Tuesday, 16 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
Last week, I had a series of phone calls with the leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, Sinn Féin, including the deputy First Minister, the Ulster Unionist Party, UUP, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, and the Alliance Party to discuss the ongoing talks on the Northern Ireland protocol. I emphasised that the ongoing talks between the EU and UK should be given every chance to succeed and the European Union's commitment to addressing genuine implementation issues around the protocol. We also discussed concerns around any potential triggering of Article 16, noting the risks this poses for political stability and prosperity in Northern Ireland. In all cases, there was good, detailed engagement on the practical implications of these negotiations and their potential outcome for people on the ground in Northern Ireland. Other topics discussed included the UK Government's legacy proposals and likely political developments over the coming months. We agreed to remain in contact on all matters of mutual concern.
I briefly spoke with the First Minister, Paul Givan, at the Ireland-New Zealand rugby test match on Saturday. I also spoke with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, at the beginning of the month at the COP26 leaders' summit in Glasgow. I had last spoken with them in Belfast on 8 October, when we all attended and addressed a conference on climate action. During that visit to Belfast, I also, separately, had meetings with the leaders of the main political parties, including the deputy First Minister, on current political developments, including the protocol and legacy issues. I took the opportunity to brief them on the record €3.5 billion budget for collaborative cross-Border investment announced with the publication of the national development plan, including the doubling of the shared island fund to €1 billion to 2030.
I am sorry; I was lurking at the back here. As ever, I thank the Taoiseach for a fulsome response to the question. I will ask supplementary questions on two areas he may be able to illuminate. With regard to the discussions on the protocol and the need to avoid triggering Article 16, did the Northern Irish representatives give much detail on the impact of the protocol on life on the ground in Northern Ireland, how businesses are adapting and, more importantly, how businesses and communities are responding to the very generous package of improvements announced by the European Commission? Did the leader of the DUP or the deputy First Minister give any insight as to if or when the DUP might re-engage with the North-South Ministerial Council?
I have a question on a totally unrelated area, although I believe it is timely. Has there been, or will there be, any further engagement on greater co-ordination between North and South with regard to pandemic restrictions? Obviously, announcements are being made in Northern Ireland as well. In some areas, these restrictions are coming up to speed with what we have been doing here for some time.
I will flag two matters. The High Court in Belfast has ruled that the situation with regard to North-South ministerial meetings is unlawful. Does the Taoiseach have any update on that?
The second issue I will raise sometimes goes under the radar. Yesterday, it was made official that a public inquiry is to be held in Northern Ireland to investigate mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries and workhouses in the region. The deputy First Minister and the First Minister have already assured survivors that legislation will ensure full access to records from social services and the institutions involved and that work will begin on setting up a consultative forum immediately, in collaboration with the Irish Government. Details of a redress scheme for survivors of mother and baby homes and county homes were set to come before the Cabinet today before the scheme is opened for applications next year. I understand an announcement has been made while we have been in here. It is not good enough to be told it will be next year. On what date can we expect the scheme to be opened to survivors? We must also learn from the failings of the Magdalen laundries ex gratiascheme. My colleague Deputy Sherlock called for medical cards for survivors for the long term. That suggestion has been refused despite an amendment being passed in here. We must also address access to records. It is disheartening that, in contrast to the approach in Northern Ireland, this Government continues to double down on the heartache of survivors by refusing to provide them with their own information, which they are entitled to by law. Accelerated legislation and schemes have been developed to better the wrongs of the Government against the women and children of Ireland. Will the Taoiseach give us details with regard to this scheme? What is being proposed? Will he give us details on his discussions with our Northern Ireland counterparts as regards their proposals?
I welcome the Taoiseach's ongoing engagement with members of the Northern Ireland Executive and the leaders of the political parties. It has been almost ten months since Britain left the EU, and the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland is still a subject of concern. Triggering Article 16 would be disastrous for the entirety of this island and for Britain. It is clear from all surveys the business community in Northern Ireland realises the value of the protocol and wants it to work well. Recent surveys show also that the majority in Northern Ireland view the protocol as beneficial.
I previously raised with the Taoiseach the specific issue of medicines and I understand the recent EU proposals deal with any doubts there were regarding the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland, which I hope he can confirm. As we all know, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, trade on an all-Ireland and cross-Border basis has grown to the benefit of all the people on this island.
With regard to legacy issues, the Stormont House Agreement needs to be implemented. The needs of victims and survivors have to be foremost in all our political work. The planned statute of limitations, in effect an amnesty proposed by the British Government, is a totally unacceptable and reprehensible proposal. The survivors and families I know who have lost loved ones want the truth. They are not looking for vengeance on anyone. To close inquiries now would be absolutely scandalous, denying forever the possibility of those families who have lost loved ones getting the truth.
At a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement on Thursday, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains will appear before us. Three people remain under the term "the disappeared", that is, three persons who have not been returned to their families to be buried. These people were abducted, killed and buried in secrecy. The very least any family deserve is to have their loved ones brought back to them and for those loved ones to have a Christian burial as well. I would like a much greater impetus to be given to dealing with legacy issues.
I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach engaged with the Northern Irish political leaders last week. I understand from what he said that the main issue for discussion was the Northern Ireland protocol and the associated Article 16. The Vice-President of the European Commission Maroš Šefčovič gave an optimistic assessment of the current position in the negotiations between the EU and the UK at yesterday's meeting of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU. The change in tone of the discussions is welcome. He stated all problems under discussion can be solved and that trust can be rebuilt. He also said, however, that the EU is preparing for all scenarios and will be ready for any outcome. There is still the ongoing threat of violence on the streets of Northern Ireland over this issue, with buses being hijacked and set on fire. The Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, has issued threats about the future of the Stormont institutions and the DUP has withdrawn its co-operation with the North-South structures provided for under the Good Friday Agreement, as other Deputies noted.
