Tuesday, 4 October 2022
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 15 to 27, inclusive, together.
First, as Taoiseach I want to put on record my sincere condolences on behalf of the Government of Ireland to the British people on the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth Il. I have met Prime Minister Liz Truss MP on two occasions since her appointment on 6 September. We also spoke by phone. I had a good call with the Prime Minister on 9 September. During that call, I offered my sincere condolences to her and to the British people on the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth Il and paid tribute to the Queen's contribution to reconciliation and good relations on these islands. I also congratulated the Prime Minister on her new role and we agreed to keep in close contact in the period that followed.
On Tuesday, 13 September, the Prime Minister and I attended the service of reflection on the life of Queen Elizabeth II at St. Anne's Cathedral in Belfast, where we spoke briefly. Given the solemnity of that occasion, we did not have a political discussion. At the Prime Minister's invitation, I met her at No. 10 Downing Street on the morning of Sunday, 18 September, on the eve of the state funeral for her majesty. I can inform the House that the Prime Minister indicated that she was keen to have a positive British-Irish relationship. As near neighbours, we discussed a number of common and important issues, namely, energy, the cost of living, the situation in Northern Ireland and the protocol. We agreed that an opportunity existed for the EU and the UK to find a negotiated outcome to issues around the Northern Ireland protocol.
I attended the British-Irish Association conference in Oxford on 2 and 3 September. During that time, I addressed the association, which was a special honour, given that it was its 50th anniversary. I also took part in a questions and answers session with those attending. In my address, I focused on the importance of the spirit of partnership that was needed to underpin the Good Friday Agreement as we approach the 25th anniversary, having witnessed the benefits of peace, strengthened relationships and growing prosperity.
While in Oxford, I also met with the Vice President of the European Commission, Mr. Maroš Šefčovič, where we had a good discussion on issues surrounding the Northern Ireland protocol.
I continue to believe it is possible to reach a satisfactory outcome on the protocol through a process of negotiations. I welcome recent signals and commentary that the United Kingdom Government would prefer a negotiated resolution of the issues. I hope that serious discussions can now get under way between the European Commission and the United Kingdom Government to address the practical difficulties associated with the implementation of the protocol.
I thank the Taoiseach for his response. I echo his words on the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and I express my condolences to the citizens of the UK and to all those around the world who mourn her.
The four weeks since the appointment of the new Prime Minister have been eventful, to say the least. It would make an episode of "House of Cards" look dull. It makes me grateful for our level of stability and the good budgets we have over here.
I encourage the Taoiseach to keep up the good work as regards engagements. It is a new era and there is an opportunity that has not existed for some time to sort out the protocol once and for all and to get a solution that works for everyone, which is in the interests of everyone on the island and the people of the UK. The lack of stability and certainty in the UK benefits no one. In some communities in Northern Ireland in particular, it can lead to gross difficulties on the ground as well as instability.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. To what extent, if any, has he sought to advance the cause of debate on the Northern Ireland protocol? Has he seen any evidence of progress in that regard in the relations between Dublin and London? Did he have an opportunity to advance the shared island initiative, which he is committed to, and what was the response like?
I am grateful, as ever, for the Taoiseach's fulsome response. I am also grateful for, and strongly welcome, the surprising comments from the minister of state at the Northern Ireland Office, Mr. Steve Baker, at the weekend. They were long overdue, but welcome, and they form a basis for an opportunity to seal an agreed solution to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol while also allowing us to return to a closer relationship between Ireland and the UK. What are the planned official meetings between the Irish and British Governments in the coming weeks and months?
I welcome the Taoiseach's statement that he hopes there can be a satisfactory outcome, without much delay, to the negotiations on the protocol and the issues arising from Brexit. A number of us who are members of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly had a useful engagement with a UK minister, Mr. Conor Burns, during August. He was in Dublin and met various groups, including parliamentary groups. He put the clear message to us that he was here to listen to our concerns and bring them back to London. We sincerely hope that what he indicated to us will be followed on by his successors in the Northern Ireland Office.
Thankfully, there is considerable cross-Border trade today in the area that I represent. We have enterprises that are situated north and south of the Border, and they depend on all-island business and do not want interruptions to business. Equally, they want unfettered access to the Single Market. People, regardless of their political outlook, want these issues dealt with so that they can get on with their daily business and protect and grow jobs.
The Taoiseach stated previously that the appointment of a new British Prime Minister was a chance to reset the relationship between Dublin and London.
