach be as specific as possible.

We await the triggering of Article 16. Received wisdom seems to be that matter is also imminent. How advanced are the Taoiseach's plans on a response to that triggering?

It would be a mistake for anyone to try to overstate or ratchet up any sense of crisis or tensions on the streets. We have had limited incidents. They are regrettable and unacceptable but the vast majority of people from all communities and perspectives support the protocol and do not wish to see a triggering of Article 16.

1:42 pm

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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As we have heard, last week the Taoiseach told the Dáil that the triggering of Article 16 would be irresponsible, unwise and reckless. It certainly looks as though that is about to happen. Is that the Taoiseach's understanding of the position? It is totally unnecessary and will be seen as a hostile act. It would add to political instability in Northern Ireland and cause economic disruption on the island of Ireland. The breach of trust would further damage relations between the EU and UK and it would lead to a deterioration in British-Irish relations, which are at a low ebb at present. If the UK triggers Article 16, the EU is sure to retaliate in some way. Tariffs could be imposed by the EU. There could be a trade war. Ultimately the trade and co-operation agreement could be suspended and in 2022, we could be back to the possibility of a no-deal Brexit again. This is in nobody's interest. We need calm heads and to be solution-focused. Ireland within the EU would have a big role to play in formulating the EU response. Procedures are in place for the triggering of Article 16. A month's notice must be given and the provisions of Annex 7 would kick in. The triggering does not abolish the protocol, as we know.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about his personal relationship with Boris Johnson. I know the Taoiseach's policy is to engage directly with political leaders and to build up personal relations with them. How would the Taoiseach characterise his personal relations with the Prime Minister now? As he has been critical of Opposition leaders in the past for not consulting and engaging with dialogue, I would be interested in his response. Will the Taoiseach impress on the Prime Minister, the next time he meets him, that he has to engage with the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement? Both Governments are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. They have to act impartially. The peace process is fragile. It needs the two Governments to support and engage with it and the ensure the full implementation of all the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I would not be jumping over myself to have a personal or political relationship with Boris Johnson to be honest and I am certainly no fan of his but did the Taoiseach discuss with him the differing strategies on dealing with the Covid pandemic? The one thing that I will give him a little credit for, and on which I think that the Taoiseach should take a leaf from his book, is that in the UK, you can get free antigen tests - as many as you want or need - as part of the effort to screen for the presence of Covid-19 whereas here in Ireland it costs €100 to get 20 tests. I heard a public health doctor suggest that the reason the Government may be slow in making antigen tests available and using them as a weapon to deal with the pandemic was because of cost.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It is costing billions.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Okay, then let us make them free as they are doing in the UK. I am not saying that Boris Johnson has been top of the class in dealing with the pandemic but this is a measure which many scientists and public health people are saying could be part of dealing with Covid. The UK policy of giving them out free to people when they need them, and as many as they need, is a good policy that we should follow.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Deputies for their helpful suggestions and perspectives. Deputies Kelly and Haughey referred to my remarks last week on the protocol, which still stand. We have been here before. The meeting we had in May was comprehensive and lengthy. We had subsequent meetings with the European Commission. In the autumn the situation was on a good track with the European Commission looking at the overall situation and coming forward with a package of quite far-reaching proposals. In particular, European Commissioner, Maroš Šefčovič, went to the North and met all the interests, parties, industrial stakeholders and so on. He did listen and came back with a comprehensive set of measures, which were not a fait accompliin themselves but were the basis for further negotiations with the United Kingdom Government. It is very regrettable that in advance of publication of the Šefčovič package, Lord Frost announced the issue around the European Court of Justice, ECJ. One would have formed the view that it may have been an effort almost to torpedo the Šefčovič package before it was published but I do not think it had that impact. The Šefčovič package is strong and substantive: it deals with sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, matters, customs and the supply of medicines, which were the legitimate issues that people on all sides raised in relation to the protocol.

I met all the parties in Northern Ireland last month to go through all this with them. That was immediately in advance of the publication of the Šefčovič package. I had Maroš Šefčovič before that, as had the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Discussions are still ongoing. I would sound a note of caution that we do not automatically assume that anything will be triggered. It is important that we do not fall into a self-fulfilling prophecy. My view is very strong that I do not think there is a need to trigger Article 16 and it would be wrong to do so. Deputy Haughey mentioned two words, namely, trade and trust. Trade would be disrupted. Access to the Single Market is important to people and businesses in Northern Ireland and is having a beneficial impact. Any triggering of Article 16 could jeopardise that access in the shorter term. What is important now is that we double down on dialogue and engagement. That is what is happening and with the legacy issue.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Taoiseach, we have gone way over time.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Ministerial engagements with counterparts are happening but the opportunities will be taken in the context of those engagements to raise those issues and to point up the primacy of continuing dialogue between the European Union and the United Kingdom.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I am sorry, we are going to have to conclude.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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On legacy, if I may say, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council is still considering this. We met again on 24 June. Our Government met the British Government and the Northern parties in a process of intensive engagement. I raised this with the British Prime Minister. They are in no doubt as to our position on this. The British Government will have had a good hearing from all the parties and will now be in no doubt that there is almost unanimous agreement outside the British Government on its direction of travel.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Taoiseach. The next group of questions has a lot of questioners. If we can limit the supplementary questions to a minute, we may have a chance for the Taoiseach to-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I did not get a chance to reply to Deputy Boyd Barrett's question.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Well I am sorry, Taoiseach but there is not time. My apologies.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The Taoiseach can throw his response into his answer on this next question. We need antigen tests on public transport.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I never doubted the Deputy's ingenuity to get his point of view across no matter what the context is. The Deputy must have done a good leaving certificate.