In the Taoiseach's talks with the First Minister and Jeffrey Donaldson, did he get the sense that if problems with the Northern Ireland protocol can be resolved, North-South co-operation can resume on the many day-to-day practical issues that confront us all on this island, and that there will be a willingness to advance the peace process generally? I echo what other Deputies said about legacy issues. Will the Taoiseach give a current assessment of the talks initiated in July between the parties in Northern Ireland and the relevant stakeholders on dealing with the legacy of the past and implementing the provisions of the Stormont House Agreement?
It goes without saying there are many issues relating to the British Government at this time. There are the ongoing issues of the protocol, the amnesty legislation, the delivery of Acht na Gaeilge and the DUP's boycott of North-South meetings, the last of which presents legal questions. It is difficult to see how the cul-de-sac in which unionism finds itself will be exited without the British Government making a final decision. I welcome some of the positivity we are hearing from Maroš Šefčovič and that which we have heard from business interests and others in regard to trying to make the protocol work, but we need to progress the politics on this. It is not all right for a British Government to use the North as a pawn in its game with the EU. What concrete action does the Government intend to address and advance all these questions?
I welcome the publication of the bipartisan letter from leading US Congress members calling on the US Secretary of State to speak out against the British Government's proposal to end all judicial investigations and offer an unconditional amnesty. This is about the British Government covering over the part it played in its dirty war in the North. Families and virtually everyone else are of the opinion this is not okay, so we need to be very strong on this issue. It goes completely against the obligations of the British Government under the Stormont House Agreement and undermines the human rights commitments in the Good Friday Agreement.
The failures of the British Government are mounting, although that is hardly shocking. We need clarity from the Taoiseach on what the Government will do in the coming weeks and months in this regard.
I thank all the Deputies who raised questions in respect of the meetings I had with Northern party leaders. Deputy Richmond raised a number of points relating to the prospectus of the unionist parties in regard to the protocol and so on. I think it is fair to say that all parties, although I do not want to go through each individual conversation, favour continued access to the European Single Market as beneficial to jobs, employment and businesses in Northern Ireland. That is an important point in the context of this saga. As Deputy Haughey noted, all parties, in their approach, want the issue to be resolved by negotiation. I do not think they want a triggering of Article 16. They want a negotiated resolution of all the issues that have been raised so far.
In respect of medicines in particular, which Deputy Smith raised, Vice-President Šefčovič has stated to the British negotiating team led by Lord Frost that we should concentrate on medicines initially and get that resolved. The issue has been largely dealt with in the context of the presentation made by the Vice-President, but finer details have to be ironed out and that can be done. There has been a change of tone in these negotiations and the UK Government, through both Lord Frost and the Prime Minister, has indicated it wants a resolution.
On the North-South Ministerial Council, we have pressed for continued engagement. It is fair to say that, politically, we need these issues to be resolved to get the North-South agenda on a more dynamic plane and platform. We are continuing with our work under the shared island initiative on various projects and engagements. Recently, there was the welcome formation of an all-island network on biodiversity and climate change, involving academics and interested people, North and South. That all-island network has been established and we hope to support and sustain it into the future with supports from the shared island initiative.
On pandemic restrictions, we have kept each other abreast and the two chief medical officers keep in touch on the pandemic. We have more or less been in consort, although not totally, in respect of restrictions. The North has liberalised much faster than we have for reasons related to broader policy emanating from the UK Government side. We have been much more cautious and slower in our reopening of society.
Deputy Kelly raised the issue of the inquiry into mother and baby homes. It remains to be seen how fast that will get off the ground in the North, although I welcome its announcement. We have not yet had any formal engagement with the Executive. There were references in a number of meetings we have had that this was forthcoming and we have offered any assistance or advice we can give from the experience here in the Republic in respect of mother and baby homes.
Medical cards have not been refused-----
The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth made a comprehensive announcement earlier in respect of both an action plan and a payments scheme for all residents of mother and baby homes and county homes-----
Let us be clear, however, that this is an €800 million package, which is being allocated in this regard. I do not want to monetise it, but the action plan is important. Turning to information, the legislation on information and tracing is still before the House. I think it was published on 9 May and it is still at the pre-legislative scrutiny stage. We must move it on and onto Second Stage and then Committee Stage. A significant number of people are waiting for that legislation in respect of accessing information and tracing. Legislation pertaining to Tuam is also undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny. The general data protection regulation, GDPR, right of access to commission records exists, so we are doing everything we can on access to personal information. We have had significant breakthroughs as a result of Government decisions in respect of access to information for residents and survivors of mother and baby homes and county homes. We are looking at the establishment of a national memorial and records centre, public access to original State files, the expansion of the database, the appointment of an archivist, educational research, memorialisation, a national memorial, local memorials and a survivor-led annual commemoration. We are also establishing a children’s fund in honour of those who went through the institutions with a view, in the modern contemporary era, to allocating funding towards the children of today who need particular initiatives.
Regarding the legacy issue, we have consistently said to the British Government that we oppose its proposals. We do not want anybody getting off. Those who committed terrible crimes should be pursued and, above all, the families of victims need closure, be that in the context of actions taken by the British Army, by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, PIRA, or republican groups. I was in Enniskillen last Sunday and passed the building where the bomb went off and 12 innocent people were murdered. We need answers for those families. Loyalist paramilitaries have also committed terrible atrocities, for example, the Glenanne gang. For me, it is unthinkable that any Government would not allow for closure for the families of the victims.