Wednesday, 13 July 2022
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
8. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with members of the United States Congress with reference to discussion of the appointment of a special envoy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34568/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.
On 23 May last, I welcomed a delegation from the US House of Representatives for a meeting at Government Buildings. This was the first visit to Ireland by a US congressional delegation since April 2019, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Richard Neal led a delegation to visit Dublin, London and Northern Ireland. The bipartisan delegation was led this time by Congressman Richard Neal, co-chair of the Friends of Ireland Caucus and chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives. The delegation comprised nine members of Congress, three members of the Republican Party and six of the Democratic Party. The majority of the delegation also sit on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over revenues, taxes, trade agreements and tariffs. The representatives were accompanied to Government Buildings by US Ambassador Claire Cronin and other officials.
Our meeting in Government Buildings was an opportunity for a broad-ranging discussion covering Northern Ireland and Brexit, international support for Ukraine, and Ireland-US bilateral relations. The delegation apprised me of its visits to Brussels and London immediately before it arrived here, where its members had held meetings with the European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission Executive Vice President, Valdis Dombrovskis, the British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and the International Trade Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan. Northern Ireland, including the safeguarding of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as Brexit and the protocol, were high on the agenda for those meetings, including broader issues on Northern Ireland. The delegation also shared its plans for a visit to Belfast the following day before returning to the United States.
Congressman Neal and the other members of the delegation were unwavering in their commitment to peace in Northern Ireland. Like us, they recognise that there are genuine concerns about aspects of the implementation of the protocol, but these can only be addressed in a sustainable manner through intensified European Union-United Kingdom discussions and agreed solutions. We agreed that unilateral actions are divisive and unhelpful, and contrary to the long-standing approach to resolving issues relating to Northern Ireland in a spirit of partnership. I very much welcome the continued, unequivocal support of the US Administration and Congress on this matter, which is testament to the deep and historical bonds between our two countries and the strong attachment of US elected representatives to the Good Friday Agreement.
The question of a special envoy was not discussed during our meeting but I know the issue is still under consideration. I also thanked the members of the delegation for their continuing backing of immigration priorities. We discussed the devastating war in Ukraine and our shared commitment to providing humanitarian assistance for the people of Ukraine.
Prior to arriving in Dublin, the delegation was in Kerry where its members undertook a cultural visit, including music from, and a tour of, the Great Blasket Island. They had a two-day political, economic and cultural programme in Dublin, which included a meeting with President Higgins and other Members of the Oireachtas.
I thank the Taoiseach for that update. I want to focus on one aspect. As we know, today in Westminster, the latest stage of the protocol-busting Bill is making its way, despite the distraction of an ongoing leadership election. We all, sadly, know the consequences of this legislation, if it is enacted, in terms of EU-UK relationships and the pathway that could go down. Was there any discussion with the congressional delegation during this visit or more widely as to what consequences there would be for the so-called special relationship if the UK were to break international law by passing this legislation?
During his recent visit to Ireland, Congressman Richard Neal strongly endorsed the Irish position on the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, which is to be greatly welcomed. Indeed, other US politicians have done the same, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and President Joe Biden. They have spoken about the difficulty of agreeing a UK-EU trade deal if the UK threatens the Good Friday Agreement and overrides the Northern Ireland protocol. We need to be vigilant in this regard and to continue to present our case on these matters on Capitol Hill, as no doubt the UK is presenting its view to US politicians at this time.
The Taoiseach has also spoken about resetting the relationship between Ireland and Britain, with a new Prime Minister expected to be in place by September. That is a very diplomatic way of putting it. Can we at least hope that the new British Prime Minister will adopt an intelligent and sensible approach to EU matters, the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, and that he or she will restore trust and respect international law? I do not expect the Taoiseach to answer that question but, hopefully, he will get off to a very good start with the new British Prime Minister. I would welcome his views on that and on resetting the relationship.