As we know, the British Government has an important role to play regarding negotiations between the UK and the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol and the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland institutions. Positive signs are coming from London concerning these interrelated issues. The British Prime Minister, Liz Truss, said yesterday that there is no reason the Northern Ireland Executive cannot be reinstated immediately. The British minister of state for Northern Ireland, Steve Baker, has made his apology, as Deputy Richmond said. Negotiations between the EU and the UK are also due to recommence this week. Meanwhile, the Biden Administration continues to exert pressure on the UK to resolve these problems. Does the Taoiseach believe these issues can be resolved by the deadline of 28 October 2022, or is it more likely to be April 2023, when we will mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, before these matters can be finalised?
Liz Truss has been forced to perform a humiliating U-turn concerning her plans to reduce the top rate of income tax from 45% to 40% for those earning more than £150,000. The move was widely condemned as a tax cut for the wealthiest. It was met by mass protests right across Britain from the Enough is Enough cost-of-living coalition. The top rate of income tax in this country, however, is 40%. This is the same rate that the Tories were attempting to bring it down to and were forced to retreat. The latest development is that backbench Tories are in revolt against a move to cut, in real terms, payments to social welfare recipients, that is, to have increases in those payments that are lower than the rate of inflation. Again, this is something this Government actually did just last week. Our budget proposals included a series of measures to increase and have new rates of tax for those earning more than €100,000. Those proposals would raise €2.5 billion, which would be enough to allow for the permanent end of poverty. What does the Taoiseach think of his Government's policies being to the right of the Tories?
In Britain now, we are seeing where Tory politics meet the outworkings of Brexit. I have no doubt that the Taoiseach brought up the worries that would emanate from a British economy in freefall. I welcome that there has been changed language from certain sections of the British Government in respect of possibly doing a deal with the EU. It is absolutely necessary regarding the Irish protocol. Obviously, political unionism needs to be sold that particular message.
It is also fair to say we had a very successful Ireland's Future gig in the 3Arena. Preparing for Irish unity is the conversation out there now. The Taoiseach has said he is not interested in a citizens' assembly in this regard, but I think the people of Ireland are interested in one, or in having an equivalent forum where we can have a discussion on what a new Ireland would look like. We must do the heavy lifting in preparing for Irish unity. This is just what we must do in respect of the referendum that is definitely coming.
The Taoiseach said he welcomed the change in tone from the British Government. Others have pointed out the apology from the minister of state for Northern Ireland, Steve Baker, as well as the U-turn on tax by the new British Prime Minister and her Chancellor. Therefore, is the Taoiseach optimistic about a potential U-turn by the Tory Government on its Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, given this change of tone? Equally, given how fast things have been moving politically in Britain recently, has the Taoiseach been endeavouring to strengthen links with the British Labour Party? I speak having returned just last week from the British Labour Party's conference in Liverpool, where I was glad to lead the delegation from our Labour Party. I was also very glad to meet with Peter Kyle and Stephen Doughty and to hear assurances from them on their intentions if and when the Labour Party is next in government in Britain. They said that negotiations with the EU would be re-entered in good faith and that strong endeavours would be undertaken to repair the damage done to relations by the current Tory Government.
Whatever about a change in tone from the British Administration, which of course is welcome after six years of Brexit uncertainty and two years of threats to break international law, what intervention will the Government undertake in respect of the protocol legislation? It was championed in the first instance by Liz Truss and I understand it is to go to a second reading in the House of Lords on 11 October. What use will be made of the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference in this regard? It is the only remaining strand of the Good Friday Agreement architecture which is actually working. I believe it will meet in London on Friday. What will the Taoiseach's message be to the British Government? I believe he needs to call on it to match its words with deeds, to stop this destructive legislation in its tracks and to prevail upon the Democratic Unionist Party to return to the Executive, at a time when people are suffering egregiously in the cross hairs of the cost-of-living crisis.
Liz Truss and the Tory right have faced a humiliating defeat over their attempts to cut taxes on the rich to the levels that we have in this country, as Deputy Paul Murphy pointed out. In better news, though, in another part of the United Kingdom, the Scottish Parliament has introduced a rent freeze and an eviction ban in response to the cost-of-living crisis. The Tories in Scotland are going mental about this development and making exactly the same argument that the Taoiseach has been making in opposing these measures. Thankfully, however, the majority in the Scottish Parliament voted to protect tenants from evictions and rent increases, given the cost-of-living crisis. Does the Taoiseach not think he and his Government should follow suit?
