Tuesday, 10 May 2022
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 14 to 18 together.
The Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland was formally established by the Government on 6 July 2020 and had its first meeting on 29 October 2020. The committee last met on 4 March 2021 and is scheduled to meet again on Monday, 27 June. A meeting scheduled for 29 November 2021 was postponed due to a Covid meeting. A meeting on 24 February 2022 also had to be postponed due to the convening of a European Council meeting at short notice.
Relevant issues arising on Brexit and Northern Ireland are regularly considered at meetings of the full Cabinet. In addition to attending meetings of the full Cabinet and Cabinet committees, I meet Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues, where required. In the wake of the Assembly elections on 5 May, I spoke yesterday to the leaders of the main parties in Northern Ireland. In all the calls with the party leaders, I emphasised the importance of early formation of the Northern Ireland Executive.
The people of Northern Ireland want their elected representatives to address the pressing issues facing them, including the cost of living and healthcare waiting lists. The Government will continue to work with the British Government and the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek and support the formation of the executive and the operation of all of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
This morning, I also spoke to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. We agreed on the importance of having a strong, functioning Executive in place to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. We also spoke about the protocol. I urged the Prime Minister to engage in intensified European Union and United Kingdom discussions to address the issues relating to the implementation of the protocol. I set out clearly my serious concerns about any unilateral action at this time, which would be destabilising for Northern Ireland and erode trust. The focus should be on agreed European Union and United Kingdom solutions that address the practical issues arising from the implementation and operation of the protocol.
I congratulate Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party on their success in the Stormont election. They now have to deliver for the people and the people will hold them to account if they do not. I also want to congratulate the Aontú team in the North on its advance electorally in the North. Aontú had the largest increase in votes among nationalist parties in the North and came ahead of more established political parties such as People Before Profit. It begs the question that if a small party like Aontú can do it, why can Fianna Fáil not do it?
The election is also significant because it now puts the votes for pro Irish unity political parties on a par with unionist political parties and makes the lack of preparation for unity more reckless every day. The election also returned a majority of MLAs who support the protocol and the resumption of the Executive without any precondition whatsoever. Yet, we have exactly the same situation as we had before the election. The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are on the floor, have not been implemented and are not working, and a minority political party is stopping the whole process from working. What actions will the Taoiseach take to ensure the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are fully implemented and up and running?
We all share the view the Taoiseach expressed yesterday that it is now incumbent, following the elections, that political parties in Northern Ireland would form a functioning Executive. There are seriously worrying developments, with the DUP demanding the removal and replacement of the protocol, it appears, before it returns to the Executive and with reports stating that the British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will scrap parts of the protocol as soon as next week. Could the Taoiseach confirm whether he has had any discussions with the British Government or EU Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič on progress towards a resolution?
With such an impressive result for the Alliance Party in the Assembly elections, which more than doubled its seats and, therefore, there being now a large confirmed block of those who are not designated as being in either tradition but rather, as are sometimes referred to, neithers, it is clearly time to consider how the in-between voice on the constitutional question can be adequately accommodated in the Assembly and in any discussion we have in this jurisdiction on the future of our island. Has the Government a clear view on how this might be addressed?
Some reports suggest that the British Government is rolling back from a blanket amnesty for Troubled-related offences. Can the Taoiseach confirm whether the British Government has briefed him on its plans which, it seems, would require individuals to apply for immunity from prosecution instead?
Brexit has served to remind us in County Clare and along the western seaboard how geographically peripheral we are in the Continent of Europe. It is obvious now that we are a long way from Dublin, but we are also a long way from Britain and the countries on mainland Europe.
In 2015, a national aviation policy was launched which is now totally defunct and no longer relevant as we come out of Covid and continue to grapple with Brexit. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has indicated that in the coming weeks he will initiate a brand new aviation policy. I ask the Taoiseach that the Government prioritise that airports like Shannon be given continental connectivity. It cannot all be funnelled through Heathrow. That is a vulnerable link in itself. We have had to battle for the landing slots there many times over. It is important for trade, commerce and tourism connectivity that we have continental links to the likes of Schiphol and Frankfurt to provide us with onward opportunities further east into Europe as well as Asia and beyond. I ask that the Government lead this over the coming weeks as we start to prepare a brand new national aviation policy.
Whatever way one looks at it, the outcome of the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland last week was historic. For the first time since the creation of Northern Ireland 100 years ago, a nationalist party, Sinn Féin, is the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The success of a centre ground party, the Alliance Party, is also significant. Geoffrey Donaldson, the leader of the DUP, has stated that it will not nominate a Deputy First Minister this week until the issues concerning the Northern Ireland protocol are resolved. We are where we are.
The issues regarding the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol need to be resolved, and resolved fairly quickly. In my view, the EU has shown considerable flexibility on the matter, in particular as regards checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain. We have the continuous threat by the UK to introduce legislation to set aside aspects of the protocol, although that was not in the queen's speech today, I understand.
The Taoiseach had a phone call with the British Prime Minister today. He spoke to the leaders of the parties in Northern Ireland yesterday. Can he tell us where we are as regards EU-UK negotiations? Can these negotiations be given an added impetus, given the stalemate in Northern Ireland? Will there be renewed moves to resolve the protocol problems?