Often, when US imperialism is criticised in here, the Taoiseach is quite sensitive about it, it might be fair to say. It appears he thinks the US is a force for good and for human rights and democracy around the world. In that context, I wonder if he saw the interview with John Bolton on CNN yesterday. John Bolton is a senior figure of the US political establishment, a former US Under Secretary of State, a former ambassador to the UN and National Security Advisor. He said the following: "As somebody who has helped plan coups d'état, not here, you know, but other places, it takes a lot of work."
When the CNN journalist asked Mr. Bolton what he was referring to, the latter replied, "I'm not going to get into the specifics", before mentioning Venezuela, saying that the coup there "turned out not to be successful". The journalist pressed further, saying, "I feel like there's other stuff you're not telling me, though [beyond Venezuela]." Mr. Bolton replied, "I'm sure there is." Here we have John Bolton admitting on CNN that he is involved in planning coups on behalf of the US Government. We know about the attempted coup in Venezuela against Maduro and trying to put Guaidó in power, but Mr. Bolton is clearly saying there were others. Does that trouble the Taoiseach at all? Does he think it is okay for the US Administration to be able to go around the world and organise coups d'étatwherever it thinks it appropriate?
I would have suspected what Deputy Murphy has outlined in any case, but it confirms something for me. One thing the US has done is try to secure access for US Palestinian citizens to the West Bank and Gaza, and vice versa, something that is made extremely difficult by the state of Israel. The Israelis want to be part of the US visa waivers scheme. In essence, there is a bit of a quid pro quogoing on.
Israelis are entitled to be part of a visa waivers scheme to enter the European Union but, simultaneously, they make it difficult for, or sometimes simply prohibit, people from the EU, including people from this country, going into Gaza and the West Bank. They make it extremely difficult for Irish Palestinian citizens to visit their families or vice versa. I had Palestinian guests from Gaza in the Gallery yesterday. They have family here and they told me about how extraordinarily difficulty it is to meet each other, whether for a family member going there or one of them coming here. Yet, we grant easy access for Israelis coming here. Should we not, at the very least, put some conditions on Israelis having free access to the EU while Palestinians and EU citizens, whether or not they are Palestinian citizens, are discriminated against when trying to enter the occupied territories?
I thank the Taoiseach for the update on the visit of the US delegation. I had the opportunity to meet with the delegates and I found all of them to be extremely interested in, and very focused on, the needs of our country and very well-informed on the politics of all of our island. It is not just when they are here that those individuals show interest in our country. On a regular basis, they pass unanimous motions in both US Houses of Congress in support of the Good Friday Agreement and condemning recent British Government decisions. From engaging with the delegates, it is clear they do not just want to see the agreement protected; they also want to see its potential maximised. They see the opportunities to build on it and have instanced the Taoiseach's initiative in the very large-scale funding that is made available to the shared island unit, which can build on the agreement and further develop the all-Ireland and cross-Border economy.
An issue I would like to see pursued again with the US Administration is the appointment of a special envoy to Northern Ireland. People such as George Mitchell held that post with great distinction. It is an extra conduit for strengthening Irish-US bilateral relations and it can bring undoubted benefit to our State, Northern Ireland and the US.
We need to see progress on regularising the status of the undocumented Irish in the US. The best estimates available to our diplomatic service indicate there could be up to 10,000 people whose status is not regularised. They are rearing families, working hard, paying their taxes and contributing handsomely to US society. We need to see progress on that aspect of our discussions and relations with the US.
First, on Deputy Richmond's point, I like the phrase "protocol-busting Bill" that he coined. We had a detailed discussion with the delegation in respect of the issues around the protocol. The delegates included both Republicans and Democrats and some had expertise in the trade area. They found it very difficult to comprehend what the issues were on the UK side. Their view was that the protocol issues could easily be resolved with proper negotiations and discussions. They have made it very clear to those they met in the UK system that they expect this issue to be resolved by negotiation and that anything that would undermine the Good Friday Agreement would cause very significant challenges all around. I will say no more than that.
