Thursday, 11 July 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
National Risk Assessment
I thank the Minister of State for attending in place of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to answer this particular question, which we have raised with the Minister previously and are now raising again. It is partly on the issue of the risk register, but also on the issue of uniting Ireland.
Before I begin, I welcome to the Chamber Ms Caroline Mulvaney, who has been working in my office on a number of research reports. I hope that she found some benefit and insight into politics in Ireland as opposed to how it works in the United States of America.
In recent days, we have had everyone from the head of the Orange Order to, in an interview with Simon Carswell in today's The Irish Times, members of the UVF discussing the issue of a united Ireland. The concern is that, in the 2019 national risk assessment, which was undertaken by the Department of the Taoiseach and fed into by all Departments and Government agencies, there is no mention of the possibility or probability of there ever being a united Ireland. Bear in mind that the national risk assessment started in 2014 and literally covers every topic under the sun, including global warming, global terrorism, cybersecurity, the healthcare crisis and the housing crisis.Under the issue of instability in Northern Ireland, it includes Stormont not being in session. It also discusses the possibility of another referendum in Scotland on Scottish independence. However, there is no mention anywhere in the national risk assessment of the possibility or probability of there being a referendum on a united Ireland.
When I and Deputy Fleming asked the Taoiseach and Tánaiste why uniting the people of Ireland, the main aim of the State under Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, is not in our national risk assessment the Taoiseach replied that he did not see it as a risk, and that it was too important and sensitive to be in the national risk assessment. The reply of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on the issue of a referendum, the preparation required for a referendum, which would come under the remit of both his Department and the Government, and what was being done on that was that it would be dealt with when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland called the referendum.
As we know from Brexit, long-term planning and engagement are required well in advance of holding a referendum. The lesson from Brexit in Ireland's case is that one should not call a referendum and then try to figure out the future. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is saying in its response to Deputy Fleming and me that it will do the preparation when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland calls the referendum. There was a court case in Belfast taken by a unionist against the Secretary of State to force her to come up with a policy on how she would determine that the majority of people are in favour of a united Ireland, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. She refused to come up with a policy. However, under the Northern Ireland Act, the Secretary of State alone decides who gets to vote in that referendum. That has potential for chaos and for all elements of risk.
That is why Deputy Fleming and I made a submission to the national risk assessment. We asked that the Government include the issue of a referendum on a new agreed Ireland in the 2019 national risk assessment. It has not been mentioned in any national risk assessment since 2014, but the Government again refused to include it in the draft risk assessment even though we highlighted the issue to the Taoiseach's office. I am interested to hear the response from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as to why the main aim of this State is not included anywhere in our national planning.
On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I thank the Senator for raising this matter.
First, it is important to point out that the issue of Brexit is separate and distinct from a Border poll. I believe that to be the case. The full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements is a priority for the Government. The approach of the Government to Irish unity is guided by Article 3 of the Constitution, as amended by the people in 1998. The principle of consent and the possibility of change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland are fundamental elements of the Good Friday Agreement, endorsed by the people of this island, North and South.
It is worth recalling the precise wording and provisions of the Good Friday Agreement in this regard. Under the agreement, the Irish and British Governments, first, "recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Britain or a sovereign united Ireland"; second, "recognise that it is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland"; and, third, "affirm that if, in the future, the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right of self-determination on the basis set out above, it will be a binding obligation on both Governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish".
The holding of a referendum in this jurisdiction is therefore connected with the calling of a Border poll, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, in Northern Ireland. While the decision to hold such a poll in Northern Ireland rests with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Government of Ireland does not believe it likely at present that such a Border poll in the near future would result in a decision on the part of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland in favour of constitutional change. In these circumstances, it is the Government's view that a referendum on Irish unity against the background of the ongoing political impasse in Northern Ireland and the increased uncertainty created by Brexit would only add to that uncertainty and division at an already difficult and sensitive time for everybody on the island of Ireland.
In the absence of the prospect of a referendum in the near future, the Government has not made specific preparations on this issue and does not have immediate plans to do so. The Government's immediate priorities are twofold, namely, to ensure the protection of the agreement in all its parts and the gains and benefits of the peace process in the context of UK withdrawal from the EU, and to secure the functioning of the devolved power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland and the North-South Ministerial Council. As the Senator is aware, the Government is currently actively involved in a talks process to achieve that.
Issues of risk relating to Northern Ireland are considered as part of the annual national risk assessment. Although a Border poll would not be regarded as a risk, and the very important and sensitive policy issues related to it would not be dealt with in the risk assessment process, the question of relationships on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain is always considered as part of the annual national risk assessment. In this regard, the national risk assessment was one of the first official acknowledgements of the risks posed by a potential Brexit, including associated risks for Northern Ireland. Further reflecting the Government's commitment to identifying, preparing for and mitigating risk, earlier this week the Government published its updated Brexit contingency action plan. This reflects the extensive work which has taken place at EU level and on a whole-of-Government basis, including the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act, to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. It sets out the next steps to be taken between now and 31 October. It also makes clear that it will pose particular risks for the Good Friday Agreement, the all-island economy and for Northern Ireland's economy, political stability and community relations.
In the event of a future referendum within the consent provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government has confirmed that it would make all necessary preparations in accordance with the terms of the Constitution and the principles and procedures of the agreement.
I thank the Minister of State. With regard to his last statement that the Government will prepare for the referendum when it is triggered by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Government is clearly not learning the lessons of Brexit. It will only take action when the referendum is called. We all know that a referendum, particularly on the issue of unifying Ireland, requires long-term engagement, indeed, years of engagement, and not just when the Secretary of State calls a referendum. That would only give us months.
Finally, I will refer to the Taoiseach's statement in the national risk assessment in 2018 about the overview. He said the aim of the national risk assessment was to counteract groupthink and to ensure all voices are heard by the Government. He said it seeks to prevent a repeat of mistakes of the past when dissenting voices were not heeded, leading to catastrophic consequences for the people of Ireland. For the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach to state that they did not see a Border poll as a risk and that it was too sensitive to be in the national risk assessment beggars belief.Even the Minister must be questioning the reply he was asked to give here today, which states: "Although a Border poll would not be regarded as a risk, and the very important and sensitive policy issues related to it would not be dealt with in the risk assessment process ...". We deal with everything from global terrorism to global warming to the housing crisis yet we are not willing to deal with the main aim of the State in the national risk assessment process.
Two issues arise. The Senator mentioned Brexit on a number of occasions. That is in the risk assessment. Brexit is separate and distinct from a Border poll. Brexit is not a method of unifying Ireland. There have been two distinct opinion polls on this issue. Opinion polls have been taken consistently in Northern Ireland. The latest one taken last March by The Irish Times indicated that only 38% of people thought there should be a Border poll.