Deputy Griffin raised the issue of the protocol. To answer in general all the Deputies who have raised issues in this regard, following my meetings with the British Prime Minister, and her meetings with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, there is a preference on all sides for a negotiated settlement. If negotiations commence, let us give them space. I do not think we should be using language such as "U-turns" or anything like that. We want a negotiated solution in the best interest of relationships in Europe and Britain in the first instance, and then in terms of the island of Ireland and harmonious trading relationships as well. If such negotiations commence, there will be difficulties. They will not be simple. Space should be provided to allow an opportunity to get a negotiated settlement.
Deputy Durkan raised the issue of the shared island. When I spoke about providing space, that was a reference to the first part of the question. Of course we discussed the protocol, but I think the language being used is that we would prefer a negotiated solution to these issues. Regarding the shared island initiative, concerning the comments of Deputy Ó Murchú and others, that is the real dialogue that is going on. Up to 3,000 people have now engaged in the shared island dialogue in different sectors, in respect of, for example, the All-Island Climate and Biodiversity Research Network and the All-Island Women's Forum. I attended a very good conference held under the auspices of the latter organisation recently in Dublin. Just yesterday, I was at an event organised by The Wheel and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, which are the umbrella bodies for voluntary and community associations North and South. They have developed an iconic project to undertake a North–South approach to voluntary organisations and we have funded that through the shared island initiative. Therefore, I am very much heartened by the youth dialogue that has occurred and the new Irish tourism enterprise. A whole range of dialogues have occurred and these have involved at least 3,000 citizens. It is hard work, but it is the painstaking approach. I say that because building reconciliation and trust is not about just holding one assembly where people get together into a room and everything is solved. I do not think that will work. I think what will be involved will be the long and painstaking building of bridges.
Turning to what the research side of the shared island initiative has brought about, we have commissioned for the first time ever comprehensive research into the different systems that exist in areas such as health, education, enterprise and the services sector, to be undertaken by the Economic and Social Research Institute and the National Economic and Social Council. Weighty outcomes and outputs have resulted, particularly on school completion rates in the North versus the Republic. There are lessons to be learned from that information. Then there is the €1 billion we have provided to fund projects in this regard. We have developed a very rich vein of activities. I appreciate the work of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and it unanimously endorsed this approach when we met.
I agree with what Deputy Brendan Smith said. The outgoing minister of state for Northern Ireland, Conor Burns, undoubtedly did a great deal of constructive work during August in meeting representatives of different organisations.
I think I have covered the points Deputy Haughey made about the chance to reset the relationship. We raised issues in this regard. The British Government has been contributing to some aspects of the shared island initiative in respect of research centres. I refer to using research expertise available in Britain, Northern Ireland and here to study issues of mutual interest. Turning to the question Deputy Haughey raised concerning the restoration of the Northern institutions, I pressed very strongly for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Prime Minister Truss was adamant that, as far as she is concerned, those institutions should be restored. Now I cannot give a timeline as to when negotiations between the EU and the British Government will result in an outcome. The British Government, however, is of a view that if the Northern Ireland Executive is not restored, there will be elections. This was the view of the British Prime Minister, and she is adamant that should happen.
Deputy Paul Murphy raised the income tax issue. Our marginal rate is 52%, if PRSI and USC are included.
We are not comparable. Our taxation system is one of the most progressive in Europe. Those who earn the most in Ireland pay the most in income tax. If the Deputy looks at the Department of Finance documents on that, he will readily see how the top levels pay by far the vast amount of income tax in this country.
I dealt with Deputy Ó Murchú's question on the shared dialogue issues. I am not discussing domestic economic policies other than to say, obviously, in terms of us being so close to the British market, it has a great deal of significance for companies in Ireland.
Deputy Bacik raised the protocol. I have dealt with that in respect of the broader question of a negotiated solution. On strengthening links, we talk to all political representatives in Britain, including the British Labour Party. I have met with the leader of the British Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Scottish Labour Party, the Conservatives, and those in the Welsh system.
Deputy McDonald raised the British-Irish Council, which met in Guernsey. The British Government's position is restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and they want to work with the EU to see if a negotiated settlement can be achieved in respect of the protocol.
In response to Deputy Boyd Barrett, we had an eviction freeze here in the context of Covid. One big difference between Britain and Ireland is we have a written Constitution and anything we do has to be within that framework or else it gets struck down or challenged quickly. That said, we have always sought through various legislation to reduce pressure on tenants and we will continue to do that.