Deputy Haughey raised a number of points that I would agree with in terms of the successor to Boris Johnson. We all want a sensible, managed relationship between the UK and Europe. The EU wants that and many people in the UK want it. We want a professional relationship that adheres to existing agreements. If agreements need to change, then we do it together in terms of identifying the issues, renegotiating or re-amending, but unilateralism would not form part of that approach. It is likewise in respect of the relationship between Ireland and the UK.
I agree we need to maintain our vigilant presence on Capitol Hill, through our US ambassador and politically as well. There is constant engagement with the US Administration. I recently met with President Biden in Madrid to do exactly what the Deputy is saying. One of the reasons I went to Madrid was to engage with a range of political leaders, including President Biden. We took the opportunity there to raise certain issues. As the Deputy said, what we want is an intelligent and sensible approach in respect of these relationships. I would like that to be the case in the event of a new British Prime Minister appointing a new Government. In the post-Brexit situation, we need a new dynamic between the UK and Ireland. Formerly, as members of the EU, UK and Irish Ministers and officials met very often. That is no longer the case because the UK is out of the EU. We need a new structure to deal with the bilateral issues between Britain and Ireland.
I think it is interesting that Deputy Paul Murphy said I get sensitive when there is criticism of US imperialism. I do not get sensitive but I am always struck by the sort of singular focus the Deputy has in respect of the US and no one else. While there is a terrible immoral and illegal war raging on Ukraine, I am always struck by his reluctance really to go there in any exchange with me or anybody else. His overwhelming focus is always on the US and sometimes on the EU itself. That is a fact in terms of the balance of his presentation.
Deputy Murphy referenced John Bolton, who is a Republican hawk. I do not accept at all that it is appropriate for any country to be organising coups in any other country. However, Mr. Bolton was a Donald Trump appointee, as the Deputy knows, and his views would not, in my opinion, be representative of mainstream opinion within the US. That has to be said.
I would like the Deputies' insights on Russian interference across the world and seeking transparency from Vladimir Putin as to how many coups d'étathe is organising, how many people he is leveraging pressure on-----
-----and how many professional private organisations like the Wagner Group are being funded and organised and creating mayhem across the world. To me, right now internationally - let us call a spade a spade - President Biden is a voice for peace.
He is a voice for reason in international relations and we are fortunate he is at the helm in the United States in the context of a terrible war on the Continent of Europe that could escalate into a horrific nuclear conflagration if we did not have someone as sensible as him in office. That is a fact. Deputy Murphy will never accept that and will never bring himself to acknowledge it because he can see no good at all in the United States. That country is the big baddie.
Yes, but I want to make another point first. Prior to the war on Ukraine, President Biden, President Macron and Chancellor Scholz all spoke to Vladimir Putin saying, "We will get into negotiations and discussions on security issues you may have concerns about, but please do not start this war." He went ahead and started the war.
A minute or two will do fine. I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett that there should be access into Gaza.
I secured access to Gaza then not through the Israeli Government at the time, but through the Egyptian foreign minister. I was the only foreign minister allowed into Gaza then because the Egyptian foreign minister said I could go in through the Rafah crossing. Other senior foreign ministers were not allowed in for ridiculously restrictive reasons. We should not replicate one bad practice with another. The Deputy is saying that because of the Israeli Government’s approach to Gazans trying to get into Ireland and Europe, and vice versa, that therefore we should restrict Israelis. We should uphold the best standards in terms of allowing people to travel and to move into each other’s countries. We should push strongly for a more liberal approach to Gazans in this context, especially in respect of families being reunited and meeting.
Turning to the question from Deputy Brendan Smith, he raised several issues regarding the optimisation of the shared island fund. The €70 million in funding that we announced in that context included a provision of €40 million for the restoration of the Ulster Canal, which is the kind of project that makes a huge difference. The Deputy is working hard in Cavan-Monaghan with the local authorities on cross-Border projects that we can fund out of the shared island fund and also on the dialogue aspect. Regarding the special envoy to Northern Ireland, that is under review. It has merit, especially in the context of the current difficulties we are experiencing regarding the protocol and its application.