I want to raise the issue of the killing of an RUC man, Joe Campbell, in Cushendall in 1977. His family, who I spoke to, said it appears he uncovered collusion by members of the police force with paramilitaries. Information on a specific threat was withheld from him.
His name was Joe Campbell. Information on a very specific threat to him was withheld. The RUC was at least negligent and failed to act to prevent one of its own being killed. He was not even warned about the threat. When an investigation took place, the chief constable at the time could not remember the incident and an inadequate investigation took place. The ombudsman later investigated it as it was damaging to the family and policing. Information was also withheld from the family. His widow is 87 years old and has been waiting since 1977 for truth and justice. Now that it appears there will be no blanket amnesty, will the Taoiseach make sure that the inquest is not delayed? Will he make sure that it has, in its terms of reference, that the British state will be compelled to a transparent process of information disclosure, and that the British state cannot hide behind false national security claims? The family has been waiting long enough.
I thank all of the Deputies for the points that have been raised. In response to Deputy Tóibín, this Government has been very active in terms of committing a whole range of research, through the shared island project, ESRI and NESC. The first systematic and comprehensive research into North-South systems, be that education, health, enterprise and so forth, is of broad use to all of us who wish to share the island together into the future. It is the first time this has happened on a systematic basis.
Deputies Haughey and Bacik raised issues regarding engagement with the British Government. Deputy Haughey asked specifically about the prime minister.
I want to congratulate all of those elected to the Northern Assembly. I congratulate the performance of the Sinn Féin Party. All of its MLAs were returned. It is not the first time that a nationalist party topped the first preference poll, but it is the first time that this has been turned into the most seats in the Assembly. That is a significant moment. I also acknowledge the extraordinary success of the Alliance Party's surge, whereby it not only maintained its seats from the last Assembly but more than doubled its presence. One very interesting feature of the Assembly campaign was the fact that every party but one ended up running a campaign based on the cost of living, the health crisis and the need for the Assembly to intervene and help people. The one exception to that ended up failing to add a single seat in the assembly, namely the TUV. Any attempt to apply different rationales to the vote after the event must be resisted.
I have outlined to the House that I spoke to all of the leaders yesterday by phone. I take them at their word. Each had their own words when they said they respect the outcome of the election and want to go back to work, even though many are coming from different perspectives. This morning, I spoke to the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. We had a frank and honest exchange on the blockages to progress. I reiterated my view that what is needed is a proper and professional intensification of the EU-UK discussions regarding implementation of the protocol. I set out in very clear terms my serious concerns about any unilateral action at this time.
I shared my view that this would be the wrong approach. It would be destabilising in Northern Ireland and it would further erode trust.
I also made the point to the Prime Minister that responsibility for ensuring the safeguarding and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is the joint responsibility of the United Kingdom and the Irish Government. There is no place for unilateralism in this role. I have been a long-term believer that progress in Northern Ireland is achieved only when the UK and the Irish Government are working closely together in a common cause. We both agreed it was important that the Assembly and the Executive would be re-established and get up and running.
I challenged, and continue to challenge, the view in terms of what I believe to be a false narrative. Deputy Haughey is correct that it has been asserted that the European Commission is not taking steps to address disruption being caused on the ground in Northern Ireland as a result of the operation of the protocol. That is not the case. It is simply not true and it must be challenged at every available opportunity. The Commission, and Vice President Maroš Šefčovič in particular, have done an extraordinary volume of work. He has demonstrated consistent good faith in seeking to understand and address the specific issues that are causing concern. For example, the issue of medicines, which at one time we were told was the primary cause of concern, has now been dealt with. Last October, Vice President Šefčovič put forward a substantial package of flexibilities and mitigations, including on customs and sanitary and phytosanitary arrangements. What is required now is a proper reciprocation of that effort and the good faith offered by the European Union.
I believe the leaders of the Northern parties when they say they want to get back to the Executive and deliver for their constituents. I believe the job of the two Governments is to work together constructively to make that happen. We will have difficult challenges ahead in that regard. I think we have to witness the intensification of those negotiations between the United Kingdom Government and the European Commission.
In terms of the issue of the amnesty, raised by Deputy Bacik, I welcome the moves made by the British Government in that respect. It has listened to the parties in Northern Ireland and, critically, the victims' groups, but we will want to see more detail in respect of what specifically it intends to propose. Again, however, there is no room for unilateralism in such matters. These are issues that were agreed by everybody as far back as 2010. They were agreed between the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland parties. I have met with many victims' groups and they want closure; they do not want amnesties.
Deputy Cathal Crowe raised the issue of the national aviation strategy. Again, I will raise that with the Minister. Of course, I believe that airports such as Shannon Airport are critical in such a national aviation strategy, and particularly in the context of continental connectivity.
I have dealt comprehensively with the questions put by Deputy Haughey.
In terms of the points raised by Deputy Daly, I ask that he give me some background to the case. We stand ready as a Government. We have honoured our commitments in terms of legacy. We want to see a proper framework developed around legacy, where families can get closure or, at least, get inquests held or get access to information that would assist them in understanding who murdered or killed their loved ones and the background to the manner in which their loved ones were killed. Again, too much of this has just dragged on for far too long - on all sides, may I add. There is also a lot of hurt out there in terms of murders and deaths that were caused by paramilitaries and by state forces. There is a need for a system that brings closure to the victims to some extent. They may never get complete closure. This has just dragged on far too long, however.